Week 29: The Rescuers Down Under

The Forgotten Piece of the Disney Renaissance


Originally Released: 1990

As the story goes, Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg pulled the plug on opening weekend. Disney’s 29th animated feature film debuted at #4, earning less than $4 million at the U.S. box office. So the decision was made to immediately stop all marketing and advertising activities for The Rescuers Down Under, and Disney would start over and focus its energy on the next release.

When I first learned about this, it explained somewhat how The Rescuers Down Under could have possibly fallen so far into obscurity, especially considering that it is book-ended chronologically by The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Not having any marketing will definitely decrease the amount of people watching it. But I wondered why Katzenberg was so quick to give up on the film. Surely it could still be profitable with a little more work, right? This and other incidents (removing “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid is a prime example) caused me to begin to question his decision-making skills.

No, Frank, as annoying as you are, you are not the reason for your film's failure at the box office.

No, Frank, as annoying as you are, you are not the reason for your film’s failure at the box office.

However, I decided to dig a little deeper into the issue. I looked at the data to see which films bested The Rescuers Down Under that fateful weekend in November 1990. The Rescuers did manage beat out Ghost, which had been in the top five for 19 consecutive weeks by this time in 1990. However, Disney’s film was out-grossed by Child’s Play 2, which in its second weekend claimed the #3 spot; and at #2 was Rocky V, making its theatrical debut.

Already, this was quite a bit of competition to deal with (ok, maybe not in hindsight. But at the time both were popular franchises). But what was the #1 movie that defeated all these popular contenders? The champion, in its debut weekend, was none other than…Home Alone Home Alone was a big deal, folks. Not only was it the biggest smash hit of 1990, the movie was so big that it became a pop-culture phenomenon (most of us should remember putting our hands on our cheeks and screaming “AAAHHHH!”). It was so popular, it stayed at #1 in the box office for 12 weeks in a row, from November all the way into February of 1991. By the time Home Alone finally ran out of steam, it had raked in over $285 million domestically and $470 million worldwide! That could explain Disney’s decision. Maybe Katzenberg knew what he was doing, after all. Quite simply, there was no challenging the juggernaut that was Home Alone.


It is somewhat unfortunate, though, because in reality The Rescuers Down Under is a significant film for Disney. It was Disney’s first sequel (although this may be a bad thing, considering the stream of crappy sequels Disney produced after this). More significantly, though, it was the first of Disney’s animated films to fully utilize computers to produce the film. No longer did Disney have to rely on hand inking and painting of cells. Rather, the artists would scan the animation drawing into a computer and digitally fill in the colors and shading. In fact, it would be the first 100% digital film ever to be released.

The technology was called the CAPS process, or Computer Animation Production System. This technology represents the early stages of Disney’s partnership with PIXAR, who helped developed much of the system. The results are actually quite astounding, and it was a great leap in animation. The shading, color, and environments enabled by CAPS is far above what was previously imaginable by the old processes.

The only problem was that the artists at Disney didn’t know how to use the darn system. This led to many long hours and much fretting about whether the film could be finished on time. But even though this was the source of much stress to the filmmakers, we don’t really notice because the end result is still very impressive. The Rescuers Down Under is beautiful, even to this day.


Along with the leap in looks, another part I am extremely impressed with is the animation of the golden eagle, Marahute. Animator Glen Keane really did his research on birds, and it shows. The jerky movements of her head and body, her soaring through the air, and the flapping of her wings are all rather remarkable to see in motion throughout this film.

Down Under

These things help make up for the less noteworthy story. While it is the first true sequel Disney would release to theaters, to me it seemed like the main characters Bernard and Bianca are relegated to supporting character roles. Neither Bernard nor Bianca have much of an impact in this story, except at the very end of the film.

Apparently Disney really wanted to make a sequel to The Rescuers. Oliver & Company was originally intended to be a sequel to The Rescuers, but they ended up scrapping the idea because the connection wasn’t really there after some progress into that film. After that happened, I suppose the team must have thought that they could capitalize on America’s infatuation with the Land Down Under during the late 80’s and work The Rescuers into a Crocodile Dundee-type setting. But it seems to me like the connection to the first Rescuers film doesn’t work as well as it could have. Its true that it involves the same characters and a rescue of sorts, but to me it feels like something is still missing to cement that connection to the first film.

That’s not to say that The Rescuers Down Under isn’t worth watching. I liked it, despite its issues. It has some amazing flying scenes involving the eagle, Wilbur the Albatross, and even fireflies. Also, the film is just plain good-looking. For the most part, I do like the Australian setting and characters. Oh, and the lizard Joanna is a pretty funny evil sidekick. Even if it can’t match up to the greatness of its Disney Renaissance brethren or couldn’t beat this at the time of its release, The Rescuers Down Under remains a worthwhile entry in the Disney Canon.




