Week 4: Dumbo

An Example of the Soaring Heights Animation Can Reach

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Originally Released: 1941

It seems to me that Dumbo doesn’t get as much publicity these days as some of the other Disney features. Much like the circus and the story of storks delivering babies, it is becoming a little more forgotten in today’s world. In fact, even Disney itself failed to label the film as one of its prestigious “Diamond Edition” films in its most recent release from the Disney Vault.

Whatever the reason for this lowered enthusiasm may be (if it is indeed the case), it is not because Dumbo is a lesser film than the other classics. In fact, I find it to be one of the most imaginative, relatable, and emotionally resonant stories Disney ever released. Even though the special effects and animation did not push boundaries the way Fantasia did just a year before, it nevertheless remains a showcase of what animation is capable of achieving.

One thing I love about animation is that the only limit to the stories you can tell and the things you can do is your own imagination. In animated films, you can accomplish ideas that just wouldn’t work as well in live-action. Dumbo is a great example of this. And you would be hard-pressed to find a more creative, colorful, and bizarre-yet-mesmerizing scene in any other medium than the “pink elephants on parade” sequence. So while it may not be a technical marvel, the cartoon style works very well for this film.

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But Dumbo doesn’t only excel in its artistic creativity. It also tells a moving story that just about everyone will relate to. Dumbo is born to a loving mother, but almost immediately he is mocked and ridiculed by others for having very big ears. Like any innocent child, at first the mocking doesn’t bother him, but later he gets separated from this mother and becomes an outcast. Eventually it all gets to him and causes him great sadness.

Each of us has our own defects, our own weaknesses. Each of us at one point or another has probably felt alone, ridiculed, and like an outcast. This makes it easy for us to relate to Dumbo and feel for him.

This movie would be a complete tragedy if not for two characters:  Dumbo’s mother and Timothy the mouse. Every scene involving Dumbo and his mother is quite resonant. The animators did a masterful job on this. The love of Dumbo’s mother for her child is easily visible, and you can also see the love and trust from the child to his mother. If somebody ever tells you cartoons can’t connect emotionally with the viewer, tell them to watch this movie. The scene where Dumbo is cradled in his mother’s trunk is a real heart breaker.

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In Timothy the mouse, we find the friend that everybody deserves to have – and that each of us ought to strive to be. It is through him that this story turns from tragedy to triumph. He quickly looks past Dumbo’s “defect” and eventually helps him to turn his handicap into a strength. It is quite inspiring, and is all the more impressive that we can learn these traits from a cartoon mouse.

These reasons give Dumbo a spot in the upper tier of the best Disney feature films. In fact, the special features on the disc show a clip where Walt Disney himself claims that Dumbo was his favorite of all the Disney films. I can’t blame him for thinking that. There is much to love in this movie.

Do not drink the water...bad, bad things will happen...

Do not drink the water…bad, bad things will happen…

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Week 3: Fantasia

Mickey Mousing at its Absolute Finest

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Originally Released: 1940

It still surprises me that Fantasia was only the third full-length animated feature released by Disney, being released the same year as Pinocchio. I don’t know how they came up with the resources and technique to create this film only three or so years removed from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But not only did Disney and his team pull it off, they managed to make one of the most unique experiences in entertainment of the 20th century.

From the moment this film begins with the orchestra warming up and the narrator giving giving his explanation about stories and music, it is something special. Fantasia manages to take some of the best of the music realm and merge it with the best of the visual arts realm to create an entirely different and fantastic experience. The result is more than simply a story with music in the background, or music with a visual accompaniment. It is like that favorite song that you could just close your eyes and listen to over and over, but rather than just listening, you open your eyes and see your favorite piece of artwork laying in front of you as well. That is about where Fantasia belongs. It ends up being more than the sum of its parts and is a fine example of what the arts should be all about.

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One thing that impressed me as I watched this time is just how well the animation flowed with and complemented the music. The technique of having something on the screen sync with or mimic the soundtrack is called mickey mousing, due to extensive use by Disney in early shorts and films. There are good examples and bad, cheesy examples of this technique in both live action and animated films, but nowhere have I ever seen better use of the technique than what is exhibited in Fantasia. Perhaps it helps that the music hails from greats such as Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Bach, but whether it is a completely abstract piece with no clear story to tell (Toccata and Fugue in D Minor) or music based on a clear story and using the actual character Mickey Mouse (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), the technique stays effective and greatly adds to the experience.

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It is no wonder that Walt Disney wanted Fantasia to be a living, continually updated piece of work. His idea was to add pieces and subtract others to continually keep it fresh and play it across the country. However, this never really panned out because they couldn’t make enough money with the first movie. Imagine, though, having a live orchestra playing the music while the animation is shown on a giant movie screen. That is something I would definitely want to experience. Maybe someday there will be another chance. But until then, I will be content with Fantasia and its ballet-dancing hippos, fighting dinosaurs, frolicking fauns, and ghosts on Bald Mountain. Fantasia is a masterpiece.

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Week 2: Pinocchio

Required Viewing for Every Real Boy

Pinocchio and Fairy

Originally Released:  1940

When I was a little boy, Pinocchio really frustrated me: he was careless, foolish, and didn’t listen to the advice of the good people in his life. It really bothered me that he would just run off and get involved in his antics and worry his Father and Jiminy Cricket. Basically, his personality and traits were different from what I remember being like as a child.  For me, the thought of getting in trouble terrified me, and I also really worried about what my parents and teachers would think of me.  This was usually enough to keep me from doing something wrong.  I never could relate to Pinocchio, and he ended up being my least favorite character in the movie.

