Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (1937-1941)

Like a lot of children, I grew up suckling at the teat of Disney cartoons. Unlike a lot of children, it fostered a deep love of animation in me that continues to this day. Proving I don't care how uncool I look, I'm going to start on my biggest project to date, a series report card for all 47 official Disney Animated Features. This was by far the easiest report card to prepare for. I didn't have to do any hunting or renting since, to my surprise, I already own all the movies, the majority on VHS. (Yea!) Anyway, on with the show:

1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
The one that started it all. Its biggest flaw is probably the fact that Snow White just doesn’t do enough to be a really interesting character. All the other characters drive the plot of the movie. Snow White basically hangs out, runs away, cleans, cooks, gets killed, and runs off with Prince Charming. (Another character who does nothing for the plot.) I’ve always thought the dwarfs deserved more screen time. It’s fun to watch the distinct personalities play off each other.Though it still has that trademark sugary sweet feeling too much of it, there’s still enough darkness here to keep it interesting. The animation is great and holds up well after all those years. How experimental some of the early Disney features are always surprises me. Snow’s nightmarish run through the woods surely freaked out its fair share of kid’s over the years and the Queen’s transformation into the old witch is terrific.

The music could be better but is still fairly memorable, especially “High Ho” and “The Silly Song.” It’ll never be my favorite Disney film, but you’ve got to give credit where credit is due.
[Grade: B+]

2. Pinocchio
This is the first really great Disney animated feature. It starts off a little slow, but the whole second half of the movie is really excellent. Pleasure Island, the walk at the bottom of the ocean, and the whole Monstro the Whale sequence are all unforgettable, iconic moments in cinema history, not just animation history.

Another thing that’s admirable about this early effort, is it isn’t afraid of being scary. The jackass conclusion to the Pleasure Island act actually nudges up against being genuinely disturbing, and is certainly so when your five years old. And the main thrusting point of the story is, least we forget, an innocent being manipulated and abused by a cruel world. Eventually, poor little Pinocchio is chewed up and spit out, somewhat literally. Of course, we get a happy ending but I think, after all that, the movie earns it.
The quality of the animation has improved since “Snow White.” There is generally just more detail in everything here. The music has been greatly improved too and just about every song sticks out. “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “No Strings on Me” are rightfully classic sequences. The relationship between Gepeddo and Pinocchio is genuinely heart-warming and Jiminy Cricket is a character that could have been easily annoying but comes off likable. The biggest problem is probably just how stupid Pinocchio is, but his head is made of wood, so I suppose I should cut the kid some slack. “Pinocchio” is pretty damn awesome, I think, the first legitimate masterpiece to come out of the Disney cannon. [Grade: A]

3. Fantasia
This film gets some smack from snobs for pairing classical music with images often considered goofy or undeserving. One segment aside, I almost completely disagree with that. This is certainly Disney’s most experimental film yet as the opening abstract images set to Bach certainly makes clear. The Nutcracker Suite section is surprisingly good considering it’s a bunch of dancing fairies, flowers, mushrooms, fishs, etc. I think it’s the perfect melding of sound and imagery.

I’ve never been a big Mickey Mouse fan but “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is still full of great images, like Mickey conjuring up the fireworks and the brooms returning to life and multiplying. The first broom being splintered to pieces in silhouette has stuck with me my whole life for a reason. As a child, I adored “The Rites of Springs” because of the dinosaurs and it holds up extremely well today. And it’s also another example of early Disney not cutting any corners when it comes to realism, for the most part. It’s the bleakest hour of the early years, by far.
Beethoven’s Sixth is the weakest of the vignettes as the images are just too sugary cute for their own good and come off as coying. And the whole centaur courting ritual comes off as just a wee bit creepy. Honestly, not even the surprisingly audacious early Disney team would be willing to explore the debauch depth of Greek mythology, so perhaps the cute-y direction was inevitable. “Dance of the Hours” is goofy but also quite funny and another good combination of music and picture. Because, hey, who doesn’t love hippos in tutus?

And of course, everyone remembers “Night On Bald Mountain/Ave Maria,” the segment I never watched as a child because it frightened me. The swirling images are hypnotic and foreboding. As the giant demon on the mountain appears and the solemn, deep tones of the music kick in, a sense of dread actually creeps into the proceeding. It depresses me to know that Disney would never produce something this daring or creepy today. Basically, “Fantasia” is an unforgettable experience, a definite example of animation as art.
[Grade: A]

4. Dumbo
After the visual playfulness and intensity of “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia,” “Dumbo” is a serious disappointment. The animation is good but not up to quality with previous films and many of the characters designs are sadly lacking in detail. The central story is nice, with the scenes between Dumbo and his mother being particularly touching, but it’s just not all that captivating. Timothy the Mouse is basically just a revamp of Jiminy Cricket.

The slapstick comedy antics that take up most of the film do not hold up at all today. For a fact, that’s my main problem with the movie. Watching the elephants fumble and bumble around each other, especially when you know there is absolutely no risk or chance of anything really going wrong, is boring. The ending is a total non-ending as much isn’t resolved and is further example of the loose storytelling at work here. Dumbo’s slapstick revenge against his teasers just doesn’t have any dramatic snap to it and that the movie pretty much just ends afterward left me asking, “What? You mean that’s it?”
The music is repetitive and overly relied on. “Pink Elephants on Parade” and “When I See an Elephant Fly” are the only songs that stick out. For a fact, the “Pink Elephants” sequence is the only time the film even comes close to the rich creativity of the studio’s past features. The scene is a strange, borderline psychedelic dance number that plays like an out-take from “Fantasia.”

It’s easily the best part of a fairly mediocre feature. “Dumbo” provided the studio with the hit it needed after the hugely expensive “Fantasia” failed to resonate with the public. It was a retreat to safety after an artistic high period. And it worked. Oh well. These things happened.
[Grade: C]

No comments: