Category Archives: Disney Impressionism

Double Take: The Jungle Book 1967 vs 2016

So, like I promised, here is my second article about Disney’s two best takes on The Jungle Book. Last time I discussed the changes made compared to the source material and to each other. This time I will focus on how those two movies stack up to each other on a narrative level.

1. The Protagonist

Despite the title I choose for this section, I am actually not sure if Mowgli even if the protagonist of the animated movie. Yes, the story is about his journey, the villain is hunting him and his decisions largely drive the plot. But he also comes off like a living McGuffin for large stretches of the story, and I don’t use that word lightly. Nowadays it is thrown around at every opportunity, but it kind of fits in this case. Between no less that three characters wanting to either eat or possess Mowgli as well as two characters trying to rescue him all the time, there is a lot of passing around of Mowgli between the different players, sometimes literally. Add to this that the story is told from Bagheera’s point of view and that he is the one who accomplishes his goal in the end by bringing his charge to the village, and one has to question if the story isn’t more about him than Mowgli.

Consequently there is way more to Mowgli’s character in the remake. He has a clear desire – to be like the other wolves – he has a close relationship to a number of characters and above all, he is very self-reliant. I never quite bought into the Mowgli from the animated movie being so helpless. Yes, he is a child, but he is a child growing up in the jungle. He should have some basic self-preservation skills. The Mowgli in the remake does. He is still very vulnerable, but he also has some tools he can use and knows what to do when he ends up in danger. And he has an actual character arc. Kind of. In a way, it is still more Bagheera’s arc, because he goes from refusing Mowgli the freedom to use his humans abilities to allowing it within reason. But at the very least the movie examines  Mowgli’s struggle to fit in, and to obey the laws of the jungle. It allows him agency, and that is a welcome change.

2. The Mentors19 Baloo Mowgli

On a first glance, the two takes on Bagheera and Baloo are very similar in the sense that they differ from the book in the same way. Bagheera in the book has a whole backstory which explains his dedication to Mowgli, but is never relevant in either adaptation. And Baloo is portrayed as a wise animal and often strict teacher instead of the lazy joker Disney created.

Thus said, Baloo in the animated movie actually has something close to an arc in that he has to learn that his irresponsible actions have consequences, which eventually leads to him having to “betray” Mowgli in order to protect him, nearly dying fighting Shere Kahn and finally letting go of Mowgli. In the live action movie, the arc is still there, but it is kind of muddled because it is Baloo himself who first convinces Mowgli to not go to the village just yet, and they have an agreement that Mowgli will go there should it be necessary. What the live action take does better though is their first meeting. In the animated movie, Baloo befriends Mowgli just because they happen to bump in each other. The live action take gives Baloo a reason for his initial interest and takes the time to show how their friendship develops.

On the flip side though the live action take gives Bagheera an arc by allowing him to accept Mowgli’s human talents eventually instead of forcing him to act like a wolf in everything. In the animated movie he doesn’t change or develop at all despite his struggle to protect Mowgli being the focal point of the plot. He is right at the start of the movie and he stays being right towards the end of it. The only thing which can be considered somewhat of a change is that he has loosened up a little bit and is now appreciating Baloo a little bit more.

Both Bagheera and Baloo work the best in the remake whenever their characters are taken in a new direction and more fleshed out, but whenever it tries to recreate scenes from the animated movies, they fall flat because the they are lacking the same kind of built-up. It also does a better job to explore their relationship to Mowgli and to each other. By the end of it, the three characters feel like a true family unity.

3. The Elephants

I think the aspect which was changed the most from the original animated movie to the remake is the role of the elephants. In the animated movie, they acted as comic relief and are maybe the one time in which Disney shows some awareness about the larger context in the which the original book was written. Meaning Haiti ends up behaving like a stereotypical english officer during colonial times: Clueless but convinced of his own importance. Which is a stereotype we might want to rethink nowadays. Because I feel we kind of let the English off the hook if we we act as if what they did was just ignorance and not above all the attempt to squeeze foreign countries for their own benefit.

Hence I am kind of glad that the remake decides to go back to the roots and portray the elephants more like the nearly mythical creatures they are in the book. For one, it is more respectful towards Indian Culture in which the elephant is considered to be a royal animal, but I also love the moments of awe whenever they turn up. It gives the movie a very different vibe.

Plus, the remake actually utilizes the elephants as important part of the plot. In the animated movie they are only around for two reason: For some quick jokes and so that Shere Kahn can overhear Bagheera talking to Haiti about Mowgli. That’s it. But in the remake, they rescue the day in the end.

4. The Villains

Speaking of Shere Khan: He is sufficiently threatening in both versions. I have to say though, that his motivation in the animated movie makes more sense because it is simpler. He was away, he is back, and once he realizes that Mowgli is living in the Jungle, he will look for him and kill him because he hates humans in general. There is even an explanation why he hates humans: Because they are the one beings which are usually dangerous to him.

