Week 19: The Jungle Book

Sometimes the Bare Necessities are All You Need

Baloo

Originally Released: 1967

The Jungle Book is great entertainment. But after watching the movie and thinking about it, I realize that the plot is not the reason the film is fun. Honestly, there isn’t much to the plot. It deals with the animals trying to get man-cub Mowgli back to the man-village against his will. That’s about it. Fortunately, through the wild characters he meets along the way and the music that accompanies these encounters, Disney still manages to leave its mark on the old Kipling tale.

I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know much about the original story, but I did learn that the original Disney screenplay for the film was much darker in tone than the final film. In fact, it was dark enough that Walt Disney had an argument about it with writer Bill Peet, and that argument led to Peet’s resignation. After Peet left, Walt changed the story more to his liking by lightening the tone and eliminating much of the complexity of the screenplay. He also encouraged the staff to focus on characters, heart, and simplicity.

Kaa

While Walt’s approach of story simplicity left the plot a little thin, The Jungle Book more than compensates for it with a showcase of animal animation. These characters, including Baloo and Bagheera, the snake Kaa, and the villainous Shere Khan, are animated masterfully (despite instances of obvious recycling – perhaps the animation was so good that they decided to reuse it? But I digress). All have their own unique touches and tricks that give them a superb blend of human characteristics and the respective animals they represent. Even Mowgli is animated well and has interesting little mannerisms you would expect from a young boy.

Louie

Beyond utilizing the animators to liven things up, another sure-fire way to lighten the mood was to create fun music. The early score and songs of the film mirrored the original screenplay’s darker mood, and when Walt dumped the screenplay he also decided to dismiss the music. He then passed the responsibility to Richard and Robert Sherman for the songs and George Bruns for the score. If the goal was to lighten things up, then surely there wasn’t a better fit than the Sherman brothers, who had recently completed their award-winning work for Mary Poppins. The strategy worked, and the Shermans delivered some great songs which contributed to the atmosphere that Walt Disney envisioned. However, one song from the earlier score was included in the final film, which was “The Bare Necessities.” And interestingly, that was the song that ended up being nominated for an Academy Award.

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The combination of animation, characters, and music make The Jungle Book and enduring classic. The characters are so strong that many different people may have a different favorite character from the film. For example, my favorite was always Bagheera, but I can understand why people would like Baloo, or Louie, or any of the other characters. Likewise, the music is fun all the way through the film. These two items have always been basic components in the Disney animated films – and The Jungle Book proves that sometimes going back to the bare necessities is exactly what’s needed.

Mowgli

Khan

I couldn't help but include this image from the scene selection screen on the DVD. The DVD crew probably could have done a better job with scene 5...or maybe I'm just seeing things?

I couldn’t help but include this image from the scene selection screen on the DVD. The DVD crew probably could have done a better job with scene 5…or maybe I’m just seeing things?

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Week 18: The Sword In The Stone

Knowledge and Wisdom Make Great Power

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Originally Released: 1963

The King Arthur legend is such good source material, it was only a matter of time before it would appear in a Disney animated film. This particular version of the story is based on a novel by author T.H. White, who first published his book in 1938. Walt Disney acquired the movie rights to the story in 1939, and as early as 1949 story drawings began to pop up.

The Sword in the Stone focuses on Arther’s childhood, before he knows that he is to become king, and explains how he met the wizard Merlin and became his student. Arthur,or Wart, as the foster family calls him, is simple-minded at first and only wishes to become a squire and a great fighter like everyone else of the time. Merlin knows that there is so much more he can become if he would only develop his mind and use it to his advantage. This idea that education, knowledge, and intelligence should be sought after and gives one an advantage is the central concept behind the whole movie.

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In order to give Wart this training and advantage, Merlin transforms Wart into various animals which allows him to learn how to adapt and escape sticky situations by using his brain, learning to use unfamiliar tools on the fly. Later, Wart gets a master class in this idea when he is captured by Mad Madam Mim and later rescued by Merlin. Merlin’s superior knowledge of animals and their strengths leads him to victory, even when Mim cheats.

Is that a Croc or a Fox? It is actually an impressive Transition animation. This scene is full of them.

Is that a Croc or a Fox? It is actually an impressive transition animation. This scene is full of them.

It was actually refreshing to watch this film again. I say this because I have to reach way back to Dumbo and Pinocchio to find a prior animated Disney film with such a relevant, true, and important moral to it. For example, as entertaining and beautiful as 101 Dalmations and Sleeping Beauty were, what are the morals we can glean from them? In the first, the best I can come up with is “don’t kill puppies to make fur coats”. Certainly a worthy ideal to aspire to, but not very useful in real life. In the case of Sleeping Beauty, perhaps we can say treat others, including hated enemies, as you would like to be treated. If the king and queen had invited Maleficent to the celebration, perhaps she would not have cursed Aurora. Okay probably not, but that’s as good as I can come up with. So it is good to see a Disney film that strives to reach beyond a simple telling of good vs. evil.

