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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Week 8: Make Mine Music

Also Known As ‘The One Nobody Remembers’

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Originally Released: 1946

Make Mine Music is another package film from the 1940’s.  If you mention the name of the film to the average person, they likely will say that they have never heard of it.  Even for me, when I saw it was next on the list, I struggled to remember anything about it. However, upon viewing it, I saw that I did in fact recall seeing most of the shorts in this film when I was little, and liking most of them as well.  So perhaps it is unfair to call this film The One Nobody Remembers. People will likely be familiar with at least one or two of the segments.

The film may be described as being modeled somewhat after Fantasia, except it uses mostly contemporary music rather than classical orchestra pieces. It lacks the continuity of Fantasia, though, and simply feels like a bundle of very different shorts. Some tell clear stories, while others are purely abstract. Some of the music is instrumental, while others have singing. Various genres are represented as well, from opera to jazz to hillbilly hoedown. Not that any of these things are bad, necessarily. They are each very creative. They just don’t mesh together as well as they could.

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Make Mine Music is a package of ten shorts. Because there are ten, and ten is a natural list number, I thought that rather than summarize the movie,  it would be fun to instead count down the shorts from the one I least enjoyed to my favorite of the bunch.

Before I begin, though, let me get one thing out of the way. If you happen upon the U.S. dvd version, you will find that one of the segments has been completed edited out of the film. “The Martins and the Coys” was removed apparently because the wacky gun violence was too much for the children to handle. Give me a break. As a movie lover, I can’t stand it when this kind of thing happens. It is like a famous artist going back to his or her painting, after it has been hanging in a museum for years, to tweak something he or she doesn’t like anymore. It just shouldn’t happen. Fortunately, there is this thing called the internet, so finding it wasn’t too difficult a task.

Anyway, on to the list:

10. Blue Bayou.  Other than some pretty cool animation and transitions, this one is just…yawn. It doesn’t really work as the opening piece.  Oh, wait, it isn’t the real opening.  The real one was cut from the dvd.

9.  Two Silhouettes.  This is a dance number with live-action ballet dancers in silhouette form, with their dancing enhanced by Disney animation magic.  Overall it was pretty neat to see some of the effects.

8. Without You. It is a very abstract piece that features some awesome morphing effects with a lot of the color blue.

7. After You’re Gone. Here we are treated to another abstract piece, but this time with some jazzier music.  It includes dancing fingers on a piano.

6. The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met. This is the concluding short to the film, starring a whale who sings the “Shortening bread” song to applauding seals.  And he also dresses up like a clown at the Met. Then he dies.

It's too bad he didn't get a cameo in "The Little Mermaid." Think of the possibilities!

It’s too bad he didn’t get a cameo in “The Little Mermaid.” Think of the possibilities!

5. The Martins and the Coys, Old Southern stereotypes, cartoon gun violence, Mountain Dew drunkenness, and feuding families. It’s a shame that Disney pulled this from the home video release. It is a fun short despite some of its supposedly controversial depictions. 

4. Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet. A tale narrated in song about two hats from the department store who fall in love. Alice had beauty which was “sought by the girl she was bought by for $23.94,” and Johnnie and Alice become separated. Johnnie becomes depressed.  However, just as things are going down the gutter and hope is almost lost, fate brings them back together. It is a little-known fact that this short was the inspiration for the modern romantic comedy formula. Except like many things, Disney does it better, even when hats are the protagonists.

3. Casey at the Bat. It is a more traditional story which recites the poem about the mighty baseball star Casey who gets cocky and ultimately strikes out, causing devastation to the home town. This is one cartoon I remember quite vividly from childhood. I can still remember perfectly in my head the singing of the narrator and the lady yelling “Kill him! Kill the umpire!” while she draws a pin from her hat. Don’t ask me why that stuck out.

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2. All the Cats Join In. I am probably in the minority ranking this one so high, but I find this jazzy number to be highly entertaining. The art style is quite different compared to the rest of Disney’s work, and the pencil sketching the scenes and props as the story is told is so much fun to watch.

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1. Peter and the Wolf. Here is another one I can remember well from when I was little. This short has great music, great characters, a scary wolf villain (or волк if you are Russian like the characters), and to top things off, it is narrated by Winnie the Pooh. It is just as enjoyable now as it was back then. One of my favorite parts is the introduction to each of the characters and their respective instruments. It works really well and in this instance the film successfully hearkens back to Fantasia. This is a top-notch short, in my opinion.