Week 28: The Little Mermaid

Disney Was Sick of Swimming and Ready to Stand

Ariel reprise

Originally Released: 1989

The Little Mermaid is the first real movie theater experience I can remember as a child. I can still visualize being at the theater with my older sister and watching the musical story unfold on the screen. I think it is safe to say that as most kids grow up, that first movie theater experience earns a special place in in his or her heart. That was definitely the case for me. Because of this significant event, The Little Mermaid automatically qualifies as a cherished film in my book.

I’m fairly certain, though, that it is cherished by more people than just me. Even setting personal nostalgia aside, The Little Mermaid is a bona-fide classic and stands tall in the Disney hall of fame. The story is great, the characters are beyond memorable, and the music is simply spectacular. After watching in rapid succession the films released during Disney’s so-called “dark ages” and then following that up with The Little Mermaid, it is more clear than ever to me that this one is special.


The way The Little Mermaid came to be was something of a perfect storm, with the right people coming together at the right time. After getting kicked off the studio lot, the animators realized that they needed to really perform or they would likely lose their jobs. Peter Schneider was brought on to head the animation department, and he emphasized collaboration and open communication. Disney also brought on the talents of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to work on the songs and score for The Little Mermaid. Ashman was a Broadway guy and was instrumental in restoring musical storytelling to Disney films. He eventually became involved in the story development of The Little Mermaid as well. Many other people also had positive contributions that added to the wave of creativity.

Under the Sea

The result of this storm of creativity is a product that meshes story, animation, and music in a wonderful manner. Each separate aspect adds to The Little Mermaid in its own way, but they combine together to form something truly great.

Consider the song “Part of Your World.” It is a lovely melody sung by the beautiful voice of Jodi Benson. But these pieces only get so far alone. Similarly, the lyrics alone are not going to inspire anybody. They talk about a girl who wants more gizmos, gadgets, and thingamabobs. The lyrics require the context of the story to make any real sense. But by putting all these elements together, the story moves forward very effectively and we also connect much better with Ariel. Before this piece, we may think of Ariel as just a rebellious teen, but after the song, we can understand her a little better and see her in a different way.


Knowing the story and hearing the music helps a lot, but now add to the scene some truly inspired and gorgeous animation by Glen Keane that portrays Ariel earnestly hungering for her desires. The end result is incredible. Again, each storytelling piece on its own is good. But as a completed whole, it is an amazing thing to see and hear (imagine my surprise when I learned that one man almost cut the whole piece from the film!). In my opinion, “Part of Your World” is a perfect showcase of the animation medium. If you want to see what animation is capable of, there aren’t many better examples than that.


Really, though, The Little Mermaid has many great moments. Ursula is a top Disney villain, Sebastian is an excellent sidekick, and the other characters are fun, too (somehow when I was young my favorite character was Flounder. I wouldn’t pick him today, but for some reason I did back then). As far as music goes, “Under the Sea” is deserving of its academy award and is another example of all elements combining to create an even stronger whole. Also, I love the score. It perfectly matches the tone of the film. And there is great animation and special animation effects littered throughout.

Moonlight Fireworks

In short, I am a pretty big fan of The Little Mermaid. I don’t have much negative to say about it. Of course, I may be a little biased considering it was my first childhood movie experience, but surely nostalgia is not the only thing that will get someone to appreciate this film. It has enough going for it that many people would happily let it be part of their world.


Kiss the girl



Week 27: Oliver & Company

The Concept of “Timeless?” Not Here, Man.


Originally Released: 1988

Oliver & Company is an interesting entry in the Disney canon. It is one where producers chose to break the mold of most of the previous films by having a completely contemporary feel, loaded with contemporary actors and singers, including very contemporary pop songs, and set in a contemporary New York City. The main problem with this idea is that they decided to go contemporary right smack in the middle of the 1980’s. Oliver & Company is about as “80’s” as it gets (well, besides this. And this…yeah, I just did that).

I like the 1980’s and the 80’s feel. It brings back a lot of great memories. However, many people see the decade as an eyesore and don’t find much to appreciate in the pop culture that came out of that time period. So while the dose of the 80’s didn’t bother me much, Oliver & Company will likely weed out quite a few of today’s viewers on that basis alone. Which is kind of ironic considering the source material is by Charles Dickens, whose work has definitely stood the test of time.


The story, which in the Disney tradition is only loosely based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist, can be summarized as follows:  we meet orphan kitty Oliver (voiced by a young Joey “Whoa!” Lawrence) as he tries to find a place to be accepted and loved. He is helped out by street dog Dodger (Billy Joel) and becomes part of Dodger’s gang. Shortly thereafter, Oliver finds a loving little girl who adopts him. But then he gets kidnapped. The kitty is freed but the girl is kidnapped. She is finally rescued and the bad guys each come to an unfortunate demise. The film closes with much rejoicing.

