Tag Archives: Disney

By the Book: Peter Pan

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

1. The Setting

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

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

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

2. The Animation

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

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

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Do I have to say more?

3. The Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. The Plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Soundtrack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Conclusion

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

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


By the Book: Tarzan

So, in order to give my readers here a little bit more content, I have decided to continue with uploading my old “By the Book” series…with one little change. One of the reasons I have been holding off on this for so long is that I have already covered most book-based movies which have no or only a handful of songs. If I would continue with the current format for this, the section for the song-discussion would become incredible long. For example, I have been writing on and off about the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack (yes, I haven’t forgotten, I am working on it), and even though I am not even half through, it is already a beast of an article (pun not intended). So for the sake of keeping it brief, I have decided to keep the soundtrack discussion more general instead of going into deep analysis.

In the case of Tarzan this makes double sense. I just had the opportunity to watch the musical adaptation and it was very interesting to see how much of the story was changed for the stage, and how the new songs fit in. In case you are wondering: I liked the stage play. I often feel that it is somewhat pointless to watch them because they rarely have something to offer which you don’t get in the movie, too, but in this case, the stage play has managed to step out of the shadow of the movie just far enough to be worth discussing – in another article.

Let’s focus on the movie for now, and on the books it was based on. Which means I have to briefly address the Jungle Book, too, since it is fairly obvious were the inspiration for the Tarzan book series came from. And to be honest: Between those two stories about a child which grew up in the jungle, Mowgli is definitely the better pick. If you ask me, the idea behind Tarzan is better than the stories themselves. An old idea in a crowd pleasing format, which is mostly notable due to its revolutionary marketing strategy. Tarzan is not just a book, it is a trademark (copyright is limited, trademark rights aren’t), and Burroughs did his very best to make as many money out of his idea as possible. He was warned that the public would get tired of his character if he created too much around him. Ignoring all those warnings he wrote book after book and gave the audience as much Tarzan as possible – and the audience couldn’t get enough of “their hero”.

1. The Setting

Burrough never visited Africa. And that’s all you really need to know. His idea of the jungle is some sort of exotic place, a fairy tale land in which he can add dangers however he likes. He also didn’t really bother to do his research. For example Sabor was originally a tiger, until someone informed him that there are no tigers in Africa (which is the reason the “piranhas live in South-America” discussion in the Disney movie cracks me up every time). Therefore he changed it to a female lion (female because there already was a name for a male lion mentioned in the stories), but that doesn’t really work either because lions live in the veldt, not in the jungle.

Disney’s take is more realistic. The audience nowadays is more aware which animals actually live where. It’s also much more sensitive about racial issues, the movie therefore painstakingly avoids to show any “native tribes” living in the jungle. The movie also takes much more care to portray the fauna correctly. Consequently Tarzan grows up with Gorillas instead of a non-existing kind of humanlike apes, Sabor is a Leopard and the Jungle in general feels more like an existing place than some sort of phantasy land.

2. The Animation

Tarzan is a gorgeous movie. Not quite as gorgeous as The Lion King, but it does take full advantage of the setting, especially when Tarzan shows Jane his world. But where the movie really shines is the character animation. The movements are fluid, and there are a number of scenes in which a lot of said through gestures rather than words. I think the most memorable scene of the whole movie is when Tarzan compares his hand to Jane’s. There is so much meaning in this one moment when Tarzan realizes that he might not be the only one of his kind after all, while Jane is finally able to calm down and truly take a look at this weird wild creature which just rescued her, seeing the humanity in his eyes. It’s not just the hands and the call-back to the earlier scene with Kala which makes this moment work, it is also the facial expression of the two characters.

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In addition, this is one of those stories practically made for animation. There is only so much a real human can do, but an animated Tarzan is able to swing through the trees like an ape (and sometimes like a surfer). I guess it might be possible to find an acrobat who is able to do some of this stuff, but finding one who is also looking the part and is also a good actor is a nearly impossible task. Consequently this Tarzan is vastly superior compared to all the other versions out there. 37 tarzan6

3. The Characters

Burrough’s  Tarzan is the most perfect human being ever. Not only is he physically stronger than any human being and fights lions with his bare hands, he also teaches himself to read and write, learns later dozens of languages with no trouble at all, is a good shot even though he doesn’t believe in guns, in short, there is nothing Tarzan can’t do. While in most adaptation Tarzan needs some time to truly adjust to humans, in the books he has no trouble at all to act like a “normal” human being. He even lives some time in England. But he doesn’t feel comfortable with the rules of human society (mainly with the ranks, which don’t make sense for him) and prefers to go back to his jungle ways whenever he can. Oh, and on top of this, it turns out that he is rich, an earl and a natural leader.

Disney’s Tarzan is more realistic, and heavily influenced by the Movies and TV series made about him, mainly the Weißmüller movie series. This is where the sound of Tarzan’s yell was established and this is the source of the “I Tarzan, you Jane” dialogue (even though it never happens this way in the English version). The learning curve of Disney’s Tarzan is a more realistic one, and the only notable talent aside from his powerful physic is the ability to imitate every sound he hears, and both are explained with his upbringing.

The original Jane Porter can be summoned up with three words: Damsel in Distress. In the first novels she doesn’t have much of a character aside from being “the one” for Tarzan, and getting rescued by him all the time. Though, to her credit, she is a woman of integrity. Later (waaaaaay later) on she gets a few abilities of her own. But make no mistake: This is not an equal relationship. Burroughs view on the natural order in the relationship between males and females shines through in all novels and basically comes down to the female being happy to serve the strongest protector.

37 janeheadDisney’s Jane Porter is kind of a damsel in distress, too, but not in a bad way. Following the lead of many other adaptations, she is British instead of American (I guess because the more stiff British society provides a better contrast to the Jungle than the American one). But above all: she is smart, she is just as much of a scientist as her father is. Disney offers the audience a full-fledged female character. When she is in distress, it makes sense, because she is in an environment which is unfamiliar to her. But she does learn, at the end of the movie she might not be as good as Tarzan in jumping from tree to tree, but competent enough to hold on her own, which is a far cry from the usual “Jane sitting in a treehouse” scenarios of earlier adaptations. And she has just as much to teach to Tarzan as he can teach her, which includes way more than just the human language. I also like the detail that it’s not Tarzan’s physic which captures her interest the most, but his eyes.37 jporter22

Jane’s father is mostly just that. In the book he seems to exist mostly because a woman back then would normally stay with her family until marriage. And she certainly wouldn’t travel alone, so to get Jane to Africa, the father has to be there. The Disney version underlines the father aspect more, though. When it comes to father figures in animated movies, Professor Porter is certainly one of the better ones. While not exactly an authority figure, he isn’t stupid either, and is neither overly controlling nor neglectful towards his daughter. He is supportive and has a keen eye for her feelings and needs.

When it comes to the animal characters, they are in the books exactly that. They don’t have (nor need) a lot of personality, they simply act like the author thinks animals would act. It naturally wouldn’t be a Disney movie if the animals didn’t talk, so they get some distinctive character traits: Terk is being a tomboy, Tantor is portrayed as fussy germaphobe. They aren’t exactly layered characters, but they have just enough personality to be somewhat memorable.  It’s notable though that Tarzan can talk to them, but Jane can’t, at least not until she imitates Tarzan.

And then there is the villain – Imho opinion the greatest weakness of the movie. Clayton in the book is somewhat pathetic, but he is much more interesting. He is actually Tarzan’s cousin, who unwittingly usurped his inheritance, and his rival for Jane’s affection. Most of the time he serves as some sort of foil for Tarzan, though, and it’s heavily suggested that his physical weakness compared to him is a mirror of his weak character. While he wants to act honourable, he often takes the cowardly way out. Still, the book version of Clayton has a lot of potential and some pathos.

37 clayton33Movie Clayton on the other hand is a fairly boring villain. While it is a good thing that he isn’t interested in Jane (this would be too much like Beauty and the Beast), greed is really the most overused motivation to pick, especially in a movie about white people entering a native or untouched world. I think this would work much better if Clayton were another scientist and his motivation were more along the lines of taking gorillas (and Tarzan) with him to study them. It would have been a nice contrast to Jane’s and Professor Porters less intrusive approach. Plus, historically speaking, so called explorer have done at least as much damage in their thirst for knowledge than people who were just interested in financial gain. Either way, that’s not the approach Disney picked, and I should judge Clayton based on what he is and not based on what I want him to be. What makes him ultimately a failure as a Disney Villain is that he is too obvious.