Despite my lack of affection for the protagonist, I still enjoyed this movie growing up. It was a good story that illustrated the consequences of being bad. Certainly, I didn’t want to turn into a donkey, get locked in a scary foreigner’s cage, or make my father get eaten by a monstrous whale. Seriously, though, Walt Disney must have been proud of this film. I wonder how many little boys it helped persuade to be a little better. There are many good lessons which can be reaped from the movie.  They are lessons that are just as important in today’s world as they ever were in the past.

Beyond the obvious moral lessons of the movie, what most impressed me as I watched this film today is how much improved it was in almost every aspect from Walt Disney’s previous effort, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  For example, the artistry and animation dwarfs (pardon the pun) that of Snow White. It is amazing that in only 2-3 years the team was able to make such strides in their techniques and tricks. I enjoyed the transparency effect used on the Fairy, the underwater sequence, and other little touches like the marionette dancing movements.

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Story-wise, I thought Pinocchio had more depth, was more complex, and each character, was filled with personality.  During the movie I found myself falling into Geppetto’s shoes and wondering how I would feel if I had a little boy and lost him. Likewise, I wondered about how Jiminy Cricket felt as he struggled and failed to be a good conscience. I saw that this is Jiminy Cricket’s story just as much as it is Pinocchio’s, which is a nice touch to the movie.  He had his own flaws to overcome and struggled to learn how to be a better mentor, and he also had to learn to be brave, truthful, and unselfish, right along with Pinocchio. These are great characters, and the movie is full of them.  Even the minor characters such as Figaro have loads of charm to them.

Pinocchio is another Disney classic that can rightfully be called just that – a classic. It is a movie that discourages wrongdoing and encourages  good things like listening to “that still small voice that people won’t listen to.” Oh, it also has a really wonderful and creative clip of wooden clocks of all shapes and sizes, including a farmer unsuccessfully attempting to chop a turkey’s head off, a hiccuping drunkard, and a mother spanking her naughty boy’s bottom.  What more could you want in a movie?

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Week 1: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Still a Great Film After All These Years

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What if we could go back to a simpler time,
Of singing and dancing and speaking in rhyme?
When after the chores comes some family fun,
Then off to say prayers when the good day is done.
-Me

Originally released in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a first in many respects, but most importantly it was the first full-length animated feature film released in Hollywood, not just by Walt Disney, but by anyone.  It was a truly groundbreaking movie.

Yet, those types of things don’t typically matter to a little kid, and when I was young, it was never one of my favorites.  I wasn’t really a fan of Snow White’s singing voice.  I thought it was weird-sounding.  Also, her hair-do was kinda odd. I thought the dwarfs were funny enough, but I really didn’t appreciate some of the humor in the movie. Overall, I enjoyed it enough, but there were other Disney movies I would rather watch if given the choice.

So imagine my surprise as I watched this film again as an adult and realized just what a good movie it is!  Sure, it is still a simple tale. Animation techniques have since been improved.  Snow White’s voice or hair hasn’t changed at all.  But despite all this, I found the film to be a very enjoyable experience.    Even after being around for over 75 years, the movie gave me laughs and smiles throughout, and I discovered many things to admire in the animation and artwork. This movie can truly be called timeless in my book.

There are a couple of things that stood out to me as I watched the film this time. The first is how effective the “scary” scenes were.  No, it didn’t make me jump out of my seat or anything, but I thought the forest scene was very creative and captures a young person’s fear of the dark unknown very well.  Then there is the Queen.  Wow, did they do a good job with her, especially once she became the old peddler!  She was downright creepy.

In contrast to the first item, the other thing I noticed is the simple prayer offered by Snow White the first night she was at the dwarfs house.  it was a childlike, sweet little prayer, but what caught me off guard was how natural it came in the film.  Today where stuff like that is kind of taboo in the public world, it was very interesting to see.  It made me feel good inside.

These are my thoughts for this viewing of Snow White.  If you have not watched it since you were a child, I would encourage you to give it a go.  You just might be surprised at how much you still may enjoy it.  I now leave you with a still of a deer kicking the heck out of Sleepy.  That part gets me every time.

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Introduction: What’s this blog all about?

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Growing up, this image (or the more retro, plain old blue design from the 80’s and 90’s) meant that the next one to two hours would be full of entertainment and even a little magic.  Like millions of other kids, I was a big fan of the Disney classics growing up.  I even aspired to become a Disney animator and, eventually, the president and CEO of Disney when I grew up.  That didn’t pan out quite as planned, but my love for the animated films has not diminished over the years.

This brings me to the point of writing this blog.  I recently realized that with the release of “Wreck-it Ralph” late last year, Disney has now completed 52 animated films in its numbered canon.  As a side note for those who may be unfamiliar with the numbering, only Disney’s major animated projects ended up in their “Animated Classics” numbering.  This means that there will be no crummy DVD-only sequels on the list.  It also means no Pixar movies as they were not technically Disney’s doing, and no Mary Poppins and other similar films. But back to the story.

After the realization of 52 films, I remembered that there are 52 weeks in a year.  I have always wanted to be a little creative and try my hand at a blog, and with this numeric commonality, coupled with me needing a good excuse to watch the movies again, a unique opportunity presented itself in my mind.  I could watch one movie a week and then write something about my experience, along with any other facts or stories I wish to include.

So, because a few weeks later I still think it is a fun idea, I am creating this blog.  I hope that whoever takes the time to read it may find it interesting and enjoyable. I’m sure I will enjoy creating it!