Category Archives: Movie Review

Double Take: The Jungle Book 1967 vs 2016

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

1. The Protagonist

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

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

2. The Mentors19 Baloo Mowgli

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

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

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

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

3. The Elephants

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

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

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

4. The Villains

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

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

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

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

5. The Themes

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

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

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

6. The Animation

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

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

 

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

7. The Music

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

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

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

8. The Sequel

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

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

9. The Big Difference

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

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

10. The Conclusion

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

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

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

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By the Book: The Jungle Book

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

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

 

1. The original Jungle Book

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Jungle Book (1967)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Jungle Book (2016)

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

1967: No mention is made of a water truce

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

4. Other adaptations

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

5. The Conclusion

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

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

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Double Take: Pocahontas vs Moana

When I first planned this series, I wasn’t quite sure what I would do about the Disney Princess movies. They are, after all, in a way different takes on similar ideas. But an article comparing all of them didn’t seem feasible so I originally intended to focus on other movies first before making a decision about them.

But then Lindsey Ellis did an excellent video which compared Pocahontas with Moana. Her angle was the question how Disney’s approach to other cultured developed over time and she made a number of good points. Though I did feel that she also missed a few and I considered doing my own take on the same topic, but with a broader focus. There is after all more to a movie than just how it handles sensitive topics. I hadn’t really decided yet if I should do it when I got a reviewer request for exactly that article. Well, I frequently ask my reviewers for suggestions, and I am always pleased when I get one which really calls out to me, so here it is,my personal take on Pocahontas vs. Moana.

Pocahontas-Choice-31. The Princesses

There are naturally some aspects all  princesses have in common – usually with one notable exception. With the exception of Jasmine and arguably Aurora, they are all the leads of their respective movies. With the exception of Merida they all sing and have cute sidekicks. And naturally they are all beautiful and have some sort of goal they want to reach (though the nature of said goals changed a lot over time).

But Pocahontas and Moana have some additional similarities.  Their stories are not based on European fairy tales, but on the culture of native tribes whose way of life was destroyed by colonisation. They both have some sort of connection to nature which gives them access to special power, something none of the other princesses have (Elsa is technically not the Princess of Frozen, Anna is). And they are both the daughter of the chief and conflicted about accepting their position in the tribe.

But there are also a number of important differences, some of them based in their characters, some or them based in the tribe itself. Pocahontas’ big conflict boils down to not wanting to get married to Kokoum. Moana’s dream is to be a sailor, but she is supposed to be a future leader. Pocahontas’ is portrayed as free spirit, spending her time in roaming in the woods. To be honest, she comes off as irresponsible and lazy at times, and I don’t think that this is intentional. Moana on the other hand is shown to be integrated in the tribe, doing clearly her part in society. Pocahontas is deeply connected to the spirits and decides early on to follow her own path, Moana initially looses the connection she has to the myths and history of her ancestors in favour of following the wishes of her father. Both end up leading the tribe on a new path in the end, but Pocahontas points them towards a new future while Moana pushes them to reconnect with their roots.Description-Pocahontas

And now I’ll say something which will most likely earn me a couple of angry comments: I think that both of them are less interesting than they could have been, though for very different reasons. Pocahontas motivations and goals are too vague to really root for her. She is more defined over what she doesn’t want – marrying Kokoum – than clearly stated goals, and her main reason for the actions she takes in the movie is that she literally “feels” that this is the right thing to do. Meaning she has some sort of dream or is guided by the wind, allowing her very little in terms of agency. There is little about her personality which goes past “free spirit connected with nature”, though to her credit, she gets a little bit character development towards the end when she decides to stay with the tribe instead of fulfilling her desire to stay with John Smith. Except I am not sure if this actually is character development and not just another instance of her just doing what the wind tells her.

My issue with Moana is more complicated. In isolation she works fine, especially since the child version of her has so much personality. There are some settled touches I really like, for example her putting the protection of a baby tortoise over her desire to get a beautiful shell. And I really like that her first attempt to go past the reef fails. She first needs the right kind of boat and then she needs to learn how to navigate properly. So, if I like all those aspects, why do I still think that Moana could have been a better character? Because there are a long string of princesses before her which had similar personalities, and most of them were pulled off better.

Don’t get me wrong here: I don’t necessarily mind the concept of a young girl having a dream and coming of age while trying to fulfil that dream. But if you do the same basic concept so often, it should feel organic. Disney has done the “I want”-princesses since the Disney renaissance. But do you know what they had in common? Either their desire is driving the story or the story defines their desire.

If Ariel hadn’t dreamt of seeing the human world, Ursula would have never been able to lay her little trap. If Rapunzel hadn’t wanted to see the lanterns, she would still sitting unhappy in her little tower.  Those are all leads whose desire lead to pretty much everything which happens in the story. But there are also a few for which it is the other way around, where events out of their control lead them an a specific path. Mulan wants to proof her worth, but she certainly doesn’t dream of being a soldier, and yet that is exactly what she becomes. Belle is unhappy in the little village she is living in and longs for adventure, but once she ends up in said adventure, she is everything but happy about the situation, since getting captured by some sort of beast is certainly not what she had in mind. In Tiana’s case it is a mixture of both: Her desire to own a restaurant has no relation whatsoever to Naveen’s plight, but without it, she would have never kissed him.

Moana on the other hand dreams of being a sailor and then is forced to go on an adventure which requires of her becoming one. Wow, this is convenient. There is also no particular reason why that should be her dream. Ariel finds all those strange things the humans create and is fascinated by it. Rapunzel sees the lanterns every year for her birthday. Belle dreams of adventure because she has read all those books and feels uncomfortable in her village. Tiana has all those memories of cooking for her father and sharing her meals with the neighbourhood. Moana likes the ocean because…it is there? And it played once with her when she was a child?

See, usually this wouldn’t be such a big deal, at least not quite (I will get to this later on when I discuss structure). But in the context of the Disney Princess Franchise it feels like Moana wants to be a sailor for one reason alone: Because it is kind of expected for a princess to have some sort of dream and the desire to go against social expectation. It feels like the Disney went for the less interesting story by fulfilling some sort of check list. Moana deciding to brave the waves would be so much more compelling if it were something she decided to do because the stories of her grandmother convinced her that this might be a way to rescue her people. That she is doing something she always wanted to do anyway makes her actions a little bit less heroic in my eyes.

And that is a real shame. Having a protagonist which starts out satisfied with her position in live and then setting out to fight a threat against it while also discovering her own culture on a deeper level would have been a new and fresh approach to the Disney Princess franchise. Instead they fell back in familiar patterns, cheapening the narrative in the process.

2. The Conflict with the FatherHard-knocks-5

I already addressed this point briefly, but let’s analyse this a little bit further. Pocahontas relationship with her father is fraught with clichés. He only wants the best for her, but doesn’t really listen to her desires. He sees her mother in her. And he finally accepts her wisdom. The problem in all of this is that the conflict isn’t really much of a conflict because it is kind of one-sided. Pocahonta’s father isn’t really aware of what she does all day, and when he gets angry with her over Kocuum dying, it is because of the wrong reason. He believes he died because she was careless and has no idea about her relationship with John Smith until the very last moment of the movie – at which point he listens to the wind and immediately changes his mind.

Moana’s father on the other hand knows exactly what her dreams and desires are, and the conflict between them is expressed in arguments instead of two people basically talking past each other. But the movie really drops the ball when it comes to the solution to the conflict. See, there is actually no reason whatsoever why Moana’s father should suddenly change his mind about leaving the island at the end of the movie. Even if he would be ready to believe her story about finding a Demi-god and rescuing the sea, why should he suddenly develop a desire to lead his people away from a secure place? It is like the movie has suddenly forgotten the original conflict.

As sudden as the change of mind of Pocahontas’ father is, at least he has some reasons for relenting, above all seeing a bunch of foreigners with what he knows are dangerous weapons ready to kill his people, and the movie takes its time to show him making his decision. In Moana on the other hand something which was introduced as central conflict is just dropped halfway through the movie and then the story suddenly jumps to it already being solved without really showing the steps in-between.