In addition to the moral, The Sword in the Stone also contains some great characters, such as Merlin, Archimedes, the sugar dish with an attitude, and Merlin’s beard (Merlin’s Beard!). Merlin is a bit underrated as a Disney character, I believe. He’s a pretty cool dude. And I love Archimedes. He is a sidekick/comic relief done right. If there were awards given for best Disney sidekick, he’d definitely be nominated in my book.

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However, there is one thing that bothers me with this movie each time I see it: recycling. I notice that certain character movements get used repeatedly. I know that this is a common trick in animation to cut down on time and money, but there is a point where it becomes painfully obvious, which leads to distraction. Two prime examples of this is older Brother Kay eating the turkey leg, and Wart falling down the stairs with his huge stack of dirty dishes. To use this tactic in such an obvious way is one thing for Saturday morning cartoons, but in a full-blown Disney feature production is another thing entirely.

Which leads me to my other related gripe: “Wha? Wait. Whoa!” If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. I guess I can’t be too harsh, because it does make me laugh. But it is a sign of sloppiness and cutting corners, which diminishes the overall quality of the film.

Wait for it...wait for it...

Wait for it…wait for it…

Overall, I still really enjoy The Sword in the Stone. I have always loved the King Arthur legend and Disney managed to extract from it a nice family-friendly story with a good lesson and which is filled with fun situations, interesting characters, and a good sense of humor. So despite the shortcuts taken, The Sword in the Stone was another job well done by the Disney animation team.

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"Wha? Wait. Whoa!"

“Wha? Wait. Whoa!”

Week 17: 101 Dalmatians

Dogs, Dogs, Everywhere

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Originally Released: 1961

With the start of a new decade also came the start of a new era for Walt Disney’s animation studio. After the release of Sleeping Beauty in 1959 and all its excess and extravagance, Disney realized that they needed to figure out a way to cut costs. Some suggested he just abandon animation altogether since by this time Disney was involved in television, live-action movies, and Disneyland. But he refused to do so. But something did need to change, because Sleeping Beauty ended up almost killing the studio (again).

The solution lied in a new technology. Instead of transferring each drawing from the animator’s paper to the cell using a team of painters who carefully traced and colored the characters, Disney adopted a Xerox copy process which allowed the team to directly transfer the animator’s drawings to a cell with a machine. This drastically reduced costs and as a result Walt essentially cut the ink-transfer department at the studio.

Although this new process cut costs, it was a tradeoff. On the one hand, the animators were excited because for the first time, what was up on the screen was what they truly had drawn. On the other hand, the hand-painted cells were rather beautiful in their own right, Also, the character outlines could now only be black. And it also meant that if the animator’s drawings were not cleaned up enough, the rough marks would be transferred to the screen as well.

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101 Dalmatians was the first feature film to use this new process. After watching Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians one right after the other, I noticed difference easily. 101 Dalmations at times does indeed look rougher when comparing the two movies. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because the film has an art style and a look all of its own. For the film, the artists actually decided that they would use the Xerox process not only for the animated characters, but also for the outlines of the backgrounds. This results in a certain blending and consistent feel throughout the film.

As for the film itself, it also represented a departure from the past. This was the first Disney animated feature film which had a truly modern-day setting (at the time, at least). 101 Dalmatians even pokes fun of some societal items of the time (Kanine Krunchies can’t be beat!). The music has a modern feel, and the film isn’t dependent on musical numbers. There are a few songs, including the great “Cruella De Vil” song, but they fall well into a real-life scenario as opposed to a typical song in a musical.

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These differences are significant, but they do not diminish the quality of the film, nor do they eliminate that “Disney feel”. 101 Dalmatians is still a Disney movie through and through, loaded with memorable scenes and characters. I was impressed with the animal movement in Lady and the Tramp, but I am even more impressed with some of the animations of Pongo and Perdita, such as the scene where Pongo tugs Roger through the park.

In addition, 101 Dalmations has what some consider one of the best Disney villains ever (though I find this an especially difficult distinction to make, considering some of the great villains out there). Cruella De Vil is an outrageous and unique character, wonderfully animated and filled with personality.

All in all, Disney delved into this new era on the right foot with another great dog film. But after this film was released, I bet the animators were glad to be done with drawing dogs, and (over 6 million!) spots.

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