Category Archives: Disney Era

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:

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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.

37 tarzan12


The Little Mermaid: When Disney went Broadway

This will work a little bit different from my “By the Book series”. I won’t cover the story and the main characters because I usually do this whenever I pick a Fairy Tale for my Fairy Tale month over at Honoring the Heroine. And I won’t cover the animation because I feel that the animation of those movies tends to be the best Disney has to offer and deserves more than just being one chapter in a longer article. Instead I will concentrate on the music only. This will easily fill the article, especially when it comes to this particular movie.

The Little Mermaid is in more than just a good movie, it is a milestone in the history of Disney Animation, the movie which started the Disney Renaissance and lead Disney into a new era of success. An era of success which was mostly based on the use of music, following a concept by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

Disney movies always had a close relationship with music. But the conceptual approch to it used to be very different. If you compare the movies which were created past 1989 with the ones which were created before, you might notice that the structures of the soundtrack is very different. Or, to be precise, the relationship between music and plot is different.

If you look at the early movies like Snow White, Dumbo aso, there is the unescapable truth that there are a lot of song sequences in there which are strictly speaking unnecessary. You can remove them from the story with no one being any wiser. In the Disney Romantic the use of the songs was a little bit more purposeful, but it often seems as if someone stood in front of the storyboard and said “here, here and here we need a song to elevate the scene”. And in the Impressionist Era, there are a lot of movies which have barely any songs at all. This changed when Alan Menken and Howard Ashman came on board.

If you happen to own the Platinum Edition of The Little Mermaid (it is worth every cent I paid for it, even though I mostly bought it because it had the German dubbing of the movie release in addition to the second dubbing which Disney did later on. I wish they would release multiple-dub versions of all their movies, I would buy every single one of them), you know that Howard Ashman did a lot of lunch lectures during his time at Disney. This Blu-ray has all the video material Disney owns from those lectures, and let me tell you, they are really, really interesting. This is what I learned by watching them:

  1. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were convinced that combining their ideas with an animated movie was a way to revive the musical as a genre (spoiler alert: They were right).
  2. Howard Ashman firmly believed that every song in a musical should add something to the story as a whole.

There is naturally more, but this is the main reason why Disney movies suddenly became so successful in the early 1990s and why most of those movies got stage adaptations later on. It makes sense to put them on stage because every Disney movie Menken was working on from The Little Mermaid onwards is basically an animated musical.

Let’s take a look at the various songs, starting with Fathoms below.

I’ll tell you a tale of the bottomless blue
And it’s hey to the starboard, heave ho
Look out, lad, a mermaid be waiting for you
In mysterious fathoms below

This is a pure Introduction Song and does exactly what such a song is supposed to do, setting the mood for the movie. The shanty-style melody immediately establishes a sense of the open sea, something which is underlined further in the dialogue. Interestingly this song is actually justified to a certain degree, though I guess usually the crew of a ship would leave the singing to their downtimes instead of wasting their energy during work. The song is also very economic. In just four lines it hints that the story will play under der sea and that a mermaid will star in it. And then it proceeds to mention Triton and the merpeople in general.

From whence wayward Westerlies blow
Where Triton is king and his merpeople sing
In mysterious fathoms below

Heave ho
Heave ho

Heave ho
Heave ho
Heave ho
In mysterious fathoms below

Originally this song was longer, but it got cut to avoid pacing issues. A good call, imho, especially since it suggested more knowledge about the merpeople than even sailors should have. As it is, this is one of the best starting sequence Disney has ever created. It starts with the ship which suddenly breaks out of the fog, lingers just long enough on the ship to introduce the main players in the story – meaning “the mermaid”, King Triton and Prince Eric – and then follows a fish down to the previously mentioned fathoms below, where the audience lands direction in a concert, and is treated to the second justified song of the movie, Daughters of Triton:

Ah, we are the daughters of Triton
Great father who loves us and named us well
Aquata, Andrina, Arista, Atina, Adella, Allana
And then there is the youngest in her musical debut
Our seventh little sister, we’re presenting her to you
To sing a song Sebastian wrote, her voice is like a bell
She’s our sister, Ariel

Let’s be honest here the text to this song is awful! It sounds like the kind of text someone would inflict to you during a birthday celebration or similar. But every bit of it’s awfulness is deliberate. Because that’s exactly what it is, a piece of self-celebration for Triton and Sebastian. It also serves as introduction to Ariel. The song is interrupted before her sisters can mention her name. Triton is the one who does it in anger, before the movie cuts to Ariel herself. At this point we have already gotten a pretty good idea of the world she lives in, we have met her family and we also already know that she is very unreliable. Next we learn that she also has no sense for danger. In short, she is a typical teenager. And we learn even more about her when she sings her “I want”-Song.

Look at this stuff
Isn’t it neat?
Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?
Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl
The girl who has everything?
Look at this trove
Treasures untold
How many wonders can one cavern hold?
Looking around here you’d think
Sure, she’s got everything
I’ve got gadgets and gizmos a-plenty
I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore
You want thingamabobs?
I’ve got twenty!
But who cares?
No big deal

Ariel-Same-Song-2 Ariel-Same-Song-3

Nowadays the “I want more”-line has become a tired cliché, but let’s not forget that this was the first time it was used. And it immediately set Ariel apart from the princesses, which came before her. They were satisfied with the options society was offering them. But not Ariel. She wants to pick her own path.

I wanna be where the people are
I wanna see, wanna see them dancin’
Walking around on those – what do you call ’em?
Oh – feet!

Flippin’ your fins, you don’t get too far
Legs are required for jumping, dancing
Strolling along down the – what’s that word again?
Street

Up where they walk, up where they run
Up where they stay all day in the sun
Wanderin’ free – wish I could be
Part of that world

The song has been building up to this one point, Ariel’s biggest wish put in one simple sentences. She wants to be part of that word, she doesn’t know yet. The true cleverness of the song is hidden in the next part, though.

What would I give if I could live out of these waters?
What would I pay to spend a day warm on the sand?
Bet’cha on land they understand
Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters
Bright young women, sick of swimmin’
Ready to stand

Did you catch that? There are three important details in this part. For one, Ariel is already suggesting that she is ready to sacrifice something to fulfil her dream. Second, it is revealed that her wish is motivated by more than just a fascination of this foreign world, she also wants to escape from the rules her father sets for her. And third, in a clever use of the double meaning of worlds, she expresses her wish to stand (on her own feet). Ariel feels that she is ready to be an adult. The song does hint that she is at least partly wrong – after all, her ideas of what it means to be on land have a lot to do with her wishes and little with reality. She has truly no idea what awaits her up there (in translation, what it means to be an adult). But right there is the theme of the whole movie, which is the conflict between a young teenager lead by the misguided belief of invincibility and a father who, instead of leading his daughter to adulthood, wants to protect her by essentially keeping her as a child. A lot of this is subtext, but if you see “Standing on my feet” as “becoming an independent adult” and “Being on land” as “not being under my fathers rule anymore”, the movie suddenly becomes a commentary on the relationship between parents and teenagers.

And ready to know what the people know
Ask ’em my questions and get some answers
What’s a fire and why does it – what’s the word?
Burn?

Here the song underlines one last time how ill-prepared Ariel truly is to leave the sea. The likelihood that she will get burned is pretty high.

When’s it my turn?
Wouldn’t I love,
love to explore that shore up above?
Out of the sea
Wish I could be
Part of that world

Notably at this point of the movie, Ariel wants to be part of “that world”. It is only after she encounters Eric that her tune changes. In the reprise, she wants to be part of “your world”.

What would I give
To live where you are?
What would I pay
To stay here beside you?
What would I do to see you
Smiling at me?

Ariel’s dream has suddenly become bigger. She went from having one day at the beach to staying with Eric permanently.

Where would we walk?
Where would we run?
If we could stay all day in the sun?
Just you and me
And I could be
Part of your world

This is echoing the words she sung before, but she went from “they”, which puts a distance between her and the world up there to “we”. In a way, Ariel has already made the first step, and not just because she swam to the beach and touched the sand there.

I don’t know when
I don’t know how
But I know something’s starting right now
Watch and you’ll see
Some day I’ll be
Part of your world

This part concludes the first act of the movie, and is underlined by one of the most iconic images in it. And it is a promise to the audience that they are about to see something special and exciting.

111907_ariel

I’ll now skip ahead to the end of there movie, since the song is picked up one last time. This time it serves as a Conclusion Song.

Chorus:
Now we can walk!
Now we can run!
Now we can stay all day in the sun!

Just you and me!
And I can be,
Part of Your World!

The text itself is simple, but the placement of the song serves as a perfect bookmark. As much as the reprise told the audience that something great is coming, this one is announcing the “Happily ever after” without outright saying it. “Part of Your World” tells Ariel’s full story, from her dream, to deciding to follow her dreams to fulfilling her dreams. But Ariel is only one side of the coin. Her counterpart is Ursula, who gets her own set of songs as counterpoint.

URSULA
My dear, sweet child. That’s what I do. It’s what I live for.
To help unfortunate merfolk like yourself.
Poor souls with no one else to turn to.

I admit that in the past I’ve been a nasty
They weren’t kidding when they called me, well, a witch
But you’ll find that nowadays
I’ve mended all my ways
Repented, seen the light, and made a switch
WRONG: To this
RIGHT: True? Yes.
And I fortunately know a little magic
It’s a talent that I always have possessed
And dear lady, please don’t laugh
I use it on behalf
Of the miserable, the lonely, and depressed (pathetic)

If there has ever been any doubt that Ursula is lying through her teeth, the “pathetic” underlines that every word which comes out of her mouth is a lie. Or, to be precise, a half-truth.

Poor unfortunate souls
In pain, in need
This one longing to be thinner
That one wants to get the girl
And do I help them?
Yes, indeed
Those poor unfortunate souls
So sad, so true
They come flocking to my cauldron
Crying, “Spells, Ursula, please!”
And I help them!
Yes I do

Note how the visuals offset what Ursula is saying. She says that she helped two people by making them beautiful. But did she? The woman who wanted to be thinner didn’t love herself, but she already was loved by the guy longing for her. If he had just talked to her, they could be happy without any spells. And without the consequences.