3. The Villain

So, every princess needs someone or something to overcome. In the past, this tended to be the classic Disney villain. Radcliff falls into the category, and he ticks off the usual boxes: Flamboyant, greedy and scrupulous. More recently though, Disney has started to do the villain with a twist – meaning, they often go for a surprise villain or reveal something unexpected about the villain in question. I am not overly found of this particular trend, partly because I just miss the dramatic, over-the-top performances of the classic Disney villains, partly because I am a little bit too good in spotting the twist from a mile away. So far Disney only got me once and no, that one time didn’t happen to be Moana. That is not necessarily a knock against the movie, though. For one I am very aware that, without wanting to brag, not everyone is as genre savvy as I am, especially not the intended target audience of the movie. And two, I think it is way more important that the villain fits into the themes and the story of the movie.Pocahontas-4-Three-words

So, what are the themes? Pocahontas is not just the story about two star-crossed lovers, it is above all about the clash of two different cultures and overcoming prejudices, making the addition of an outright villain deeply problematic. If you want to say something about the human tendency to see oneself as superior to others, you need to allow the characters to act thoughtless and brutal on their own merits, instead of providing a very relativistic view on the whole process of colonizing America by symbolically putting the guilt over what happened to the native Americans on a few bad white people, thus implicit suggesting that the other settlers were just mislead. And I don’t think that this excuse really flies. The settlers had a lot of reasons to go to America, some more sympathetic than others – it is hard to blame someone who is fleeing from poverty or prosecution for taking the chance of a better future – but no matter what their reasons were, they still took away the land from someone else and they still destroyed countless tribes and their culture in the process. This is the kind of national guilt which has to be acknowledged, not shuffled away by blaming a few especially brutal examples of leadership.Pocahontas-3-villian-quote

In short, the presence of Radcliff undercuts Pocahontas as a movie. He doesn’t even work on a narrative level. The point of a villain like this is that there has to be some sort of emotional relationship between him and the heroine, as well as some sort of final confrontation. But Radcliff isn’t aware that Pocahontas exists until the very end, and he never interacts with her.

Te Kā doesn’t interact with Moana until the end of the movie either, but in this case it works because this is an entirely different kind of villain which fits perfectly into the themes presented. Moana is largely about rediscovering your cultural roots, but above all about identity. Consequently it makes sense that the “villain” needs to rediscover her true identity, too. And it makes sense that Moana’s journey is about following the myths of her heritage, with Te Kā providing the big boss battle for the finale.

There are a couple of problems with this set-up though. Mainly: How is it that Maui doesn’t know about Te Kā being Te Fiti? He was there when she transformed, wasn’t he? Or does he know and just didn’t tell Moana? A question which brings me to…

 

4. The Support

Let’s start with Moana, because that is faster done. After all she is alone with Maui for the majority of the movie. And while Maui isn’t portrayed as love interest for Moana, his role in the story is pretty much the same, minus the kissing naturally. He guides her, he challenges her and they develop a relationship with each other. Maui also has his own arc which plays into the bigger themes by realizing that he shouldn’t base his own worth on the adoration of others. And that he is more than just a magic hook.

Pocahontas-Choice-1John Smith has a change of heart too in that he realizes that natives aren’t savages after all, but considering that this change happens pretty much within one song I hesitate to call this an arc. This is a guy who proudly proclaims that he improved the live of savages everywhere, and that he would gladly shot them if they aren’t appreciate of his improvements – mirroring the typical colonist mind set – and then suddenly does a 180 just because Pocahontas sings about the colours of the wind. I mean – really? And then he is the perfect hero for the rest of the movie. Sigh.

Then there are Nakoma and Thomas. Nakoma’s purpose in the story is to be Pocahontas sounding board. Her role is to voice doubt over the actions of Pocahontas. The problem is that her point of view isn’t given any relevance.

Nakoma-0-with-best-friend

None at all!

 

Both her and Thomas seem to be mostly around to make the protagonists look better. Pocahontas sneaking around leading to Kokoum dying is pretty much laid on Nakoma’s feet because she told Kokoum about the meeting, and John Smith survives the attack of Kokoum without having to kill him because Thomas does the dirty work for him. Consider this, the representation of the colonist mind-set isn’t even allowed to kill in self-defence, which would underline the questionable position of even well-meaning explorers, instead he heroically takes the fall for someone else.Nakoma-6-Name

At the end of the day, the support of Pocahontas had the potential to be the more interesting one,  but falls flat in the end. Moana on the other hand is oddly isolated and Maui is kind of stealing the spotlight from her on multiple occasions. Thankfully Maona also has pretty good comic relief.

5. The Comic relief

Did I ever mention that pigs are my favourite kind of animals? It’s true, I even have a whole collection of pig figures at home. Most of them are from my childhood since I stopped actively collecting ages ago, but I really, really adore pigs. And sometimes I have the feeling that Disney is trolling me about it. After The Black Cauldron, Moana is the second Disney movie which puts a pig into its marketing just to have it off-screen for the majority of the movie. And yes, I get the joke. But I was too disappointed to actually appreciate it. Bad Disney. Bad, bad, bad!

And just because I do get the joke, it doesn’t mean that I think it is a good one. In fact, the self-referential humour and the occasionally modern joke is easily the weakest aspect of the movie. It is very distracting. Heihei for example is absolutely hilarious except for the one scene in which he is used to “tweet”.

But while Heihei is easily the funniest aspect of the movie, I think Tattoo Maui is actually the best kind of comic relief. Not only is he funny, he also tells us a lot about Maui himself. It’s like seeing Maui’s inner monologue play out.

Pocahontas-with-sidekick-5Pocahontas doesn’t do a lot of humour, but what is there fits into the setting. There are no modern or self-referential jokes which take me out of the movie. And I appreciate this. On the other hand, though, the comic relief feels really disconnected. Flit is pretty much useless. Meeko gets a lot of screen time but the majority what he is up to is not at all related to Pocahontas story (with one notable exception). This is worse than the mice in Cinderella, which do take up a lot of screen-time, too, but everything they do is directly related to her. There is also something iffy about native Meeko being portrayed as this thieving raccoon who keeps annoying poor foreigner Percy.

The only comic relief which kind of adds to the story is Radcliff’s servant, Wiggins, who is both funny and a good sounding board for the villain. But, as I already pointed out, since the villain itself shouldn’t even be in this particular story, he is by association entirely superfluous, too.

Even though I prefer the overall style of humour in Pocahontas due to being less distracting, Moana’s comic relief works better for me because it adds to the story. And, to be honest, whenever they don’t go pop culture references, the jokes in Moana are funnier. Or at least speak more to my particular sense of humour.

Pocahontas-8-half-blue-half6. The Power of Nature and the Magical Guide

I already expressed some grievance over the role the wind plays in Pocahontas, especially the way it robs her of her agency. But I have some issues with the ocean, too. It feels a little bit like the writers have put a cheat code into the movie. Whenever there is a situation Moana can’t handle on her own, the ocean turns up and helps her. It would be one thing if this were Moana’s own power she had to learn to control, or if there were a specific set of rules when the ocean can intervene and when not, but nope, there are no rules to it, and if Moana needs some help to bully Maui into teaching her, well, she gets it.

To the credit of the movie, though: The ocean not only allows Moana to make her own decisions and have her own agency, when she throws the heart away even this decision is accepted. When was this ever the message of a chosen one plot? That it is okay to give up and that one shouldn’t face a challenge just because of a prophecy or a vague concept of fate? This sentiment is even echoed by Moana’s Grandmother Tala, who is, btw, a way better spiritual leader than Grandmother Willow is to Pocahontas.

Pocahontas is constantly told to follow signs, or arrows, or dreams or to listen to the wind. There is never any discussion of what the presence of the intruders might mean for the future of Pocahontas’ tribe, or even how the situation at hand could escalate.  Moana on the other hand is constantly told that she has to make her own decisions and accept the consequences of said decisions. She can follow the lead of her parents, but then the island might not have a future. She can leave and try to fulfil her role as chosen one, but there is no telling if she will succeed, no guarantee that this is the right decision. And, most importantly, no judgement if she fails or decides to give up.

7. The StructurePocahontas-Choice-2

On the surface, those two movies have structurally not much in common, but there are a couple of narrative tropes which are present in both of them. Most notably the Hero’s journey, the “All is lost”-moment and the Ticking Clock

I won’t go too deep into the different literature theoretical models for the hero’s journey, but in its very basic it boils down to departure, initiation and return. Meaning the hero – or heroine in this case – hears the call to adventure, faces the trials put in front of him and finally returns home a changed person.

Moana plays this trope pretty straight. Her story could be straight from Greek mythology, with her sailing across the sea and encountering numerous monsters. This has the effect, though, that a lot of what happens in the movie feels kind of random. I’ll be honest here: The first time I watched it, I missed all the explanation about the various monsters in the starting narrative, because I was only paying attention to Moana’s reaction to her Grandmother’s stories and not to what said stories were about. But even with this knowledge in mind, mentioning the existence of some monster is poor way to set up said monster appearing down the line. It’s a little bit like the obligatory scene in the James Bond movies in which James Bond gets a bunch of gadgets from Q, all of which he will conveniently need later on. Just mentioning said monsters doesn’t make their appearance later on more logical, since there is a lot in the narrative which doesn’t really grow out of what happened beforehand.

For example: That Maui needs to go to the world of monsters to steal his hook back makes kind of sense, even if it feels like a detour just throw in to give the two leads time to get to know each other. That Moana jumps after him into a seemingly bottomless hole doesn’t. She is human. How can she even expect to survive this jump? There is no reason whatsoever for her to follow Maui other than her being the protagonist of the story. And then, later on, they encounter even more mythological monsters outside of the monster world. They don’t even feature as part of a hurdle to overcome or inhabitants of a dangerous part of the ocean, they just turn up so that Mana gets a nice little action scene in the middle of the movie.