This seems to be initially the story with which the remake goes, too. Due to a hot summer, all animals meet at the watering hole, which leads to Shere Khan discovering Mowgli. But then they add this overly complicated story about Shere Khan killing Mowgli’s father and gotten scared in the process. I appreciate the effort to add a more personal note into their conflict, but for one, the story is unnecessarily convoluted and two, it kind of undermines the larger theme in the movie about acceptance. Because hatred against outsiders is rarely based on personal experience, it is usually the fear of the unknown which causes it.

Speaking of convoluted, the same is true for Kaa. In the animated movie, the story is simple, Kaa sees something tasty and wants it. This happens in the remake, too, but for some reason Kaa feels the need to tell Mowgli his whole backstory before eating him. That creates so many questions, starting with how Kaa even knows about it. This could have worked if they had created Kaa closer to the book (where she is actually a third mentor for Mowgli), but they somehow ended on some sort of mix between the wise snake and the dangerous predator which doesn’t work at all.

What works better is King Louis. In that the version in the remake is truly threatening. It’s a step away from the animated movie which really works because as enjoyable King Louis is as a character there, I never really got the sense that Mowgli is in actual danger with the apes. In the remake, King Louis acts more like some sort of mob boss instead of a silly king, whose own minions aren’t really afraid of him.

5. The Themes

Both movies ask basically the same question – where does Mowgli belong- , but come up with a very different answer. The animated movie falls firmly on the side that Mowgli finding his way back to other humans is unavoidable. Which, frankly, carries some really unfortunate implications from today’s perspective. Consequently the remake bakes a message about accepting each other differences while also following the law of society into the movie.

Society is also a big theme in the original stories. More often than not Mowgli learns some sort of lesson through his encounters with different animals. But this element is so watered down in the animated movie that any resemblance of a broader message is lost outside of Mowgli not being able to truly be like another animal, no matter how much he tries to fit in. Which frankly creates a very questionable Aesop by accident. And I am saying “by accident” because I don’t think that the animated movie even had the ambition to address some sort of larger theme. It just wanted to provide some fun time with a bunch of memorable characters.

The remake on the other hand clearly wants to examine Mowgli’s relationship with the other animals and his need to get acceptance. At the same time it celebrates not just Mowgli’s attempts to fit in, but also his differences, the abilities which give him an edge in certain situations. It is a concept one can easily translate to any stranger in any society and I don’t think that the Aesop is accidental at all in this case. It feels like a very deliberate commentary about recent events and anti-immigration politics.

6. The Animation

Yes, we need to talk about animation, because no matter how much the newest Jungle Book is tooted as a live action movie, in reality the only thing actually “real” in it is Mowgli himself. In the end, it basically is an animated movie, but one which goes for a hyper-realistic style. And it is an impressive achievement. If there is one point of criticism I have than that seeing the animals talking initially plunged me into uncanny valley territory, but I got used to it pretty quickly. And more than once I was very impressed about the movie managing to translate designs from the animated movie into CGI. Especially the moment in which Mowgli encounters Junior the first time made me smile, they got the expression of the little elephant spot on.

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Who would have guessed that the only thing real in this picture is the boy?

 

Speaking of the animated movie: It looks great for the era in which it was made. As I pointed out before, what I call the Disney Impressionism was limited by the need of making an affordable movie, so it never was as ambitious as the Disney eras which came beforehand, nor can it compete with the Disney renaissance, which allowed the animators to reach new highs due to the use of computers. But The Jungle Book was also a pet project of Walt Disney, which ensured that the animation ended up one of the best the era has to offer. The jungle itself looks lush, and while there are still very notable lines in the animation itself, the character designs belong to Disney’s best work.

7. The Music

The music of the two movies is more or less the same, at least regarding the songs, except it isn’t. But let’s take this from the top. The soundtrack of the animated version is iconic. While the score wasn’t originally written for The Jungle Book (yes, that is true, the main theme is one of the unused pieces of the Sherman Brothers originally created for The Sword in the Stone), it creates the secretive mood around the jungle, making it both threatening and exiting. To be honest here, the songs are the main reason why this movie is so successful in the first place. All the iconic scenes in it involve the characters singing and dancing.

Ironically the use of the songs is mostly to the detriment of the remake. It works whenever a song is played mostly in the background like in the scene with Kaa, or when a character just hums a few lines, like Baloo does at one point. But whenever they break out in a musical number it is awkward and interrupts the flow of the movie. Or, to put it differently, having Baloo singing about the easiest way to get food while demonstrating his abilities to Mowgli is very dynamic and a lot of fun. Having him do it while floating in the water ruins the feel of the scene.

But I think the worst example of it is King Louie starting to sing. The song simply doesn’t fit the character as it is represented in the movie, and having this threatening figure break out in lyrics is just really, really jarring. I get that Disney wanted to appeal to the fans of the animated movie, but I think it would have been better to tone it down a little bit regarding the songs. CGI just can’t create the same kind of dynamic movies traditional animation is able to offer, and tonally it is very jarring when a movie which doesn’t start as a musical suddenly becomes one out of nowhere.

8. The Sequel

Let’s cover this fast: The sequel to the animated movie was a huge let down. I actually saw this one in theatres, back when I was unaware of what a cheapquel even was. I thought it was a genuine attempt to continue the story by the animation studio itself and was frankly stunned by what I saw, a tired rehash of the highlights of the first movie barely connected through a very uninspired plot.