Yes, I know, Disney Villains tend to be the epitome of evilness. But in this movie we have a character who is, in a way, part of the close circle around the heroes. This means he has to act in a way which at least makes it believable that the characters wouldn’t suspect him of any ill-will. We need at least a clever manipulator like Mother Gothel or Scar, but even better would be a character, whose betrayal even surprises the audience. Clayton is so obviously evil, I keep wondering why Professor Porter hired him in the first place.

4. The Plot

You could summon up the plot of the novel like this: boy grows up in jungle, kills many enemies, boy becomes king of the jungle, boy meets white girl, boy confronts civilization, boy gives up on girl (though naturally not forever). It’s basically the kind of story I expect from a dime novel (well, Tarzan is pulp fiction, so this is not surprising), a clever mix of adventure and romance which speaks to a broad audience, but, honestly, not particularly well written. The characters are mostly stereotypes and the dialogues are full of unnecessary melodrama.

In the Disney version, the focus is not on the love story or on Tarzan confronting civilization, though both aspects are still there. No, the focus is where it should be, on Tarzan trying to figure out where he belongs. To achieve this, Disney took a lot of elements from the novel and remixed it in a clever way. I normally don’t summarize the plot of the movies I review because I expect that my readers already know the basic plot, but in this case I’ll make an exception. For one because it seems to me that this is the best way to point out how Disney twisted the novel around and two, there are some concerns I have concerning the plot which are easier to discuss in context.

So, the movie starts with a couple fleeing in a boat from a burning ship (in the novel Tarzan’s parents get marooned, but really, same difference). We get a nice montage showing how the couple creates a home for themselves in the Jungle. This part is actually way more detailed in the novel, but really, in the great scheme of things it’s not really that important, so it’s a good thing that Disney puts the whole origin of Tarzan into one song.  Tarzan’s real parents are really well done, and there is some outstanding animation which shows how worried his father is about the situation, and how much courage they both show in their fight for survival. We then get a really well done scene in which Kala loses her child to Sabor and then discovers Tarzan, whose parents were killed by Sabor, too. She convinces her mate Kerchak to give her permission to raise Tarzan.

Now, this is a big change from the book, because there Kerchak is the one who killed Tarzan’s father (the mother already died, most likely from child birth), and Kala isn’t his mate, she is just part of the troop. When Tarzan becomes stronger and stronger, killing some powerful enemies, Kerchak sees him more and more as a treat and finally attacks. Tarzan kills him and takes over his position as a leader. But I like the Disney approach better, because it introduces a more compelling conflict. As sad as it is to watch Tarzan having to deal with constant rejection, it is understandable where Kerchak is coming from. It also leads to some of the best scenes in the movie when Kala tries to comfort Tarzan. 37 Disney_Tarzan_by_zaratus

Though I have to say that overall, the scenes from his childhood are a little bit dissatisfying. I love everything related to Kala, and how the movie explains the iconic yell, I also like Tarzan’s resourcefulness. But the scenes between him, Terk and Tantor, they don’t really work, I guess mostly because they both are reduced to “the tomboy” and “the phobic”. A little bit more exploration of their unlikely friendship (even pointing out that elephants usually don’t hang around with gorillas) would have been nice.

You can divide the Disney movie into two parts. The first part is about Tarzan growing up and ends with him killing Sabor, which, I guess, kind of mirror’s Tarzan killing Kerchak in the original novel, since in both cases the kill changes his status in the troop. But I think, Disney missed an opportunity there. While Tarzan is kind of accepted after this deed, the scene between Kerchak and Tarzan is interrupted to early. This would have been the perfect moment not necessarily to accept Tarzan as son but at least to accept him as part of the troop. Tarzan just rescued him and killed the enemy who was a danger for the whole troop for years, the enemy which killed Kerchak’s child. Plus, if Tarzan already had this kind of acceptance, everything which happens in the second part of the movie would have more of an impact.

Now, Tarzan in the novel is well aware of what he is. There is a tribe in vicinity, though relations are – strained, to put it politely, considering that one of the hunters killed Kala. Jane is not special because she is the first woman he met, but the first white woman he comes across (yes, I know, but when I start to rage about every piece of racist and misogynistic BS in this novel, this review will be endless). And the story focusses mostly on the heritage which is rightfully Tarzan’s.

37 kerchackIn the Disney movie on the other hand, it’s Tarzan’s heritage as a human which matters, not title or money. He grew up in the belief that there is no one like him. And now he suddenly discovers that he is not alone, that there are other people exactly like him. People who show him more acceptance than he gets from Kerchak. And that’s the first reason why an early understanding between those two would have caused a better dynamic in the movie (aside from making Kerchak’s desire to protect his people more relatable for the audience). It would have resulted into Tarzan being more torn about approaching the humans.

Either way, from this point onward all similarities with the novel end (thankfully), since the novel describes Tarzan leaving the jungle. The movie is more about Tarzan deciding if he should leave or not. I give it a lot of credit for making Tarzan’s learning curve believable. I give it even more credit for making the learning process a two way street. It puts the science of Jane’s world in contrast with the beautiful nature of Tarzan’s world, without being judgmental about it. Both worlds have their advantages, and both worlds have the dangers, and Jane is as fascinated by Tarzan’s world as Tarzan is by hers. This part is very well done, though, again, a scene between Kerchak and Kala talking about Tarzan’s activities would have been nice, with him warning her that Tarzan will slip away, perhaps even telling her that this is where Tarzan really belongs.

37 kalaIn the end the ship arrives, Clayton tricks Tarzan into believing that Jane will stay if she sees Gorilla’s and we end up with the most idiotic scene in the movie. Sorry, but this part was really not thought through by the animators. One, the way Terk and Tantor lure Kerchak away is just stupid and the idea that he would fell for it idiotic. Two, I get why Tarzan would bring Jane, but why Clayton with his riffle? At this point he should know how dangerous this weapon is, why would he allow it close to his family? Three, after Kerchak discovers what Tarzan has done, why doesn’t he move the troop elsewhere? Up to this point he was a very careful leader, and now he just stays at a place which has just become unsafe?

Anyway, this is reason two why an earlier understanding between Kerchak and Tarzan would have worked so much better. If Tarzan’s task to protect the family had been more like the final hurdle on the way to acceptance, an opportunity to proof himself once and for all, his decision to throw this away would have been a more tragic one. And could have led to a conversation more along the line of “you are drawn to them, your heritage is stronger than your loyalty”, instead of putting the focus on the “you ignored my orders” part. It’s weird because Tarzan is so clearly wrong, but the movie seems to encourage the audience to root for him, I guess mostly because there isn’t enough time spend on Kerchak’s concerns, and because Tarzan has been rejected so often already.

Well, eventually we get the climax, with a lot of fighting, a little bit fun in-between and finally Kerchak’s dead. And again: how much better would this scene be, if Kerchak were killed protecting just Tarzan and not Tarzan and Kala. That he would protect her is kind of a given. Giving everything for Tarzan’s protection, and his protection alone, would be the kind of finale gesture which would me actually care about his dead. As it is the scene puzzles me, especially since (and this is reason number three why an earlier acceptance would be the right way to go) it doesn’t make much sense to me that he would suddenly accept Tarzan after the mess he caused. Yes, he came back. But the whole act of protection wouldn’t be necessary if he had followed Kerchak’s advice earlier, Kerchak is dying because of his mistake, the biggest mistake Tarzan ever made, and now he suddenly accepts him as his son? If Disney were really gutsy he would die without Tarzan ever getting the acceptance he craved, but deciding to take over the responsibility for troop nevertheless, because that’s the only thing he can do for Kerchak, protect the family which is so important for both of them. I think it would have been a really good lesson to put across that sometimes you can’t correct the consequences of your actions; that you should be careful not to squander away the chances you get. But if you really go for a somewhat happy ending with Kerchak calling Tarzan his son, this would have made much more sense if there were prior indications that he felt this way beforehand and was just unable to admit it.

Thankfully the ending puts the movie back on track. The villain is defeated in one of the more memorable villain deaths, Jane decides to stay in the jungle with Tarzan and the audience gets a really great end sequence, showing Tarzan and Jane surfing through the jungle side-by-side, ending the movie on a high note. 37 tarzanjane

5. The Soundtrack

This movie often gets a lot of flak for its soundtrack. Yes, it’s Phil Collins. So what? To me it looks like the complaining about the music is mostly based on Phil Collins being particularly popular with woman. So it’s apparently unmanly to like the music. Well, suck it up, the songs in this movie are really, really good.