And, as I mentioned already, the movie more or less skips over the third part of the heroes journey. The return is shown, but only in a fast montage, there is no true weight to it.  And speaking of weight, the same can be said about the “All is lost”-moment.

Some of my readers might now wonder: Wait a minute, didn’t she just praise how Moana handles this moments by not putting pressure on the protagonist to fulfil a specific destiny? And yes, that is true, the Moana overcoming her despair is wonderfully written. But her arrival at this point isn’t. Through the whole movie Moana stubbornly pushes forward to do what her Grandmother wanted her to do. And then she just gives up basically because Maui gives up. Maui having a crisis at this point makes perfectly sense because his whole being is wrapped around the hook. But Moana giving up is completely out of character for her and not really motivated by the narrative. Even if she failed, even if Maui abandons her, the narrative has already established that Moana will always push forward in the end. But it is time for the “All is lost”-moment and Moana, not Maui, is the designated protagonist, so we get to see her having a crisis while Maui’s pivotal character moment happens off-screen.

The ticking clock is similarly clumsily handled. Early on the movie introduces the notion that Moana’s people are in danger because the island is not save any longer. But there is no time-frame give for how long they can survive under the circumstance, nor do we see the darkness creeping further and further into the island. There is one dream sequence to remind the audience what is at stake, but without any notion of how much time Moana actually has or how much the danger has grown at this point, it doesn’t create the urgency it should. This decision by the writers is especially puzzling since showing the slow destruction of the island would be a really good explanation why Moana’s people have to start travelling again at the end of the movie.Pocahontas-9-Last-Scene

Pocahontas’ hero’s journey is more spiritual than physical. She literally hears the call of something new, goes to explore this new world through the eye’s of John Smith and returns home in a sense that she eventually rejects the notion to turn her spiritual journey into a physical one. On its own this is a pretty strong concept which suffers in execution only due to the unwillingness of the movie to seriously tackle the themes it claims to explore.

Consequently Pocahontas’ “All is lost”-moment is a little bit contrived, too. If John Smith were actually guilty of killing Kokoum, even if it were in self-defence, it might make a little bit more sense to not speak up and explain that Kokoum attacked first. And to be honest, it does make Pocahontas’s look a little bit callous because she waits until the very last moment to act, and even then she only does it because she gets a sign that she should. But, to the movie’s credit, it makes the most of the moment.Free-Round-Set-3

Especially by adding a ticking clock which works. If Pocahontas doesn’t reach his father by dawn, John Smith will die. In this case the audience not only has a specific time frame, but also the visuals to match it. It sees the conflict which is about to escalate while the heroine mobilizes all her strength to prevent the catastrophe in the making.

8. The Tune of the Culture

By now I have discussed at length the narrative elements of those movies, but what about the technical aspects? Music is after all an important element of most Disney movies, especially the Disney Princess movies. And in this case, not only are both typical Disney musicals, you can also nearly match up the songs to each other.PC1

Moana starts with “Tulou Tagaloa” (which plays over the Disney logo) and “An Innocent Warrior” to set the mood and introduce the culture. In Pocahontas “The Virginia Company” (which represents the settlers) and “Steady as the Beating Drum” (which represents the Powhatan tribe) fulfils the same function while also introducing the cultural differences between those groups.

“Where You Are” is basically a song about why Moana should be happy with the live she leads.  The Reprise of “Steady as the Beating Drum” conveys the same message to Pocahontas.Pocahontas-C5

Both express their desire for something else in their respective “I want” songs “How Far I’ll Go” (Moana) and  “Just Around the Riverbend” (Pocahontas). Though Moana gets way more mileage out of “How Far I’ll Go” through repetition through the movie than Pocahontas gets out of any of its song, since Alan Menken prefers to use the score once a specific theme is established instead of filling the movie to the brim with songs. Even “I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)” ends in the familiar reprise of “How Far I’ll Go”. This song is mirrored in Pocahontas with “Listen with your heart” which also happens to contain a message of staying true to yourself.

There is not direct parallel song to “You’re Welcome” in Pocahontas, but John Smith’s lines during “Mine, Mine, Mine” fulfil basically the same function to flesh out the co-lead. And “Mine, Mine, Mine” has in turn an equivalent in “Shiny”, which is also a villain song about greed.Nakoma-5-Fire

The two songs which contrast the most with each other are “Know Who You Are” and “Savages”. Both are played during the respective climax, and both contain the core message of their respective movies. But “Know Who You Are” is a very calm a soothing tune while “Savage” is the exact opposite, created to raise tension. This is not a knock on either of those songs, though, both are a perfect fit for what their respective movie is going for.

Amusingly “If I never knew you”, the one song which doesn’t have a thematic equivalent in Moana, is also the one which eventually got cut from Pocahontas (yes, I know it is back in the extended version, I am discussing the theatrical released version). But its themes is still in the movie itself and it is played over the end credits, so I feel I should mention it here nevertheless. It is no surprise that there is no song to mirror that one, though, considering that this is a love song and Moana doesn’t have an outright romance.

Pocahontas-2-WalkingBut the songs most worth discussing here are “Colours of the Wind” vs “We Know the Way” and “Logo Te Pate”. “Colours of the Wind” has two functions: On the one hand it is a passionate plea for respecting other cultures and nature itself, on the other hand it is a montage song, played while the movie shows the two leads forming a bound with each other while one is teaching the other. Which is exactly what “Logo Te Pate” is used for, too, covering a number of scenes showing Maui teaching Moana how to sail, while “We Know the Way” celebrates the sea faring tradition of Moana’s people.

What is notable is the heavy use of, I think it is Samoan, in Moana’s songs.  Music and language are two of the most essential elements in any culture. They are communication and expression. Which is why it was a brilliant move of Disney to hire Opetaia Foa’i, leader of the Ocean music group Te Vaka, for the soundtrack.

It is not my intention to diminish in any way the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Marc Mancina. Miranda is the current Broadway star and Marc Mancina a reliable Disney composer who has a particular knack for using traditional instruments and tunes in their work. But if you look in the track list for Moana you’ll discover that Opetaia Foa’i is responsible for every bit of Samoan which is sung in this movie, while Miranda is credited for the more Broadway styled elements. And I feel that due to Miranda’s recent success, the contribution of Opetaia Foa’i has been unfairly overlooked. “Logo Te Pate” is entirely sung in a foreign language, but it doesn’t matter, because this is not about the actual meaning of the words, this is about the expression of a culture.

Pocahontas doesn’t really have this. At the very begging of “Steady as a Beating Drum” there are a few lines which are vaguely Powhatan, but overall, the soundtrack is dominated by the Broadway style Alan Menken does best. To be fair, the Powhatan’s approach to music is way less palatable for the American or European ear than Polynesian music is. It is also way more difficult to fuse into a musical due to consisting mostly of drums and vocals. I still think that it could have had a bigger presence in Pocahontas.

Not that Alan Menken’s work is in any way lacking otherwise. Pocahontas is a movie which wasn’t exactly loved by critics, but he nevertheless won two academy awards for his work. Moana only scoring one nomination in this category doesn’t automatically mean that he wrote the superior soundtrack, though. For one, him walking away with academy award seven and eight within five years prompted the academy to change the rules for the consideration of musical scores. And two, Moana faced stronger competition.

At the end of the day, those are two very strong soundtracks. Moana’s songs just do a better job of giving the culture represented in a movie a voice. Quite literally, considering that Opetaia Foa’i sings a lot them himself.

 

Pocahontas-C39. Animation and Artistry

If there is one thing I adore about Pocahontas, it is the background animation, especially in the scenes when it moves from a realistic landscape to something which looks like it was inspired by a Franz Marc painting. Who happens to be my favourite artist. Which in turn might be the reason why I consider this my second favourite background animation Disney has done, after Sleeping Beauty. The colours pop, the details are exquisite, the landscapes are gorgeous! There isn’t anything I would want to improve about it.

If I have one beef with the style, it is the character animation. Partly because I feel that Pocahontas looks too adult for the story they gave her. The question if Disney should sexualize “exotic” characters aside, this is a coming of age story. While the age of some of the heroines has always been a little bit iffy from a modern point of view, especially considering that they tend to fall in love with partners who are at least in their twenties, it kind of undermines the whole “growing up” aspect if the character looks, well, grown up. I always felt that Pocahontas grown-up body is a really bad fit for the story they are telling and hence very distracting.Pocahontas-C3

Another issue I have with the character animation is that this angular style doesn’t allow for much expression in the faces of the characters. Especially the size of the eyes are an issue here, the smaller the eyes the more difficult it is to convey expression through them, hence the need to balance this out in the rest of the face – for example, Mulan’s face switched from female to more male looking just by changing the eyebrows and her mouth allows for a lot of different expressions. But Pocahontas has in addition to the small eyes a mouth which barely allows any movement, hence all her expressions have to be conveyed through the eyebrows (which works well enough in close-ups, not so well from afar) and body movement alone. In the end, it is often the music or the dialogue which does the heavy lifting.