But if there is a story for which a sequel makes sense, it is The Jungle Book. It shouldn’t be too difficult to carve out a solid trilogy out of stories in it. Which is why I look forward to the seeing a sequel of the remake, especially since it would no longer be beholden to the animated movie.

9. The Big Difference

Those are two movies which were made with a very different goal in mind. Rumour is that Walt Disney assembled a new team of animators and told them to not read the book after he was dissatisfied with the original storyboards for the movie. His take on the story was never meant to reflect the story, it was meant to be a Disney movie first and foremost.

The Remake had a way more challenging task. It had to create something which would satisfy fans of this animated movie, but would also please a modern audience. On top of this there was some effort made to reintroduce aspects from the book back into the story, as well as having a thematic underpinning. Meaning that in a lot of ways, the remake is the more ambitious movie.

10. The Conclusion

The animated Jungle Book is just a piece of good natured fun and has no intention to be anything more than that. It succeeds in being just that, making it one of those cases in which a movie is not a particular good adaptation, but an enjoyable watch anyway on its own terms. The songs are catchy, the character animation impressive, and while it is far from being one of my personal favourite Disney movie, it is beloved by many for a reason.

The remake struggles between being a remake and trying to tell its own take on the story. But in the end, it mostly succeeds, mostly because their version of Mowgli is a way more compelling character. This would be a must-watch movie for the technical aspects alone, but it also offers a modern take on The Jungle Book which is well worth watching.

You can’t really go wrong with either movie. They both provide a valid take on the original story in their own way. Making this the first (and so far only) Disney remake I would recommend.

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By the Book: The Jungle Book

Disney’s current obsession with live action remakes has a lasting impact on my posting schedule. More often then not I end up delaying an article until I have seen a remake (which is not in theatres), just in case that it might end up being relevant. Usually it isn’t and I end up throwing in my two cents – or a long rant – at the end of a finished article. But I guess there is an exception to every rule. I have finally gotten around to watch The Jungle Book and to my delight Disney not only created for the very first time a sequel which I would recommend, but one worth discussing. And not just in a “By the Book” context, this deserves a “Double Take” article.

So I’ll do the following: I’ll adjust my approach to “By the Book” a little bit to fit this particular situation and compare both adaptations to the source text and each other. But I’ll leave technical aspects and a deeper analysis of the characters and the structure of the respective movies for “Double Take”.  So, don’t expect this one to get too analytical, I’ll focus entirely on the differences this time around.

 

1. The original Jungle Book

Technically there are two Jungle Books, but they are usually published in one book nowadays. Each is a collection of short stories, and between each of the short stories is a poem.  And not all of them are about Mowgli, nor are all Mowgli stories in those books. Mowgli actually makes his first appearance in the short story In the Rukh. It describes an English forest ranger encountering a young man named Mowgli with extraordinary tracking abilities and a strange connection to wolves, eventually discovering that Mowgli was raised by wolves. It further describes Mowgli falling in love, marrying and fathering a son before returning to his wolf brothers.

The two Jungle Books pick up Mowgli’s story again, describing his childhood. There are overall eight short stories covering the events before In the Rukh as well as six related poems: Hunting-Song of the Seeonee Pack,  Road-Song of the Bandar-Log, Mowgli’s Song that he Sang at the Council Rock when he Danced on Shere Khan’s Hide, The Law of the Jungle, Mowgli’s Song against People and The Out-Song. The short stories which are relevant for discussing the Disney adaptations are Mowgli’s Brothers (which tells the story about how Mowgli was raised by the wolves and his fight with Shere Khan), Kaa’s Hunting (a midquel to the previous story about how Mowgli once got kidnapped by the apes/Bandar-Log) and some elements of How Fear Came (covering the events during a Water Truce). The other five stories, Tiger! Tiger!, Letting in the Jungle, The King’s Ankus, Red Dog and The Spring Running explore Mowgli’s relationship to humans and to his former pack.

One can’t understate the influence The Jungle Book had on literature, especially children’s literature. But it also shouldn’t be unmentioned that Kipling himself is a controversial figure. I mean, what can one expect, he was an Englishman growing up in India during Imperialism, he had attitudes which were certainly questionable. And I certainly won’t go and defend him or his work as a whole. However, I’ll say that I consider it questionable to read imperialistic messages into The Jungle Book, because this approach always ends up with the claim that a specific group of animals supposedly presents a specific group of people, and I find little indication of this in the story. Plus, one shouldn’t forget that Mowgli is representing humanity in the story, meaning humanity is represented by an Indian boy and not (like it is the case in the Tarzan stories) some lost British aristocrat.

Now, the stories which involve other humans, they might be a little bit more iffy, especially once British characters turn up (though that happens only in one story which isn’t even part of the Jungle Book). I can understand why it might not sit right with Indians that some Jingoist writer went and criticized their caste system, as well as portraying them as superstitious and greedy. However, I also don’t think that the stories would get the same scrutiny if they had been written by someone else or maybe even an Indian.

