Week 12: Cinderella

Disney Triumphantly Returns to the Full-Length Animated Feature

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Originally Released: 1950

Considering just how famous this movie has become, it is very interesting to know that Walt Disney took a big risk by working on Cinderella and releasing it as a full-length feature. Besides Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, none of his previous full-length animated films was a financial success, and the package films were only moderately successful. Thus, the entire future of Disney’s feature animation hinged on the success of Cinderella. If it failed, Disney would likely have shut down the feature animation studio. Luckily, Cinderella was a big hit with audiences. It was so successful that it gave Disney the cash flow to not only continue production on future animated films, but it also helped progress other parts of the company, including Walt’s endeavor to create Disneyland. Additionally, it began what could be considered a bit of a Disney Renaissance with its films.

Unlike the fairly obscure Disney package films, Cinderella should require no introduction or plot summary. If there is someone who either has not seen it, or who is unfamiliar with the fairy tale in some form, I would be quite surprised. And though there have been other adaptations of the tale, I am willing to bet that when most people think of Cinderella, they think of this version.

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Yet despite this popularity, whenever I am about to watch Cinderella again, for some reason I tend to think that I am not going to enjoy it as much as I would some of the other Disney classics. My reasoning may vary each time this occurs. For example, I may say it is a “girl movie.” Or I may tell myself the story is very thin, or that the mice take up too much of the screen time gathering stuff and getting chased by Lucifer. However, as valid as my excuses may be, once I sit down and simply watch the film, all those negative thoughts just seem to disappear as I get lost in the story, music, and animation. Each viewing of Cinderella exceeds my expectations and I find myself happy to have watched it again.

This time was no exception. I was struck at how well the movie conveyed different emotions, and how much I cared about what happened to Cinderella. I felt bad that her life was awful, and was glad she was able to triumph in the end. The scene with the key was actually suspenseful because the film effectively made me want to root for Cinderella.

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Somewhat related to the first topic is that this time I really noticed the great good shown by some characters (by now we should know that it is very smart to have a mouse for a friend – see Dumbo for another example of this), as well as some truly despicable evil from Lady Tremaine, Cinderella’s stepmother. Unlike many Disney villains, she doesn’t have supernatural powers, but her rotten heart more than makes up for it. Lucifer, the cat, doesn’t fall too far behind in this category, either. Both relish seeing Cinderella suffer. There is a clear contrast between good and evil in this film.

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Finally, the music was just as good as ever. It ranged from sweet to silly, but it was always fun and memorable. A good example was the “Sing Sweet Nightingale” part. It starts off silly with the stepsisters skewering the song, but then it transitions to a beautiful rendition accompanied by a gorgeous visual scene involving harmonizing Cinderella reflections in soap bubbles.

Most of the songs got stuck in my head for the next day or so, but I didn’t mind because the songs are great. I didn’t even have a problem when I noticed I was singing “Bibbidi-Bobbidi Boo” to myself. And while I’m on the topic of memorable music, an interesting side note is that Cinderella is the film that started Walt Disney’s music publishing business. Walt knew that the music would be very popular, so he decided that they might as well make the money from it instead giving the profits to someone else. It proved to be a smart move.

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So in the end, while there may be some flaws or something or another to complain about in Cinderella, the magic of the movie to me is that these flaws and complaints quickly go away and are forgotten. It is easy to get pulled into its world, and that’s what the Disney magic is all about. (Oh yeah, and there’s also this).  Cinderella is a top-tier Disney gem.

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These birds got caught in Cinderella's magic spell.

These birds got caught in Cinderella’s magic spell.

If a monocle makes you want to say "indeed," in an English accent, you can probably thank this movie.

If a monocle makes you want to say “indeed,” in an English accent, you can probably thank this movie.

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Week 11: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

The Last Package Film is Arguably the Best

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Originally Released: 1949

Walt Disney closed out a very busy 1940’s decade with The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, the studio’s 11th feature animated film. Looking back, I find it impressive that, despite World War II sapping Walt’s resources, along with other challenges, Disney still managed to churn out ten animated feature films in this time frame (in addition to its separate shorts and even forays into live-action film). Though six of these films were packaged collections of shorts, it is still quite inspiring to see just how much the studio accomplished, including the amount of stories, the variety in the stories told, the artistry, and the splendid animation.

With The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Disney released the last of the series of packaged films and effectively closed out what could be considered the first era of Disney feature animation. What would follow in the 1950’s and beyond is a string of Disney hits that rivals any other period in its 52-film history. Stay tuned, because the next few weeks will be lots of fun. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Disney’s 11th animated feature, consisting of The Wind in the Willows and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, is no failure by any means, and in my opinion can hold its own with the best of the rest.

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First is The Wind in the Willows, narrated by actor Basil Rathbone. Now I have a confession to make. I remembered nothing about this cartoon. As I watched it, I kept waiting for something to trigger a memory, but it never came. I don’t know if I am alone in this, but to me at least, the story of J. Thaddeus Toad, Ratty, Mole, and the rest of the gang has quietly fallen into obscurity. It is a shame, too, because I had a blast watching it. But, on the bright side, because I couldn’t remember anything about it, it felt like an added bonus of watching a Disney film for the very first time.