Now it’s happened once or twice
Someone couldn’t pay the price
And I’m afraid I had to rake ’em ‘cross the coals
Yes I’ve had the odd complaint
But on the whole I’ve been a saint
To those poor unfortunate souls

The most notable aspect of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is that it doesn’t really work as stand alone song. Instead it is interlaced with dialogue – or, depending on the perspective, the dialogue is interlaced with singing to make the information dumb more palatable. There is a clear pattern though. The basics of the deal are spoken. The singing starts whenever Ursula tries to convince Ariel to agree to it.

ARIEL
But without my voice, how can I-

URSULA
You’ll have your looks, your pretty face.
And don’t underestimate the importance of body language, ha!

The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore!
Yet on land it’s much prefered for ladies not to say a word
And after all dear, what is idle babble for?
Come on, they’re not all that impressed with conversation
True gentlemen avoid it when they can
But they dote and swoon and fawn
On a lady who’s withdrawn
It’s she who holds her tongue who get’s a man

Ever noticed how much Ursula is echoing sentiments which were actually taught to girls not so long ago (and are still taught in a lot of cultures)? In fact, that was from the get go the main idea behind the scene. Before “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, Ashman and Menken had written a song with the title “Silence is golden”. Needless to say that I agree with their decision to improve it. “Poor Unfortunate Soul” is catchy and way more witty. But the basic concept is the same, that that villain tells the heroine that she is better off, when she keeps her mouth shut. And since the villain of a movie should never be trusted, the actual message of the movie is to speak up and be yourself.

Another aspect which  works better in “Poor Unfortunate Soul” is that Ariel has barely an opportunity to really think about what the whole deal entails. The moment Ursula has laid down the terms she demands a decision.

Come on you poor unfortunate soul
Go ahead!
Make your choice!
I’m a very busy woman and I haven’t got all day
It won’t cost much
Just your voice!

Now Ursula is talking like a salesman who wants to sell a particular bad deal. It is an echo of all the “this is the chance of your lifetime” promises which are floating around out there.

You poor unfortunate soul
It’s sad but true
If you want to cross the bridge, my sweet
You’ve got the pay the toll
Take a gulp and take a breath
And go ahead and sign the scroll
Flotsam, Jetsam, now I’ve got her, boys
The boss is on a roll
This poor unfortunate soul

This is the high point of the song. What follows was already part of “Silence is golden”, but here it works even better, because the contrast is more pronounced.

Beluga sevruga
Come winds of the Caspian Sea
Larengix glaucitis
Et max laryngitis
La voce to me

Now, sing!

ARIEL
Aah…

Keep singing!

And the whole song ends eventually with another iconic scene from the movie, when Ariel reaches the surface.   Ariel-Hairflip-walt-disney-characters-19989170-2317-1714Like Ariel, Ursula gets an opportunity to reprise her song, in her case shortly before she reaches her goal. It’s a really short sequence and mostly serves as an information dump, but not for the audience, but for Scuttle.

What a lovely little bride I’ll make,
My dear, I’ll look divine!
Things are working out according to my ultimate design!
Soon I’ll have that little mermaid,
and the ocean will be mine!

This covers the heroine and the villainess. But there is a third party of not in this story: Sebastian. Now, Sebastian is the first of a new breed of sidekicks. Up until this movie, sidekicks were only present as comic relief, and their main motivation was always to help the heroine. Sebastian is the first who has a goal of his own: He is actually more interested in his own fame than in Ariel, and the only reason why he even gets involved in her story is because Triton ordered him to watch Ariel. He also has his own character development. In the beginning he agrees with Triton that Ariel has to be controlled. In the end, he encourages him to give her the freedom to make her own choices – and mistakes. But he also serves the counter argument to Ariel’s dreams. “Under the sea” is an unusual side-kick song, mostly because it is not really about Sebastian, it is about his perspective on Ariel’s plan.

The seaweed is always greener
In somebody else’s lake
You dream about going up ‘dere,
But ‘dat is a big mistake
Just look at ‘de world around you
Right here on the ocean floor
Such wonderful things surround you
What more is you lookin’ for?

Fun fact: The main reason why Sebastian is a Jamaican crab is because Ashman felt that it would make the transition to the reggae-style of the song more smooth. I actually disagree with him about the necessity. The song is not that different, I never thought that it felt grating. Either way, to summon this up, Sebastian says that Ariel already has a great live (which is true).

Under the sea
Under the sea
Darling it’s better
Down where it’s wetter,
Take it from me!

Up on the shore they work all day,
Out in the sun they slave away
While we devotin’
Full-time to floatin,’
Under the sea!

I think it is time for a reminder that “Part of your world” pretty much paralleled Ariel going to land with becoming an adult and standing on her own feet. If we keep that in mind, Sebastian’s song is less about the virtue of not leaving home, but about childhood vs adulthood. What he is basically saying “don’t hurry to grow up, enjoy your childhood. Adulthood comes with responsibilities and worries.” Though naturally Menken and Ashman use the opportunity to go all out with the horror scenarios Sebastian is talking about.

Down here all the fish is happy
As off through the waves they roll
The fish on the land ain’t happy
They sad ’cause they in their bowl

But fish in the bowl is lucky
They in for a worser fate
One day when the boss get hungry…
Guess who’s gon’ be on the plate?

Uh-oh!
Under the sea
Under the sea
Nobody beat us
Fry us and eat us
In fricassee

We what ‘de land folks loves to cook
Under the sea we off the hook
We got no troubles,
Life is the bubbles!

Again, did you notice this? “Under the sea we off the hook”. In short, under the sea (in childhood) there are no responsibilities. You are in a bubble which protects you to a certain degree.

Under the sea
(Under the sea)
Under the sea
(Under the sea)
Since life is sweet here,
We got the beat here
Naturally
Naturally-y-y-y

Even the sturgeon an’ the ray
They get the urge ‘n’ start to play
We got the spirit
You got to hear it
Under the sea!

The newt play the flute
The carp play the harp
The plaice play the bass
And they soundin’ sharp
The bass play the brass
The chub play the tub
The fluke is the duke of soul (Yeah)

The ray he can play
The lings on the strings
The trout rockin’ out
The blackfish she sings
The smelt and the sprat
They know where it’s at
An’ oh that blowfish blow!

(Instrumental bridge)

Yeah!
Under the sea
(Under the sea)
Under the sea
(Under the sea)
When the sardine
Begin the beguine,
It’s music to me
(Music is to me)

This is Howard Ashman really milking the opportunity for some quick rhymes. The important part of the song out of the way, he indulges a little bit in playing with words.

What do they got? A lot of sand
We got a hot crustacean band
Each little clam here
Know how to jam here
Under the sea!

Each little slug here
Cuttin’ a rug here
Under the sea!

Each little snail here
Know how to wail here
That’s why it’s hotter
Under the water!
Ya we in luck here
Down in the muck here
Under the sea!

Wait! “In the muck”? That actually doesn’t sound that inviting. Good thing that Ariel is already gone at this point. The audience actually sees her leaving, but between all the distracting singing and dancing this fact doesn’t really sink in before Sebastian notices her absence.

Sebastian’s second song is the Love Song of the movie. Which is kind of an odd choice, usually this kind of song is reserved for the lovers themselves. But considering that Ariel is mute and Eric is still hung up on the girl from the beach, Sebastian is the next best choice.

There you see her
Sitting there across the way
She don’t got a lot to say
But there’s something about her
And you don’t know why
But you’re dying to try
You wanna kiss the girl

I have to admit, I have some issues with the song. Because for a love song it is kind of unromantic. Sebastian is basically pushing Eric into Ariel’s arms which is understandable in the context of the movie, but the result is kind of creepy. Especially this part:

Yes, you want her
Look at her, you know you do
Possible she wants you too
There is one way to ask her
It don’t take a word
Not a single word
Go on and kiss the girl

In the context of the movie it works. But out of context…well, the rhythm is great, very unusual for a love song, but the text drags it down a little bit imho.

Sha la la la la la
My oh my
Look like the boy too shy
Ain’t gonna kiss the girl
Sha la la la la la
Ain’t that sad?
Ain’t it a shame?
Too bad, he gonna miss the girl

Is Eric really shy? Or is he unsure? He is still hung up on the girl from the beach after all. And in a way the pressure Sebastian puts on Eric is very similar to the “now or never” claim Ursula used to convince Ariel to sign the contract. Honestly, the more I pay attention to the text of the song, the happier am I that Eric didn’t kiss Ariel in this scene but made the decision later on his own accord.

Now’s your moment
Floating in a blue lagoon
Boy you better do it soon
No time will be better
She don’t say a word
And she won’t say a word
Until you kiss the girl

And here Ashman made on outright mistake. Ariel’s voice was payment. At no point Ursula said that she would get her voice back if she wins over the prince. And in fact the only reason Ariel does get her voice back is because the sea shell breaks during the fight. Her voice  would have been lost forever otherwise.

Sha la la la la la
Don’t be scared
You got the mood prepared
Go on and kiss the girl
Sha la la la la la
Don’t stop now
Don’t try to hide it how
You want to kiss the girl
Sha la la la la la
Float along
And listen to the song
The song say kiss the girl
Sha la la la la
The music play
Do what the music say
You got to kiss the girl
You’ve got to kiss the girl
You wanna kiss the girl
You’ve gotta kiss the girl
Go on and kiss the girl

There is nothing in this part of the song which isn’t visible on screen. The only information the audience kind of gets is that the cook is a French stereotype. In a way, though, I can’t really blame the song writers here. It is not just the song which is filler, the whole scene is a detour from the actual main plot. You could remove it and nobody would notice.

Les poissons, les poissons
Hee hee hee, haw haw haw
With a cleaver I hack them in two
I pull out what’s inside
And I serve it up fried
God, I love little fishes, don’t you?

In a way, it is fun though. At least if you don’t think too hard about the fact that Sebastian basically reacts the way we would react if someone did this to a human.

Here’s something for tempting the palette
Prepared in the classic technique
First you pound the fish flat with a malette
Then you slash off their skin
Give their belly a slice
Then you rub some salt in
‘Cause it makes it taste nice

This is actually the only part of the song which isn’t pointless. Not because the content is that interesting, but because at this point we don’t see what is described in the text. Instead we get to see Sebastian’s reaction to it. Which is then taken one horrifying step further.

Zut alors, I have missed one!

