Category Archives: Disney Romantic

By the Book: Alice in Wonderland

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

1. The Setting

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

2. The Animation

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

3. The Characters13 Alice

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

4. The Plot

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Soundtrack

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

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

6. Conclusion

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

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

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By the Book: Peter Pan

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

1. The Setting

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

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

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

2. The Animation

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

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

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Do I have to say more?

3. The Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. The Plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Soundtrack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Conclusion

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

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


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:

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And this:

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And this:

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

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

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

 


 

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


1950 – 1959 The Disney Romantic

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

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

This:

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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.


The Love Song

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

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

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

Bella Notte for example is a very unspecific song:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The “I want”-Song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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