Nearly all the human characters in Pocahontas have this problem to a certain degree, I think the only characters who are particularly expressive are the various side-kicks. Who as a result stick out, and not in a good way. They are so much more cartoony compared to the rest of the animation, it feels like there is a series of shorts cut into the movie at random moments, not just on a narrative but also on a visual level.

Moana has the usual problems which come with CGI movies. The more of the animation is done by a computer, the less individual touch you will find in it. It is a little bit like the difference between having a DJ and listening to a playlist on shuffle. A DJ might have certain preferences, but he will also pick the music based on the audience and sometimes follow specific wishes. With the playlist you sometimes have the feeling that you can predict the next song, and you might even be able to. This is because the order of the songs are based on an algorithm, and while we usually don’t actively try to figure it out, subconsciously we get a sense for the order over time. Watching a CGI animated movie is a little bit the same way, there is just something familiar and predictable about the movements and the designs.

Thus said, the backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous. Animating water or hair is famously difficult, but Disney crushed the challenge. They also tried out more realistic body shapes. But above all, they went for a proper Disney Acid sequences. I really, really missed those! Even though the mix of CGI and 2D animation looks awkward overall, I give Disney a lot of credit for putting the art back into animation and trying out something different. I hope we will get more of this in the future.Pocahontas-C2

10. The Big Difference

You can point to the number of native people involved in the respective production or to Disney having learned from previous attempts to tackle minority characters as explanation why Moana has been received much better than Pocahontas, but I think the actual difference is the mind-set behind those movies. Pocahontas was created with an eye on a possible academy award for best picture, at the same time the people in charge were not bold enough to try something truly revolutionary and different. As Walt Disney would have put it, they tried to top pigs with even more pigs.

Moana didn’t have any ambitions like this. It only wanted to be the best possible movie about this specific culture. It does stand in the tradition of the Disney Princess Franchise (sometimes to its detriment),  but it also tests out the boundaries of it. In short, the focus is where it should be, on the actual story, and not on some sort of award.

Pocahontas-C4Above all though (and that is a point Lindsey missed in her video), Pocahontas is pretty much the worst story one can pick regarding Native Americans. Because at the end of the day, Pocahontas is not a Native American story. It is a story which John Smith told (and most likely made up) about a young native who was kidnapped, forced into marriage and brought into London society. Meaning it is a story some white guy told about Native Americans. Disney didn’t really put the uncomfortable Colonialist BS into the story, it is inherent to the source material and I actually don’t see how you can remove it – though arguable Disney made it worse by turning it into a bland love story and a message about tolerance and peace. Not that I mind tolerance and peace, but considering what happened to the Native Americans, they might have been better off if they had destroyed every ship which ever managed to reach their shores, thus preventing being overrun by people who had no regard whatsoever for their way of live or their culture – and who brought deadly diseases with them.

Moana on the other hand is based on actual native myths – kind of. The story the movie tells is entirely original, its only nod to Polynesian mythology are the deeds Maui lists in “You’re welcome” and his backstory. But that is pretty much the Disney approach to everything they adapt, especially when it comes to their mythological based movies. And I really don’t buy into the notion that there are different rules depending on from which culture Disney borrows, because at the end of the day, there are two choices: Either you want Disney to go out of the box and tackle something other than Western myths and literature, or you don’t. If you don’t, this is totally understandable – it would be a lie to claim that I am not sometimes a little bit frustrated by the way Disney permanently changed the perception on the fairy of my own culture (no, Snow White wasn’t awakened by a true love’s kiss, damnit!). But if you want Disney to represent your culture too, than you shouldn’t complain about the result being a Disney movie, meaning a reinterpretation and not a simple retelling. Disney doesn’t do those. Like, ever. I can’t think of a single Disney movie which didn’t put a twist or two on the source material.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean that Disney shouldn’t do its research and naturally the rules are entirely different the moment they tackle the fate of an actual person, which is why I feel that Disney should just stay away from actual historical events. Moana is entirely made up, the only historical aspect in the movie, aside from going out of its way to portray details like the clothing, drums, ships and constellations correctly, is that the Polynesians really stopped travelling from Island to Island for a while at one point in history and nobody quite knows why. Disney’s explanation is as good as any other.

I have to give Disney props for the nature of the story they choose to tell in Moana. Pocahontas is at its very core the attempt to acknowledge the arrogance of the first settlers while also trying to find excuses for them. It is not really about the plight of the indigenous people or even about their culture outside of contrasting it to the Colonialist point of view.  But Moana is not just about self-discovery, it is above all reclaiming your own roots. It is not just a movie about Polynesian culture, it is a celebration of it. As it should be.Pocahontas-6-feet

11. Conclusion

While Disney movies are usually timeless, they also tend to reflect the status of society in the period in which they were made. It is therefore not really surprising that a movie which is made today does a way better job respecting foreign cultures than one which was created two decades earlier, when Disney was just dipping its toe into the notion of featuring a different culture in their movies. Regarding the overall quality of the movies in question, both are in their own way flawed.

Not on a technical level, in terms of animation and music both of them shine. But narratively, they both have issues. Pocahontas has an overall solid structure, but a predictable narrative which doesn’t take any chances. Moana takes more risk, but has structural issues which undermine the movie at various points. I feel that both movies would have profiteered from being less beholden to the Disney Princess tropes.Nakoma-Choice3

As I said before, the purpose of this series is not to declare a winner when I compare two movies. And I will stick to it. No, the fact that this movie is full of icon’s featuring Pocahontas is not an indicator of preference, not at all.  Truth is,  since Moana is a fairly new release, I haven’t created any icons featuring her yet, and forcing myself to do some just for this article didn’t feel right. But, as you can see, I have a whole bunch of Icons relating to Pocahontas created back when I was still participating in Icon contests. Which is why I used them freely for this article. And you are free to use them too, if you want to.

I’ll say this about those movies, though: Personally I have an easier time to forgive flaws in a movie which takes narrative risks than in one which goes for a more run-of-the-mill story. But I am also a sucker for artful animation and a catchy soundtrack. Make out of this what you want.

 


Double Take: Bambi vs The Lion King

I am taking a break with my “By the Book” series, but meanwhile I want to examine two movies which I could have discussed in this context but decided not to. In the case of The Lion King because it is no official adaptation of Hamlet in the first place and in the case of Bambi because it is similar to The Fox and the Hound an adaptation in name only anyway. The original book is mostly an exploration of religion and the relationship between human and animals (and often very depressing). This in mind I feel that the movie will be served better if I discuss it in this new series. “Double Take” is about comparing movies, which have similar themes and elements but were made in a different time period. Other obvious cases I have in mind for future discussion are for example The Rescuers and the Fantasia movies. I have to emphasise though that the point of this series is not to declare one movie as the better one (unless the answer is obvious), but to examine how the approach to those themes differ and what this says about the development of the Animation Studios and animation in general.

I’ll do the following: I will identify elements which are similar in both movies and then compare how they are dealt with. Some will be quite standard – i.e. every movie has a certain set of characters, animation and music – others will be very specific to those movies. So, without further ado, let’s begin.5 Bambi-1

1. The Circle of Life

Even though The Lion King is the movie which made a big deal around the Circle of Life, Bambi was actually the first animated movie which tackled the concept. Well, kind of. A number of elements The Lion King is famous for already turn up in Bambi: Animals gathering to witness the birth of a new “prince”, the notion of nature recovering over time, the closing of the movie with the birth of a new generation and a character taking over for another character. But despite all this Bambi creates less the notion of something circular and more a sense of live continuing and new beginnings. The forest which burns down in Bambi doesn’t just magically appear again, instead you can see the charred wood under the new plants. In Bambi, life might be swift and fleeting, but what stays is the love which will ensure that there will always be a new generation.

In The Lion King the Circle of Life is a whole philosophy which boils down to everyone being part of a carefully balanced construct and if one group takes more than it should, then it leads to everyone suffering due to it. Though I am not quite clear how Scar’s leadership can cause a drought which conveniently ends as soon as Simba defeats him, the message is way more overt than it is in Bambi:  If you allow destructive elements to take over the government, than everyone will suffer. (And yes, I wish that the people in Venezuela, Turkey, Russia, the UK and the US had paid more attention to said message, just to mention a few countries in which the balance has been systematically destroyed).

2. The Concept of Leadership32 mufasa

Bambi was released 1942. The Lion King hit the theatres 51 years later. But even though there is half a century between those movies, it is oddly Bambi which is the more unusual one when it comes to portraying leadership. Even though Bambi is considered the prince, the movie suggests that his father is the leader because he is the biggest, strongest and smartest and when Bambi takes up the mantle he has already proven himself to be a great fighter, too. Though it is not like either of them ever does something especially kingly aside from looking over the forest in an impressive pose.

The Lion King on the other hand has an actual royal family in the traditional sense, with Simba being the next in line for the throne even though he is still a child. And there are responsibilities connected to the position, like keeping the hyenas at bay. In short, Bambi portrays how hierarchy works in the animal kingdom while The Lion King is built on a the concept of a very human monarchy. One in which apparently the animals are supposed to be happy that the lion eats them because otherwise they might get eaten by the hyena.