Some people are also complaining because they are sung from the off and not by the characters, with the exception of Kala starting “You’ll be in my heart” as some kind of lullaby. But really, can you imagine Tarzan starting to sing? Yeah, I don’t think so. Now you could argue that the songs are not really needed. But with the notable exception of “Destroying the Camp” (which has no text at all), they all have the purpose of providing some narration when the movie skips forward in time. I also like that the songs, while commenting what is going on, don’t spell it out too directly. They offer more an additional layer to what the audience sees on screen.

6. Conclusion

Yeah, I don’t really like the books. I think they are a classic example of someone writing a mediocre story based on a really good idea, and I hate the stereotypes and the sexism in them. I’m normally fast with excusing old fashioned views in older media, because I think it’s stupid to expect them to be conform to modern ideals. But even I have my limits and I still need something compelling in the book, movie or whatever, something which makes it worthwhile to sit through this kind of drivel, and I can’t find anything of this kind in those books.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m not a Tarzan fan. There was a phase in my childhood during which I watched every Movie and TV-Show about Tarzan I could get my hands on. Until I realized that most of them work the same way (there are intruders in the Jungle, at one point either Tarzan or Jane (or both) end up in dire danger, Tarzan yells, the elephants turn up to destroy everything in sight, Tarzan defeats the intruders, the end). I actually don’t know why I was so obsessed with those movies. Tarzan being less talented than in the books certainly helped to make him a more sympathetic hero, and in some of the adaptations Jane is pretty resourceful, but that doesn’t change the fact that the stories are pretty simple. Though, this might be exactly why they worked so well. It was more about the notion of living in an interesting and colourful world, in which Tarzan is able to make up his own rules, than about the actual plot.

Disney’s take on the source material has all the usual elements, but also adds thoughtful moments and gives the character some new layers. This is a story which was practically made for an animated movie, with its exotic location and the options to design a human who moves at least partly like an animal. All this makes Disney’s take on Tarzan certainly worth a watch. It might not be perfect, but I consider it the best and most thoughtful adaptation of the source material so far. Except maybe the musical, which avoids a lot of the story problems I listed above. But that is a discussion for another day.

37 tarzan12


Nine Properties I would love to see as Animated Series

So, Disney has apparently decided that they should do animated TV-Shows based on their properties again. And why not? DreamWorks already does it, and it worked just fine back in the 1990s. And to be honest, the properties they picked this time around have a lot of more potential than the ones they did back then. I really look forward to the Tangled TV-Series because I really wanted to know how Rapunzel learns to adjust to the life out of the tower (though I do fear that Disney might end up going for something more shallow in an attempt to appeal to the perceived target demographic), and Big Hero 6 is practically made for being a TV -Series.

This got me thinking, though. Are there any other properties I would actually like to see as animated TV series? And what would they look like? So I considered and came up with a small list, not just of Disney movies which would work particularly well as a TV show, but also some untapped book properties as well as some franchises which I think could do really well with a shift to animated TV. I ended up with nine, because I didn’t feel the need to force this into being a proper top ten, especially since this isn’t a ranking at all, I sorted them based on the year of creation. After all, every adaptation can potentially be good – there are just some properties which are more suited for a TV shows than others.


The Letter for the King (1962)

What is it about?

It’s a book by Tonke Dragt, set in a kind of medieval setting. It tells the story about Tuiri, a young man who is about to become a knight. His last test is spending a night thinking about the path he is about to take in a chapel, when suddenly he is confronted with the decision to either fulfil this last test or listen to a request for help, thus abandoning his knighthood. He naturally does the latter (or it would be a really short book), and starts a very dangerous journey, trying to deliver an important letter to another kingdom, while being followed by a number of different enemies.

Why do I want it?

The book has been adapted into a movie once, but that went as well as you can expect when you cram a story about travelling to a number of different places into a relatively short running time. The character moments kind of got lot along the way, which was a shame, since the story is actually not that much to write home about unless you are really invested in the struggle of the character, and a number of different scenarios, which simply can’t be rushed but need room to breath. In addition, the story is a little bit episodic from the get go, meaning Tiuri reaches a place, deals with some sort of hurdle to overcome, and then goes to the next place. It could easily fill 20 to 30 episodes if handled right. And if the first season is successful, well, there is a second book about the adventures of Tiuri, which is just as good if not better.

How should the series look like?

I’ll be honest here: There is no particular reason for this to be an animated series, it could work in live action TV just as well – with a proper budget. And that is kind of the problem, because I doubt that any network would spend that much money on some strange European property, no matter how well-known it is in a number of countries. American networks and studios are a little bit snobby in this regard. But if they do an animated series, I would prefer classical animation in a style reminiscent of medieval art and paintings. It needs to look kind of romantic but also colourful.


Voyagers! (1982-1983)

What is it about?

It’s a mostly forgotten but still beloved by those who know it TV-series about time-travelling. You have a time-traveller, a child who accidentally becomes his partner and one of the greatest time travelling device ever created in the Omni. The episodes are about fixing history – meaning something went wrong at one point and the protagonists have to ensure that history goes the way it was supposed to.

Why do I want it?

While the show had a lot of flaws, mainly due to its very American perspective on history, it was also very educational. It is one of the main reasons I ever developed an interest in history and how it affects us today. I think we need another show like this, which teaches children something in a fun way. I am usually not into time travel at all, but the fact that the Voyagers worked outside of time sidestepped a number of possible paradoxes. I guess you could also simply reboot the show for Live-Action TV, but I am hopeful for it catching on better the second time around. If you go for multiple seasons, you have the problem that the child actor will age out of the role pretty fast (the original one had only three season which run in a less than two years, and the child-actor had already hit a grown spurt by the end of it, which put him pretty firmly in the teen category). So, animated it is.

How should the series look like?

The original show had a few steampunk elements to it, and I would like a remake doubling down on this, at least when it comes to the design of the Voyager Headquarter. I also think that it would be important to portray the historic figures in it as adequate as possible. I am not sure if CGI is able to do that, and Stop-Motion has always a weird feeling to it. So (surprise, surprise), traditional animation is it. I actually think I would like the Disney style, along the lines of what they did in the short “Ben and I”.


The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

What is it about?

Well, animation fans should know this hidden gem from the Disney canon. In short, it is the story about a Mouse-version of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.

Why do I want it?

It is kind of a no-brainer, really. During the 1990s, Disney made direct-to-video sequels and TV-shows about more or less everything, but somehow they mostly managed to miss out the properties, which were perfect for some kind of sequel. The Great Mouse Detective could be a wonderful detective series for children and young adults, and between the book series the movie was based on and the actual Sherlock Holmes stories, there is a lot of material to draw from. They could even introduce an early version of the Rescue Aid Society at one point, thus suggesting that Basil belongs in the same universe as The Rescuers, just in a different time period.

How should the series look like?

Like the movie, naturally. The style is perfect for TV anyway.


Harry Potter (1997-2007)

What is it about?

Do I really have to explain? It’s Harry Potter, you need to have lived under a rock to not at the very least know the basics.

Why do I want it?

Mostly because I always felt that the movies were really dissatisfying. I loved the sets, the costumes (mostly), and they were an okay watch overall, but there was so much lost in the adaptation that I really, really want a better one. But I don’t think that the audience would accept another one anytime soon, plus, even if you would redo the movies already knowing which details would become important later on and which not, it would still be nearly impossible to cram all the information into movie lengths. So why not a TV series? An animated one, to ensure that the actors don’t grow out of their roles, and to allow some creativity when it comes to spell-casting. Though it would be important that the creators take the book series serious and don’t dumb down the themes in it.

How should the series look like?

Ever seen Harry Potter Fanart? Yeah, something along the line of the most popular artists would be great. I also want to add that while I want a version which allows the different story-arcs some room to breath, it doesn’t have to be a slavish one-to-one adaptation of the books. There is certainly a little bit room for improvement, some details which could and should be added in order to avoid some of the plot holes.


Operation Nautilus (2001-2001)

What is it about?

It’s a book series by Wolfgang Hohlbein, also called Captain Nemo’s Children. It is set around the time of the first World War, and describes how a group of teens end up commandeering the Nautilus (yes, THAT Nautilus), finding traces of the Atlantian Civilisation at the bottom of the ocean while evading the war ships.

Why do I want it?