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So there you have it. Most likely your list will be different from mine. That is the great thing about lists, and that is the fun thing about these package films. There is bound to be at least one short that people will like, and it is always interesting to see what people choose.

"Oh, great, where am I now? I KNEW I should have taken that left turn at Bald Mountain!"

“Oh, great, where am I now? I KNEW I should have taken that left turn at Bald Mountain!”

Week 7: The Three Caballeros

Ay Caramba!  Aves Raros and Pretty Girls

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Originally Released: 1944

I easily remember Donald, Joe Carioca, and Panchito singing their catchy “Three Caballeros” tune – probably as easily as any other Disney song. Though I don’t know the words very well, I have still found myself humming the melody at the most random moments over the years. That song alone makes The Three Caballeros worth revisiting from time to time.

Picking up where Saludos Amigos left off, The Three Caballeros continues the theme of goodwill and flattery to Latin America. This time, though, Mexico takes center stage along with Brazil. The film is divided into three segments, represented by three birthday presents given to Donald Duck from his avian friends south of the border.

The first present is a filmstrip with short stories about a penguin who wants to escape the cold of Antarctica, and about a little gaucho boy in Uruguay who discovers a flying donkey, which apparently is part of the bird family. Also included is a short segment which describes some of the more interesting birds of South America, including that meio maluco Aracuan.

"He's meio maluco - a very stupid fellow"

“He’s meio maluco – a very stupid fellow”

Following the first segment, Donald receives a picture book in which Joe Carioca appears and gets Donald to travel with him to Bahia, Brazil. At this stage we begin to enter into some more creative and surreal territory. Also, this is the point where Disney and his team begins to blend the animation with live action. Finally, from here we start to be introduced to a few of the many pretty girls of South America.

After Donald and Joe get their fill of the Bahia, the third present is opened, and out pops the third Caballero, Panchito the red rooster, complete with his sombrero and mariachi gritos. And thus begins what has to be the most surreal and at some points strange sequences in Disney history. It begins normal enough as the three birds hitch a ride on a magic carpet and tour some interesting locales in Mexico, but after a while all the music, dancing, and girls gets to Donald’s brain and the scene evolves into a fantastically strange sequence that trumps even the “pink elephants on parade” from Dumbo.

In the end, I suppose that we can learn from this film that South America has some really lovely locations, great traditional music, lively folk, and last but not least, many beautiful women. Certainly the ideas portrayed in this film would have helped create a feeling of goodwill towards the neighboring American countries back in the 1940’s.

Maybe with all the current events in Rio, Salvador, and many parts of Mexico, Disney could make an action-packed sequel. Perhaps I’ll pitch the idea to them sometime. But until the sequel happens, we can go back in time and enjoy the singing and dancing of yester-year. And pretty girls.

Pretty girl...

Pretty girl…

Pretty girls...this won't end well for Donald

Pretty girls…this won’t end well for Donald

Pretty girls...

Pretty girls…

Pretty girls...

Pretty girls…

Pretty g-- now that's just plain weird!

Pretty g– now that’s just plain weird!

 

Week 6: Saludos Amigos

A Time capsule in the Southern Hemisphere

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Originally Released: 1942

Saludos Amigos is the first of what is essentially a series of packaged short films released by Disney that would dominate the rest of the 1940’s. When I saw that Saludos Amigos was next on the list to watch, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  It had been years and years since I have last seen either the film in its entirety or one of the shorts separately. I also didn’t remember which shorts belonged to this film and which belonged to The Three Caballeros. In a way, it was kind of like watching the film for the very first time.

The reason Saludos Amigos exists is because as World War II began to spread across the world, the United States government decided that it should establish good relations with the rest of the American continent before Nazi Germany could spread its influence to these nations. Walt Disney was essentially chosen as an ambassador of goodwill to visit Brazil, Argentina, and other South and Central American countries. As a result of this assignment, Walt was able to take his team of artists, writers, and musicians on a nice tour of the American continent. It helped that the Disney characters were popular south of the border, and it seems that the tour was a success.

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The film has its moments and is still enjoyable overall. It begins in the Andes mountains at Lake Titicaca and follows tourist Donald Duck in his antics there. It then proceeds to Chile and Argentina and we are treated to two more short cartoons. The first is of a little baby cartoon airplane, and the second is a Goofy tale in the mold of some of those classic Goofy “how to” or “documentary” cartoons (click here to see my absolute favorite of the “how to” cartoons – those cheerleaders crack me up every time). Finally, the film finishes off in beautiful Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the animation team shows off a very imaginative sequence to the irresistible tune of “Aquarela do Brasil,” featuring samba-dancing pink flamingos and bananas that morph into toucans, to give a couple examples.

