Category Archives: Disney Impressionism

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.

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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:

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And this:

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And especially this:

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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”,

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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.