Sacre bleu, what is this?
How on earth could I miss
Such a sweet little succulent crab
Quel dommage, what a loss
Here we go, in the sauce
Now some flour I think just a dab
Now I stuff you with bread
Don’t worry, ’cause you’re dead!
And you’re certainly lucky you are
‘Cause it’s gonna be hot in my big silver pot!
Toodle loo mon poisson
Au revoir

And for me it is also time to say goodbye. But beforehand, some last words: “The Little Mermaid” created the template for the Disney renaissance. But I think it was about more than just adding songs in a way that they would serve the story in a meaningful way. It was about more than just about text, it was also about subtext. It is this subtext which makes the movie about more than just a romance, which took the old fairy tale and turned it into a parable about growing up, but also about the danger of listening to false promises. It is a concept Ashman and Menken took even further in the next project. But that is the topic for another article.

Ariel-2-with-Border

 And speaking of articles, I am still working on my articles for the Swanpride Award. You still have the opportunity to nominate movies. The first article will be posted on the first of December, as promised. And if you follow my other blog, Honouring the Heroine, you might have guessed already from my anniversary post that I will discuss The Little Mermaid for this years fairy tale month. Expect me to write a lengthy defence of Ariel for it.


By the Book: The Great Mouse Detective

Sometimes I wonder if this movie just hit the theatres at the wrong time. After all, Sherlock Holmes is currently more popular than ever. And while this trend has reached a peak with the success of the movies series and BBC’s modern version “Sherlock”, it came in the wake of countless TV-Shows based on Sherlock-Concept, the most notables being House and Monk. One of the longest running Anime out there, Detective Conan (in the US also known as Case Closed) is practically a love letter to Sherlock Holmes. Technically I should compare The Great Mouse Detective to the book series Basil of Baker Street. But as far as I can tell, the movie mostly takes the idea and the name of the characters from there, but the plot itself is original. And are we really supposed to believe that the animators weren’t influenced by the original Sherlock Holmes and the countless adaptations out there? Therefore I’ll take a much broader look this time around.

1. The SettingBaker Street London

Sherlock Holmes as a mouse. Well, why not. What I said about Treasure Island is double true for Sherlock Holmes: If you do a movie (or TV-Show on that matter) on such an overdone material, you better do it from a new angle. And doing it with anthropomorphic mice allows a more light-hearted take on the character. If a human Holmes would do fake science the way Basil does, the audience would cry fool play. When a mouse does it, it’s funny. It also allows Disney to insert some stuff which you would never find in a children’s movie otherwise. Like strip dancers. A villain who causally murders his henchman.

What is kind of remarkable, though, is how London in general is portrayed.  The whole story plays by night, it is dark, gritty, and rainy. Not a nice place to be, at least not until you enter Baker Street. This place is bright and inviting, not just in the part of the house in which Basil lives, but in the human half, too. Even the last shot of the movie shows a London which nearly vanishes in thick fog. But the Window of Baker Street is a sole light in the darkness of the world which surround it.

2. The Animation

The Great Mouse Detective is quite notable for the use of computer animation for the Clock Tower scene. Which still holds up really, really well and is definitely the high point of the movie. Otherwise though, the animation is mostly okay (for Disney…it is still above what most other animation companies created around the same time). The backgrounds are just detailed enough that they give a realistic feel, and Basil’s home is appropriately cluttered. All in all, though, it is the kind of animation which is exactly one step above mediocre. Rattigan

Where the movie shines, though, is in the character designs. Whenever there is an emotional moment, the facial animation of the characters is spot on. You don’t need the tone to understand what they go through. Remarkable is also the way Basil’s fast movements contrast with Dr. Dawson’s slower ones. Similar notable are the exaggerated poses of Rattigan which is practically a copy of what his voice actor, Vincent Price, did in the recording studio. And Rattigans “turn” at the end of the movie. When he runs through the clock tower the thin lawyer of fine clothes are ripped away and he is revealed as the rat he always denied to be. All this is transported without words, only through the animation.

3. The Characters

Sherlock the gentleman, Sherlock the rude genius, Sherlock the drug-addict, there are countless versions of this character, and most of them are valid in one way or another. It just depends on which part of the descriptions in canon you intend to emphasis. What has to be there is Sherlock’s ability to deduct more than a normal human (or mouse) would be capable of. And Disney delivers, Basil does one leap after another during this movie, most of them fairly outlandish. But you never really have the time to question such a self-assured personality. And looking at his erratic behaviour, the way he leaps over his furniture and has difficult to grasp emotions – I’m starting to wonder how many makers of recent adaptions know this movie.

Because back when it was made, most adaptations were heavily inspired by the Basil Rathbone one, in which Holmes acts more like an automaton, a think machine, and rarely loses his cool demeanour. Disney’s take, which emphasises the various quirks Sherlock Holmes had, is nowadays the more common one, but back then this was a refreshing new (it is true that the Granada TV-Show, which is nowadays widely considered as the most faithful adaptation, also moved away from this interpretation and technically it started to air two years earlier, but if the animators were aware of this adaptation, the movie would have been way in the making by then, so I hesitate to claim any cross-influence in either direction).

The design of Dr. Dawson on the other hand is heavily influenced by the Basil Rathbone adaptations, though thankfully more in looks than in actual behaviour. While he does act like a bumbling fool sometimes, it’s mostly because he is entirely out of his element for most of the movie, and not because he is an idiot, like the comic-relief which was Nigel Bruce. (BTW, in the short scene when Basil and Dr. Dawson enter the “human” part of 221B Baker Street, we can hear the voices of those two actors discussing music. Those are old recordings of them). Either way, while Dr. Dawson has some scenes in which he slips into the role of the funny sidekick, most of the time he actually has more the role of the narrator, the watcher and sometimes the one who prods Basil into the right direction. I have to admit though (and one could see it as failure of the movie) that the relationship between Basil and him is not particular interesting. Most of the time it feels like Dr. Dawson is mostly there because you need a Watson for Holmes. But then: I never found Watson particularly interesting in any adaptation until the BBC version came around and actually came up with a convincing reason why John should put up with Sherlock. This in mind, the Disney version of the character is a decent one. Though I guess the main reason I’m mostly distracted from the relationship between those two men is Olivia.

Cute. Wide-eyed. Cute. In grave danger. Did I mention cute? This is one of the few cases in which an overly cute character actually works. It helps that Olivia, cute or not, still very much acts like a child, and not like an adorable puppet. Oh, she can do adorable well enough, but she also tends to snoop around and explores where she shouldn’t – like a normal child would. Though the main reason why she works so well is that she is the perfect foil for Basil. Not even he can keep up a façade of not caring when confronted with a helpless half-orphan whose whole appearance just screams “protect me”. At the same time, it’s obvious that he doesn’t really know how to deal with her. The funniest moments of the movie are based on this dynamic (and I think it’s very telling that it’s easier to find pictures of Basil and Olivia in the net than pictures of Dr. Dawson).

Though the most important character beside Basil is naturally Professor Rattigan. Physically perhaps the smallest villain Disney ever created, but nevertheless one of the most threatening. Moriarty is actually an easy figure to adapt, simply because there isn’t much to him. He is mostly so notorious because he turns up in a case and immediately kills Sherlock. (Later on ACD allowed Sherlock to rise from the death and he wrote one additional story describing one of Moriarty’s earlier deeds, but even in this one Moriarty only schemes in the background). Since there isn’t really much in canon about him, the only important thing in any adaptation is that he works as Holmes, or in this case Basil’s, nemesis. I think a guy who drowns orphans and widows, makes sure that one of his henchmen is eaten alive and is one step ahead for most of the movie qualifies. Of the interpretations I know, the Disney one is certainly the most flamboyant and erratic one – well, at least it was until the Moriarty form BBC Sherlock came around (which makes me wonder….). But this is the perfect fit for Basil. The way those two deal with their triumphs and disappointments is actually quite similar (well, minus the tendency to murder someone when being in a bad mood). They are like two sides of the same coin – in short, exactly what Sherlock and Moriarty should be, even if they are called Basil and Rattigan.

There are also a lot of minor figures like Mr. Haversham, Mrs. Jugson, Toby, a parody of Queen Victoria, Fidget, various henchmen and so on. They all work fine, but they mostly just provide the background for the main characters, so I won’t go into detail about them. Nothing wrong about them, but none of them are particular memorable either – unless they start to strip, naturally.

4. The Plot

You might have guessed it: This is not really much of a detective story. If you expect to get clues in order to solve the case yourself, you’ll be disappointed. Not that this is a requirement for a Sherlock Holmes story, most of them aren’t about finding the murder but about Sherlock Holmes methods to catch him.

This movie though is more a character study of Basil and Rattigan, and as such it works very well. It’s just fun to watch those two characters trying to outwit each other, even though some of their actions are very much over the top. Rattigan’s evil scheme in a more realistic movie would never work, neither would Basil’s crazy math-skills be believable, but in the setting Disney picked, it’s just too enjoyable to nit-pick about plausibility. Parallels to the original stories are few and far between. There are the backgrounds of the main characters, the way Basil deducts Dr. Dawson during the first meeting and the ending, which could be seen as a version of the Reichenbach fall. It’s a little bit funny that Disney for once had every right to make sure the Basil survives, considering the A.C. Doyle created a version of the Disney death long before the animation studios even existed.Basil hurt

Speaking of which, the final fight between Basil and Rattigan is positively vicious. There are few scenes in Disney movies which come even close to be as brutal. Just look at Basil. He is beaten up and at one point out of options. Only the lucky timing is rescuing his life in the end.

One of the most common complains I have about Disney-movies is the pacing or the lack of focus. This movie knows exactly what kind of story it wants to tell, and it builds up the suspense perfectly. Not one filler scenes in this one, every story-line is tightly wrapped up towards the end, and when it comes to the climax, it delivers full scale. The Great Mouse Detective is also a rarity in the Disney Canon in that there isn’t any kind of love-story in it. The only other Disney movies without one I can come up from the top of my mind are Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, the Winnie the Pooh movies and, more recently, Big Hero 6.

5. The Soundtrack

I pointed this out already when I talked about the villain song, but “The World’s most Criminal Mind” is the first full-fledged villain song in the Disney canon. Oddly, though, it is the only song of this kind in the whole movie. The other two songs are both justified. “Let me be good to you” is sung by a performer during the bar scene and “Goodbye So Soon”, which doubles as Conclusion song, is originally picked by Rattigan as ironic commentary on Basil’s approaching demise. To a certain degree Rattigan’s song is justified, too, because the singing is more treated as part of Ratigan’s flamboyant personality. In any case, it is a masterpiece of built-up:

“From the brain that brought you the Big Ben Caper
The head that made headlines in every newspaper
And wondrous things like the Tower Bridge Job
That cunning display that made London a sob”

Note that the audience has no idea what crimes is he exactly talking about, but the inclusion of “Big Ben” and “Tower Bridge” suggests that they were big and impressive.