Yeah, I admit, I have a little bit of trouble with the notion of animals kneeling for a predator. Also with the notion that everybody has his place in live and should accept said place. It is better to take The Lion King not too literal in this regard and see the animals as stand in for different kind of people. In the case of the hyenas it is pretty obvious which kind is meant, the extremists, who believe in their own superiority. But, as the movie shows, if you actually do allow them to realize their visions, it is very much a case of “be careful what you wish for”.  In this regard The Lion King adds an element which is not present in Bambi, by contrasting good leadership with bad leadership.

3. The Coming of Age

Between Bambi and Simba, only the latter shows actual character development. We see Bambi as a babe, as a child, as a young adult and finally as a father, but his character doesn’t really change much through it. He is a little bit a blank slate, an audience surrogate. It is easy to just slip into his mind-set and experience his world from his point of view, to feel his pain and his joy, but this is pretty much all his character offers, we never learn anything about his desires, his dreams or even his opinions.

Simba is the absolute opposite, after a short scene with him as a babe, we get to know his child version, who is, frankly, an arrogant brat. Zazu is right, the idea that this child might be king one day is not a pleasant one. We then see him embracing a live without responsibilities, hiding from his own guilt. And finally we see him maturing and accepting his responsibilities. Unlike Bambi he has an actual arc in addition to just growing up, though the movie doesn’t quite stick the landing. The whole message of taking responsibility is a little bit muddle up in the end, because what actually gives Simba peace is not him facing his past but discovering Scar’s betrayal. Though naturally he would have never learned the truth if not for him going back. Like I said, it’s a little bit muddled. 32 hyenas

4. Hurdles and Adversaries

The Lion King has clear villains in Scar and the Hyenas. Now, Scar has one of the best villain songs Disney ever created in “Be Prepared”, and his demeanour is very terrifying – at the beginning of the movie. Once he actually is in power he comes off as kind of pathetic. I used to think that this is a little bit of a let-down, but recently I have started to realize that this is actually pretty realistic. People who are interested in the position of the king without any consideration what it actually means to be king are often pretty pathetic once they have all the power and are unable to wield it in a manner which will strengthen their position. Or for the benefit of the people.

In Bambi the adversary is live itself. Sure, “man” is a little bit of a villain in this because it whenever “man” turns up it means something terrible will happen in the forest, but there is no rhyme or reason to his presence, it is just something which happens once in a while, just like a thunderstorm, or a hard winter, or a rival wanting to lay claim on Feline. “Man” wrecks the most destruction during the movie, but he is still just one of the realities of live – though a particular terrifying one.

5. The Loss of a Parent32 Scar

There have actually been discussions which death scene has been done better, Bambi’s mother dying or Mufasa dying. I would say, it depends what you are looking for. Mufasa’s character is more fleshed out than Bambi’s mother is – who doesn’t even have a name – we get to see his terror when he realizes what Scar is about to do, we see his body and we see Simba crying beside him. All this is certainly a stab in the heart. But it is also a very expected tragedy. The movie is called The Lion King, Scar has been established as a scheming character who is out for the throne early on, and as long as Mufasa is around, he will always protect Simba. Ergo there was next to no chance that he would make it to the end of the movie.

But there is a reason why the scene of Bambi’s mother dying is so infamous that even people who never watched the movie know about it. The movie establishes early on that the meadow is a dangerous place to be because of “man”, therefore it is kind of expected that something terrible might happen at one point, but not exactly what will happen, consequently her death is not as expected as Mufasa’s is. Everything about this scene, from the music, to Bambi’s mother telling him to run, to Bambi suddenly realizing that she didn’t follow is just perfect. In a way him never seeing her body makes it even more effective, because she is just gone. One moment there was happiness because they finally found some green during a hard winter and the next all of it is gone and the only thing left is emptiness. It actually feels very realistic. In most cases death is something sudden and unexpected, you rarely get to say good-bye and sit by the bedside while someone passes on. 5 Bambi-Flower-Thumper

6. The Support

Ever noticed that Thumper and Flower have the same basic narrative function as Timon and Pumba have? Thumper’s role in the story is pretty much to share his “wisdom” with Bambi, from teaching him his first words to showing him how much fun snow can be, just like Timon explains to Simba the concept of Hakuna Matata, though he comes more from the place of a mentor (or crazy uncle), while Thumper is Bambi’s peer, being only slightly older than him. Flower and Pumba are both comic relief, though they use a very different kind of humour. The joke with Flower is how affine and nice he is for a skunk. Pumba is one big fart joke.

32 GroupAnother difference is that Bambi’s friends are never around to help him whenever he ends up in danger, while Timon and Pumba are supporting Simba during the final fight. They are more integral to the story than Thumper and Flower are.

In addition both movies have a bird character who is mostly around to complain about the world. Bambi has Owl, The Lion King has Zazu. Those characters are pretty similar to each other except that Zazu has personal stakes in what Simba does, while Owl is more a benevolent observer.  32 zazu

7. The Romance

The romance in neither movie is more than a plot point to create conflict and/or move the story forward. In both cases, the protagonist has a childhood friend and falls immediately in love the moment he sees her as an adult. To the credit of The Lion King, Nala is a little better fleshed out than Feline. She has an adventurous streak, but has a better sense for responsibility than Simba has. On the other hand, though, Bambi’s approach to the whole romance matter is refreshingly honest and funny. It’s spring, it is part of the animal instinct to mate in spring, so just go with it. The Lion King pretends that there is more to the story, but in the end, it also boils down to “oh, female I know as a child, let’s mate”. There isn’t much depth to either relationship.

8. The Animation

Both movies are made for the big screen to a degree that a lot of the experience is lost if you watch them on TV. Bambi has those beautiful detailed backgrounds and often looks like a moving painting. If I have one beef with it than that the characters sometimes look a little bit too cartoony in the setting. The Lion King stands out through its use of primary colours, but also through sheer scale. The most impressive scene is naturally the stampede, which demonstrates a giant jump in computer technology. It is also more inventive. Bambi mostly uses imaginary which already existed beforehand, you could simply freeze frame a lot of moments and they look like a typical hunting lodge painting. With The Lion King it is the other way around, you see an image of someone lifting a babe and you are immediately reminded of this movie. Some of what is done is based on something – for example Timon, Pumba and Simba walking over a tree bridge is similar to Aurora doing the same in Sleeping Beauty – but with a unique twist to it. Bambi is the movie you watch if you want to be in awe over the beauty of nature, but also be soothed by it. The Lion King is the movie for you if you want to be overwhelmed by the spectacle on screen and iconic imaginary.32 Pumba and Timon

9. The Music

Bambi is a masterpiece of Mickey Mousing, meaning the technique of replacing sound effects with music. It has gotten a negative reputation with time, partly because it originated in Disney cartoons, partly because some movies just overdid it. But in fact most movies are still using the technique to a certain degree. And if there is a movie which demonstrates how much atmosphere Mickey Mousing can create if used correctly, it is Bambi. Just listen to “Little April Shower”, you can hear the rain and the thunder and the lighting in the music itself. But this is just the most obvious example of this technique, through the movie the music often sounds like wind or, for the winter scenes, specifically cold wind.

In addition, Bambi is a ground-breaking movie. You know those music pieces which play only two notes in order to suggest looming danger? You know, along the line of Jaws and Psycho? Yeah, Bambi invented that concept. It’s still three notes there, but the basic idea of using a very limited number of tunes and then speed it up in order to suggest danger coming closer was first used in this movie.

The Lion King can’t really hope to be similar ground-breaking in this category simply because it was created decades later. What it did start is the trend in Disney movies to use foreign language in a song to give a setting an exotic vibe. But otherwise it does fall pretty much in the pattern Ashman and Menken have codified for The Little Mermaid. Which is kind of ironic, btw. Word is that Elton John only agreed to do this project if nobody forced him to write another musical. Disney agreed and the end result was a soundtrack which is now the basis for the highest grossing musical of all time.

Though while both movies feature music, Bambi isn’t really a musical. This is especially notable in the way the music is used. With one exception, all the songs are sung from the off and the one which isn’t is justified within the plot. In The Lion King there is only one song completely sung from the off (“Circle of Life”), and the character perform elaborate dance numbers while they blurt out their plans and feelings. The purpose of the music in The Lion King is character development as well as creating opportunities for the animators to go crazy. In Bambi it is used for atmospheric purposes. It still has something which passes as a love song, but otherwise it is completely devoid of the usual kind of songs to a degree, that none of the categories I put together for my Systematic of Songs would be a particular good fit for them.

10. A Fiery Finale 

When it comes to the finale, neither of those movies disappoint, and they both really amp up the action by throwing fire into the mix. Notably though, in The Lion King the fire is more a background feature, something to make the battle look cool (alongside the fake slomo, a feature Disney thankfully mostly stopped using after Pocahontas). In Bambi the fire is the enemy. Bambi last big feat in the movie is not to defeat an opponent (its his second to last instead) but to outrun something which is way more powerful than he is.