The film is not a serious one, and the animation style more resembles the Mickey and Donald shorts than something from, say, Bambi. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good. The entire scene where Toad and his allies try to retrieve the deed from the villainous weasels, with Mole hanging from the bedsheets, the group getting chased all over the place, paper airplanes being thrown, and the revolving door, is wild and crazy and very entertaining. I also enjoyed the court scene. Overall the film was had a nice, fun feel and was great entertainment.

Mission Impossible? Not for J. Thaddeus and his crew!

Mission Impossible? Not for J. Thaddeus and his crew!

But the real gem of this package is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This segment I remember well, and I have always loved it. Based on the story by Washington Irving, it follows the tall, lanky ladies’ man, pie thief, and schoolteacher Ichabod Crane as he tries to win the heart of flirty town beauty Katrina Van Tassel.

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Sleepy Hollow is clever, has funny moments, and has memorable scenes and characters. But what I find most impressive is just how perfectly it balances being scary, but not too scary for the little kids to watch. The lonely ride through the forest is brilliant and does a great job showing how paranoid Ichabod becomes, with crickets, frogs, and crows supposedly calling his name. It is something most of us can probably relate to when we have been frightened. When the Headless Horseman finally appears, it continues to be scary, but not too scary. The balancing act achieved in the segment I feel is worthy of praise.

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There were some things that came to my attention for the first time as I watched the movie again. First was the realization that it was narrated and sung by Bing Crosby. This is significant because I actually know who Bing Crosby is now. The second thing was that I realized Katrina was just using poor Ichabod and there was never really any doubt that she would eventually end up with the town Bully Brom Bones. Ichabod never stood a chance (Brom, by the way, has a strong resemblance to later Disney character Gaston, in both looks and personality traits. I’m guessing that’s not a coincidence). Lastly, there is some great horse trotting animation in this film.

This was the package film I was most looking forward to watching, and it did not disappoint. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is a package film done right.

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Week 10: Melody Time

Reaching Deep into the Grab-Bag

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Originally Released: 1948

Continuing on with the package films is Melody Time, Disney’s 10th animated feature film. It is another collection of musical shorts much in the same vein of Make Mine Music.  Included are seven segments, widely ranging in theme and style. Unfortunately, though, I found that the quality from one segment to the next varied as much as the style and themes varied.  All have something good to boast, whether it be the music, imagery, or animation, but when each segment is taken as a whole, some end up great while others are rather forgettable.

Take “Trees,” for example. The somewhat abstract segment is about the poem of the same name which is sung to music, and the animation consists of nature scenes involving…trees.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some beautiful images and inspired transitional shots (not to mention neat black-and-white lightning effects), but as I watched the segment I couldn’t help but think that most of what I was seeing could already be found in Bambi or the great short The Old Mill. Perhaps I just wasn’t in enough of an artistic mood to enjoy it as I should. Maybe, like most good poems, it takes a few viewings to truly understand. But for the average viewer, despite some nice elements, perhaps there could be more.

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“Bumble Boogie,” on the other hand, is still on the abstract side, but it works better. It features a poor little bee getting harassed by music notes, trumpets, and piano keys. Some of the neat ideas and effects are flower petals that are in the form of the aforementioned piano keys, which morph into a cobra-like creature. “Bumble Boogie” reminds me a lot of Fantasia because it uses some very effective mickey-mousing techniques to supplement the great music.

In addition to “Trees” and “Bumble Boogie”, the other segments in the film include “Once upon a Wintertime,” about a romantic young couple who enjoy ice skating with forest critters,  “The Legend of Johnny Appleseed,” and “Little Toot,” a nice story about a mischievous little tugboat who learns responsibility.  Finally, Melody Time wraps up with two more segments: “Blame it on the Samba,” with Donald Duck, Jose Carioca and everybody’s favorite Aracuan (the link isn’t from this film, but the infinite loop is hilarious!),  and “Pecos Bill.” Again, these are fairly hit-and-miss, but depending on who is viewing them and what kind of a mood they are in, opinions may differ on which are the hits and which are the misses.

I hate it when that happens...

I hate it when that happens…

My personal favorite would have to be the Pecos Bill segment. Pecos Bill is the roughest, toughest, rootin’est, tootin’est, shootin’est cowboy in the wild wild west. Chuck Norris has got nothing on ol’ Bill. Before Chuck Norris was blowing bubbles with beef jerky, Bill was using rattlesnakes to lasso rainclouds. Sadly, though, for the DVD release Disney deemed Bill’s smoking habits so offensive that they edited out any evidence of a cigarette, including the entire part where he subdued a raging tornado.  So, for now, we are left with a Pecos Bill who could only shoot out stars and dig out the Rio Grande with his bare hands, but didn’t want to mess with the tornado.

Them's some impressive ropin' skills...