Dodger and Oliver

I realize my summary has a hint of a mocking tone to it, but for the most part, I enjoyed Oliver & Company. The songs were good in a 1980’s sort of way. Dodger and Tito, by far the two best characters in the movie, are both great. Tito (voiced by Cheech Marin) is actually quite funny, and Dodger is a totally cool dude. They really help the film. I also had some fun finding hidden tributes to past Disney films scattered throughout the movie.


My only serious complaint is the climax. Beginning at the point Jenny is nabbed and continuing all the way to the fiery end of the villain Sykes, I just couldn’t help but shake my head at what we were supposed to accept as reasonable or credible. That’s saying something, since in general you can get away with crazier stuff in animation than in live action. But as it all happened, I kept asking myself things like, “Wait, is Sykes really dumb enough to steal a girl? I thought he was calmer and smarter than that. Doesn’t he realize that Fagin knows where his hideout is? Why the heck didn’t Fagin just call the police and report a kidnapping, telling them exactly where to go find her?”

And more questions: “Wait, did they really just drive onto the subway tracks? Did those car tires really just blow up? And now the wheels perfectly match the train tracks? Did that scooter really somehow jump eight feet in the air and drive up the suspension cable? How did they pull that one off? Is Sykes really that crazed to do all of this nonsense? How on earth has he survived up to now in his profession? How much money did the poor bum Fagin borrow, anyway?” I could go on, but I think you get the point. It goes past the point of absurdity.

Yes, I said it. The climax of your movie is nonsense. Surely they could have come up with something better.

Yes, I said it. The climax of your movie is nonsense. Surely they could have come up with something better.

Criticism aside, the last thing I think is worth mentioning about this film is that it opened the same day as Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time. By 1988, Bluth and Disney had built a bit of a rivalry. In fact, in 1986, Bluth’s An American Tale managed to earn more money than The Great Mouse Detective. This time around, The Land Before Time won the opening weekend battle, but Oliver & Company narrowly won the total U.S. Box office with a score of $53 million to Bluth’s $48 million (which at the time were both very respectable numbers). However, Bluth’s film won both internationally and in my neighborhood. I remember The Land Before Time as a child. My friends and I talked about it and quoted it a lot. I have no such memories of Oliver & Company, though. 

Jenny and Oliver

Of course, things would change dramatically the following year with Disney’s next release, which would basically leave Bluth in the dust. But Oliver & Company does deserve credit, because its success helped pave the way for this next release from Disney.

So today, if you want a nice dose of 80’s pop culture, great Cheech quotes, and a good, laughable ending, then Oliver & Company is just the thing for you. And with that, I’ll wrap up this post with some shots I found in the film that pay tribute to other films and characters of Disney’s past.

Georgett Ratigan Scooby

lady and the tramp

Cinderella tribute

"Coca-Cola. Now in a Disney movie near you!"

“Coca-Cola. Now in a Disney movie near you!”

Week 26: The Great Mouse Detective

When Times Are Tough, a Mouse is Always There to Help

smile everyone

Originally Released: 1986

Just one year before the release of The Great Mouse Detective, Walt Disney Animation almost did itself in with the overly ambitious, poorly executed The Black Cauldron. There didn’t seem to be much hope for the studios. The executives kicked the animation department out of Burbank and moved them to what they considered “the warehouse.” When this happened, the folks at the animation department thought they would soon lose their jobs. But they were given another chance when they got the green light to continue production of Basil of Baker Street, based on the book series of the same name.

However, the new project certainly wasn’t going to have the ambition and bloated excess of Disney’s prior two releases. No, they were going back to the basics, putting the focus on creating a simple-but-good, well-paced story with fun characters. Historically characters and great storytelling were two of Disney’s greatest strengths.

I know, Dawson old chap, it is shocking that Disney Animation could be shut down. But don't you worry! It won't happen. We have our secret weapon! What is it, you say? Well for a clue, look no further than the metal piece near the fireplace!

I know, Dawson old chap, it is shocking that Disney Animation could be shut down. But don’t you worry! It won’t happen. We have our secret weapon! What is it, you say? Well for a clue, look no further than the metal piece near the fireplace!

Of course, there was one other thing they could do that was as good a guarantee as you can get when you are Disney: make the story involve a mouse.

It may seem like a joke (OK, maybe it is a little bit), and I don’t know if the storytellers at Disney were consciously thinking this when they made this film, but if we take a look at some Disney history then we can see that a mouse has almost always pulled them out of ruin. First, think of Dumbo. Disney was on the brink, but thanks to Dumbo and Timothy, they made enough money to continue on. Fast forward to Cinderella. If it failed, the studio would have shut down. And what was a major part of Cinderalla’s story? Jaq, Gus and the cohort of mice. A few more years later, mice Bernard and Bianca proved to the world that Disney could survive without Walt watching over things.