They are dancing samba. Trust me on this one.

They are dancing samba. Trust me on this one.

It is really hard to try and compare this movie to the five films which preceded it. It really is a whole different animal. But to be quite frank, for most viewers the comparison will inevitably be made, and it probably won’t stack up to their favorite Disney movies. However, I found myself really enjoying it as I watched it again. Not necessarily because it is a great movie, but because I can personally relate to two of these segments. I lived in Brasil for two years in the southern region where they have their own pampas, gauchos, and carne asada (or churrasco, as the Brazilan gauchos call it). I even have my own pair of bombachas. So during the Goofy clip and also during the Rio de Janeiro segment with Donald and Jose Carioca I couldn’t help but smile and wax nostalgic. It also was fun listening to Jose Carioca babble on to Donald and actually understanding what he was saying. That knowledge made this viewing of the film a whole lot different than when I watched the show as a child.

Churrasco. So, so good.

Churrasco. So, so good.

Finally, I must include that for me, what may be the most interesting part of this film is the live-action video. It is almost like opening a time capsule from South America’s past. The scenes of the Peruvian villagers at the marketplace playing wooden flutes, of the dancing gauchos, and of Carnival in Rio circa 1941 is actually quite fascinating. Times certainly have changed. Getting a glimpse of Disney and his team creating their work and catching even a small glimpse of life of a few groups in the highlighted countries back then makes this film worth watching. It may not be a masterpiece like the films of the first golden age of Disney, but it definitely has its value in the Disney canon.

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Week 5: Bambi

A True Work of Art

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Originally Released: 1942

The way I see things, there are two types of men in this world: those who are too manly for Bambi, and those who are man enough to admit they like it. Apparently, those in the first category only tend to remember the cute bunnies and other lovable creatures of the forest, but I suppose they are not able to look past that and see how much more the film offers.

In reality, Bambi offers a little of everything: drama, suspense, character growth, romance, and even a little action. Above all, it is a tale about life, and particularly learning how to deal with the curve balls life can throw at you. The film shows that life does go on despite tragedy and adversity, and that there is happiness to be found even in the midst of these bad things.

"Your mother can't be with you anymore."

“Your mother can’t be with you anymore.”

Think of some of the things Bambi goes through in just the first year or so of his life. His life starts off well enough, with friends, family, and fun. But eventually the winter comes with its challenges. Just when things start to look up, tragedy strikes and he loses his mother. Later on, Bambi is shot, his home burns down, and he almost loses his love. In the end, though, we see that he is able to overcome these adverse circumstances and have a happy ending, at least for another year.

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It is interesting to note that around the time this film was made, Walt Disney was going through some rough times of his own. Three of his first five films failed to turn a profit, so the company was not doing well financially. In addition to this, many of the animators went on strike during the production of Bambi. Finally, World War II was spreading across the globe at this time. Despite these challenges, Walt was able to get the film completed and his company survived.

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As I watched this film, I thought more about these things and less about the cuteness of it all. Yes, the characters are cute and full of charm, but if we look past this and dig a little deeper, we can find some great takeaways in this film. We all go through periods of fun with friends and family, but we have our winters to deal with as well. However, we can come through hard times and still find happiness, and in the end we will be wiser.

Beyond the story, I must mention that this movie is just plain gorgeous to look at, especially when watching it on Blu-ray. From the very first frame of the forest to the ending sequence showing Bambi and the Great Prince looking down at the valley below, I was stunned by the beauty and style of the backgrounds. I could pause the film at just about any spot and be treated to an image that I would want to hang on my wall.

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Not only this, but the animation of the animals is very impressive. It strikes just a perfect balance between lifelike and cartoony. They don’t feel like cartoon characters; they feel like forest animals. Yet they have been humanized and are able to show a great range of emotion. In this film Disney really succeeded in creating the illusion of life. It is an impressive feat of animation.

Bambi marked the end of Disney’s first “golden age.” Each of the first five feature films was a home run in its own way, and they set the bar incredibly high for all the films which followed. Bambi, like the four films preceding it, is a winner which I would recommend to anyone – even the manly men.

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