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

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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.

T-I-Doubleguh-er

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.

storybook

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.

rabbit

Heffalumps and woozles are very confusels!

Heffalumps and woozles are very confusels!

photo

Week 21: Robin Hood

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

oo-de-lally

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.

fortune

stork

seize the fat one

quit hissing in my ear

fireflies

Week 20: The Aristocats

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

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.

piano

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…

Meow!

Meow!