So whenever Disney needed to reset and work its magic, it is only natural to go back to what gave the company its start. And it worked again this time. The Great Mouse Detective (management decided they liked this title better) turned out well and was a financial success, albeit a moderate one. Still, it was just what the studio needed to carry on.

The story itself is indeed simple and to-the-point, but it moves along at a snappy pace and is an effective little mystery movie. Basil and Dawson are the mice versions of Sherlock and Watson, while villain professor Ratigan takes a nod from Sherlock Holmes’ arch nemesis Professor Moriarty. Basil tries to discover why the evil professor has abducted little Olivia’s toy-maker father (voiced by Scrooge McDuck) and learns that Ratigan is up to his most nefarious scheme of all. With the help of his new friends, Basil saves the day, but only after a few close calls.

Poor old Bill. Somehow he always finds himself with the wrong crowd. At least this time he didn't get shot out of a chimney.

Poor old Bill. Somehow he always finds himself with the wrong crowd. At least this time he didn’t get shot out of a chimney.

I tend to enjoy Sherlock-style mysteries when I watch them, and The Great Mouse Detective is no exception. It is a fun movie. It has good voice work as well, including Vincent Price as the villain. (As a neat little side, check this out. I looked up Vincent Price on Youtube where I found the following chain of funny videos that amazingly led back to a Sherlock-themed clip. Click here first, then do this one, and lastly have a look at this one. Sometimes Youtube really impresses me. But back to the film). The Great Mouse Detective isn’t as complex as some adult mysteries can be, but it still manages to tell a good story, work at a good pace, and give us more great Disney mice friends.


Let's face it - any movie which includes a tomato/lettuce throwing scene is going to win points in my book. If I ever made a movie, I would definitely work this into it.

Let’s face it – any movie which includes a tomato/lettuce throwing scene is going to win points in my book. If I ever made a movie, I would definitely work this into it.

Week 25: The Black Cauldron

Not As Bad As Its Reputation


Originally Released: 1985

The Black Cauldron has what must be one of the most interesting behind-the-scenes production stories of any Disney film. It had an extremely troubled production history which lasted from 1971, when Disney acquired the rights to the books, all the way to 1985, when the film was finally released. At the time of release The Black Cauldron was such a financial disaster that it almost caused Disney’s animation studios to be shut down for good.

To give a brief summary, the story goes something as follows. When Disney got the rights to Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain book series in 1971, members of the team subsequently took multiple stabs at developing story concepts, only to shelve them and focus on other projects. However, throughout the 70’s the story was a source of excitement and Disney used it as a key recruiting tool on young animators coming out of college. They promised that it would be a revolutionary film, like a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs of the new generation. Clearly the expectations were very high for The Black Cauldron.


The team at Disney finally went into full production around 1980 and would spend five years working the story, reworking the story, tinkering with new techniques, failing with some of these techniques, and in general just hitting bumps along the way, causing the production time to be extended and adding to costs. Then to add icing on the cake, The Walt Disney Company had a big shakeup at the executive level in 1984, and incoming leaders Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg were not too pleased with The Black Cauldron. Katzenberg didn’t like the tone of the nearly-completed film, so he took it upon himself to edit entire minutes from it.

The Horned King and his army are quite scary compared to other Disney-fare.

The Horned King and his army are quite scary compared to other Disney-fare.

There are more fascinating details about the unfortunate events during production of The Black Cauldron that can be found on other websites. There is also a fantastic documentary film called Waking Sleeping Beauty which chronicles this entire period in the history of Walt Disney Animation. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the “dark ages” and subsequent “renaissance” of Disney animation.

But now over 25 years have passed since the days when those events occurred. It was interesting to watch this film in a time when we’ve seen The Lord of the Rings and other fantasy movies become so popular, and where animated films like Princess Mononoke have been met with such high critical acclaim. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if Disney had waited another 20 years or so to go off in this bold new direction. Perhaps The Black Cauldron could have been that revolutionary film envisioned so long ago if it were produced in today’s setting.

Taran and Princess Eilonwy get help from a magic sword. The film has some cool sequences.

Taran and Princess Eilonwy get help from a magic sword. The film has some cool sequences.

As I watched the film, I certainly saw that there was potential for something truly special. Some scenes have terrific animation and visual effects. Some of the darker, scarier moments are quite interesting and definitely add to the film. It makes me wonder what the finished product would have been like if it was left as originally intended.

Yet while there are great elements to The Black Cauldron, it is not without its flaws. Some questions go unanswered, such as where the oracle pig came from in the first place, how the black cauldron works,  and how the witches aren’t powerful enough to destroy or neutralize the cauldron but they can bring someone back who died in it. I didn’t appreciate some of the more mature elements (i.e. the frog down down a shirt). But on the other side of the maturity scale, the cuteness of some sidekick characters didn’t mesh particularly well with the darker tone of the movie.

