Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (1961-1970)

17. One Hundred and One Dalmatians
Recently rewatching this film, I was surprised by the fluidity of the animation. All the characters move with a life-like spring in their steps. Though roto-scoping has often been misused as a dollar stretching technique, it adds a level of vividness to the character movements here.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable little movie. The characters aren’t anything new but still prove interesting to watch. The sequence were Pongo stares out the window trying to pick out a mate for his masters has always struck me as very clever, especially with the ways the owners resemble their pets. The love story between Roger and Anita, though not the main focus of the film, is also pulled off nicely. The story also feels very much of it times. Maybe it’s the art design but this one screams both “England!” and “Sixties!” Which makes it timeless and sort of unique, don’t you think?
Most people remember this today for the villain, Cruella DeVille, who truly is one of the great Disney villains. Just the fact that the character is so callous is what makes her so memorable. She’s not interested in financial gain or power or any typical villainous motivations. She just wants the perfect fur coat. And she’s willing to kill one hundred and one puppies to get it. Puppies, man! How more evil can you get? Her nasty-ness even makes the comic relief henchmen more threatening.

Music doesn’t play as big a part in this film as in other Disney pictures, but Cruella’s theme song is very catchy and instantly recognizable. I’ve also always thought the TV-shows with in the film were a nice touch of meta-awareness on Disney’s behalf. Not a really great Disney film, but definitely one of the more entertaining ones.
[Grade: B]

18. The Sword in the Stone
In keeping with the European feel, this plays out sort of like a low-key version of “Sleeping Beauty.” The art design is similar to that film in that it appears to be based at least partially on medieval artwork. Stained glass was an obvious influence on both films. Of course, the animation quality is of a much lower budget then that high point and the colors here are muted and the landscapes flat.

The tone is completely different as well, more in line with what you’d expect from Disney. It’s a mildly amusing comedy. The humor is mostly derived from character interaction which makes it fairly reliable for a laugh. I particularly like the love-struck squirrel. That always got a chuckle out of me as a kid. The characters are more archetypes then anything else. (This is a retelling of the King Arthur story, after all. Wouldn’t you expect archetypes?) I’m not sure I like Merlin as a mildly frenzied old coot either and I certainly could have done without his owl sidekick.
The story is slowly paced and laid back, mostly involving Merlin transforming young Wart into an animal of some sort and related wackiness ensuing. There’s never a definite moving force here and threats are introduced sporadically before being dealt with in an equally swift manner. I’m not sure how I feel about the character designs either, which are more exaggerated then usual.

The music is fairly minor but still manages to be catchy. I can hum you a handful of bars from “What Makes the World Go Round,” “Higitus Figitus” (which is basically “Bippitiy Boppity Boo” rewritten for a guy) and, the definite highlight, “The Mad Madam Mim.” The wizard dual at the end is a nice sequence and at least takes things out on a high note. A serious retelling of the Arthurian legend was obviously beyond the studios’ means at the time and I’m not sure I’d like to see that tale Disney-ized anyway. Either way “The Sword in the Stone” is completely pleasant and easily watchable, if far from the major masterpieces the studio is known for.
[Grade: B-]

19. The Jungle Book
“The Jungle Book” might have the best voice cast Disney ever put together. It was criticized at the time for casting well-known actors in part similar to their established personas. Valid criticism, I suppose, but when it works this well, you can’t really fault the decision. Each voice and character are matched so perfectly. There isn’t a single bad performance in the whole movie. Sebastian Cabot resonates authority as Bagheera but also brings warmth to the part. Though primarily a comic relief character, Phil Harris still gives Baloo a multifaceted personality. Sterling Holloway is allowed to expand past his usually benign personality as the appropriately slithery Kaa. (Ha, I made a pun!) George Sanders imbues Shere Kahn with a sense of menace and style, making him both a truly threatening villain and strangely likable. You certainly never doubt for a minute that he intends on killing poor little old Mowgli. (And, yes, that is the Clint Howard as the voice of the baby elephant. What a long way we’ve come.) I don’t know how much of the strong characterization has to do with performances or with the writing, but each character has a fully rounded personality, even minor supporting parts.

The music is really outstanding as well featuring, so far, the best music yet written for a Disney feature. It’s the closest the song team has come to feature out-right pop music. Every song here is a favorite of mine and, in between “The Bare Necessities,” “I Wanna Be Like You,” and the appropriately alluring “Home of My Own,” I can’t decide which I like more.
The animation is a step-up from “The Sword in the Stone” and the detailed backgrounds and rich color from “Sleeping Beauty” returns as well, though this film lacks the sheer graphic brilliance of that one. The Indian jungle certainly adds a different color palette then previous Mouse Factory offerings.

Despite being only fitfully faithful the original stories, many of Kipling’s powerful themes are maintain, such as the importance of fire or Mowgli returning to civilization, in what might be the best ending of any Disney Animated Feature. If I had to find anything bad to say about this film, it would be that the plot is a little lacking. There’s not really a driving force behind the plot and it’s more of just running into a bunch of different characters but the experience as a whole is just so enjoyable, that seems like a minor squabble. “The Jungle Book” would be the last animated production Walt Disney himself oversaw. He certainly went out on a high note, as its one of the best of the collection.
[Grade: A]

20. The AristoCats
The one thing this film really has going for it is its music, which is excellent all around and some of Disney’s most hum-able songs. “Everybody Wants To Be a Cat” is actually a great little number and the standard of many youngster’s birthday parties, believe you me. Many of the other numbers, including “Scale and Arpeggios” and the title track, sung by the distinguished Maurice Chevalier, are also memorable.

Beyond that, however, the movie mostly plays like a weaker retread of “One Hundred and One Dalmatians.” You have the pets in peril, threatened by a selfish human. You have the owners of the animals, who grieve like they just lost a child. Both finales even feature the lower class critters coming to the rescue of our main cast. The resolutions are even similar, with the street animals being accepted into the nice homes.
There’s a wide range of supporting characters here but, despite the best efforts of the solid voice cast, including many Disney regulars like Phil Harris, Eva Gabor, Sterling Holloway, Scatman Crothers, and Paul Winchell, but none of them feel like anything more then clich├ęs. Especially the Scat Cat gang who are all intentionally written as culturally stereotypes. (I point this out less not because its offensive but because its just lazy writing.) The two guard dogs, which meet the standard comedy concept of “Dumb skinny guy who thinks he’s smart and constantly belittles the really dumb fat guy,” bump up against annoying. And there’s plenty of that slapstick I’ve mentioned before, not to mention a totally non-threatening comic relief villain. (There’s a reason Edgar the Butler isn’t spoken of as often as Maleficent or the Evil Queen.) Despite some notable aspects, this is definitely one of the more forgettable Disney features. [Grade: C]

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