Now comes the real tour de force
Tricky and wicked, of course
My earlier crimes were fine for their times
But now that I’m at it again
An even grimmer plot has been simmering
In my great criminal brain

Here happens the first built up. The song starts with something which sounds impressive and then establishes that what we will see in the movie is even bigger than anything Rattigan did beforehand.

[Chorus:]
Even meaner? You mean it?
Worse than the widows and orphans you drowned?
You’re the best of the worst around
Oh, Ratigan
Oh, Ratigan
The rest fall behind
To Ratigan
To Ratigan
The world’s greatest criminal mind

Hold a minute…this guy is drowning widows and orphans? That’s worse than saying that he is routinely killing cute little puppies.

[Ratigan:]
Thank you, Thank you. But it hasn’t all been
champagne and caviar. I’ve had my share of
adversity, thanks to that miserable second-rate
detective, Basil of Baker Street. For years, that
insufferable pipsqueak has interfered with my
plans.
I haven’t had a moment’s peace of mind. But, all
that’s in the past! This time, nothing, not even
Basil, can stand in my way! All will bow before
me!

Note how the tune of the song changes here. The text is now spoken and doesn’t rhyme any longer, and Rattigan is playing the harp to great dramatic effect. The excitement is dimmed for a moment, just to come back even more effective.

[Chorus:]
Oh, Ratigan
Oh, Ratigan
You’re tops and that’s that
To Ratigan
To Ratigan
[Bartholomew:]
To Ratigan, the world’s greatest rat

What now follows is the demise of poor Bartholomew. Which is not directly part of the song, but underlines the point even further. We have heart how dangerous Rattigan is up to this point. But seeing how he kills one of his henchmen brings the point across even better. But what makes the whole matter truly terrifying is that in the aftermath, his other goons are singing even more with very forced smiles on their faces.

[Chorus:]
Even louder
We’ll shout it!
No one can doubt what we know you can do
You’re more evil than even you
Oh, Ratigan
Oh, Ratigan
You’re one of a kind
To Ratigan
To Ratigan
The world’s greatest criminal mind

While this is the main villain song of the movie, in a way there is a second one. “Goodbye so soon” is played twice, once when Basil is trapped as a “last greeting” from Rattigan and once at the very end, as last greeting of the movie to the audience. The only difference is the tone in which the two versions are sung. Rattigan’s tone is mocking, while the chorus in the end is neutral.

Goodbye so soon
And isn’t this a crime?
We know by now that time knows how to fly
So here’s goodbye so soon
You’ll find your separate way
With time so short I’ll say so long
And go
So soon
Goodbye

If you read this text out of context it sounds totally harmless. But in context there actually is a crime (a murder!) happening, and the time is not flying, it is running out for Basil and Dr. Dawson.

You followed me, I followed you
We were like each other’s shadows for a while
Now as you see, this game is through
So although it hurts, I’ll try to smile
As I say

What the text is describing is a circle of events which repeated itself again and again. The song itself is constructed in the same way, it can be sung in a loop at least until the vinyl is through. And the double meaning doesn’t stop there. In this case, it will certainly hurt, if Rattigan’s plan works. Thankfully someone else smiles in the end.

Yes, I know, I skipped “Let me be good to you”, but I felt that Rattigan’s songs belong together. Now, the last one left is a pure filler song. It serves no purpose whatsoever aside from creating some atmosphere and background noise for the scene. And it is an opportunity to get a lot of crap past the radar.

Dearest friends, dear gentlemen
Listen to my song
Life down here’s been hard for you
Life has made you strong
Let me lift the mood
With my attitude

So far, this is pretty harmless. Just a pretty girl singing a song, expressing understanding for the hardship of life. Until she takes of her first layer of clothing. Then the tune changes pretty quickly.

Hey fellas
The time is right
Get ready
Tonight’s the night
Boys, what you’re hopin’ for will come true
Let me be good to you

Mmmm….what exactly might a bunch of boys hoping for when they see a half naked female dancing on a stage? That’s right, Disney just put a promise for sex in one of their movies.

You tough guys
You’re feelin’ all alone
You rough guys
The best o’ you sailors and bums
All o’ my chums

Note how the text is addressing the crowd again. In-universe this is a very clever move, because it feels more intimate this way.

So dream on
And drink your beer
Get cosy
Your baby’s here
You won’t be misunderstood
Let me be good to you

And even more intimate, especially through the inclusion of the words “your baby”, which creates a connection between the singer and the crowd. While parents just hope that their children won’t get the connection between “let me be good to you” and sex.

Hey fellas
I’ll take off all my blues
Hey fellas
There’s nothin’ I won’t do
Just for you

Kitty wears nothing but blue. So we all know what will happen when she takes it all off. She even promises that she has no limits, suggesting whatever someone dreams of, she will do it.

So dream on
And drink your beer
Get cosy
Your baby’s here
Hey boys, I’m talkin’ to you
Your baby’y gonna come through
Let me be good to you

Note the addition of “Hey boys, I’m talkin’ to you” in the text, which addresses everyone in the audience on a personal level. In-universe and in the theatres.

I have to admit, I am really amused by the audacity of the song. And even more amused that despite the fact that some people are obsessed with discovering subliminal messages in Disney movies, this song often gets overlooked. Someone really had fun with this one.

And “fun” is really the best word to summon up the songs in this movie. They are designed to be over the top delightful. And every single one of them fulfils the brief perfectly. It was a good choice, though, to leave the singing mostly  to Rattigan. I don’t think that musical numbers for every character would have fit the tone of the movie or Basil’s character.

6. The Conclusion

Sandwiched between box-office failure The Black Cauldron (I don’t care that the movie has some sort of a cult following by now, it will always be remembered as the one which lost against the Care-Bears) and the soulless merchandise machine which was Oliver and Company (I’ll go into detail about this one in a later review), also overshadowed by the more successful Don Bluth movie An American Tail, The Great Mouse Detective is often overlooked. But it shouldn’t be. It might not be as visually stunning as some of the later (and a few earlier) movies, but it’s nevertheless very pleasing to look at. It might not be the movie which started the Disney Renaissance, but it is the one which marked the end of the dark age of animation. Without the modest success of this one, The Little Mermaid wouldn’t even exist today. But its importance aside, this is simply a genuinely good movie. My lists of Sherlock Holmes adaptations I consider “well done” is very short, though the one I consider “Must watch” is, as you can see, a little bit longer, but The Great Mouse Detective will always have a spot on both of them.

26-Group


By the Book: 101 Dalmatians

Disney usually likes to adapt stories which are already well known. As a result, I often know the books already when I watched the Disney movie, or at the very least I read the book at some point during my childhood and can therefore remember how I experienced it when I still looked at literature with a more uncritical eye. This was not the case with 101 Dalmatians. I read the book just for this article series. Which is in the case of 101 Dalmatians kind of a problem, because I can’t look at it from the perspective of the actual target group. I tried my best not to be overly critical but – well, let’s just dive into this.

 

1. The Setting

Most Disney movies are very vague concerning the time and place in which they are set. But 101 Dalmatians is very current. And with “current” I mean 1961. It is easy to forget because time has given the movie a different vibe. Nowadays it feels like watching a fairy tale like story which just happens to be set in the London during a time long gone bye, but back when the movie first hit the theatres, that was the reality. The TV program which is affectionately spoofed during the movie is the one they watched, their telephones looked like this and that was the kind of music they like to hear.f2f4ddf766aa61272d58e3f6002b7737

 

2. The Animation

101 Dalmatians marks an important milestone in animation. For the better or the worse, this was the first animated movie which used xenography forcing a style on the movies Disney himself didn’t really like. It was a technology born out of the necessity to lower the production costs. Because of this, there is this tendency to look down on the animation of the Impressionist era. In case of 101 Dalmatians, though, it pays off to take a second look, and not just because animating all those puppies was quite an impressive achievement back then. Especially remarkable is the scene at the very beginning, when Pongo is watching the dog owners on the street. They not only have all a very distinctive look, they also all move differently. It’s a fascinating study in animation to compare how much the different movements influence the perception of the characters.

 

3. The Characters

To say it upfront: I have a huge problem with the characters in the book. Mainly, with the way Missus Pongo and Perdita are portrayed. That’s right, Disney merged two character into one, Perdita in the book is not Pongo’s wife, she is taken into the family to help nursing the pups since 15 are simply too much for one mother. What angers me about both characters in the book, but especially about Missus Pongo, is how stupid they both are. In the book it’s constantly pointed out that Pongo is unusual intelligent for a dog. And he constantly talks down to her and acts amused when she says something naïve. This is bad enough, but on their journey (during which is constantly pointed out that females are weaker) they meet other (male) dogs, and on more than one occasion, Pongo and another dog act indulgent about Missus Pongo. It’s aggravating, and honestly destroyed any enjoyment I might have had reading this book.DVD-Cover-101-Dalmatians

The characters in the Disney version are not necessarily layered, but they are more balanced overall. It certainly helps that Disney slimmed down the cast considerably. Two Nanny’s become one, the husband and the cat of Cruella de Vil are omitted, and Lucky become the puppy who nearly did during birth instead of two separate characters. The idea that pets become similar to their owners (or the other way around) is picked up, making Pongo and Perdita mirrors of their human counterparts. And honestly, I quite like Roger and Anita. While it’s never explicitly stated, I always got the impression that Anita is a working woman with her own income, the mind in the relationship, while Roger the musician is the heart and the humour. That is a clever change, too, by the way, in the book they are rich from the get go, in the movie the little side-story with Rogers successful hit not only allows Disney to add some music into the mix, it also gives the human characters their own little arc.

One has to give it to the book: It is obviously written by someone who loves dogs dearly. Their habits are described more realistic than the way the humans act. Again and again it is mentioned that dogs see their humans as their pets. The downside is that there is much care put in the portrayal of the humans. I prefer the more realistic way Disney approached the human characters, and that Pongo and Perdita are equals in every sense of the word, working together to get their puppies back.