Well, for starters, the teens in the series all have different nationalities, meaning they are working together while their respective nations are at war with each other. I have the feeling that this is a message which will be desperately needed in the upcoming years. But it is also one of the book series which had a number of great ideas, but doesn’t really work that well as a whole. Really, don’t get me started on how much it went of the rails, and how terrible and contrived the finale was. I would love to see someone take another stab at the concept, using the best ideas of the book and building on them, step by step. Basically I want a more or less original series based on the concept and the characters of the book series.

How should the series look like?

In this case, I can see every form of animation working just fine, as long as the result doesn’t look too cartoony. The story might be fantasy, but it is set in a realistic setting, and the animation should reflect that.


Treasure Planet (2002)

What is it about?

Another of Disney’s overlooked gem. The movie is basically Treasure Island in Space steampunk style. Disney actually did plan a series based on the movie, but after it bombed spectacularly, the series was scrapped.

Why do I want it?

The world of Treasure Island just look infinitely interesting. I own the DVD, and it fascinating how much thought the animators put in the working of the ships. There are a number of details which never made it into the movie. I would love to see a series exploring more of this world. Jim could go on even more travels and crazy adventures.

How should the series look like?

Well, like the movie, naturally. (I have a deja vu….).


Firefly (2002)

What is it about?

Well, Firefly is the Whedon show which infamously run for only one season but still managed to spawn a cult following and eventually a movie. It was a quite interesting concept in that it took the concept of Wild West in space a little bit more literal than even Star Trek did (and that franchse has “Trek” in its name!) going for a very dusty look during a time, in which most Science Fiction shows created a very pristine future. It also frequently experiemented with story-telling, creating some very memorable episodes in its short run.

Why do I want it?

It only run one season. Do I really have to say more? It deserves to get a proper continuation, but with the various actors having aged out of their roles by now, an animated series is the only way to make it possible without it being too grating. It could pick up where the original show left off (ignoring Serenity) and just continue the story.

How should the series look like?

I lean towards traditional animation in this case, because I think it would be easier to capture the feel of the original show in this style. Not that CGI can’t do dusty and dirty – see Rango – it’s the character animation which worries me. That can end up fast in uncanny valley territory.


Supernatural (2005-now)

What is it about?

Supernatural is the longest running Sci-Fi Series in the USA, which is frankly downright impressive. Impressive enough that I recently decided to figure out what the big deal is, proceeding to binge watch the whole show. And I actually liked it quite a lot after I discovered that it is about so much more than just two to three attractive leads experiencing a lot of man-pain (what? We all have our prejudices). There are actually a number of really creative ideas in the show which I adore. I would recommend the first five season of it to everyone – what follows is a little bit more wonky, but still has its moments.

And yes, I am aware that there is already an anime based on the show…I’ll address it later.

Why do I want it?

Unlike Firefly Supernatural is an ongoing show which still utilized the same actors. But I nevertheless would love to see a complete reboot of it. While I do like a number of ideas in the show (careful, I will now go full-on spoiler) especially the concept of not so fluffy angels or a Supernatural series becoming the Winchester Gospel and their take on the apocalypse, there are also a lot of elements which I feel prevent the show from reaching its full potential. Partly it is the format. The writers have to fill a lot of episodes, so they often drag plot-lines out or throw in detours, and since the writers change, there are sometimes elements which are just left hanging in the air, contradictions in the lore and quality shifts. Partly it is the budget. They did a fairly good job with depicting angles (love the shadow wings) and heaven, but hell has been an ongoing disappointment so far. Partly it is simply the writing. I can’t be the only one who actually wanted to see at least half a season with Godstiel being the big problem Dean and Sam have to deal with it, instead of getting one episode and then having to deal the whole season with boring black goo.

I just feel that it would be great to rewrite the whole thing, using the best story-arcs, streamlining some aspects (like the whole “the police looks for the Winchesters” thing), making some elements bigger and dropping a few more questionable decisions. I want the best of the world of Supernatural combined with visuals which aren’t possible to do on a TV budget. I want a more careful world-building, with clearer rules. And doing this in an animated show would allow for doing it without it feeling like a cheap knock-off from the get go.

To achieve that, it would be necessary that it becomes more than just a retelling. It should have its own set of twists.Which is what the Anime kind of tried to do, but more in the single episodes than in the actual myth arc. But that is exactly the place where they should start. Why not actually go for the notion of Sam being part of an army of people with tainted blood this time around instead of doing the whole “one surviver” solution, which, imho, was mostly picked because of budgets restrains? Why not changing around some stuff? Like, the whole idea of Castiel being under mind control from heaven would have actually fit was better into season 6, when there was still one archangel left. This storyline can lead into Castiel being freed of said mind control which would then make his pact with Crowley way more understandable.

Then there is Adam, who is still one big black mark on the series because he is apparently still in the cage and nobody seems to care. His character could be handled better from the get go. For example instead of repeating the whole “Adam is already death” shock (which lead to some problems down the line – death really hasn’t much meaning in the show when characters are constantly brought back as soon as it is convenient), it would be interesting of Adam is actually younger when Dean and Sam meet him, and they make the decision to leave him with a relative of his mother, hiding the Supernatural from him, because they want him to have a normal live. That would naturally cause resentment in Adam, which would be hashed out further down the line when the angels start to use him. Similar elements, different story, and the opportunity to explore some ideas which never got the attention they deserved, that’s what I want to see. In case someone is curious: I also would love to see the fight for the seals in greater detail, a more creative take on the cage, the pagan gods as a third party and more of the fight between the various angels. I also felt that the show really should have explored the relationship between Castiel and Jimmy Novak instead of forgetting about the latter for multiple season just to explain then that he has been in heaven for quite a while. And without the budget restrains, it could create a more complete world, in which the Winchester adventures actually have a large impact. What happens when there is suddenly an increase of paranormal activities which can’t be ignored, when there are people declaring themselves to be god and others who leave their families because they agreed to be a vessel or have been hijacked by a demon? There are numerous options for a rewrite, which honours the original while still being its own thing.

How should the series look like?

I discovered that I actually don’t like the Anime style at all, though my issues are more with the Anime style of storytelling than the actual drawings. See, Anime storytelling is extremely melodramatic, with a lot of telling instead of showing. But that is more or less the opposide of what makes the show work. Yeah, it is sometimes corny, but what makes it so great is the underlying realism, the constant demystificing of our beliefs. Angels are just dicks. Demons exist, but they can be defeated. Yes, it has its dramatic moments, but it can also be funny or just really horrofying. So what the show would need is a drawing style, which allows it a lot of freedom to design certain elements of it really freaky and go all creative with it. Supernatural is also a series which likes to play around a little bit on a meta-level. Therefore I like the idea of mixing different kind of animation. Normally stop motion would clash horrible with traditional animation, but it could be used here for a deliberate “off-feel”. The important part is that they pick a style which allows the characters to show a lot of emotions in their faces, as well as some really creepy imagenary. So perhaps traditional animation with a realistic touch to it is in order, but with an emphasis on the character animation.


Inside Out (2015)

What is it about?

It’s a view into the mind a girl, showing how her emotions struggle with some big changes in her life.

Why do I want it?

Of all the properties I put on this list, this is actually the one I want the least. Inside Out works just fine as stand-alone movie. But Pixar currently has a bad case of sequilities, so they will revisit one of their most successful properties sooner or later. And if they do, I just can’t see them figuring out a story which doesn’t feel like a repetition of the first movie. So, why not go smaller? Focus on small events in Riley’s everyday life, and let the emotions comment on it. And yes, that is more or less like Herman’s Head, but doing the same concept with the perspective of a teen as centre could yield a nice little show for this demographic. Just keep it small, and simple.

How should the series look like?

CGI. That’s the style of the movie and they should stick to it. I can actually see the emotions working if they based them on the concept drawings, but I somehow can’t see Riley in this style, so it would be better to stick to what works.


So, that is my list. There are other adaptations and/or sequels I would like to see at one point, but those are the ones I would love to see specifically as animated TV show. What do you think? Do you agree with my picks? Or do you have some ideas on your own? I would love to hear about them.

 

 

 


The Swanpride Award: And the Winner is….

The Top Three:

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

I think you could give each of those movies the award without any argument. But I do have to pick one, and this time, I’ll go mostly for personal taste in my decision. At this point the movies in questions are too close together quality-wise and too different in structure to do otherwise.