Taran best friend

To me, The Black Cauldron really isn’t that bad. It isn’t for everybody, and the dark tone and scary skeleton scenes mean that the film absolutely merits its PG rating (which was a first for Disney animation). But I found enough of the movie to be entertaining and enjoyable that I can overlook its flaws. And to me, knowing the story behind the story makes it even more enjoyable.

cauldron mist



Week 24: The Fox and the Hound

A Film Full of Complex Relationships

Tod and Copper

Originally Released: 1981

To begin with, I’ll just get this out of the way: The Fox and the Hound isn’t my favorite Disney film. I find the overall plot to be somewhat lacking. I believe the songs are so bad that it would have been better if the film were a non-musical and the songs were completely scrapped. Finally, I can’t stand the birds-chasing-the-worm sideshow. Those three characters annoy me and add nothing to the experience. But that being said, The Fox and the Hound does have a major redeeming quality, which is the thought put into the five major characters and the relationships they have with each other.

The five main characters in this film include the fox Tod, and Copper the hound dog, along with Copper’s canine mentor Chief, his human master Amos Slade, and the widow Tweed, Slade’s neighbor who adopts the orphan Tod. In a bit of a departure from the Disney norm, none of these characters can be judged as being either good or evil. They all have strengths and weaknesses which are put to the test during the events of the film.

"Wait, Widow Tweed isn't all good? How can you say that!" Well, I would be pretty frustrated if someone shot up my car and accused me of being a liar. And look at that smile on her face just after doing the evil deed...there's definitely some amount of vileness in the woman.

“Wait, Widow Tweed isn’t all good? How can you say that!” Well, I would be pretty frustrated if someone shot up my car and accused me of being a liar. And look at that smile on her face just after doing the evil deed…there’s definitely some amount of vileness in the woman.

The first relationship of note is that of Tod and Copper. Tod, thrust from his natural fox lifestyle through no fault of his own, is completely ignorant of the “societal norm” which says that foxes and hunting dogs don’t get along. He is able to befriend Copper, who at the time is equally ignorant about the way things are “supposed to be.” However, their friendship is tested when Copper is trained to hunt. Like most good friendships, they have their rocky moments, but they do prove to be loyal to each other. The human parallels and the message of this relationship are obvious.

Chief (voiced by Disney veteran Pat Buttram in what has to be his most tolerable performance for the studio) initially isn't too thrilled by the new recruit, but soon warms up to him.

Chief (voiced by Disney veteran Pat Buttram in what has to be his most tolerable performance for the studio) initially isn’t too thrilled by the new recruit, but soon warms up to him.

Another interesting relationship is between Chief and Copper. Chief likes Copper and is a great mentor to him, but at the same time he has to deal with the frustrations of being replaced by Copper as the more capable performer during the hunts. Nevertheless, despite some inner turmoil, Chief continues to teach Copper the ways of the hunting dog. Because of this, Copper respects Chief so much that when Chief is injured when dodging a (conveniently-timed) train while pursuing Tod, Copper makes an irrational revenge vow against his old fox friend.

Additionally, there is the relationship shown between Amos and Tweed. At times they have disdain towards each other, caused both by Tod’s presence and simple misunderstandings, but these neighbors are on friendly enough terms that Tweed is willing to give aid to Amos when his leg is injured.

Just like in real life, these relationships have some complexity to them and it is not so simple to say “That’s a good guy, while this other one is definitely bad.” Amos has an outrageous temper and goes overboard in his actions, but at the same time he loves his dogs and is just trying to live his life without getting his chickens eaten or his animals killed. Copper is trying to reconcile friendship and loyalty to many different parties and has difficulty prioritizing these loyalties. Poor Tod causes all kinds of trouble in this story, but it really isn’t his fault. He never learned to properly behave either as a domesticated or wild animal and thus isn’t sure how to act in either setting.

Here is the only true villain in this film - the evil bear with the blood-red eyes. Copper and Chief using their hunting-dog instincts is complicated and we can maybe understand them. But Mr. Bear following his instincts and attacking when threatened is just cold-blooded villainy.

Here is the only true villain in this film – the evil bear with the blood-red eyes. Copper and Chief using their hunting-dog instincts is complicated and we can maybe understand them. But Mr. Bear following his instincts and attacking when threatened is just cold-blooded villainy.

The interplay between the five characters is quite thought-provoking, causing some reflection about real-life friendships and judgements we make about people. So while The Fox and the Hound may not be the strongest film in the Disney canon, I do applaud Disney’s attempt to be thoughtful and going beyond what was usually tackled thematically in its films.

When I praised thoughtful inclusions in the The Fox and the Hound, I didn't mean these clowns.

When I praised thoughtful inclusions in the The Fox and the Hound, I didn’t mean these clowns.