 

4. The Plot

I was actually very surprised how much in the movie is based on the book. This might be the most faithful adaptation Disney has ever done. The way Cruella de Vil is designed, the show “What is my crime”, the way the dogs communicate with each other, all that is actually straight from the source. What Disney did was exaggerating at the right places (for example the dogs don’t wake up all the humans when they send the message in the book), tighten the story a little bit (by making the actual travel shorter) and adding a little bit more suspense, more scenes in which the dogs are nearly caught. The scene when they sneak into the truck is slightly adjusted, and done really perfectly in the Disney version. First the suspenseful time until they are all in the relative safety of the truck, than the dangerous chase with Cruella right behind them, it just works.

It is, though, a little bit of a dissatisfying ending for a villain. In the book, the dogs destroy all the furs in Cruella’s house before they go home, hence destroying the business of her husband (who is a fur maker) and forcing them to flee the country to get away from their debt. The Disney version more or less forgets about the villain as soon as her car is destroyed. But all in all, there isn’t much to say about the Plot, neither in the book nor in the movie. It’s a cute little story, one Disney tells with the necessary seriously. But it’s not exactly a big epic. It isn’t supposed to be.

 

5. The Soundtrack

Technically there are three songs in the movie, all of them justified, but only one is designed to move the plot forward. The “Kanine Krunchies Jingle”, which is played on TV, is a nice little dig at advertising and mostly provides some background noise in order to add realism to the scene (as realistic as a TV program for dogs can be), and “Dalmatian Plantation”, which is played by Roger in the end, is only there to say “look, we all have a happy future now” and serves as very short Conclusion Song. The one stand-out song is “Cruella De Vil”, which Roger “makes up on the spot” and later on becomes a successful hit in-universe.

Cruella De Vil is one of Disney’s stand-out villains, which certainly has a lot to do with her memorable design, the two-coloured hair and this giant fur coat which hides a frail body, but nevertheless dominates every scene. But also with the song with introduces her:

Cruella De Vil
Cruella De Vil
If she doesn’t scare you
No evil thing will
To see her is to take a sudden chill
Cruella, Cruella
She’s like a spider waiting for the kill
Look out for Cruella De Vil…
At this point the audience hasn’t seen Cruella, only her car. But the song gives her a proper announcement. The audience is already prepared to dislike this character, and the moment when her shadow turns up at the door is properly chilly. It is clear, whatever comes is not good. And it isn’t. While Roger keeps making music in the attic (beforehand the melody to his singing comes very settled from the off), a scene plays which confirms his assessment of Cruella De Vil. When she leaves, he comes back and comments the scene the audience just witnessed:
At first you think Cruella is the devil
But after time has worn away the shock
You’ve come to realize
You’ve seen her kind of eyes
Watching you from underneath a rock
Interestingly the song verbally depowers Cruella in those lines. It basically says: Yeah, she is terrifying the first moment, but once you really look at her, she isn’t this terrifying overly powerful creature, she is a danger which can be dealt with. There is a slight foreshadowing in those lines because that is exactly what Roger will do, standing up and demonstrating that her power is limited. It goes exactly as far as you allow it to go. The song then concludes with dehumanizing Cruella, making her therefore an acceptable target of everything which will happen to her in the movie (which is, all things considered not much, unlike other villains her punishment is pretty mild).

 

This vampire bat
This inhuman beast
She ‘outta be locked up and never released
The world was such a wholesome place until
Cruella, Cruella De Vil

 

6. The Conclusion

101 Dalmatians is a surprisingly faithful take of the story. It’s not one of the big Disney movies though in my eyes, because it is, like the book, mostly aimed at kids. It’s entertaining but doesn’t even try to be more than that. I like the movie nevertheless. It doesn’t talk down to its intended audience, it’s funny and suspenseful, and just a good pick for a snowy night.


The Conclusion Song

Remember what I wrote about the Introduction song? How its role changed because the position of the credits changed? Well, the same is truth in reverse.

Disney movies usually have some sort of conclusion sequence…it is nearly never an isolated piece of music, but the reprise of a formerly played song. It is a way to underline the main theme of a movie one last time and is often used this way. Since end credits became part of the movies, this is usually followed by even more music played on the end credits. A kind of infamous variant which was popular in the 1990s is the pop version of one of the main songs. Currently, though, there is more a tendency to use songs which were either cut from the movie or from the get go only written for the end credits, which is then sold as single.

Another variant to end a movie is that the last song blends over into the end credits. “Mulan” is the most egregious example for this, when the movie, which was one second ago concluded Mulan’s story in a very thoughtful scene, still has to wrap up Mushu’s story and then then dives into a party with modern music, which then blends over to the end credits.

To be honest, most of the time end credits songs are just there. They don’t serve another purpose than to provide some sound while the end credits roll. A notable exception is Pocahontas, at least in the theatrical version. It might surprise some who only know the extended version but: Originally, Pocahontas and John didn’t sing in the scene when he is prisoner and she says goodbye to him. Instead there was only an instrumental, and I think it worked much better, because it was more settled and allowed to focus on the dialogue. The song which belongs to said instrumental was still part of the movie though – at the start of the end credits. And there it fit perfectly.

 If I never knew you
If I never felt this love
I would have no inkling of
How precious life can be

And if I never held you
I would never have a clue
How at last I’d find in you
The missing part of me.

In this world so full of fear
Full of rage and lies
I can see the truth so clear
In your eyes
So dry your eyes

And I’m so grateful to you
I’d have lived my whole life through
Lost forever
If I never knew you

If I never knew you
I’d be safe but half as real
Never knowing I could feel
A love so strong and true

I’m so grateful to you
I’d have lived my whole life through
Lost forever
If I never knew you

I thought our love would be so beautiful
Somehow we’d make the whole world bright
I never knew that fear and hate could be so strong
all they’d leave us were these wispers in the night
But still my heart is saying we were right

Oh if I never knew you
There’s no moment I regret
If I never felt this love
Since the moment that we met
I would have no inkling of
If our time has gone too fast
How precious life can be…
I’ve lived at last…

I thought our love would be so beautiful
Somehow we’d make the whole world bright
I thought our love wuold be so beautiful
We’d turn the darkness into light
And still my heart is saying we were right
we were right

And if I never knew you
If I never knew you
I’d have lived my whole life through
Empty as the sky
Never knowing why
Lost forever
If I never knew you

The song, while being here song in the overly dramatic pop version, fits way better at this place. It is basically about love having meaning, even if it doesn’t end in a relationship, about it being better to suffer though a love with an unhappy ending than never having loved at all. It is a notion which fits the prisoner scenes too, but there it destroys the mood of the scene and feels very fast like filler. But picking up the instrumental in a song at the very end of the movie, reminding of this scene and voicing the lines which are uttered by John Smith again, is a reminder that this is actually the happier ending. They will never see each other again, but they are both alive, and the love they felt for each other will always be part of them. It is the perfect use of an end credits song – even though I suspect that its original placement was more accidentally than intentionally.

 


By the Book: Treasure Planet

People who already know me from Fanpop might have read this article series already, but I wanted it over here at wordpress, too, so I’ll move the articles over here, with some adjustments. I’ll take a look at book-based Disney movies, I will discuss how the movie relates to the original source text (or not), what the merits and the weaknesses of the movie are, and (that’s the new part) I’ll take a look at the soundtrack. I will not do this in chronological order, but simply pick what strikes me fancy (I’m open for requests, though). Don’t expect me to do the Lion King, though. For one, the connection to Hamlet is feeble at best, it’s more a case of being inspired by it than a true adaptation, and two, technically Hamlet is a play, not a book. I also will not do the Disney Princess movies, because I plan to do them in another format. Otherwise, I guess I’ll start (again) with the classics. And what better classic to start with than Treasure Island?


1. The World of Spaceport_Treasure_Planet
Treasure Planet

Treasure Island was my favourite book growing up.  So I was really looking forward to the Disney take on it, though also a little bit worried. And not because they decided to set it in space. To get this one out of the way first: Unlike a lot of other reviewers I think the changed setting was the best decision they made for the movie. For three reasons:

1. Treasure Island is one of the most adapted books of all time. I have seen around 30 different movies and TV Shows based on it, including one movie made by Disney in the 1950s. Did we really need another one in a traditional setting? If you want to tackle this, you better find a new angle (though there already was an Italian/German production which also put the story into space called “Der Schatz im All” – one of the better adaptions, too).

2. It allowed Disney to cut down the number of characters they put on the ship – though I personally think they didn’t go far enough with this. I would have preferred even less but in exchange more fleshed out side characters.

3. Above all, it allowed for some really creative imaginary. It would have been great if they had gone even crazier than just reusing the flying whales from Fantasia 2000, but props for the final climax. The action scene is really a sight to see, especially on the big screen. A lot of people are bothered by the mix of traditional clothes with strange devices, other argue that this is simply steampunk. Neither are completely correct in my opinion. For one, it is not really steampunk. The idea behind steampunk is to imagine future technology or styles how someone from the Victorian age might have seen it (thus the use of steam instead of more modern technology). What Treasure Planet does is more the other way around, taking a very modern idea of technology, but instead of going for the more sterile style seen in other space shows and movies, like Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5 and so on, it tries to insert a romantic element by seeking inspiration from the time the original book was published.

In some aspects, it works brilliantly. I love the holographic books, the uniforms with a slight futuristic edge to it, the glider. In other aspects it’s confusing. Jim for example is a perfect blend between a Victorian and a more futuristic boy, his mother on the other hand misses the more modern edge in her design. I love the design of the ship (and the DVD proofs that the animators actually thought about how it works, with way more details than necessary for the movie), but if lack of air is not an issue, what’s the point of the space uniform Dr. Doppler originally wears? The design is very creative, but a little bit uneven in places. Though my solution wouldn’t have been not to do it, but to do it right, to make sure that every piece fits properly together. Thus said, I don’t think that the pieces which don’t fit are really that much of a distraction, unless you have a problem with the idea of setting it in some strange space future from the get go.


2. The CharactersTreasure_Planet_Characters

My biggest worry concerning Treasure Planet was that they would get Long John Silver wrong. The main reason I love the original book so much is this one character. Unapologetic evil, egoistical, but nevertheless so suave that you somehow want him to win, even though you know that he deserves to rot in hell. So would Disney be able to tackle this character without giving him redeeming qualities?