I myself read the stories always more as a collection of morality tales, being an exploration of the relationship between humans and nature (with humans rarely being portrayed all that positive) as well as an exploration of what it means to grew up between two completely different societies. Especially greed and egoism are portrayed in a negative light, but above all there is a heavy emphasis on the need to respect the laws of society. In the book those laws consist of a combination of obedience towards the ones which are older and wiser (or higher on the food chain) as well as acting socially responsible. The emphasis on obedience is a little bit troubling from a modern point of view, but the idea to act for the good of all and not just for your own good certainly isn’t. At the end of the day, though, this are mostly vague ideas and some aspects of them are even discussed in the stories, with no clear cut conclusion made in the end. Which might be why they have endured so long, because whatever Kipling might have thought, the stories are more about exploring concepts than presenting any kind of judgement about them.

2. The Jungle Book (1967)

The Jungle Book is commonly considered the last movie Walt Disney has done. In reality, Walt Disney wasn’t really involved in the everyday business of the animation studios anymore when the production on the movie started. But he certainly took an interest in this particular project, more to the ones which came beforehand.

Originally The Jungle Book was supposed to be way closer to the source text. But when Walt Disney saw the first storyboards, he felt that the approach was too dark. He gave the soundtrack to the Sherman brothers with only “Bear necessities” remaining and set a new team of animators on it with the order to ignore the storyboards completely. If you pay attention to the credits you’ll notice that the movie claims to be “inspired” by the Jungle Book, rather than being an adaptation. Because that is what Walt Disney intended.

Consequently it is a little bit pointless to compare the Disney version to the source material. The only thing left is the setting and the names of the characters. It is basically a completely original story based on the same concept. The end result is a movie which is popular but not particularly ground breaking.

I am not sure about the current generation, but back in the day, The Jungle Book was big. Maybe partly because it was released in the middle of what is considered the Dark Age of Animation. Just take a peak into my coverage of the 1960s when I was looking for the winner of the swanpride award. With so few high-quality animated movies being released, The Jungle Book must have looked like a masterpiece. I am not sure how it stacks up compared to the Disney Canon in general. It is certainly a good movie, but I would dispute that it is a great one. It is certainly influential, though. Most adaptations which were released after contain at least some elements and ideas from this one.

Nowadays it often comes up in “Disney is racist” discussions. To get this out of the way, too: This accusation is mostly based on the role of the apes play in the movie, especially King Lois. They are seen as racist caricatures of blacks. Here is the thing though: There was the idea to have a few better known artists doing the songs of the movie. King Lois was supposed to be voiced by Jazz Legend Lois Armstrong and the vultures were supposed to be voiced by the Beatles. But Walt Disney felt that the Beatles would soon be forgotten (well, he was maybe the most visionary producer of all time, but that doesn’t mean that he was always right) and wanted to avoid the unfortunate implication of casting a black man to voice an ape. So in the end, the role went to Louis Prima, the king of swing – apes, swinging, do you get it?

Nevertheless the apes are still often accused of being caricatures of black people even though this was clearly not the intention. And the song “I want to be like you” is sometimes read as a black person wanting to be a white one. Which, to be frank, makes no sense to me whatsoever. Even if we assume that apes acting like apes is supposed to refer to certain racist imaginary in which humans act like apes (though that would beg the question how exactly animated apes should act if not like apes), how exactly does Mowgli qualify as “white”? As I pointed out above, he is an Indian boy and he clearly looks the part. If you take the song out of context maybe you could argue that Jazz music is inherently linked to the Black community, but then there is still the fact that it isn’t sung by a black man, but by an American with Italian roots.

Bottom line, if you want to see racism in it, you will be able to find it.  But I really doubt that there are many people out there who look at this and immediately go “oh, yeah, those silly blacks will never be as good as we white people”.

3. The Jungle Book (2016)

When Disney decided to do a live action remake, was sceptic, but less annoyed than I am usually are. After all, I knew how much of the source material Disney left untapped the first time around. There was a difficult balance Disney had to maintain, though, since this wasn’t just supposed to be a new take on The Jungle Book, but also a remake of the animated movie. The result was an entirely new version of the story, which borrows from both sources and still managed to create something completely new.

To illustrate the point, here some back-to-back comparisons of the three versions:


Original: Mowgli is found by Wolves, who defend him against Shere Khan.

1967: Mowgli is found by Bagheera in a wrecked boat and secretly brought to the wolves.

2016: Mowgli is found by Bagheera after Shere Khan killed his father and openly brought to the wolves.


Original:  Bagheera and Baloo are both Mowgli’s mentors, Bagheera because he was raised by humans and therefore knows about their ways and Baloo because he is old and wise.

1967: Bagheera visits Mowgli from time to time. Baloo his a lazy, go lucky personality Mowgli happens to encounter during his travel.

2016: Bagheera is Mowgli’s mentor. Baloo is both old and wise as well as displaying a lazy, go lucky personality. He becomes a second mentor figure for Mowgli after rescuing him from Kaa.


Original: In order to get to Mowgli, Shere Kahn is convincing the younger wolves in the pack to usurp Akela so that they can send Mowgli away.

1967: Akela decides that Mowgli has to go. Bagheera suggests to bring him to a village he knows.