My least favourite of those three is easily Princess Mononoke. It is a movie I appreciate, but I don’t really connect to it on an emotional level. I also have some trouble with the way gore is portrayed in the movie. This might sound strange, but it is a little bit too artsy. How can you really get the point across if the violence shown looks that, well, good? It kind of undermines how dire those situations are.

Now, neither Beauty and the Beast nor Fantasia are perfect. I already mentioned the high number of animation snafus in Beauty and the Beast, but I didn’t mention the fluid timeline. The movie always leaves the impression that Belle and the Beast spend a lot of time with each other, a notion which is underlined by the fact that the movie goes from green pastures to winter in just a few frames. But the whole movie actually happens within a couple of days, maybe four or five tops. In a way, though, it is an impressive trick which makes the relationship between Belle and the Beast more believable. Even though they barely spend time with each other it feels as if they know each other for ages.

The big downside of Fantasia is the pacing. This sounds like a strange complain concerning a movie which consists of a number of segments which could be exchanged at will, but, well as much as I like Fantasia, I always had trouble to sit through the Rite of Spring segment, which is considerably longer than the others. And while I think that Fantasia is wonderful love letter to animation, it sometimes doesn’t go far enough for my taste. I once ranked all the Fantasia segments which Disney ever made and only one of the top three were from the original Fantasia. Even though the movie also provided half of the top ten segments, I can’t help but thinking that Fantasia while good could have been even better. Still, it is one of those “one of a kind movie” (despite its sequel) which will always stand out.

In the end, there is only one decision I can make. The winner of the Swanpride Award for the best movie of the 20th century is:

Swanpride-Award-Winner.jpg

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST!!!

 

Yes, I go with the obvious choice, the movie which was also picked by my readers. In multiple rounds of voting, Beauty and the Beast was the one movie which never got a single vote against it. And it is to this day the only traditional animated movie which ever got an academy award nomination for best picture and it will always the only animated movie which was honoured this way before the academy expanded the list from five to ten.

There were a lot of movies on my way to this final choice, which were endorsed more by me than anyone else. Sometimes because the movie in question wasn’t that well-known (honestly, how many people can claim that they actually saw “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” the way it should be seen, in an old-style movie theatre with a live-orchestra?), sometimes because I ignored the more popular movie in favour for a more challenging one. But Beauty and the Beast is one of the few movies which has everything. It is a movie which pleases the audience while still having a meaningful story to tell. It is a technical achievement which is not all about the new gimmick. It is the kind of movie which will withstand the test of time, because it will always be as meaningful as it was the day it was created.

And I guess it is time to explain why the movie works as well as it does – at least regarding the soundtrack. I am not sure how long I’ll need to finish writing it, but expect one long article about why Beauty and the Beast has maybe the best soundtrack of all musical-style animated movies, soon.


The Swanpride Award: Top Three

Here is the Top 5:

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Tradtional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

This really isn’t getting any easier, especially since those are very different movies…with the exception of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, which are kind of similar. Same song writers, a lot of the same animators and the same method to address a larger issue in the structure of a fairy tale. Looking at them side by side, though, I think the Beauty of the Beast does it a little bit better. It does have what I consider Alan Menken’s and Howard Ashman’s best soundtrack, perhaps the best soundtrack of all Disney movies, not just in terms of the music, but also in the terms of how the songs are used. It also doesn’t undermine the message of the movie at any point, and it doesn’t take the detours The Little Mermaid takes. I think only one those two should be in the top three, and while The Little Mermaid introduced a great concept for a Disney Princess movie, Beauty and the Beast improved on it on every turn and therefore deserves to be in the top three.

And I guess it is time for The Secret of Nimh to go. All the other movies on the list are highly influential. The Secret of Nimh isn’t. It is mostly retreating the familiar Disney paths, not the ones Disney was walking on in the 1980s, but the ones Disney used to frequent when Walt Disney was still active in the Studio and kept pushing it to new highs. It is a really good movie, easily Don Bluth best, but it doesn’t have the overall impact the other movies (including The Little Mermaid) had. And while it is good, there are some points one has to overlook to enjoy the movie, like the presence of a magical stone in a story about science. So the top three is:

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

That is actually kind of disappointing because those are mostly the expected choices. But I guess, quality always finds its audience eventually.

So, let’s take a look at the readers choice. Lady and the Tramp, the Great Mouse Detective and The Iron Giant fall out of the competition. This is the list of movies left:

 

By the time I am posting this, the main Christmas Celebration in Germany is already over. I hope you all have a Christmas which is at least as much fun as mine was.


The Swanpride Award: The Top Five

The Top Ten:

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by Lotte Reiniger, Silhouette

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

Sleeping Beauty (1959), Walt Disney, Traditional

Watership Down (1978), Martin Rosen, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Tradtional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

The Nighmare before Christmas (1993), Skellington/Disney, Stop Motion

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Kicking off five movies from this list will be really hard. So, what should the best movie of the century have? It should have great music. Well, all of those movies have great soundtrack, with the possible exception of Grave of the Fireflies, which only has a good one. It should have fluid, top notch animation. Which brings me back to Watership Down, which is easily the cheapest looking in this line-up (not in general, but compared to what the other movies have to offer). And it should have memorable characters in a meaningful story.

Mmm….I already wrote that Grave of the Fireflies is meaningful, but not really in the way it was intended to be. That is an aspect which can’t be overlooked during the judgement. The Adventures of Prince Achmed made it so far because it is a really impressive and in its own way influential movie, but its one big weakness are the characters and the story. This is a fairy tale full of very simple characters and the fact that it is a silent movie can no longer be an excuse for this.

The Nightmare before Christmas is another one which mainly made it that far due to its memorable soundtrack, weird designs and top-notch animation. The story is also quite good but where I kind of struggle is when I look at the characters. I still think that Jack is the only truly memorable one in the movie.

Okay, those are four movies….I still have to kick-off one.  And now I am REALLY in trouble. Because this will be the first time I will decide totally against my personal taste. I love Sleeping Beauty. I think it is a really underrated movie and deserves to be praised to the heavens because it is one of the most unusual pieces of animation out there. There simply is no other movie which has ever been animated like this. It is also a way more influential movie than most people realize (partly because it is always forgotten how old this movie is). More or less every fantasy movie which came after it copied some of the designs. The Swan Princess ripped off this movie left and right. Disney itself reused some of the best parts. The dance in the end turns up again at the end of Beauty and the Beast, Jafar in Aladdin is basically a less threatening copy of Maleficent, The Lion King reused the idea with the tree bridge (and made it more iconic in the process).

If this award session would be based only on personal taste, Sleeping Beauty would at the very least end up in the top three…it might even end up the overall winner. But I need to consider every angle and there is no denying that there are some pacing problems (mainly the scene with the kings being too long) and plot contrivances which I can’t overlook. It is a hard decision, but the top five animated movies of the 20th century are:

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Tradtional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Well, in the readers choice selection, Sleeping Beauty also was just voted out, alongside with Charlotte’s Web, The Nightmare before Christmas, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and The Prince of Egypt. Tomorrow I’ll add picks to the list one last time, since I don’t think that there will be much of a change in the voting of the past articles. So, last chance to put any movie from the late 1980s forward. And another chance to kick up to five movies off the list.

 

 


The Swanpride Award: Final Selection

Time to see, which movies are still in the run:

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by Lotte Reiniger, Silhouette

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

Sleeping Beauty (1959), Walt Disney, Traditional

Yellow Submarine (1968), Georg Dunning, Traditional

Watership Down (1978), Martin Rosen, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Disney, Traditional

Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Tradtional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

The Nighmare before Christmas (1993), Skellington/Disney, Stop Motion

Ghost in the Shell (1995), Mamoro Oshii, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

The Iron Giant (1999), Warner Bros, Traditional

14 Movies and to my big surprise, only six of them are Disney productions, one of them not even done by the animation studio. But that is mostly because Disney tends to release their best movies in a row, so often outstanding Disney movies knocked other really great ones out of the competition.

I am not surprised, though, that most of the movies are traditionally animated. The 20th century was the century of traditional animation. I guess the 21th century will be the century of CGI.

Naturally my readers didn’t always agree with me. In some years, there simply were a number of good movies and sometimes I picked a fairly unknown movie over a very well-known one. I admit, though, that I am very happy that nobody so far has used the “other” option at my polls – well, someone did, but since he or she didn’t bother to comment what should have won instead, I guess at the very least I got the nomination lists right.