Naturally not. Thus said, the result is not as bad as I feared it would be and at least the design of Long John Silver is really creative. But where Disney really did a good job was with everyone else. As much as I like the original book: Jim Hawkins is one of the most boring protagonists ever, more a stand-in for the reader than a character in its own right. And all the other characters are more stereotypes than layered personalities. The strict captain, the foolish squire, the gentleman doctor and the trust-worthy servants on the one side, the irresponsible, drunken pirates on the other side.

Disney took those templates and turned most of them (the pirates are the exception) in layered characters. Jim is no longer the good boy, he is now the rebellious teenager. Disney is walking a very fine line with this character. It is easy to make the rebel too bratty and ungrateful to be still sympathetic. But Disney manages to portray him as someone who doesn’t really want to be bad or hurt his mother, he is just confused, unsure of himself, and unable to deal with the hurt and anger her feels because his father left him. And this is something unusual in itself: Jim’s father didn’t die, he just didn’t care enough to stick around. How often do we see something like that in a Disney movie? How often do we see a mother trying to reach out to her child and not being able to help, even though she doesn’t really do anything wrong? Tackling this issue is the biggest strength of the movie and the main reason I’m able to excuse the disneyfied version of Long John Silver. It might not be the Long John Silver I adore and expected, but it is the one which fits into the story they are trying to tell.

Captain Amelia is a terrifying take on Captain Smollett. A little bit of a bragger, but competent enough to back it up, overall a really strong female character. Even with a shoulder wound she never comes off as damsel in distress. Dr. Doppler is naturally a mix of Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey. For a somewhat cowardly character he is surprisingly likable, mostly because he acts when he really has to, and he actually has picked up some useful knowledge along the way, but not so much that he becomes some sort of walking solution for every problem the group encounters. The pirates are still disappointingly bland, so bland, that I can’t even remember the name of the Scorpion guy who takes over the role of Israel Hands. And then there is B.E.N.

To say it upfront: Never enjoyed the character of Ben Gun in ANY adaptation (nor in the book), and only a few manage to make him not annoying. Therefore it’s hard to blame Disney for this one. I like the idea of a robot without a memory chip, but they really should have toned it down a little bit. The screaming just ruins the suspense in some of the best scenes.


3. The Plottreasure-planet-disneyscreencaps_com-4193

If you read a book again and again, there comes a point at which keep skipping to your favourite parts of the story. Treasure Island basically consists of three acts: Billy Bones last days are the first one, the travel to the island is the second one and the fight on the island is the third one. I always liked the last one the best, the suppressive atmosphere of two groups trapped in an unfriendly place and the strategy involved in them outmanoeuvring each other, all this makes for a suspenseful read.

Treasure Planet is a very unusual take on the story because unlike most adaptations focusses mostly on the second and not on the third act. It manages though, to make the travel much more interesting than it was in the original story. Arrow’s death is even changed in a way that it result in real consequences instead of just being a side-note.

If someone asked me what the best scene of this movie is, my answer would be the “I’m still here” scene. For one, the song is beautiful and has really deep lyrics. But above all, it’s a really well done delve into Jim’s psychology. Seeing little Jim running after his father….that’s right up with some of the most heart-wrenching Disney scenes for me. As impressive as some of the action scenes are, those more quiet moments are the true strength of the movie. All in all I would have wanted more of them and more of Jim and Silver facing off, and a little bit less of the chase scenes through the ship.


4. The Soundtrack

Speaking of “I’m still here”, I already did a very detailed analysis of the song when I discussed the “Montage Song”, and since it is the only song in the movie, there is really not much more to say about it. Concerning the score, it is a perfect fit. I especially like the triumphant undertones in it, which transport a constant feeling of excitement.


5. The Conclusion

Treasure Planet is not the adaption I expected, but it is a really good and above all fresh take on an overdone story. If you allow yourself to get sucked into the world the animators created instead of second guessing everything you see, the imagination put into this is really enjoyable. It’s a little bit a movie for the big screen though, to appreciate the animation and the scale the put into the action scenes. It has its weaknesses, some clunky elements which throw the mood a little bit off-kilter, but none of them are distracting enough to ruin the movie. In the Disney canon, it’s one of the hidden gems, and definitely worth at least one watch.


The History of Disney Movie Animation

Last time I discussed the history of western animated movies, now let’s take a look how Disney figures in all this. I have decided to follow the examples of some of my fellow bloggers here and forgo most of the usual naming of the eras and instead came up with my own classifications. Note that while I mostly sought inspiration from the usual eras of art and literature, my reasons for picking the names are not always connected to their original meaning.


 

1937- 1942 The Disney Expressionism

It is usually called the “Golden Age”, but if you really think about it, this was the golden age for animation in general and not for Disney specifically. Plus, when it comes to movies, the age was not that “golden” for Disney at all. Yes, they made a ton of money with “Snow White and Seven Dwarves”, but the only other movie which really was a financial success during this time was “Dumbo” – which was originally a short extended to a movie in order to recoup the losses from “Fantasia”. This in mind, it is kind of misleading to talk about a “Golden Age”.

It is the age though, in which most of the Disney staples were established. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” was the beginning of the fairy tale based movies which are nowadays marketed in the Disney Princess Franchise. “Pinocchio” started the concept of taking well-known literature classics and making them their own. “Bambi” explored the possibilities of telling stories from the perspective of animals. “Fantasia” – well, that is pretty much a category on its own. And “Dumbo” is the prototype of the more child than family oriented movies Disney sometimes produces. The sidekicks, the use of music, the type of villains, the Disney acid sequence, all this was first done back then and has prevailed in Disney movies to this day.

Therefore I did consider “Disney Classic” as name for this era, but it doesn’t really fit the style of the movies, which it has nothing to do with Greek or Roman antique. Unshavedmouse calls it the “Tar and Sugar Era” due to the tendency of the movies to alternate between really, really sweet and really, really dark. Those are the movies which made children literally piss their pants (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”), which created villains which actually got away with their every deeds (“Pinocchio”) and which traumatised the audience with the dead of Bambi’s mother. “Fantasia” is to this day the only Disney movie which openly displays breasts – in a close-up nonetheless. It is something we tend to forget nowadays, but those movies were pushing the envelope at every turn.

All the movies of this era are kind of dark – and I mean this literally. The “sweet” moments are colourful and wholesome, but those moments are surrounded by darkness. Especially in “Pinocchio” Gepetto is practically a carrier of light…scenes with him are considerably brighter than the scenes without him. Even the colourful circus world of “Dumbo” is often swallowed by long shadows and darkness.

Expressionism is at its core about causing a reaction, it is not about what is real, but about causing emotional reactions. That can be the colourful world of Franz Marc or the disturbing one of Edvard Munch. In filmmaking, especially the German Expressionism is notable for the use of shadows and the deliberate use of unrealistic settings, and this was a movement which influenced the filmmakers of Hollywood considerably in the 1920s and 1930s.

Now take a good look at this:

snow-white-disneyscreencaps_com-1000

 

And this:

pinocchio-disneyscreencaps_com-6875

And this:

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It has become some sort of running gag to joke about the transition in “Bambi” from the grief over Bambi’s mother to happily chirping birds, claiming that this is the feeble try to soften the blow. I don’t think so, quite the opposite actually, because that’s exactly what Disney during this time is about. It deliberately creates a roller-coaster of feelings, jumps from the Snow White’s fear in the woods to an inviting meadow with next to no transition, from Dumbo visiting his mother to joking clowns and pink elephants. One moment Bambi is playing in the snow, in the next he is nearly dying of hunger, one moment he is quite literally in the seventh heaven, and the next he has to overcome a rival.

Disney is still good in playing with the emotions of the audience. But the sudden shift from one extreme mood to another, that is typical for this era. As are truly disturbing sequences which tap deep into the emotions of the audience.

In retrospect it makes sense that Disney might have been influenced by the styles which were prevalent in filmmaking during this time, after all, he had to take something as a base for his first animated movies. Movies, no matter if animated or not, are always the product a certain “Zeitgeist”. Most Disney movies are created to be timeless, but they never can totally hide when they were made. Ariel’s bangs and puffy sleeves are just as typical 1980s, as Snow White’s round eyes, long eyelashes and short hair scream 1930s. But I think in no era of animated movies is the connection to the style of live-action movies which were made around the same time as obvious as in the early beginnings.

 


 

Theoretical the next era of Disney is the Package Era….but to be honest, I refuse to consider this really an era of Disney movies. To me it is an era in which Disney was prevented from making movies due to the war and instead threw together mostly unrelated shorts to fill some time, bolstered up with a half-assed frame device. If I sit down and spend an afternoon watching Disney shorts, I still didn’t watch a movie, even if the running time has the proper length. Fantasia is a movie because it has a consistent tone, a consistent theme and a working concept. The only movie from the package era which comes at least tries to have something like this is “Saludos Amigos”, and the running time of this one doesn’t even come close to proper theatre length. It is even shorter than “Dumbo” and in case of “Dumbo” Disney had to fight to classify it as a movie. No, the next real era of movie making starts in 1950.


1950 – 1959 The Disney Romantic

A popular term for this era is the “Silver age”. The “Restoration Age” is also common, especially among people who don’t like the implication that this era was somehow lesser than the “Golden Age”. But I didn’t really like this term either, because while the studio was in a process of financial “Restoration”, the movies actually picked off where they left. Those are projects which were in planning before the war changed everything – consequently “Cinderella” is the logical next step for the fairy tale movies, and “Alice in Wonderland” as well as “Peter Pan” are literally fulfilling a promise “Pinocchio” already made by showing the respective books in a scene.

What is notable different though is the style of animation. I decided to go for “Disney Romantic” because, well

This:

cinderella-disneyscreencaps_com-5552

And this:

alice-in-wonderland-disneyscreencaps_com-14

And especially this:

lady-tramp-disneyscreencaps_com-15

Soft colours, lush animation, and the overall feel to enter a different, magical world is predominant in the movies from this era. Hell, even an alley full of clothes hanging out to dry is looking like the most romantic place on earth in “Lady and the Tramp”. There is also the influence of Mary Blair, not just in the movies she actually did work on (“Cinderella”, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan”), but also in the ones she wasn’t directly involved in (“Lady and the Tramp”, “Sleeping Beauty”). Prevalent for this era is the constant play with perspectives. The big scales of “Cinderella”,

cinderella-disneyscreencaps_com-5733 the unusual angles of “Alice in Wonderland” and, to a lesser degree, “Peter Pan”,

alice-in-wonderland-disneyscreencaps_com-6989

the constant dog perspective of “Lady and the Tramp” and the especially the painting-like design of “Sleeping Beauty” make every singly movie of this era something special.