2016: Mowgli, seeing the pack arguing, suggests to leave himself. Bagheera suggest to bring him to the village. Later on Shere Khan is trying to poison the mind of the young wolves against Mowgli.


Original: Kaa is a wise python, who helps Mowgli multiple times. Hypnose is mentioned, but it is a Cobra who does it to the Apes and Baloo and Bagheera while Mowgli seems to be immune.

1967: Kaa is a secondary villain and comic relief who hypnotizes and tries to eat Mowgli multiple times, but always gets districted long enough that Mowgli can escape.

2016: Kaa is secondary female villain who hypnotizes and reveals the truth about his past to Mowgli and then tries to eat him, but is attacked by Baloo.


Original: Hathi is the leader of the elephants and another mentor figure of Mowgli.

1967: Colonel Hathi is a caricature of English colonialism, acting like a particularly idiotic English officer and constantly talking the story about how he was awarded the Victoria cross.

2016: The Elephants, including Hathi, are god-like creatures in the eyes of the other Jungle animals.


Original: Shere Khan disturbs the water truce and is driven away by Mowgli

1967: No mention is made of a water truce

2016: Shere Khan turns up during the water truce, discovers Mowgli and threatens him.


Original: King Lois doesn’t exist. The apes are outsider in the jungle because they don’t accept any form of authority or rule. They kidnap Mowgli an bring him to the old city simply because they are curious, but he is rescued by Baloo, Bagheera and Kaa, who breaks down a wall to free Mowgli.

1967: King Lois is the ruler of the apes who desires to be like a human and kidnaps Mowgli because he wants to learn how to create fire. When Baloo and Bagreera rescue him, enough pillars are destroyed that the city breaks down.

2016: King Lois is the ruler of the apes and kidnaps Mowgli because he wants to harness the power of the “red flower” and become the most powerful being in the jungle. During the rescue attempt he follows Mowgli into a room in which he destroys enough pillars that the whole building falls down on him.


Original: Mowgli uses the “red flower” to rescue Akela’s life and drive Shere Khan away. But having done so, he has embraced his humanity and can therefore no longer stay in the Jungle. He lives a while in the village but eventually returns into the Jungle, just to leave again and returns to the humans when he is around 17 because he “feels restless”.

1967: After having established Shere Khan’s fear of fire earlier, a convenient lighting stroke provides Mowgli with fire he uses to drive Shere Khan away. At this point Mowgli could stay in the jungle but ends up leaving anyway because, he sees a beautiful girl and can’t resist.

2016: Mowgli steals the “red flower” from the village an intends to use it on Shere Khan, but, seeing how much the other animals fear him, decides to throw the weapon away, showing himself worthy of the jungle. He then lures Shere Khan into the flames, though. At least in this movie he stays in the jungle, but who knows what will happen in the sequel.


There is more, but I those are the main events and I think they bring the point across pretty well.  The 2016 adaptation is closer to the original version than the movie from 1967, but it borrows heavily from both and introduces a number of new elements. Ie the hunt for the honey. The cliff with the bees is mentioned in Red Dog, but in a completely different context, and Baloo is way more cunning than in either the source text (where his main characteristic is wisdom) or the animated movie (where his main characteristic is being extremely laid-back). And thematically, it tells a completely new story. But that is something for the next article to discuss.

4. Other adaptations

Normally I would now judge the movie (or movies) on their merit as adaptation and as movies. In this case, though, this seems to me a at least partly useless exercise. There are a number of adaptations and every single one of them is very different, depending on which story was picked. In addition, a lot of the ones made after 1967 have been influenced by the animated movie one way or another. Disney itself went back to the well multiple times, in both movies and TV shows, sometimes by doing some sort of spin on the animated movie (or should I say TaleSpin?), sometimes by trying their hand at a live action adaptation.

But here is a list of the ones which stick out:

An absolute must-watch is The Jungle Book from 1942, starring Sabu. Loosely based on three of the later short stories –  Tiger! Tiger!, Letting in the Jungle and The King’s Ankus – it is a true gem of classic cinema. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if Favreau ends up borrowing some ideas from it for the upcoming  Jungle Book 2.

The closest adaptation is a series of animated movies created between 1967 and 1971 in the Soviet Union. Unlike the Disney take this version takes the source material very serious and doesn’t even try to make the animals look cute.

I guess I should mention Disney’s first live action take from 1994. This one mostly sticks out, though, because it is a terrible adaptation. I suspect the original idea was to do a combination on In the Rukh and The King’s Ankus, but the end results comes off more as Tarzan in India than a Jungle Book story. It’s not the worst movie, but a fan of either the book or the Disney animated movie will certainly feel let down by this take.

Japan naturally did their own take on it in 1989 (honestly, is there any classic children’s book which hasn’t been turned into an anime?).  Jungle Book Shōnen Mowgli follows the original story pretty closely, but with some elements from other adaptations as well as some new ideas thrown in. A particular oddity is Mowgli using a boomerang instead of a knife. Overall, though, it does take the source material serious enough to tackle some heavy material for a children’s show.