Now, tomorrow I will narrow down the list to ten, then to five, then to three and then I will decide on the final winner. I’ll deal with the movies my readers voted for a little bit different. Mostly because it would be premature to close the polls for the last movies I discussed. So here is what I’ll do: I’ll put every movie anyone has ever voted for on a list, but from those articles which have been up at least one week. Everyday you can vote out five which you don’t think deserve the overall win. And everyday I will add new movies which got votes later to the list. I guess this way we should be able to find a readers choice winner by new year.


The Swanpride Award: 1989 and 1990

Taken into consideration:

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

All Dogs go to Heaven (1989), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Traditional

The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Disney, Traditional

The Nutcracker Prince (1990), Paul Schibli, Traditional

Peter in Magicland (1990), Wolfgang Urchs, Traditional

I am actually not sure why I put The Nutcracker Prince and Peter in Magicland on the list in the first place. Perhaps because they are both Christmas movies, and I needed some cheering up after all the grimness I slogged through in the last week. I guess I have forgotten that I don’t like The Nutcracker Prince at all. Peter in Magicland is a surprisingly well-done German production based on a German children book (well, they did hire some Disney talent), and certainly a good watch the same way the Rankin/Bass holiday movies are a good watch. But let’s stick to the masters of the trade for now.

Nominees-1989-and-1990

Nominated:

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

All Dogs go to Heaven (1989), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Traditional

The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Disney, Traditional

So, one last time a big break-down of the movies in question. And look, nothing depressing in sight this time around!

  • The Story: I love the premise of Kiki’s Delivery Service. I don’t like the execution of it. Let me explain: The story is basically about Kiki having to learn to stand on her own feet. And she has to do so in the worst way possible, not step by step but she is practically on her own from one day to another. And then the movie does something which really angered me: It starts removing obstacles. In a way, the bakers take the place of her parents, providing her with a place to stay, the basics to start her business, they even find Kiki her first customer. The whole thing is not just utterly dishonest, it creates a giant plot problem. Because the actual challenges were moved out of the way by the writers, they now have to make up problems for Kiki. Some of them work, like her struggling with delivering a package (though I would have thrown that in after she already had a good start). Others don’t work at all. Especially not the part when she suddenly has trouble to fly. And the solution for it is just utterly predictable. Most boring climax ever!

    There is nothing boring about All Dogs Go to Heaven though. Of all the Don Bluth’s movies, this is the bravest one, because it is so gritty. There are criminals which actually act like criminals, there is even a depiction of hell in it. Nothing I would necessarily show smaller children, but then the redemption story-arc isn’t suited for them either. Some of the themes and references in this movie would go over their head either way, you need to be at least old enough to have seen some gangster movies to see this movie as more as just the story of a dog and an orphan.

    I have talked a lot about The Little Mermaid the last two months. To summon it up, I don’t think that the movie is a good adaptation of the source text, but it is a great movie in its own right. It is a very layered story about the relationship between parents and teenagers, an allegorical tale about growing up.

    I consider The Rescuers Down Under as the first sequel to an animated movie which can be considered at least as good as the first one.  Nowadays we have gotten used to good sequels, but back then, not only were sequels to animated movies a rarity, the few which existed were frankly awful (and they only got worse in the 1990s). It does have one problem though that a lot of sequels have: It is the same basic story the first one had. The big difference is, though, that the first one was a detective story with adventure elements thrown in. This one is action adventure pure. It doesn’t have the layers something like The Little Mermaid has, but in terms of danger and suspense, it delivers in spades. My only real gripe with it is the ending. There are too many plot points left open (like the fact that Cody’s mother believes him dead and that a number of animals are still imprisoned in McLeach’s cave).

  • The Characters: Kiki is a very likable character. Even if she is sometimes foolish in her enthusiasm, her determination to do the right and not the easy thing but always the right thing is very endearing. Even if her morals are a little bit over the top at times. There is nothing wrong with allowing someone to pay for a delivery he ordered, even when he has to cancel it in the last minute. But she means well, and that she is a genuinely nice person makes it easy to forgive her when she is acting unfair for foolish reasons.
    Everyone else is just there. None of the characters left a lasting impact on me.

    Anne Marie could have used some of those flaws. She is a little bit too nice and naïve for an orphan. But her character nevertheless works well, because it contrasts with Charlie’s opportunism. Who in turn mostly comes off as likable, because Carface is so much worse. Charlie might be a scoundrel, but there are lines he would never cross. There really aren’t that many anti-heroes in animation, and Charlie is one of the most memorable.

    Well, as I said yesterday, Ariel is great. But what about the other characters? Triton and Sebastian have both their own little arc, which ties in perfectly with main story. They are both flawed, but their flaws are understandable and easily to relate to. Eric has just enough character to be not totally boring. Ursula is exactly the mix of flamboyance and sneakiness I want in a Disney Villain. All the other characters are okay. They work in the story but I can take or leave them.

    When I wrote my article about Miss Bianca, I went into great detail why she gets kind of short-shifted in Rescuers Down Under. But I like all the new characters. Jack might have the role to be Bernard’s rival, but Disney avoided making him a bad person. He is therefore still sympathetic and way less annoying than those kind of characters usually are. Percival C. McLeach is one of the most brutal Disney villains around, but some really good voice-acting turns him into a very personable character.  In the end, though, the movie hinges on the audience liking Cody. What can I say, somehow Disney has managed to make the notion of a heroic child who spends his time rescuing animals in the outback believable. But they also know when it is time for Cody to loose his defiance, at which point even a brave child would be terrified.

    Side note: I always wanted to read a crossover in which all those animated children who speak with animals in a world no-one else can (Penny, Anne-Marie, Cody) meet each other.

  • The Music: I would describe the Soundtrack of Kiki’s Delivery service as serviceable. It’s a nice tune which does exactly what it is supposed to do, but I won’t be humming it anytime soon.

    I love the jazzy tunes in All Dog’s Go to Heaven. But while I like the melody of the songs, I am sometimes not sure about the way they are sung. But they are well placed and usually have a point somewhere in the text. The exception are “What mine is yours” and “Let’s make music together”. Those are only there to fill some time.

    I already wrote a very detailed analysis of the music in The Little Mermaid last month. To summon it up, it can’t get better than Alan Menken and Howard Ashman working together. The songs are perfectly placed, the texts are clever, this is just a nearly perfect soundtrack.

    There is another aspect which is different about “The Rescuers Down Under” compared to the first movie: there are no songs. At all. Even Disney movies which aren’t musicals have usually at least one song in it. But nope, not this one. It is all score, and from the very first minute, it catches your attention. I can’t describe it, I have to show it off:

    That is the perfect combination of music and animation. Just breath-taking!

  • The Animation: As is the animation in itself! The Rescuers Down Under was the first movie for which Disney used CAPS and the result is gorgeous. It pains me that The Rescuers Down Under is one of the overlooked movies in the Disney line-up, because this is the kind animation you should have seen on the big screen at least once.

    Consequently The Little Mermaid is the last Disney movie which was done “old style”. Which is an achievement in itself. The character animation is spot on, the movements under water are convincing and I don’t even want to know how much time was spend on the big battle in the end.

    Not that All Dogs Go to Heaven has to hide. I especially dig the dark colour palette and the detailed backgrounds. That is Don Bluth in his most successful period, and it shows  in the quality of the animation.

    Compared to those three, Kiki’s Delivery Service is just okay. There is nothing wrong with its animation, but there is also nothing about it which impresses me.

Well, I guess it is clear that I consider Kiki’s Delivery Service as the weakest of those movies. The Rescuers Down Under might actually the best when it comes to music and animation, but as a whole, it sadly falls short due to some story-telling problems. All Dogs Go to Heaven is really good. The Little Mermaid is even better. Yeah, I go with the obvious choice this time around.

Since I already covered the 1990s, we are now through with the 20th century. Here is what I’ll do next: Tomorrow, I’ll post a list of the movies still in the competition and then I’ll start to narrow it down step by step by going really nit-picky on the movies, so that I’ll hopefully have an overall winner by Christmas. I will also constantly compare my choices with my readers choices (and comments), so don’t stop voting and commenting.