11. The Big Difference5 Bambi-4

If there are two movies which demonstrate that having similar elements says nothing about the end result, its Bambi and The Lion King. They have similar themes, similar characters, similar plot points and a lot of similar elements. And yet they are totally different, mostly because the approach is so different. The mind-set behind Bambi was largely realism. Disney even brought real live deer to the studio so that the animators could study their movement – which really paid off, btw, if you compare Snow White with Bambi, there is a giant leap in quality regarding the animation of the animals. We are still in a period in which Walt Disney experimented a lot. His desire was to not repeat the same thing again and again but to surprise the audience with fresh ideas. Hence Bambi ended up being a slice of life story. It isn’t really about Bambi, but about the experience of growing up.

The Lion King on the other hand falls into the Disney Renaissance and sadly the people who were in charge of the studio during this period were ready to milk a working formula. This is not a criticism The Lion King, despite it not being a fairy tale movie, the structure fits the story and it does enough new to not come off as stale. Even if it dips mostly into familiar structures, you can hardly argue with it when it does it so good. But in contrast to Bambi, The Lion King is more set on telling a story about a layered character with a very specific moral. That makes it kind of predictable at times, but only in the basics. You know that Mufasa will most likely die, but not that he will die by stampede, or that Disney would have the balls to show a dead body. You know that Simba will eventually go back home, but how he comes to the decision is really unexpected. And you know that Simba will triumph in the end, but there is enough going on in the finale battle to make it engaging.

12. Conclusion

My experience with both movies are very different. Bambi I say the first time when I was very, very little and it frankly kind of terrified me. Though what really got to me was less the death of Bambi’s mother specifically, and more the thunderstorm and especially the damned dogs in the end. I am actually kind of terrified of dogs, and this movie is one of the various reasons why. Then came a period in which I didn’t watch it at all. I am not really the type who is into slice of life stories, for me the characters are pretty much the most important element of any movie out there. Nowadays though I kind of adore Bambi. It is not the kind of movie I would watch just for fun, but the artistry in it is something really enthralling.

The Lion King I saw in theatres – twice. I was all over it during its runtime. But this is one of those cases where a movie doesn’t get better an better upon rewatch. On the small screen, it just looses a lot. It is kind of like Titanic that way. You can watch it on the small screen, but without drowning (no pun intended) in the pure scale of it the flaws in the narrative become more obvious. I was just never able to recapture the first experience of watching it, or to replace the feeling with something similar enthralling. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like the movie, it is still one of Disney’s greatest. I just don’t consider it as this big masterpiece. Maybe because I had my “shocking death experience which scarred me as a child” with Bambi while a lot of other people had it the first time The Lion King.

In terms of quality those movies are on the same level. They are excellent movies which will most likely continue to be relevant, no matter how much time passes. But if I had children, I think I would show them Bambi first. Terrifying or not, it is just better suited for younger children, while The Lion King is better suited for slightly older children who might at least partly get the political aspect of it. Bambi is just a little bit more self-explanatory.

And yes, I do think that every child should watch a movie in which a parent character dies on screen in a heart wrenching manner. It is a good way to prepare them for the notion of death and to give them an understanding of it. That Disney dared to venture into this territory at least twice is the main reason why those two movies are so enduring.

 

 

 


By the Book: The Sword in the Stone

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

1. The Sword in the Stone

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

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

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

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

2. The Setting

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

3. The Animation

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

4. The Characters 18 merlin

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

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

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

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

5. The Plot

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

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

6. The Songs

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

7. The Conclusion

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


By the book: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

To say it upfront: Between Victor Hugo’s two “big” novels, I tend to gravitate more towards Les Misérables, mainly because Notre Dame de Paris is downright depressing. Oh, both books delve deep into the social injustices of their time and the darkness of the human soul. But I think that Les Misérables is the more sophisticated take of those two, much clearer in the message it is trying to tell with much more relatable characters in it. Notre Dame de Paris is from a literature historic angle the more important one though, because it is considered the first novel about the society as a whole, including different classes, instead of concentrating on only the rich or only the poor. That Disney even tried a take on it is somewhat surprising, because Disney movies are not about social but about personal problems. When Disney does Dickens it’s never about the social aspect and always about the fate of main character of the story. But Dickens’ stories usually have some sort of happy end which plays well into the fairy-tale-like family- friendly storytelling Disney likes so much. Notre Dame de Paris has none of those elements, it is a very disturbing book made for adults. So, does Disney’s watered down version work?

1. The Setting

You might have noticed that I used so far the original French title for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. That was intentional, because the translated title is very misleading. It’s not the Hunchback who is the main character of the story, it’s Notre Dame. Most of the book is set there and a lot of time is spend on the description of Notre Dame itself. And the Disney version? Well, there Notre Dame is prominent, too. The most memorable parts of the movie feature the cathedral and the scales are very impressive. The difference is that Disney shows off the beauty of Notre Dame, while Hugo’s intention was to point out that this great building was neglected and slowly falling to ruins. The state of Notre Dame reflects the state of society.

I’m not too bothered by the change, though. The audience and the intention of the movie is entirely different from the book. A close adaption would try to stick to those kinds of details, but I think that a good adaption should try to be relevant. And for a modern audience it makes more sense to appreciate the beauty of what survived the decades (I guess Victor Hugo would be very pleased to know that his book made sure that Notre Dame is nowadays one of the most well-known places in Paris).

2. The Animation

Would you be surprised if I told you that Notre Dame is actually not that big of a church? The two big towers are only 69 metres high. Nor are there any steps leading up to the entrance. What is real, though, are the gargoyles, the giant rosette window and the bells. But I don’t mind it that Disney exaggerated a little bit, I put this down to artistic licence. What is truly important is not how realistic the church and Paris itself is, but if the portrayal works for the movie, and it certainly does. Nearly all Disney movies are visually impressive, but this one is especially memorable.

3. The Characters

The great thing about the original book is that none of the characters are totally good or totally evil. The one who comes the closest of being an “innocent” is Esmeralda, who is somewhat (to borrow a line of another Disney movie) a diamond (or Emerald) in the rough. The Disney version is somewhat clearer cut – therefore the characters end up being very, very different.

Disney Quasimodo: More or less imprisoned at Notre Dame he dreams of leaving the place. He is kind-hearted and doesn’t do a single bad thing during the movie. Original Quasimodo: Not only ugly but also practically deaf and nearly unable to speak he chooses not to venture out of Notre Dame very often. He tries to kidnap Esmeralda for Frollo, but later, after she showed some kindness towards him out of pity, he does his very best to defend her, killing a couple of people in the process, including gypsies who are actually there to rescue her. He eventually murders Frollo when he laughs about Esmeralda’s death by throwing him from the cathedral. And then dies of starvation next to her body.

34 FrolloDisney Claude Frollo: A judge who uses his power over Paris mostly in a crusade against the Gypsies. After he accidentally kills a woman, the archdeacon orders him to take care of her ugly child as penance. He gives the child the “cruel name” Quasimodo and hides him in the tower. When he falls for Esmeralda, he slowly descends into madness, burning half Paris and eventually trying to burn her. Original Claude Frollo: The archdeacon, who takes care of an abandoned Quasimodo out of compassion and named him after the day on which he was found. He also cares deeply for his spoiled younger brother (who gets later accidentally killed by Quasimodo). Despite being a man of the church he dabbles in alchemy and is therefore mistrusted by the people of Paris. When he falls for Esmeralda, he falls into sin, first by trying to kidnap her, later by offering her escape in exchange for being with her when the king orders to ignore the sanctuary of Notre Dame. Oh, and he tries to rape her, and lets her take the fall for the murder of Phoebus.

Disney Esmeralda: A gypsy and free spirit, who openly challenges the authority of Frollo. She is able to see through Quasimodo’s misshapen face, seeing the beauty of his soul. But she is not in love with him, instead she falls for the heroic Phoebus. Original Esmeralda: As a child she was kidnapped by the gypsies who left her mother Quasimodo in her place. Her beauty causes more or less every man she meets to fall for her. She once gives Quasimodo water and rescues his life when he is punished for the kidnapping attempt of her. But this is only an act of pity, she is repulsed by him the same way as everyone else until she spends some time with him in the cathedral. Later she marries a poet (who is originally interested in her, but later more obsessed about her goat – and no, I’m not making that up) in order to rescue his life after he discovers the court of miracles. She never lays with him, though, because she is convinced that staying chaste is important in order to find her real mother (which she does, shortly before her death). The only man who nearly manages to convince her of laying with him his Phoebus. She is impressed by him due to his beauty and because he rescued her when Quasimodo first tried to kidnap her. But their “night of passion” is interrupted by Frollo who stabs Phoebus in the back. Esmeralda is accused of his murder (and of being a witch) and killed.