 

5. The Conclusion

The Jungle Book offers a lot of material for adaptations, which led to a number of different takes on the story. I think, everybody has to decide for himself what kind of adaptation he wants. For something fun, the Disney version of 1967 is certainly a good pick, while the remake of 2006 offers both, the serious elements from the source text and the fun of the animated movie.

For a deeper analysis, well, tune in next time. For now I hope you have gotten an idea how those two adaptation relate to the source material and to each other.

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By the Book: The Sword in the Stone

The Arthur saga is technically a legend, and would therefore not fit into this series, but this movie is not based on the legend. It is an adaptation of a specific book based on said legend with the title The Sword in Stone. So I guess I’ll have to take a look how the book relates to the legend, and how the movie relates to the book.

1. The Sword in the Stone

This is one of the books I read specifically for this article series. And I have to say, it surprised me, mostly because I read some reviews in the past which complained that the movie is nothing like the book at all and that the very modern tone ruins the story. When I actually read it, I discovered to my surprise that the movie actually hit the tone spot on. The book is pretty much a modern take on the Arthur Saga, with a focus on what kind of understanding a good king should have.

But naturally the Disney version did change some aspects. For one, the relationships between the characters. In the book Wart and Kay are friends, Sir Ector is pretty laid back, Sir Pellinor has somewhat of an arc on his own and a lot of side characters are cut. In the book I read, there was no Madam Mim, which confused me, until I discovered that the author did a lot of changes to the story later on. Now publishers use the new version when they publish it as part of the tetralogy The Once and Future King, but the old version is considered the better one by a lot of people.

The Disney movie is based on the original version. The tone of the book is very modern, especially since the narrator keeps explaining old words by with modern examples. And while the author obviously did have extensive knowledge of medieval culture, there are a lot of anachronism in the story, partly explained by the fact that Merlin supposedly lives backwards in time. The characters – well, let’s put it this way: no one in this book feels real. Take what is usually considered the ideal of knighthood and then emphasis them so extreme that they become ridiculous, and you have most of the characters of the book. Pellinor for example keeps hunting some sort of beast, for the honour of his family.

Judging not the whole tetralogy but the book on its own, I would say it is okay. It has a good idea and the unusual style of narration might help younger readers to develop an understanding for the concept of brain over brawl it tries to convey. The downside is that there doesn’t really happen that much, the book spends a lot of time on describing nature, but barely any time on character development. Which is odd, since it should be a coming of age story, but I don’t think that Wart at the beginning of the book is notable different from the one at the end, it’s more like the basics for his later development as kings are laid. It does fit somewhat into the legend and is a good reimaging, though.

2. The Setting

As far as settings go, this movie doesn’t really have a lot to work with. Movies or shows set in vaguely historical England are after all dime to dozens. But at least the moments when Ward is a fish, a squirrel and a bird allow some unusual perspectives. The animators managed to capture perfectly the feel of the first lesson in the book, where the description of the murky water creates an atmospheric mood, and when Ward is jumping through the trees, you really feel the height.

3. The Animation

Like all Disney movies from this period the style is very sketchy and overall, this one looks a little bit cheap, at least for a Disney movie. But it still has its moments. The backgrounds are beautiful for starters. But the real stand-out is the wizard duel. The change into different animals is flawless in its fluidity.

4. The Characters 18 merlin

I think if there is anything Disney did a good job with, it’s the characters, mainly because the movie added conflicting interests to them. In the book, more or less everyone goes along just fine, and in their readiness to accept the oddities of the others, they sometimes come off as quite silly. The movie adds a conflict between Wart and Kay by making Kay an example for the “brawn over brain thinking” and, maybe even more important, a fall-out between Wart and Merlin. In the book, Merlin just decides to go at one point and then randomly turns up when Wart pulls the sword out of the stone. The conflict in the movie, with Wart having enough of getting in trouble for Merlin’s teachings, is not really a good explanation for Merlin leaving in a sulk, but at least there is some reason provided. Idealism is a good thing, but it often clashes with reality.

The best character in the movie is in my eyes Sir Ector, though. While he often does play the rule of the antagonist, he is introduced as someone who does care about Wart’s welfare, even though his approach is not always the right one. In the Disney universe, in which most characters are clearly categorized as “good” or “bad”, he is one of the rare antagonists, whose point of view is understandable to a degree.

Madam Mim on the other hand falls firmly on the bad side, to a point at which it is deliberately ridiculous. She is one of those funny villains, who don’t really come off all that threatening in general, but has enough pull to not come off as pathetic. In the book she was (before she was removed) the mother of Morgause. In the movie she is a one-off character, only present for one (very memorable) sequence.

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Merlin is more or less exactly like in the book (plus a funny, grumpy sidekick and a tendency to sing, naturally). And then there is Wart. Honestly, the most problematic character in the movie, not because he is badly written, but because of the dubbing. Three different voice actors for one character are two too many. It makes the movie in English nearly unwatchable.