 

 


The Swanpride Award: The Best Animated Movie of 1985 and 1986

Taken into consideration:

The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985), Will Vinton, Claymation

Laputa Castle in the Sky (1986), Ghibli, Traditional

An American Tail (1986), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Disney, Traditional

When the Wind Blows (1986), Jimmy Murakami, Traditional/Stop motion

Valhalla (1986), Peter Madson, Traditional

Honestly, what is the deal with animated movies during that period? Why are so many of them designed to depress the audience? Especially the English ones. I thought that Plague Dogs is bleak, but that is nothing against When the Wind Blows. Which I mostly put on the consideration list because it mixes different animation techniques, and I am always interested in movies which do that. This one doesn’t do it well at all, btw. I like neither the animation nor the voice acting nor the pacing. The story…well, if you ever really wanted to watch the consequences a Third World War would have, here is your chance. But I certainly won’t discuss this one in detail.

Valhalla is a Danish movie about Norse Mythology. It is one of those middling productions. There is nothing really bad about it, but also nothing really good either. It made me hope, though, that someone else will decide to tackle Norse Mythology at one point. Perhaps now might be the right time for it. Everyone is watching the comic book version of it, Vikings is a reasonable successful show, I think an animated movies based on some of the better myths might resonate with the audience.

In any case, I ended up with four movies.

Nominees-1985-and-1986

 

Nominated:

The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985), Will Vinton, Claymation

Laputa Castle in the Sky (1986), Ghibli, Traditional

An American Tail (1986), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Disney, Traditional

The Adventures of Mark Twain is kind of the wild card in this line-up. The movie isn’t that well known, but it was for a long time (until Laika entered the frame) considered the best claymation movie. The other three, well, they are from three masters of animation. But I will discuss The Great Mouse Detective only very briefly. Mostly because I already did. If you want a detailed analysis of every aspect of the movie, you can read that article. Here I will only mention it briefly in relation to the other movies.

  • The Story: I would describe most of those movies as an adventure, with the exception of the one which has actually the word in its title. The Adventures of Mark Twain is more an experience. It’s a homage to the famous author. And as such, it only works if you already know about him and his works. Otherwise you will feel totally lost in the countless references. Actually, even if you do know it is better to not try to think too much about it. It’s the kind of story-telling you either get immersed in or you wonder why you are wasting time with this nonsense.

    Laputa on the other hand is adventure pure. The movie starts in medias res and moves from one action scene to the next. Perhaps it is a little bit too much adventure. There is a point at which the constant pattern of Sheeta escapes/is nearly captured/ escapes/ is captured by Musca/ escapes again/ is captured again/ escapes again becomes a little bit too repetitive. But otherwise it is a fun watch.

    Speaking of repetitiveness, ever noticed how often Feivel just misses encountering his family? An American Tail really goes out of its way to play with the emotion of the audience. When Feivel finally finds his family, it is really difficult not to bawl with them. But the emotional aspect  is just one side of the movie. You can watch it like a child and just enjoy the journey. But once you have acquired some knowledge about the history of America, you develop a new understanding for the movie. It shows a glimpse of the process of immigration without being too into the face about it. The reasons why a family might risk it, the hopes which get dashed by reality, how the plight of the needy is used by scrupulous people and the struggle to find a place in the new society. If I have one point of criticism, it is the way characters phase in and out of the movie. Take Tony. He encounters Feivel in one scene, turns totally randomly up again a few scenes later for a short romantic subplot and then more or less phases into the background.

    I think I like the story of The Great Mouse Detective the best, even though it does require to ignore some oddities.  But it has the most variety, offering a number of different settings and scenarios. And the best climax.

 

  • The Characters: Mark Twain is a fascinating personality, even when he is made out of clay. All the other characters in this movie are just there. They are just references to Mark Twain stories, otherwise they are as interesting as, well, a clump of clay. Whatever potential those characters have, it was never formed.

    Sheeta is a surprisingly engaging main character, considering that she mainly gets kidnapped. As is Pazu. But my favourite is Captain Dora. I just love the idea to turn a pirate captain into an old woman. Though she might be the nicest pirate ever put on screen. Honestly, she doesn’t even care that all her efforts are nearly for nothing in the end because she likes Sheeta and Pazu so much. This alliance is kind of odd, but since I enjoy every moment the movie spends on Captain Dora, and don’t mind too much.

    As much as I complained about the mass of characters in Feivel, none of them are forgettable. Even Bridget is kind of interesting in her engagement against the cats. But the heart of the movie is the relationship between Feivel and his father. If those character don’t work, the whole movie fails. Spoiler alert: they do. Feivel is exactly the right mixture of the wide-eyed innocence you would expect in a child, cleverness and determination. It is mostly the optimism which makes his father likable in the beginning. Seeing him sad and broken when he believes that Feivel died, breaks my heart every time.

    The Great Mouse Detective has it really easy in this regard. You really have to try to make Sherlock Holmes a boring character. But Basil is one of the most entertaining depiction of him and Rattigan is one of the best versions of Moriarty.

 

  • The Music: Usually I am listening to the soundtrack of the various movies while I write this segment. This proofed to be difficult for The Adventures of Mark Twain, though. Apparently the movie doesn’t have a soundtrack? Well, it naturally has a score, but it was never released independent form the movie. And trying to remember the score, I can neither say that I particularly liked or disliked it.

    The score of Laputa makes me want to fly, though. And I have a slight fear out of highs. But just listening to it I feel the wind on my face and a sense of freedom.

    But the true earworm in this selection is “Somewhere out there”. While I hate the was it is sung in the movie itself, it is a wonderful tune in general. So wonderful that I tend to forget that there are actually a number of other songs, too. Or maybe I don’t want to remember. There was a time when I could hum them all, but this is a rare case of me falling out of love with a soundtrack with each passing year. Not the score though, just the majority of the songs.

    The Great Mouse Detective on the other hand shows that Disney has recovered from its lapse in judgement in the previous movies. This is an expertly scored movie, which uses the few songs in it very deliberately.

 

  • The Animation: Claymation isn’t exactly my favourite method of animation, especially not when it is still very visible what material was used. And frankly, some of the designs in The Adventures of Mark Twain are really disturbing, and not always intentionally so. The level of skill displayed here is impressive, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a pleasing to watch.

    I guess you know what will come now: I have to discuss a Studio Ghibli movie, so it is time to praise the creativity and the quality of the world-building. Consider it done. Great animations, great designs, nothing to complain about and a lot to love.

    An American Tail is Don Bluth at his finest. I especially like it whenever the movie allows us a glimpse of the human world showing the mouse equivalent. That is really cleverly done.

    The animation of the Great Mouse Detective on the other hand is good, but it is not the best Disney can do.

 

I admit freely: Whenever I make one of those consideration list, there is usually one movie which is the “expected winner” in the back of my mind. A movie which is so well known and so beloved, that it is hard to imagine that it will be knocked from the top spot, unless it encounters another movie which is just as beloved. But I also always try to keep an open mind when I examine the strength and weaknesses of said movies, and sometimes the result surprises myself. For example, I did expect The Lion King to make it to the final round.

In this case, An American Tail seemed to be the obvious pick for the win, unless there was a surprise gem between the movies I hadn’t watched before. It was, after all, the highest grossing animated movie not made by Disney during the time of its release – and one of those movies I obsessed over after I saw it. I must have watched it dozens of times in the first year I owned it. And yet, it wasn’t my choice in the end. First Laputa turned out to be a very positive surprise. And then I re-examine The Great Mouse Detective and realized how strong this movie truly is. So I ended up with another of those “I might pick something else on another day” situations. The deciding factor was the script of The Great Mouse Detective. This is a really well-written movie with equally well-written characters which never moves in circles like the other two movie do. Therefore it is my pick for today.

 


The Swanpride Award: The Best Animated Movie of the early 1980s

 

Okay, time to cover the period I initially skipped, starting with the first half of the 1980s (meaning 1980 to 1984). All in all a quite exciting period. Not only was Don Bluth challenging Disney, Mayazaki was also involved in his first movie production. It is the start of what I dubbed the Multi-Age. And it did start with a bang.

Up for Consideration:

The Fox and the Hound (1981), Disney, Traditional

The Plague Dogs (1982), Martin Rosen, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Last Unicorn (1982), Rankin/Bass, Traditional

Les Maîtres du temps (1982), René Laloux, Traditional

Barefoot Gen (1983), Madhouse, Traditional

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind  (1984), Hayao Miyazaki/Topcraft, Traditional

Yep, that is quite an impressive list, which I have to shorten a little bit. Let’s stat with Les Maîtres du temps. Remember what I said about the last Laloux movie? That it had an interesting concept but a wonky execution? Well, I need to repeat the assessment. I love the idea of a science fiction movie about a crew trying to reach a little boy who is alone on a foreign planet, trying to keep him from danger by communicating with him. But the movie isn’t focussed, the characters change constantly based on what is needed for the story and a very stupid twist is thrown into the mix at the very end.