Week 23: The Rescuers

The End of an Era, The Beginning of an Era

Penny bottle

Originally Released: 1977

The Rescuers is an interesting creation. It is one that I find hard to place in a proper category. Does it belong at the end of Disney’s “silver age/golden age 2.0,” or does it serve as the beginning of the bold, brave new age of the next generation of Disney animation? On one hand, it represents a departure from earlier films with its more serious plot in a contemporary American world. It also shifted away from Disney’s past by not using singing characters throughout the film. On the other hand, it is a story involving heroic mice and with an outrageous and evil villain, which is classic Disney through and through.

At the Disney studios there were also some endings and beginnings around this time. The Rescuers was the last picture to have heavy involvement by any of Disney’s legendary “nine old men.” Some had already moved on to different roles. For example, Eric Larson had transitioned to a recruiter/teacher/mentor role for the new generation of animators, and Woolie Reitherman was assigned to be the main director of Disney films years earlier (The Rescuers would be his last go as director). After all of these changes, only four of the nine remained as animators. Sadly, death cut short the contributions of John Lounsbery during production of this film. And Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston, and Frank Thomas all retired shortly after completion of the movie.

Disney animator Milt Kahl's finest work? Some consider this scene to be the best work in 2D animation ever.

Disney animator Milt Kahl’s finest work? Some consider this scene to be the best work in 2D animation ever.

But at the same time, The Rescuers did have large contributions by the new generation of animators. In particular, The Rescuers was the first film in which Don Bluth was assigned as Directing Animator. He had previously done work in Robin Hood and the third Winnie the Pooh featurette, and he showed such promise in this time period that he rapidly ascended the ranks and was promoted for The Rescuers. If you are familiar with his work in the 1980’s then you will see that his influence was indeed felt in this film.

All of this blending of old and new translated into a huge hit at the time of release. It earned a lot of money, and it proved to the naysayer critics that Walt Disney Animation Studios could carry on just fine after Walt’s passing. In fact, it was also very successful in the 1980’s when Disney re-released the film in theaters.

Orville flights

After learning these facts and watching the film, I can’t help but wonder: why isn’t The Rescuers as popular today as some of the other films? Why doesn’t it get the all-star treatment of Disney’s prestigious vault releases? How is it that Disney has let this film quietly fall into obscurity when it was so successful? I believe it passes the “timeless” test as well as any other Disney classic. I also think it’s a very solid film, especially considering the change in direction for the studio. It has good main characters, (though some minor characters are forgettable), some real emotion, a nice touch of mysteriousness to it, and I found myself very impressed with some of the animation as well.

I really like with how Penny was animated in this scene. The delicate handling of the bear and the love she has for it really comes through.

I really like with how Penny was animated in this scene. The delicate handling of the bear and the love she has for it really comes through.

So why is it not emphasized today? To illustrate this point, it had been so long since I’d seen The Rescuers that I couldn’t even remember the plot nor many of the characters. I was probably in the second or third grade the last time I watched it (I realize my story may not be the norm, but I don’t know of many exceptions among my friends). Clearly, it was not high up on my priorities list, undoubtedly overshadowed by films such as Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast.

Whatever the reason for its quiet fade, I don’t believe it is really warranted. I’m not going to say that The Rescuers cracks my top five or even top ten Disney movies, but I do believe it deserves more credit and publicity than it currently receives. With all the historical significance surrounding the film, the Disney team could easily create enough interesting bonus features to justify a big-time release. Perhaps in the next vault cycle they will consider it. In the meantime, I will be sure to not let another 10-15 years pass before I watch The Rescuers again.

Piano crocs

Medusa and Penny

Bernard and Bianca

Week 22: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

A Delightful Trip to the 100 Acre Wood

C.R. and Pooh Bear

Originally Released: 1977

Every once in a while, a film comes along that as I watch I just can’t help but smile the whole way through. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is one of these films (two more are My Neighbor Totoro and The Artist, in case you were wondering). Although it is primarily aimed at children, the characters, friendships, music, and humor all combine to create a fantastic escape to an innocent, uplifting world in the 100 Acre Wood that even adults can appreciate.


The history behind the development of this film is actually quite interesting. Winnie the Pooh first appeared in children’s stories by English author A.A. Milne, and the stories were hugely popular in Great Britain. They were also popular among Walt Disney’s children, and he worked to get the rights for the stories to create a film based on the books. He succeeded in obtaining the rights in 1961, and shortly thereafter proceeded to work on the movie.

Walt originally wanted to create a full length feature film, but he saw that at the time Winnie the Pooh was not nearly as popular in America as it was in Europe. So in his wisdom, he decided to break the film into three separate featurettes and slowly introduce Pooh and his world into mainstream America, one piece at a time. Later, he would combine the three featurettes into a single full-length film as originally envisioned.