Compared to the Disney Expressionism the level of “darkness” is notable toned down, but not gone. If beforehand the world was a dark place with a few bright spots in it, now the world is bright place with some dark spots in it. “Lady and the Tramp” for example has for most of the movie a greeting card vibe, in both tone and drawing style, but especially the scene in the dog pound plunges as deep into darkness as a movie from the Expressionist Era.

Personally I think that neither Disney nor any other studio ever reached the level of artistry which we got during this sadly way too short era. Ironically, none of this movies got the acknowledgement they deserved during their initial release. “Lady and the Tramp” was beloved by the audience, but not by the critics, who actually had the audacity to complain about the quality of the animation. “Sleeping Beauty” got slammed for being too similar to “Cinderella” and especially “Snow White”. Which shows that critics can err, too.

 


 

1960 – 1988   The Disney Impressionism

The Disney Odyssey went for “Modern Era”, and it certainly is a good fit, for multiple reasons. One is the technical aspect, and the keyword is xerography. Up to this point, the movies were hand-inked, which is a slow and expensive process. As a result even successful movies ended up underperforming in the box office in relation to the production costs. Disney had to make a decision to either shut down the studios or to cut down costs by using xerography. He didn’t like it, but he went for the latter option.

The process allowed the animators to print their drawings directly on the cells. But it has its limits. Initially only black lines were possible, which heavily influenced the style of the movies. The Unshavedmouse calls those first years the “Scratchy Era”, based on the harsh looking dark lines in the animation.

Despite all the arguments for “Modern Era”, I feel that “Disney Impressionism” is an even better fit. For one, Impressionism is in a way a countermovement to the Romantic (one can also see it as a culmination of it, but the original thought was to break away from this era). And that is exactly what Disney did during this time, a thematically and stylistic break compared to the movies which came beforehand. Instead of fairy tales and classic stories, most of the movies from this era are based on current books. The settings are less “once upon a time” and more “now”. That is especially evident in the music used. Forget the chorus and the operatic voices, now we have cool beats to offer.

Impressionist paintings are most notable for the artist not trying to hide the brush strokes. And again, that is exactly what Disney did, too. Since they first had to use the black lines, they mostly didn’t even try to hide them but made them part of the style. And if you look at the backgrounds, they are way less detailed than what Disney did beforehand and seeing the way they tend to get blurry in the outside settings, they have quite an Impressionistic feel to it. This is especially evident in “The Aristocats”, due to the movie being set in Paris.

aristocats-disneyscreencaps_com-214

The scale of the movies are also less “grand” than in the prior eras. This is Disney at its most modest, and it has nothing to do with the chosen themes, but with the approach to them. In “Pinocchio” Disney told an elaborate story about a protagonist learning important live lessons with no less than four villains, but in “The Sword and the Stone” the wizard duel is the sole high point of the movie. If one compares “The Aristocats” with “Lady and the Tramp”, the former seems to be downright pedestrian.

It is hard to consider any of the movies made during this time as one of the “big” Disney movies. It is just too evident that Disney was cutting corners, “Robin Hood” being the worst offender. The sketchy design and the reuse of animation not only from other Disney movies, but also from the movie itself is just too obvious, and it speaks for the skill of the animators that they were able to cobble together a really good movie on their tight budget. But it could have been a great one.

There is one exception, though, and no, it is not the “Jungle Book”. Despite being a big success and a popular movie, I think the crown for the best movie of this era goes to “The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”. In a way it is captures the spirit of the era perfectly. Impressionism has always a little introverted feel to it, and you can get more introverted than entering the fantasy world of a little boy and reflecting about childhood. It is certainly not a flashy movie, but it is one of the most thoughtful movies Disney ever made.

Otherwise though the usual result during this era is something between “okay” and “good, but it could have been great”. Artistically speaking things were looking up in the 1980s, when xerography was no longer limited to black lines, but at this point the studio was struggling in other regards. First Walt Disney died, and even though he hadn’t really been that involved in the studios during that time with the exception of some pet projects like “The Jungle Book”, the studio had suddenly lost its face and in a way its voice. A big cooperation doesn’t necessarily care for the artistic merit of a movie, but about the money it makes. They don’t tend to be open for experiments. But that was exactly what Walt Disney was about. Projects like “Fantasia”, “Bambi” or “Sleeping Beauty” were not about the bottom line, they were about challenging the audience and offering something new.

In general there was a change of generation going on in the Disney Studios during that time – and a fight between old and young. “Fox and Hound” is somewhat infamous, not just for being the last movie in which the “nine old man” had a hand it, but also for the discussions surrounding it. That Don Bluth “stole away” some of the most talented young animators in the studio during production (thankfully a lot of them decided to come back just in time to create “Beauty and the Beast”), left the studios which animators who created what was at this time Disney’s most embarrassing failure. “The Black Cauldron” has nowadays a fan following and is popular in Asia, but it is still the movie which lost to the Care Bears in the box office, and it is not hard to see why. I counted the 1980s to the Disney Impressionism, but it is more an era of transition, and it is mostly “Oliver and Company” with its sketchy background which made me decide to not do an extra cut for four movies.

 

The next era of greatness didn’t come out of the thin air, it built up for a couple of years, and I think “The Great Mouse Detective” as well as all the talent Disney poached during the production of “Who framed Roger Rabbit” was laying the groundwork for the following era. And when it came, it brought Disney to new highs.

 


 

1989 – 1999 The Disney Renaissance

Every animation fan knows this term, and who am I to argue. It is the fitting word for this era, and not just because Disney went back to its roots. Deciding when it actually started was the harder task. Normally “The Little Mermaid” is considered the first movie of this era, but from a technical point of view, it should be either “The Great Mouse Detective” or “Rescuers Down Under”. The former because this was the first movie which used extensive computer animation, the latter because it was the first movie which used the CAP System (while “The little Mermaid” is in a way the crowning achievement of xerography).

I nevertheless went for “The Little Mermaid”, too, because of thematic reasons. Disney Impressionism was all about telling stories from the perspective of animals. “The Black Cauldron” is the one sole exception, considering that even “The Sword and the Stone” has long passages in which the human characters are turned into animals. “The Little Mermaid” started a string of movies with human characters, “Rescuers Down Under” being the (often forgotten) exception.

“The Little Mermaid” was also the first time Disney went back to their fairy tale movies in twenty years. And it was the first movie which used the Broadway formula. Now there have been movies with Broadway-like music beforehand. But Howard Ashman and Alan Menken perfected this structure to a degree that you can turn most movies made during this era into actual musicals with next to no trouble (which Disney eventually recognized too and did). “The Little Mermaid” was also the first fully animated Disney movie since “Dumbo” which won an Academy Award instead of just getting a nomination, and not just one, but two, in the usual categories “Best Original Score” and “Best Original Song”.

The movie which embodies the spirit of the era the best to me is “Beauty and the Beast”, and not just because it might be the critically most acclaimed movie in the Disney line-up. To be the first animated movie ever nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Picture is already an impressive feat which won’t be topped until an animated movie actually wins. To this day “Beauty and the Beast” is the only animated movie which did it before the number or possible nominations was raised from five to ten and the only traditional animated movie at all which managed this (all the others are Pixar-movies). “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” were unbelievable box-office successes, too.

“Beauty and the Beast” set the standards for this era more than even “The Little Mermaid”, since it not only has Menken and Ashman on the top of their game (not only did they win yet another two Academy Awards, no less than three songs were nominated for “Best Original Song”), it also took full advantage of the CAP system with its bold camera movements. As little bonus, the design of the Beast’s castle is based on the Château de Chambord, meaning on Renaissance architecture.

Walt-Disney-Screencaps-Prince-Adam-s-Castle-walt-disney-characters-25018098-2560-1426

The Broadway formula became a blessing and a curse for Disney. A blessing because the studio reached greater highs than ever. A curse because Disney did nothing else as a consequence. Repeating the same structures resulted in a backlash and by the time Pocahontas hit the theatres more or less everyone was joking about Disney doing the same again and again. It didn’t help that Pocahontas, while top notch regarding animation and music, had a mediocre story at best.

Disney reacted by trying to mix the formula up a little bit “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” tried to do what the Classic Disney movies did by pushing the envelope a little bit, but was too inconsistent in tone in the end. “Hercules” tried to repeat the success of “Aladdin”, but ended up being kind of a mess. “Mulan” was a really good movie but not different enough on the surface to distinguish itself. Tarzan was the last attempt to connect to former successes, and the first movie since “Rescuers Down Under” in which the main character doesn’t sing (most of the songs are sung from the off instead). Also the last movie which got an Academy Award (Best Original Song) for a long, long time and that despite the fact that only two years later a new category for “Best Animated Feature” was introduced.

While Disney struggled, Pixar managed to offer the audience something new in both animation style and storytelling, and won one Award after the other. Disney needed a new approach – and nearly ten years to find it.

 


 

2000 – 2009 The Disney Pluralism

It is really hard to find a common theme with Disney movies during this time – or a common style. Some of them look like they could just as well be made during the Disney Renaissance, others are so different, you could easily sell them to be the product of another company.

Most animation companies which are active today were either founded in the late 1990s/early 2000s, or they were around earlier but decided to try their hand in movie making around this time. On top of this, it was the time of the block buster serials. “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” draw the audience into the theatres, while movies like “Treasure Planet” were overlooked. Disney even made itself concurrence with the Narnia franchise.

“Fantasia 2000” was a pet project of Roy Disney, trying to continue the legacy of “Fantasia”. “Dinosaurs” was the first try in CGI animation, relying heavily on displaying technical achievements in this area instead of creative story-telling. “The Emporer’s New Groove” was a little bit like a marriage between Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks, being a buddy movie (typical Pixar) with a lot of self-referential jokes (that was DeamWorks fad to joke about Disney) build around a redemption story. “Atlantis” and “Treasure Planet” are both non-musical movies with more than a hint of steampunk thrown in. “Lilo and Stitch” falls pretty much in its own category and might be the best attempt to redefine the studio, with his readiness to acknowledge real-life problems and discussing them in a Disney-typical setting. It also is a clear departure from the usual Disney style, which feels somehow more genuine despite being highly stylized.