5. The Plot

The basic story that Merlin comes to the castle to teach Wart by changing him into all kind of different animals is still the same as in the book, though the lessons itself are a little bit different. The first one, when Wart is turned into a fish comes the closest. The main difference is that the book is mostly about teaching something about those animals. The movie has those moments too, when it explains how fish move, how impressive the survival of squirrels is and how birds are flying. But it also has an element of danger to it the book mostly lacks because there Merlin tends to lurk in the background. Putting him out of commission so to speak, by making him forgetful or busy or absent, the movie adds an element of suspense to the lessons which is desperately needed for a screen adaptation.

I think the two things which are the most memorable in the movie are Wart’s romance with a squirrel (and I can’t believe that I just wrote this) and the wizard duel. The squirrel, because it’s so heart-breaking (and honestly, how often does love at first sight doesn’t end in a relationship in a Disney movie?). The wizard duel, because it is so creative and has such a clever solution. It is a better climax than the actual ending, which is a little bit rushed, to be honest.

6. The Songs

The soundtrack of The Sword in the Stone is criminally underrated imho. In terms of structure we are still in the pre-Broadway era of Disney, but the timing for the songs is nevertheless perfect. There is the intro song, which really gives the vibe of a bard telling the story of the magical sword. You can just imagine the story being told all through the country. “Mad Madam Mim” is an early example of a villain song, but naturally played for laughs, though still with a creepy vibe to it. All the other songs are sung by Merlin. Their purpose is always either him having to explain something or doing magic – and the Sherman brothers are the masters of putting memorable nonsense words into songs. “Higitus Figitus” isn’t quite as memorable as some of their other songs along this line, but I still admire the creativity in it.

7. The Conclusion

The Sword in the Stone is, despite only taking a margin of the actual source text, a good adaptation of the book which is in turn an interesting take on the legend. It is not one of the “big” Disney movies, though. It is fun to watch and has its moments, but overall, it is a fairly simple movie. And the fact that neither the animation (even though it has its moments), nor the dubbing is as good as it should be, doesn’t help. What does work are the characters, though, which are all fairly unusual for a Disney movie. This alone is a reason to give it a watch.18 archimedesstump


By the Book: Oliver and Company

So far, I only reviewed movies which I either liked, or had at least some good aspects to point out. But there is no way I can start this one pretending not to know what the outcome will be: Oliver and Company is a really, really bad adaptation of Oliver Twist and a terrible movie. And this will be easier if I go into this trying to explain why I consider it as bad, so even if you are a fan, please bear with me. I don’t try to bash the movie, I just want to explain why it doesn’t work for me.

1. The Setting

To make one point clear from the start: My issue with this movie has nothing to do with the setting. It should be pretty obvious from my previous reviews that I’m not opposed to changes or new angles, and I think setting the story in New York was the single good decision the animators made. Oliver Twist was written because Dickens wanted to point out that being poor and being a criminal is not automatically the same thing. You can take out the social message, but then you end up with the basic Cinderella story. If you want to keep it in the movie, you could keep it traditional. But if you want it to have an impact, you better pick a place which is close to the reality of the main audience (and that is still the US viewers – with one of two exceptions the movies are always made first and foremost for the US and not the foreign market), a place where the gap between poor and rich is similar big and crime is on the rise.

And back in the 1980s, there was no better place to choose than New York. It’s hard to believe when you visit the city nowadays, but back then, this was not a safe place to be. You better didn’t take the subway, especially not alone, and there were parts of it you better avoided altogether, even at daylight. I still have pictures of a visit we made back then, and on more or less each which isn’t taken at a main tourist spot (and sometimes even then), you can see unbelievable amount of rubbish piled up on the streets. In short: If there was a good place for a more modern retelling of this story, it was New York.

This is the one reason I won’t complain (much) about the story being set so clearly in the 1980s. I’m normally against everything which dates a Disney movie because the timeless ones stay relevant no matter how old they are. This one was doomed to age quickly from the get go, but it would have been a price worth to pay if Disney had delivered something meaningful. Sadly, the movie fell short in every way possible.

2. The Animation

On a purely technical level, there is nothing wrong with the animation. We are still in the kind of sketchy style of what I call the Impressionist era, but it really fits in this movie, especially when it comes to backgrounds.

27 Oliver-Dodger-Jenny-oliver-and-company-movie-5937556-314-368The problem are the character designs: They are not very creative. I realize that there aren’t that many ways to draw cats and dogs, but when I look at Oliver and Company I always get the impression that the character designs are based on rejected ideas for older Disney movies. Partly this is due to the production history. At one point this was supposed to be some sort of sequel to The Rescuers, with Penny in the main role. Which continues a pattern, since one of the ideas for The Rescuers was to have Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians as villain. But unlike Madam Medusa who still became her own brand of character in the end, Jenny isn’t really all that different from Penny. And the other characters also feel like they have been plugged from other Disney movies,  mainly Lady and the Tramp and The Aristocats. The high number of cameos by cats and dogs from those movies doesn’t help either, if anything it makes the similarities even more obvious.

3. The Characters

I guess making Oliver a cat which gets more or less abandoned somewhat works. If anything, it makes for a powerful start when the cute little kitty nearly gets drowned just because nobody wanted it. Making Dodger part of a group of dogs is in a way the next logical step. It’s when Fagin is introduced when this movie starts to go off the rails.