The second is The Plague Dogs. I have a lot of respect for this movie, especially since it is one of the few cases in which the movie version actually has the more challenging ending compared to the book version. But it lacks the more poetic aspects Watership Down had, the animation as well as the voice acting are worse and the story as a whole is so relentlessly bleak that it kills every bit of investment I might have had in the characters. I don’t mind depressing when it is done well, but an overload it only causes a feeling of numbness in me. I would say that it is even more bleak than Barefoot Gen, and that movie is about the nuclear attack on Hiroshima!

Though I scratched Barefoot Gen off the list, too, not because of its subject matter. I actually think that the movie tells a great story. But I like neither the animation nor the character designs. It is just so odd to see a story like this told with characters in it which might come from a random sport anime. Both aspects really drag this movie down. In another playing field it as well as The Plague Dogs would have made the list, but in thise one, there are four movies which are definitely stronger.Nominees-1980th-early

Nominated:

The Fox and the Hound (1981), Disney, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Last Unicorn (1982), Rankin/Bass, Traditional

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind  (1984), Hayao Miyazaki/Topcraft, Traditional

Disney and Miyazaki made the list mostly based on their animation, Don Bluth and Rankin/Bass mostly based on offering strong characters. But what about the stories of those movies?

  • The Story:  So, we have three movies based on books and one based on a Manga – though as far as I understand the Manga was mostly written to make the movie a possibility. The funny thing is that I have read neither of those books, though I do know that The Last Unicorn is the only adaptation which bothers to stick somewhat close to the source text. As far as I know, it basically only cuts out some subplots and leaves out some (arguably important) explanations. But let’s forget the books as well as the Manga and focus on the question if those movies work.The Fox and the Hound is problematic. It starts well and it has a great finale, but some of the steps taken to reach this finale are a little bit wonky. The main problem is that Copper’s turn to suddenly hating Tod doesn’t really make that much sense, especially if you consider that Chief survives. Even if he had died it would have been a hard sell, since Tod isn’t directly responsible for his injury in the first place. Copper swearing to kill him is a really extreme reaction. Also, there is a whole subplot which has nothing to do with anything. As much fun as hunt for caterpillar is occasionally, it is just a giant filler.

    The Secret of Nimh shows Don Bluth’s tendency to episodic storytelling, but in this movie, it works, since everything ties back to the one big goal, rescuing Timothy’s life. It also never looses sight of the main theme of the movie which is not, as one might suspect, questions of humanity or the moral behind experiences on animals but the true nature of bravery. This in mind it is even forgivable that the movie throws in magic into the mix out of nowhere. It doesn’t really fit the story of rats which obtained human intelligence, but it does provide the key (see what I did there?) to the true centre of the story.

    The Last Unicorn is telling a very traditional story while cleverly subverting a lot of fantasy tropes. Here the wizard is not all-powerful, one of the main heroes is a middle-aged woman and the heroic knight doesn’t impress anyone with the killing of a dragon. It is an interesting discussion of myths and the roles they play in our lives.

    Nausicaä (no, I don’t intend to write the whole title every time) feels a little bit overwrought. There are so many characters and storylines compressed in that movie, it feels overly long and rushed at the same time. Granted, the running time of 117 minutes is longer than usual. Most animated movies keep it somewhere around the 90 minutes mark. But this one either needed around 20 minutes more or one turn in the story less. Thematically it is about the relationship between humans and nature. Miyazaki is a little bit obsessed with the theme. Sometimes he handles it exceptionally well, but in this case he falls more on the preachy side of things. Not annoyingly so, but the moral is a little bit too much in your face for my taste.

 

  • The Characters: Well, I already mentioned that the strength of The Secret of Nimh and The Last Unicorn lies in the characters. In fact, Mrs Brisby was the first female character I ever discussed in my other blog, Honoring the Heroine. But I appreciate the other characters, too. Well, with the possible exception of Jeremy. He doesn’t annoy me, but other than bringing Mrs. Brisby to the owl, he is a really useless and distracting character. Also, I think the voice acting in the English version could be better. But the writing for those characters, especially Mrs Brisby, is so strong, that it is only a minor point.I haven’t gotten around yet to write an article about Molly Grue, but she is certainly on the list. I just love the scene in which she asks the Unicorn why she didn’t appear when Molly was still young and innocent. Schmendrick is a  very sympathetic character in his eagerness to please. Everyone else works just fine. Mama Fortuna stands out, I think mostly because she is voiced by Angela Lansbury. But what I like the most is that the movie manages to portray the Unicorn as compassionate but foreign.

    Nausicaä is a little bit of a controversial character. Since she is practically portrayed as the messiah of her people (and the movie is really not subtle in this regard), she is sometimes seen as a Mary Sue. I disagree with the notion. Now, I do think that she would be a little bit more interesting if she were a little bit more flawed. The one scene in which she does something questionable is when she kills the soldiers who murdered her father in a fit of rage. It is a little bit odd how she suddenly feels guilty and after that the moment is never mentioned again. The other characters, well, let’s put it this way: I think I would really like all of them if the movie would spend more time on them. It feels like they all are getting established and then immediately showed aside until the final confrontation.

    The Fox and the Hound has two strong protagonists in Tod and Copper, two equally strong antagonists in Slade and Chief (plus a terrifying bear) and a lot of characters which only seem to be there to fill time. But then, the heart of this movie is the relationship between Tod and Copper, so the focus is exactly where it should be.

 

  • The Soundtrack: Excuse me while I gush a little bit. I love, love, love the Soundtrack form The Secret of Nimh. That is Jerry Goldsmith at his finest (even though it was the first time he scored an animated feature). It’s magical, scary, oppressive, heart-wrenching, whatever is needed in any given scene. And the main theme (and song) is one of those relentless earworms which I will most likely hum the rest of the week now that I listened to it again.Speaking of earworms: I never really thought about it beforehand, but the soundtrack of Nausicaä might be my favourite of all the Studio Ghibli ones. It is as if it is drawing the world of Nausicaä in music. And the vocal theme song is yet another of  those hard to forget tunes.

    As is the main theme of The Last Unicorn. “I’m alive…I’m aliiiiiiiiive!”  The style might be an strange choice for a fantasy movie, but for this more oddball approach to the genre it is a good fit. Mostly. Here is a fun fact: For the German version of the movie, “Now that I am a woman” was kept in the original language, but it was played more as a background music with a voice-over added which translated the lyrics of the song. The result sounds like a poem, which fits the melancholic mood of the scene perfectly. But in the English version, sung like a pop song, it is a little bit grating.

    The worst one out in this selection is clearly The Fox and the Hound. The only song which really works is “Goodbye  may seem forever”. Otherwise the soundtrack falls somewhere between okay and cringeworthy.  Normally you can trust that even in the worst Disney movies, at least the soundtrack is good. I am not sure what went wrong here. Perhaps Buddy Baker had trouble with the medium?

 

  • The Animation: I feel like a kid in a candy shop! The Fox and the Hound can be considered the first movie in which Disney struggled out of their slump and started to put some real effort (and money) into the animation. The landscapes are beautiful and then there is the bear. Pixar really should take notes. That’s how a truly terrifying bear looks like.The Secret of Nimh is Don Bluth showing off what he can do, and the result is gorgeous, especially when Mrs. Brisby visits the rats. But in a way, I like the dark scenes even better than the colourful and flashy ones. The use of colour to set a certain mood is just spot on in this movie.

    Nausicaä is creativity pure. I guess one of the reasons I wanted this movie to be longer is that I would have loved to just watch this incredible world a little bit more. The character animations are sometimes a little bit too cartoony, but that is really the only (nit-picky) criticism I have.

    I guess The Last Unicorn is the weakest in this category. The smaller budget shows. But I like the basic art and the animation does have its stand-out moments. Especially whenever the Red Bull turns up.

Well, Disney had easily the weakest offering of those four. The Last Unicorn cold have been an impressive movie, if there had been a bigger budget and perhaps one last rewrite of the script to smooth out some minor points. Nausicäa is a very strong movie, especially when it comes to its animation. But in the end, I think The Secret of Nimh beats them all. It has a strong story, an outstanding well-written main character, an unbelievable moving soundtrack and impressive animation. It certainly deserves the title as the best animated movie made in the early 1980s.