The first featurette to be completed was Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, and it was released in 1966. Walt was directly involved in the production of the first short film and also of its follow up, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. Unfortunately, Walt died before this second segment was released to the public and therefore did not see Pooh Bear’s rise to stardom as he predicted. But The Blustery Day went on to win an Oscar for Best Cartoon Short Subject in 1968, and Pooh and his friends did indeed gain popularity.

piglet kite

In 1974, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too! was the third segment to be released, and this short was also nominated for an Oscar. With the three planned shorts finished, the animators completed the project by tying together each featurrette and including a proper ending segment for the full-length release in 1977. The collection of shorts was given the title of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

So what is it about this movie that makes me smile? It is hard to pin down the exact source, but I know part of it lies in the collection of characters. There is such a variety of personalities on display here, and each character plays extremely well off of the others. Pooh is brought to full life with silly and witty humor courtesy of Disney veteran Sterling Holloway (who I believe turned in his best work in this film). Rabbit is annoyed by basically everybody, yet he doesn’t realize that he himself can also be annoying. Then there is cheerful and brilliantly voiced Tigger, poor depressed Eeyore, and timid P-P-Piglet, to mention a few more. While each is vastly different, they are all still friends and all are valued. This friendship is something we can definitely learn from in real life.


I also love the storybook idea used throughout the film. You can actually read along to some parts of the story as the narrator speaks. Pooh has conversations with the narrator about what will happen next in the story. Pooh jumps from page to page in the animated storybook, while Tigger almost bounces out of the book completely. And rain floods the words on one page and causes them to fall down to the bottom of the book. It it all quite clever and adds to the delightful atmosphere.

Finally, I really enjoy the sense of humor in the film, including the wordplay in both the dialogue and the music. It just makes me laugh. Things like “tut-tut, looks like rain,” Pooh spitting the bees out of his mouth, Rabbit trying to decorate Pooh in his house, and the nonsensical lyrics in true Sherman brothers style all contribute to the happy tone of the film.

Tut tut! It looks like Rain!

Tut tut! It looks like Rain!

As popular as Winnie the Pooh is among the preschool age group, it seems like the film shouldn’t be nearly this enjoyable to adults. But that is part of the Disney magic. It manages to make something that appeals to the smallest of children also be worthwhile and uplifting to adults. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is filled with this Disney magic from beginning to end.


Heffalumps and woozles are very confusels!

Heffalumps and woozles are very confusels!


Week 21: Robin Hood

Oo-de-lally, Oo-de-lally! So Much Fun


Originally Released: 1973

Apparently the word out there is that somewhere in the 40 years since its release, people decided Robin Hood wasn’t all that great. I’m not sure I believe these “people,” because I have yet to meet a real person who doesn’t like this movie. This has always been a favorite of mine, and a family favorite as well. We watched this one a lot growing up, and I know that most of my friends and family still enjoy it. Perhaps it may not be the masterpiece we have come to expect from Disney animation, but it pulls its own weight just fine.

I’m sure we all know the story of Robin Hood, so there really is no need to go over the plot. By doing what Disney was always really good at – animating animals with human qualities – the team at Disney made the story their own, uniquely recreating the legend by having Robin Hood and Maid Marian played by foxes, King Richard and Prince John as lions (naturally), and giving the part of Little John to Baloo the Bear‘s long lost brother. Part of the reasoning behind this choice is that originally some folks at Disney wanted to work with the story of Reynard the Fox, and eventually they decided they could kill two birds with one stone by making Robin Hood be a fox.

begone long one

I think it was a great move. Allowing characters to be portrayed as any animal the creators could imagine opened up many possibilities, and they were able to create some fun characters with great personalities. Robin, Little John, Lady Cluck, and the rest of the gang are all entertaining and memorable. And the duo of Prince John and Sir Hiss make for a hilarious combination as the greedy villains with their beautiful, lovely taxes (Ah Haa!).

Clearly Robin Hood doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I believe that is where the fun lies in this film. Because the viewer sees that a bunch of goofy animals are playing these roles they understand and accept the ridiculousness from the very beginning. It makes the rest of the wild ideas, like the football references, the Hiss-Balloonmobile, and the wacky disguises add to the fun of the film, whereas in other situations these same ideas could have easily been a distraction. The same can be said for the variety of British and American accents featured in the film. We already know the film is not aiming for serious drama or realism, so the accents don’t really matter.

"Did he just call us 'goofy animals?' Nonsense!"

“Did he just call us ‘goofy animals?’ Nonsense!”

Now, are there negative aspects to the film? I’m sure there are, but nothing comes to mind after this latest viewing. Not even the recycled animation sequences bother me much in this film. To me, they feel like they belong in their respective scenes, as opposed to a lazily slapped-on rehash in different scenes of, say, The Sword in the Stone. I even believe that some of the recycling adds charm to the film, particularly Marian following in the (dance) steps of Snow White. I only learned of this occurrence fairly recently, but the more I see and compare the two, the more brilliant I think it is. Besides, it is still great animated dancing, even if it is recycled. It could be much worse.