Disney Phoebus: The hero. And that’s more or less all you need to know about him. Oh, and that he is in love with Esmeralda, who rescues him from drowning after he rescued some people from getting burned by Frollo, getting hit by an arrow in his back in the process. Original Phoebus: An egocentric womanizer whose main interest is to bed Esmeralda, despite the fact that he is already betrothed. He actually survives Frollo’s attack on him, but nevertheless doesn’t step forward to defend Esmeralda. Instead he lives unhappy ever after in the cage of marriage.

Disney Clopin: Some sort of king of the gypsies, who is sometimes the narrator of the movie. He once intends to kill Quasimodo and Phoebus for finding the court of miracles. But he also speaks up on Quasimodo’s behalf…eh…this character really doesn’t make much sense, he switches from bad to good and back in seconds. Original Clopin: First introduced as a beggar he is later revealed to be the king of the gypsies. He has never much contact with either Quasimodo or Phoebus, the episode in the Court of Miracles involves the Poet Gringoire instead. Towards the end of the book he is killed by molten lead when he leads an attack on Notre Dame in order to rescue Esmeralda.

4. The Plot

After the rundown it should be pretty clear that the story of the movie is only vaguely related to the original. The animators mostly took elements they liked and created a new story out of it. Therefore, I won’t bother to discuss if this is a faithful adaptation of the book. It naturally isn’t. The real question is if the newly created plot works and if the movie at least manages to address some aspects of the book.

Disney followed the misleading English title and tried to make Quasimodo the main character. Therefore there are storylines which got rewritten for the movie in order to include him, most notable the scene in the Court of Miracles. But what Disney didn’t manage to do is to make him an interesting character. The original Quasimodo is in appearance as close to a monster as a human can be, and not just because of his looks, but also because he has trouble to communicate. Frollo is more or less his only human contact until he meets Esmeralda. He is also a character who means well, but rarely acts well – which is a contrast to most of the other characters in the book, who often are able to sell even the most selfish acts as good to the other characters.

Disney’s version of Quasimodo is, to be frank, quite bland, mostly because they changed his relationship to Frollo and society in general. This Quasimodo doesn’t feel shunned by society, but mostly removed from it. Everything Quasimodo does is about finding a way to connect to the word outside, but since he lacks any experience with it prior to the movie, his isolation seems to be more Frollo’s doing than based on how society tends to react to people who look different. And if you take Quasimodo’s desire away, what is actually left of the character? Quasimodo is basically the ugly duckling, which never becomes a swan. And we tend to feel for the ugly duckling. But if Quasimodo weren’t such a suffering character, would he actually be likable? Being all naïve and wide-eyed? I’m not sure.

Quasimodo’s view on the world is very convoluted. Does he love the cathedral, hate it or a little bit of both? Does he want to leave it for good, does he want to see the world outside or does he mostly want human companionship? Well, he has the companionship of his gargoyles. Yeah, the gargoyles. I didn’t mention them beforehand because they are more or less solely Disney’s creation. A lot of people have stated the opinion that they ruin the mood of the movie and shouldn’t be there in the first place. I agree and disagree.

34 hunchback-gargoyles-webI agree that their kind of humour (mostly modern jokes) doesn’t fit into the movie. But I don’t think that the gargoyles alone are the problem, they are just the worst offenders. This is the movie which put the goofy yell on a scene in which someone falls into an inferno of flames. A freaking goofy yell. I can’t imagine anything more unfitting. It’s like the makers were worried that the movie might become too dark so they threw in as many unfunny jokes as possible to make up for it.

I also agree that the gargoyles as comic relief don’t work. But I also think that the basic idea for them wasn’t bad. Quasimodo spends a lot of time alone, so having the gargoyles as sounding board is a very good solution. An even better solution would have been, if they were presentations of Quasimodo’s psyche. A couple of times during the movie it is suggested that the Gargoyles are not real. This goes out of the window in the final scene, when the Gargoyles intervene in the battle. But if they had stick to the idea and had made the Gargoyles representations of different aspects of Quasimodo’s mind (for example Victor stands for the rational site which keeps saying that nobody will like him, while Hugo (a less silly one) stands for his emotions and his wish to try nevertheless), arguing with each other instead of with him, this could have turned him into a more rounded and interesting character.

Esmeralda and Phoebus are not that interesting either. Oh, Esmeralda is an improvement from the book in being fiercer, and she got some of the best scenes in the movie. Especially the “God help the outcast” scene. Seeing Esmeralda, someone who doesn’t own much and isn’t even a Christ asks for the less lucky ones, while in the background the “true believers” voice their egoistical and shallow wishes, creates a contrast which prompts the audience to think about religion and morals, without being judgmental or preachy. And personally, I think the movie would have been much more interesting if they had made Esmeralda a secondary lead and had taken the time to flesh her out a little bit more.

The main problem with Esmeralda is that she is mostly reduced to her love story, which is very generic. Though the fault lays more with Phoebus than with her, since he is very badly explained in his motivations. One minute he is the obedient soldier who will follow everything Frollo says, next he turns around and does whatever he wants. Which could be an interesting story-line if he were either a soldier who believes in obedience but is eventually swayed by Esmeralda and the level of cruelty Frollo displays, or if he were from the get go someone who doesn’t think highly of authority and only wants a cushy assignment to get away from the war. Any motivation which would require some character development on his part would be more interesting than him just doing what the plot requires of him to do.

But let’s talk about the best character in this movie: Frollo. One of the greatest Disney villain, mostly because he has one of the most interesting motivations and perhaps the best villain song to go with it. Hellfire can’t be praised enough for putting his decent into madness into memorable lyrics and stunning visuals. There is a tiny problem with it though, since Frollo isn’t the archdeacon but a judge, there is actually no reason why he shouldn’t be interested in a woman, he isn’t bound by a vow of chastity after all. But I guess that can be explained away with him thinking of himself as above such feelings, especially when they are related to a gypsy of all people.

But, in a strange twist, everything which makes this character so good works to the disadvantage of the movie as a whole. Because Frollo is a bastard from the start, his feelings for Esmeralda are not really the downfall of his soul, they only lead to revealing a new level of darkness. And because he is the one who hides Quasimodo (in a way a symbol for him hiding his “sins” from the world), he basically stands between him and society. But the idea that society is shunning Quasimodo doesn’t have much a merit when it mostly happens because of Frollo’s actions, and not because society is the way it is.

Which brings us to the real problem of the plot: society. Nothing the “people of Paris” do makes any sense. They have the feast of fools (even though Gypsies are prosecuted they apparently allowed to come out of hiding for this one – weird…..), and they act with fear when they realize that Quasimodo left his tower. Fair enough. Who knows what horrifying stories are told about him (though it would be great to learn what they think about him at one point, the only story which we do see told about him paints him as a victim, after all). But following Clopin’s lead they start to celebrate him. Still understandable, the first shock is over and apparently Quasimodo is no danger. And then they suddenly turn on him…why? He has done nothing, why should they throw anything at him? And later on, where exactly are all those people when Frollo starts to burn down Paris? But when he starts to attack Notre Dame, they are suddenly all for helping Phoebus because a cathedral is naturally more important than their own homes?

This movie should be,about the relation between the Hunchback and society, and that’s what the animators are intended to do. But because the actual story focusses so much on Frollo and the other main characters, the relation between Quasimodo and society becomes an afterthought most of the time.

5. The Music

It should be obvious at this point that I adore the soundtrack of Hunchback of Notre Dame…well, most of it. I really can do without “A guy like you”. But overall he soundtrack is the main reason for me to watch the movie. I especially love how the sound of the bells are integrated in music, most notable in “The Bells of Notre Dame”. But my favourite songs are “Hellfire” (English version) and “God save the outcasts” (German version). Those are songs about deep emotions which manage to transport a lot of feeling.

6. The Conclusion

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a very flawed movie, which has a lot of very good aspects which sadly don’t go together very well and are overshadowed by silliness. Some consider it Disney darkest entry. I disagree. It might seem that way because in recent year Disney has become fairly sugary. But if you look back to the classics, you’ll find that Disney can do dark. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it’s just not done very well. Mostly because the animators couldn’t decide on one tone for the movie. You can either do Pinocchio or Aladdin, but you can’t do both at once, you have to pick one style and stick to it. It seems like the animators were worried that making it too dark would make it too adult. I don’t think that one necessarily causes the other. You could have told this story in a serious way without it being utterly unsuitable for children as long as you made sure that you put the story in terms they understand.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of those Disney Movies which don’t have much to offer in terms of storytelling, but excel in animation and music. The big scenes  are really gigantic and always worth a watch. Though I admit, I tend to watch it this way: I rewind the “Bells of Notre Dame” three or four times, because it’s so good, then I press the fast forward button, with a few interruption for a couple Frollo bastardy and Esmeralda dancing scenes, until I reach “God help the outcast”. I switch to German for this song (because there it’s more sung like a prayer), go back to English and again fast forward to the hellfire scene. Then I skip (no, not fast forward, I skip so that I don’t have to see any part of “A guy like you”) to the Court of Miracles and from this point onward I watch the rest of the movie.