Now, Fagin in the book is an opportunist, someone who thinks of himself first and foremost. The only reason he takes care of street kids is because they steal for him. The only reason he doesn’t do worse than stealing is because he knows that the small crimes are usually not thoroughly investigated by the police while the big ones just attract unwanted attention. A character like this would have fitted into 1980s New York perfectly. Instead we get a guy who simply likes dogs and has debts with the wrong people. Because he spends so much money to feed the dogs? It’s not really clear why Fagin is in this bad situation in the first place. If there were some sort of backstory attached to him he might not work as Fagin, but at least a character who sends a message. Another message than “I was stupid enough to get tangled up with a loan shark” that is.

Concerning the villain: Book Sykes is not exactly a layered character, but he works because he presents the worst society can breed. Movie Sykes is just there and frankly, I don’t get his motivation at all. Naturally he can’t let Fagin off the hook that would be bad for business, but he can’t be that hard on money to risk a kidnapping. I don’t see what he can gain from this apart from a long prison sentence.

It’s also a weird inversion of the two characters. In the novel, Fagin is the smart one, but he is afraid of Sykes’ brutality – even though he did his part to make him this way in the first place, Sykes being one of the orphans he taught stealing. In the movie, Fagin is so stupid that even Sykes seems to be cleverer than him.

27 GeorgetteThere are only two characters who get some sort of backstory in this movie, and those are the two which are not from the original novel. For one there is Jenny, who is lonely because her parents travel all the time. The other one is Georgette, who is obsessed with staying pretty. Those two character overwhelm the movie to a degree that it’s largely not about Oliver, but Jenny’s loneliness and Georgette issues – and let me tell you that the scene in which she practically begs to get raped is the strangest and most uncomfortable thing I have seen in any Disney movie. This tops even a cricket which lusts after wooden figurines.

4. The Plot

Above I defended the decision to set this story in New York and so clearly in the 1980s. But this defence only works under the premise that the movie actually addresses the social aspect. It doesn’t. Plus, there is no resemblance to the original book whatsoever. The only thing which is left is that orphan Oliver ends up first with a street gang then with rich people than back with the street gang and finally back with the rich people. That’s it.

The novel is mostly about Oliver trying to stay honest despite his poverty. Even when he is part of the street gang, he mostly manages to hold onto his innocence. The message is that Oliver is not the bad one, the society around him is. And it’s not only people like Fagin or Sykes which are shown as rotten to the core, the same is true for a lot of “good” members of society, like the leader of the orphanage and the people who originally take Oliver in, not because they care for him, but because he is a cheap worker.

But even if you forget the book, the plot of Oliver and Company doesn’t work. I already mentioned that the actions of Sykes don’t make a lot of sense. Even more confusing is Dodger. He spends the first part of the movie trying to get rid of Oliver, reluctantly accepts him into the gang – shouldn’t he be glad when Oliver ends up with new owners? Up to this point he only made trouble for everyone, so why should they even care? In the book, Oliver is kidnapped back, too, but that’s because Fagin is worried that he might tell the police about his little organisation. In the movie, I get why Georgette has an interest in getting rid of Oliver, but not why Dodger comes for him in the first place.

Plus, as I bemoaned beforehand: Oliver becomes very fast a secondary character. There is a bigger focus on Jenny. And to be frank: The child who is sad because the parents are always busy elsewhere, ends up in danger and finally gets some attention again – is there are more overdone storyline? Or a more boring one? And to add insult to injury, the movie ends with Dodger repeating his little musical number, essentially celebrating to live in poverty on the street. So much for a social message. Or any message at all…what exactly was this movie about?

5. The Music

The aspect of the movie which dates it the most are the songs. They are so 1980s, it isn’t even funny. And, with the notable exception of “Why should I worry”, they are kind of forgettable. Well, “Perfect isn’t easy” does stick out, but what it remarkable about it is the performance and the scenes they came up for Georgette, but the song itself is kind of…eh. All in all not bad, but far, far from being Disney at its best.

6. The conclusion

I once read the theory that Oliver and Company was a very successful movie and the main reason that it gets so mixed reviews nowadays is because it’s measured on the movies which came immediately after. Now, I watched this movie when it hit the theatres. And Imho: It didn’t measure up back then either. This was the movie which turned me away from Disney, the movie which convinced me (along with The Black Cauldron) that Disney’s good times were over and the only reason I gave the studios another chance was because The Little Mermaid is one of my favourite fairy tales.

I firmly believe that it was the marketing which made this movie so successful, and not the movie in itself. And what a marketing machine it was. Toys, toys, toys, for month it seemed like this movie was everywhere. And if you consider what the original novel was about – talk about totally missing the point. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that there has to be necessarily a moral attached to everything Disney does. But when you make a movie based on a novel about such a serious issue, the result shouldn’t be a celebration of poverty and consume (and how the hell they managed to combine those two aspects I will never understand).

27 Oliver


By the Book: The Fox and the Hound

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

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

1. Twisting the source

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

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

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

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

2. A look at the basics

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

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

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

3. On its own merits

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

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

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

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

4. The Soundtrack

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

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

The German version translates to:

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

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

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


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 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:

bambi-disneyscreencaps_com-6252

 

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.