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“Brother Bear” kind of tried to go in the same direction just grander, but the movie lacks the unpredictability which is so much fun in “Lilo and Stitch”. Plus, at this point the company had already decided to close down the department for traditional animation, with “Home on the Range” concluding an era in a disappointing fashion. I guess, Disney kind of tried to end this era forcefully and starting a new one with CGI movie.

It didn’t really quite work out that way. Changing to CGI did nothing to allow Disney to find its voice again – at least no initially. The studio made one last attempt to relive the “good old times” with “The Princess and the Frog” before finally finding a new approach which worked. And imho it didn’t work because it was CGI, it worked because Disney found its own voice again.

 


 

2010 – current The Disney Rococo

History sometimes repeats itself. It repeats itself so much, I seriously considered calling this era “Neorenaissance”. Again Disney figured out the direction it wanted to take next, but this time it was not about human vs animal characters but about traditional animation vs CGI. Again there were movies which lead up to this new era, again there is a string of successful movies with one forgotten movie (“Winnie the Pooh”) in-between and again Disney is breaking all box office record. If “Hero 6” surpasses “Frozen” the same way “The Lion King” surpassed “Aladdin”, the pattern is complete.

But this isn’t the Disney Renaissance. It is not about repeating the same formula again and again. Oh, they do it with their Disney Princess franchise, but not with their other films. No, what Disney is really doing is building up on the properties they own and redoing old concepts but with a modern twist.

I think the defining movie of this era is “Tangled”, because of the mind-set behind it. CGI movies tend to be to a certain degree not about what you want to do, but about what you can do. But for “Tangled” the animators did their very best to bend CGI in the shape they needed to create a blend of traditional and CGI animation. The movement, the shadowing, the hair – it didn’t matter how much effort it was to write and rewrite software as long as the result looked how the animators wanted it.

Rococo is a very playful and detailed style which is very evident in “Tangled” – not exactly a surprise since the inspiration for the movie was the Rococo painting “The Swing”. But this detailed and playful style carried over to the movies after it, too. One can watch them again and again, and there are still new details to discover.

Just look at this and pay attention to all the details put in the textures:

tangled-disneyscreencaps_com-237

The different kinds of fabric structure used for different kinds of clothes paired with flourish ornamentations, little embellishments and hidden jokes in the backgrounds and an overall sense of fun, all this are typical for the current Disney movies. As are one-adjective-titles and DreamWorks-Style trailers.

With Frozen Disney finally managed to produce a critical highly acclaimed movie and to get and Academy Award for “Best Animated Feature”. It took Disney only 13 years (though I personally think they deserved it for “Wreck-it-Ralph” already).

And that concludes my little overview…for now. I will certainly add to it when new movies hit the theatres. But for now it looks like Disney managed to struggle to the top again. I certainly look forward to their next movies.


The Love Song

I originally planned to jump equally around between articles dealing with the specific kinds of songs and those about the use of the songs in one movie. But then I realized that it would be better to first establish a systematic of the songs which can be usually found in a Disney movie. So expect me to tackle this first and discuss complete movies later on.

The love song, though, is different from all the other songs in that it isn’t required to move the plot forward. A love song is in its nature more introperspective, designed to convey first and foremost feelings rather than information. As such, it tends to slow down the movie. That is not necessarily a bad thing, sometimes it is good to put a little breather in an action-packed plot. The best love songs, though, manage to stay relevant nevertheless.

There are basically two kinds of love songs: Those about love in general, and those about the feelings of the specific characters on screen. More general songs have the advantage that they work beautifully even if they are removed from the movie in question. More specific ones do a better job in adding to the plot. The best ones manage a balance.

Bella Notte for example is a very unspecific song:

Oh this is the night
it’s a beautiful night
and we call it bella notte
look at the skies
they have stars in their eyes
on this lovely bella notte
side by side with your loved one
you will find the enchantment here
the night will weave its magic spell
when the one you love is near, oh
this is the night
and the heavens all rise
on this lovely bella note

This is simply the description of a beautiful night which becomes magical because you spend it with someone you love. It does fit what we see on screen, but it doesn’t really add to Lady or Tramps feelings. It works perfectly to capture the mood, but the actual plot development is not what we her, but what we see (the famous spaghetti meal). The song works in the movie because the animation does the heavy lifting while the music serves to establish the mood and tap into feelings the audience might have experienced before. Most of the Disney Love songs work that way, though there are also some more specific. For example “I won’t say I’m in love”.

“If there’s a prize for rotten judgement,
I guess I’ve already won that
No man is worth the agrivation
That’s ancient history,
Been there
Done that”

The whole song illustrates important character development, Megara’s to be precise- While the muses keep telling her that she is in love and should admit it to herself, Megara keeps mentioning the reasons why she shouldn’t be – which boils down to her not wanting to get hurt again.

I thought my heart had learned its lesson
It feels so good when ya start out
My head is screaming “get a grip, girl!”
“Unless you’re dying to cry your heart out!”

But nevertheless, towards the end Megara admits that even though she is not ready to act on her feelings, they are there.

At least out loud
I won’t say I’m in….love

The beauty in all this is while this is very specific about Megara’s feelings, it is not specific about Megara’s situation. It is simply about the feelings of a woman who has loved, got hurt and now has to decide if she wants to risk another heart-break. It’s a situation a lot of woman (and men for that matter) have experienced at one point. In terms of story-telling, this makes “I won’t say I’m in…love” one of the best love songs in the Disney canon.


The “I want”-Song

The “I want”-song is a stable of musicals and has at this point parodied a couple of times. Is it really needed? Yes and no. For a musical to work, you have to convey the motivation of the characters to the audience. You don’t have to do it in song, but then, it is a musical, so singing it is the most logical way to do it.

In Disney movies, the “I want”-song has been a stable long before the studio decided to go full Broadway-style during the Disney Renaissance. Snow White was already intonating “I’m wishing” into her well, and since then, there have been a couple of well-beloved “I want”-songs. Interestingly, none of them ever won an Oscar. Those honours usually go to the love song or the fun song of the movie. A little bit unfairly, since the “I want”-song tends to be the heart and the soul of the movies in question.

Today I want to discuss two examples of “I want”-songs which have been perfectly utilized in very different ways. And I guess, I’ll do it chronologically and start with “A Dream is a Wish your Heart makes”.

Cinderella as a whole does not really have much of a score. Oh, there are a lot of songs, but there are also a lot of scenes in which there is no music at all. There is one theme which keeps turning up, though, and that is the melody of “A Dream is a Wish your Heart makes”. It gets reprised from the off at Cinderella’s lowest point in the movie, when she has lost all hope, and again at the very end when she gets her happy end. The lyrics in itself are simple. “Have faith in your dreams” is the message, “Now matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing the dream that you wish will come true” the promise. It is a (fairly short) song about never giving up hope. And every time it is played in the background, it reminds the audience of the message, which is also the underlying theme of the movie as a whole. Simple, but effective.

Not so simple is “Belle”. Unlike “A Dream is a Wish your Heart makes” this song is very detailed and very specific. It also is an example of “how to establish a whole setting in one song”. “Belle” not only introduces the main character to the audience, in the song we also meet the whole village, the villain and learn everything we need to know about the motivation of half of the cast in “Beauty and the Beast”. Just look at the first passage:

“Little town it’s a quiet village.
Everyday like the one before.
Little town full of little people, waking up to say.”

We are not even fully into the song, and we already get a sense of the village we are about to enter. The use of “little” especially in connection with “people” suggests that we are dealing with a place full of narrow-minded people, something which will be detailed even further when we see them all wrapped up in their everyday business. Belle even comments on it:

“Every morning just the same since the morning that we came,
To this poor provincial town.”

This lines not only make it clear how disconnected Belle feels, it also subtle suggests that she and her father are outsiders in more than one way (note that they also life at the edge of the town and not in the village itself). Belle did not grew up at this place, her point of view is from the get go broader than the one of the villagers, who most likely never left their little space of the world. But we also learn their perspective on Belle in great detail:

“Now It’s no wonder that her name means beauty, her looks have got no parallel.
But behind that fair facade, I’m afraid she’s rather odd.
Very different from the rest of us.
She’s nothing like the rest of us. Yes different from the rest of us is Belle.”

This also introduces the main theme of the movie, which is all about outer beauty vs. inner beauty. Belle is more than her looks, but the villagers would like to reduce her to her beauty. Especially Gaston:

“Right from the moment when I met her, saw her, I said she’s gorgeous and I fell…Here in town, there is only she, who is as beautiful as me. So I’m making plans to woo and marry Belle.”

Thanks to this line the audience knows from the get go that Gaston’s interest in Belle has nothing to do with love and everything with vanity. He is not interested in her, but in getting the “best” available. Not that he doesn’t have other options:

“Look there he goes, isn’t he dreamy? Monsieur Gaston, oh he’s so cute!
Be still my heart, I’m hardly breathing. He’s such a tall, dark, strong and handsome brute.”

Not only do we get the view of the villagers on Belle, we also learn how popular Gaston is, especially with the ladies. Notable is the use of the word “brute”, which does imply that the villagers are well aware how rogue his character is, but for some reason, they consider him desirable nevertheless. Or maybe even because of it.
The song concludes in a big climax, in which all the different opinions and motivations are set against each other.

“[Belle]
There must be more than this provincial life!

[Gaston]
Just watch, I’m going to make Belle my wife!

[Townsfolk]
Look there she goes
The girl is strange but special
A most peculiar mad’moiselle!
It’s a pity and a sin
She doesn’t quite fit in
‘Cause she really is a funny girl
A beauty but a funny girl
She really is a funny girl
That Belle!”

The conflict which will later provide the backdrop for the climax of the movie is already set up in great detail, and everything we learn later about Belle, Gaston and the villagers will built up on it. Just imagine how much time it would have cost to set all this up in dialogue and scenes, without doing an exposition dump.

In conclusion, a well-done “I want”-song is more than just an introduction for the main character, it can be so much more. It can establish the theme of the movie, a conflict, even a whole society.  It can be about general ideas, but also very specific. Well utilized, it is the core of a movie, the base on which everything which comes later is built on. So we shouldn’t joke about the “I want”-song in general. Just about the ones, which are badly done.