Them’s some impressive ropin’ skills…

...but Slue-foot Sue sure ain't gonna be outdone.

…but Slue-foot Sue sure ain’t gonna be outdone.

So while the digital removal of cigarettes leaves Pecos with some weird-looking facial expressions, and while I wish Disney would keep their films in their original state, that doesn’t mean the segment is not great. I enjoyed the silly nature of it. The background art is beautiful and reminds me of the West. It was also interesting to see the Texas love by the animators.  Texas residents would be very pleased I’m sure.

A question that arose while watching was “why don’t we hear about these stories anymore?” I thought of this during both Pecos Bill and also Johnny Appleseed.  Do American children these days know who either of them are? Have they heard of Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and the other fixtures of American folklore? Watching this film has made me more curious to learn more about some of these stories, how they originated, and whether they are still told. My gut feeling is that these stories either have already or soon will be supplanted by Wolverine and Spider-Man.

But that is one of the benefits of doing this Disney movie year. I get to re-familiarize myself with some classic tales (or, you could say I’ve been rediscovering the magic) and in this regard Melody Time does not fail. From Johnny Appleseed to Little Toot to Pecos Bill, there are great stories to be told, even though there is more filler found between them this time around.

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Week 9: Fun and Fancy Free

“My, What a Happy Day?” Indeed.

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Originally Released: 1947

Fun and Fancy Free is the ninth film in the Disney canon, and while it doesn’t try to be too experimental or sophisticated, it does nail the fun and carefree spirit found in animation, and it succeeds at being highly entertaining. The film consists of two roughly half-hour cartoons, tied together by some narration and scenes involving Jiminy Cricket. First is Bongo, about a star circus bear who escapes to nature and finds true love. The second half of the film is Mickey and the Beanstalk, narrated by old Hollywood guy Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist dummies.

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This was actually a film I have been looking forward to watching.  It had been years since I’d last seen it, but I have very fond memories of Mickey and the Beanstalk. I just loved it when I was young. I also remember liking Bongo, but to be honest, I did not remember it quite as well. This just added to my anticipation, though. I wanted to remember the story and I also wanted to see how it could be a half-hour long, because I had pictured it to be one of Disney’s shorter, 8-minute variety shorts (side note – I learned today that it was actually intended for both films to be feature length, but later each was shortened and they were packaged together for release).

With childhood memories of movies, there is always the chance that upon viewing the movie as an adult, it doesn’t hold up to the standards set by these childhood memories. But in this case, I am happy to say I was not disappointed. If there ever was an aptly-named film, this is it. It is fun, carefree, and memorable. And as a bonus, it is loaded with some quotable material in the Beanstalk portion, including lines from Willie the Giant, Donald, Goofy, and the ventriloquist dummies.

"Fi-Fi-Fi-Fi. Fi-Fi...I don't know no Fi-Fi!"

“Fi-Fi-Fi-Fi. Fi-Fi…I don’t know no Fi-Fi!”

But beyond being fun, there were two main things that struck me as I watched the film. The first came at the very beginning, during Jiminy Cricket’s introduction song. After he startles Cleo the fish’s twin, he tells it, “you worry too much. In fact, everybody worries too much.” How true this is. As Jiminy proceeds to read some fake newspaper headlines predicting doom and gloom, he explains that we needn’t worry so much about these things. Interestingly enough, if you were to look up the headlines on your favorite news website, you will likely find some version of the very same things mentioned in this 1947 paper, such as rising oceans, inflation, and “catastrophe seen as crisis looms.”

He has a good point. Rather than worry about what terrible things could happen, all of us could try to spend more time being happy, and doing the things that will make us happy. We can focus on the good things in this life. I was pleasantly surprised to find this nugget of wisdom in the film. At least this is how I interpreted what Jiminy said. It makes sense to me.

Not only could they draw really well, but the folks at Disney could also see the future. These headlines look like they were pulled right out of our day.

Not only could they draw really well, but the folks at Disney could also see the future. These headlines look like they were pulled right out of our day.

The second thing that I noticed was just how good the animation of the characters had become at this stage of Disney history, and in particular, the facial expressions. You can see the whole spectrum of human emotion on display in this film. Below are shots of two of my favorite expressions from the movie. First, we see Bongo as he comes to the realization that “a bear likes to say it with a slap,” and that Lulubelle slapping him was her way of trying to show her affection. It simply can’t be done any better than it was done by these animators.

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Next is Donald Duck in the beanstalk segment. Well, I’m not too sure what exactly Donald is thinking here, but it isn’t good. It is something about an axe and a cow. His thoughts may not be very noble at this point, but it is downright funny to watch the crazed smile slowly develop and then see his head turn in the direction of where the cow is outside. Again, this is some impressive stuff.

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In the end, this film reminds me of why I love Disney, and why I love animation. Animation is the perfect escape from real-world struggles. But in the case of this film, at the same time that it is serving as an escape, it is reminding us to enjoy real life a little more and to try and have a little more fun. When a film can accomplish something like this, it is a job very well done.

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