And that sums up the movie pretty well: A lot of good but with too much bad mixed in to work out as a whole. But, to be honest, considering the source text and how unsuitable it is for a Disney movie, this can be considered an okay effort.


By the Book: Oliver and Company

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

1. The Setting

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

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

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

2. The Animation

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

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

3. The Characters

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

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

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

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

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

4. The Plot

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

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

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

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

5. The Music

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

6. The conclusion

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

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

27 Oliver


By the Book: Pinocchio

Well, so far I moved back through the ages, so I guess it’s time to tackle a movie from Disney’s golden age. Pinocchio started, like a lot of classic novels, as a serials, which soon became popular and lead to a novel. Nowadays it has become common to analyse Pinocchio like a book for “adults” (because, you know, children’s books don’t require analysing in the minds of serious academics, we first have to declare them as “adult” to take them seriously), leading to the stories being read in a literature-historical contexts, with parallels drawn especially to the concept of the fool. But when Disney made the movie, it was still mostly seen as an educational book, used to teach children that bad deeds have bad consequences. This is therefore the most prominent aspect in the movie.

1. The Setting

To be frank: The world which is created around Pinocchio is rather odd, even odder than usual in a fairy tale. There just don’t seem to be any logical rules to it, and it’s sometimes aggravating how everyone expects Pinocchio to act reasonable even though nothing about the world he lives in is reasonable (at one point he even gets arrested for the “crime of foolishness” when he goes to the police after the fox conned him out of his money).

The Disney version amplifies this even more. Seeing a talking, clothed fox acting all surprised because he comes across a living marionette is just strange. It also doesn’t help that there seems to be no consistency to what Pinocchio can survive and what not. How he can “die” towards the end, even though he apparently can easily walk under water and has no bones or anything else which could break is anybody’s guess. The Disney version is also very dark, mostly due to the animation.

2. The Animation

I have pointed out in the past already how expressive the animation in the early Disney movies is, and Pinocchio is the prime example for this. The only really inviting place in the whole movie is Gepetto’s hut, everything else is full of shadows and has a sinister vibe to it. It’s sometimes unpleasant to look it, not because of the animation is bad, but because it’s deliberately designed to be unsettling. Especially in the Pleasure Island scenes the use of shadows and strange angles signal from the get go that there is something off about this place. Pinocchio is often hold up as a masterpiece of animation, and on a technical level there is no arguing about it. The story, well, that one is another matter.

3. Characters and Plot

I’ll do both section in one this time around, because the plot centres around Pinocchio even more than usual, since the main theme is his learning curve. And there is a fundamental difference between the source text and the movie, which influences more or less every decision Disney made regarding the characters.

2 pinocchioIn the original version, Pinocchio is, in lack of a better term, born bad. He is selfish, lacks compassion and shows no appreciation for what Gepetto does for him. One early episode involves Gepetto selling his warm coat in order to buy school books for Pinocchio. Pinocchio in turn sells the school books so that he can see Stromboli’s marionette show. He only learns through experience to feel compassion (or to care about Gepetto at all).

Disney’s Pinocchio on the other hand starts out as a blank slate. He immediately connects to Gepetto simply on the ground of him being his father and provider. And when he ends up in dangerous situations it’s not because he is selfish, but because he is gullible, easily lead astray by dangerous advice. This change of character is also the reason Jiminy Cricket even exists. There is a Cricket in the original novel, but its appearance is very short-lived, in every sense of the world, since Pinocchio almost immediately kills it and it only turns up later in ghost form and berates him for his wrongdoings. That Disney greatly expanded the role and made Jiminy, quite literally, Pinocchio’s consciences is necessary because of the naivety they added to his character. If Jiminy weren’t there to warn him, there would be no way that we could truly fault Pinocchio for his actions. He is, after all, just a puppet, barely a day old, so it would be more than harsh to punish him for believing his elders. But since there is Jiminy as voice of reason, the responsibility shifts back to Pinocchio for listening to the fun advice over the trustworthy one.

2 JiminyJiminy himself is, btw, a giant hypocrite. The whole movie he does nothing but preach towards Pinocchio, which would be okay, since that’s his job. But it’s a little bit grating that he himself doesn’t practice what he preaches most of the time and is often not there the very moment Pinocchio needs his advice the most (he also keeps ogling women made out of wood, which is just weird). The Blue Fairy gives him a job, new clothes, but is this enough for him? No, he also wants a gold medal. One thing for sure, if I had to pick a role model for my children, it certainly wouldn’t be Jiminy, and if I were the Blue Fairy, I would have told him that he should be satisfied with what he gets.

2 blue fairySpeaking of the Blue Fairy (actually the Blue Haired Fairy, but I guess blond looks more attractive?): She is the ultimate Deus-ex-machina, in the book even more than in the movie. There she just randomly turns up, becomes some sort of mother figure for Pinocchio and usually helps him out should he really come to the danger of dying (or to test him). In the movie her involvement is slightly better explained. In the book Gepetto just happened to create a marionette out of magic wood, in the movie the Blue Fairy spelled him alive as a reward for Gepetto. This is partly an improvement because this way the Blue Fairy’s interest in Pinocchio and her being somewhat of his mother makes more sense. But it’s also a very strange reward, since the “happy outcome” entirely hinges on a piece of wood proving himself and not on Gepetto’s actions. Where exactly was the Blue Fairy when he was in the stomach of a whale? And for that matter: Why is it that the only good adult person in the movie has to endure greater hardship than any of the other truly villainous adults?

This is already a problem of the novel which gets amplified by Disney’s typical black and white approach to characters. With Pinocchio it’s easy, whoever was in the hut when Pinocchio became alive is good, all the other characters are only there to lead him astray. Lampwick is a little bit of a special case, though, because while he is a “bad boy”, he actually means well with Pinocchio, looks out for him and tries to teach him his “wisdom”. Well, you could argue that he does it mostly because he likes himself in the leader role, but his “evilness” mostly consists of skipping school, smoking, drinking and destroying stuff in a house which is built for exactly this purpose. And this makes the fact that he and the other boys on Pleasure Island are the only ones who get a permanent punishment even worse (in the book he gets sold and Pinocchio finds him dying after a life full of hard work – just in case you wanted to know for sure what you only suspected).

Honest John and Gideon sell Pinocchio twice and get away with it (and the gold). Stromboli (who isn’t really a villain in the novel) holds him like a slave and gets away with it (and the gold). The Coachman turns hordes of boys into donkeys and then sells them to the salt mines, where they will have a short and painful live (and I really don’t want to know what he does with the ones who still talk). And gets away with it. For all we know his operation is still in full swing. So what exactly is the message of the movie? Don’t trust anyone but your parents, be honest as long as you are a child, but when you reach adulthood you have the power to do whatever you want?

One thing for sure: Neither The Hunchback of Notre Dame, nor The Black Cauldron is the darkest movie Disney ever made, this honour belongs to Pinocchio. And it is not because Disney went for the dark imaginary out of a whim, it’s because Pinocchio is a very messed up story which resulted in a very messed up movie. The truth is: Disney actually disneyfied the story considerably. At least Pinocchio doesn’t get his feet burned away because he sleeps too close to the fire or gets hanged.

The whole point in both, the novel and the movie, seems to be that whenever Pinocchio (or another boy – girls are apparently always following their parents advice) does something bad or foolish, he gets punished in the most gruesome way, and the only reason he survives long enough to see the end of the book is because he is a puppet and the blue fairy turns up whenever the situation becomes really dire (though the original serial did end with Pinocchio dying – the part with the Blue Fairy was added later, which explains why she turns up so randomly).

4. The Music

The interesting part about the songs in Pinocchio is that they are all justified by plot. Usually when characters sing in a Disney movie, I tend to take it more symbolically. Meaning, those people do not really prance around in order to shoot their feelings to the world, it is more like a transitional element. But in Pinocchio the songs feel more like something which is actually happening within the story. They also hold up particularly well. “When you wish upon a star” is naturally to this day the Disney hymn whose meaning not just for this specific movie about for the Disney company in general I have already analysed in the past. The other songs aren’t necessarily Disney classics, but they are memorable enough that Marvel can put a creepy version of “No strings on me” into a trailer and expect the audience to recognize it.

5. The Conclusion

Yeah, I guess it should be very obviously by now: I don’t like the book, I don’t love the movie. But if one had to make a movie based on Pinocchio, it should be like the Disney version. It should display this level of careful animation and dark images and it should attach a nice “when you wish upon a star” message to it to soften the dark aspects a little bit. And to its credit, while very exaggerated, it does address true dangers. The people who promise teenagers a great career or lure children away from their parents with sweets, those are the predators a child is protected best from when it is aware of them. I’m not a fan of using fear in child rearing, but if this movie will keep children from going with a stranger, a week of nightmares about the coachman might be the lesser of two evils.2 Figaro


By the Book: The Fox and the Hound

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

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

1. Twisting the source

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

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

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

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

2. A look at the basics

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

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

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

3. On its own merits

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

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

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

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

4. The Soundtrack

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

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

The German version translates to:

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

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

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


By the Book: 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