Maid Marian Dancing like snow whitephoto(7)

Robin Hood was one of those films that I was eager to revisit for this project. Watching it is has always been a good time, and this viewing was no exception. There are fun characters, good music, quotable dialogue, and the film blends comedy, swashbuckling action, and romance to great effect. Oo-de-lally.



seize the fat one

quit hissing in my ear


Week 20: The Aristocats

“It Worked with Dogs, so Now Let’s Try Cats”


Originally Released: 1970

If someone were to briefly summarize the plot of The Aristocats, if you think at all like me, then you’d probably immediately see the similarities to Disney’s famous dog movies. It seems like they took a little bit of Lady and the Trampsprinkled in some elements of 101 Dalmations, replaced the dogs with a cat family, and Voilà! – a new Disney animated classic. For example, the Tramp is very similar to Thomas O’Malley, a stray, carefree independent type; Lady is like Duchess, a high-class neighborhood pet who falls in love with the stray; and there is a musical number involving Tramp/O’Malley’s stray friends (He’s a Tramp/ Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat). Similarly, both The Aristocats and 101 Dalmations involve villains trying to kidnap and eliminate the family of main characters, taking them away from the city to a rural farm setting. Both involve said family on a trek from the rural setting back to their home.

OMalley and Duchess

In reality, The Aristocats does just enough to separate itself and not be merely a copy of these other two classics. Duchess, appropriately voiced by the lovely Eva Gabor (of Green Acres fame), and her kittens are easy enough root for, and Thomas O’Malley (featuring voiceover work by Phil Harris for the second consecutive film) is quite a respectable alley cat. However, just because it manages to be its own story, that doesn’t mean it reaches the great heights of both of the aforementioned films. Perhaps it is because this was the first film have the bulk of its production occur after Walt Disney’s death, therefore lacking Walt’s keen eye for storytelling and knowing how to best make the plot move along in a satisfying way. Certainly, after watching in succession 19 films that had this personal touch, and then seeing The Aristocats, it is apparent that there is a difference. I still believe it is a pretty good film, but I wonder if it could have been so much more.

Edgar Napoleon

That being said, there are things that makes this movie worthwhile to me. The first is the rough animation style. Normally I prefer the clean look of the earlier Disney films, but the sketch lines that appear throughout this film are interesting in that they give a bit of insight into the animators’ work. As I watched the film, it actually grew on me more and more. These lines appear and disappear all the time, but if you take the time to pick out a scene and freeze the frames, you can find some of the lines used for creating symmetry and direction, and it can be quite an interesting thing for animation students/lovers to observe.

Also, I really enjoy the personality of the three kittens in this movie. They are just plain adorable. I love the way they interact with each other and act like a real family would act. They are playful and mischievous, but at the same time are obedient and loving. Each is fun in his or her own way. Toulouse wants to be a macho alley cat, Marie is a hopeless romantic and totally loves O’Malley’s smooth talk with her mother, and Berlioz just knows he’s a cool cat.


Sadly, I can’t say the same for most of the minor characters. The geese felt thrown in and unnecessary, and even though the motorbike chase scene is fun, the dogs Napoleon and Lafayette really felt out of place in the Paris setting with their southern American accents. The mouse, which was voiced by Disney veteran Sterling Holloway, tries his best to be relevant, but just doesn’t manage to make much of an impact throughout most of the film.

Perhaps the biggest offender is the main villain, the greedy butler Edgar. After watching 20 Disney films and praising the creativity and personality of the likes of Cruella, Maleficent, etc., Edgar is such a disappointment. He is by far the lamest Disney villain up to this point. I honestly can’t think of a worse villain right now in the whole Disney canon. He is a bumbling fool and is not remotely scary or threatening.

dogs haystack

Going back to the positive side of things, the music in this film was once again primarily created by the Sherman Brothers, and they did an effective job. Strangely and sadly, the only worthwhile bonus features on the disc concerned the music from the Sherman Brothers, including the songs that were cut from the film. As I listened to a couple of the deleted songs, I wondered why they were cut. Usually it is understandable, because the song would detract from the story and prevent things from moving along. But in this film, particularly in the case of “She Never Felt Alone,” I believe it would have added to story and given it some much-needed emotion, helping the viewer care that the cats return to their owner. Again, it makes me wonder what might have been if Walt had been around to give more of his expert input. But in any case, most of the songs which made it to the final cut are fun and work well in the film.

Give Disney animators credit - they are amazingly good at making their characters dance.

Give Disney animators credit – they are amazingly good at making their characters dance.

I can’t wrap up this post without briefly talking about “Ev’rybody Wants to Be A Cat.” Why? Because I want everyone who reads this to get that song stuck in their head for the next few days, like it has been in mine. Now, repeat in your mind: “Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody wants to be a cat…Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody wants to be a cat…Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody wants to be a cat…