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Friday, January 27, 2012

Disneyear: The Reluctant Dragon (1941)

Before this point in the Year of Disney, we've witnessed some of the greatest animated films the studio will ever produce. Ever wonder how they made those films? This movie (or documentary?) is your answer. Let's take a look.

Our film begins at the home of comedian Robert Benchley. His demanding wife claims she has an idea for a new Disney cartoon based on Kenneth Grahame's (author of Wind in the Willows) story, The Reluctant Dragon and demands that her very reluctant husband go to Disney himself and pitch the idea. He goes there and actually gets more than he bargained for with an entire tour of the studio. Benchley gets to see every single process that goes through an animated film, from concept art to camera work, concept art, storyboards, sound effects, voice overs, how to impersonate Donald Duck, and more. He has a good time getting to know some of the artists until he meets uncle Walt himself and shows Benchley his latest short film. In some kind of a cruel twist, it's The Reluctant Dragon. After that, Benchley nags at him about getting there earlier to pitch her idea, he gets back at his wife by throwing a small tantrum a la Donald. 

Until I started looking at animation, this was one of the few Disney films that actually stayed under my radar. I mean, I've seem the titular short before, but never in it's source material. I will admit that after seeing it for the first time, I actually kind of enjoyed it. Like I said, you get a glimpse at how Disney made these cartoons before today's methods and even (what was then) a sneak-peek of some of the films I'm going to review next, Dumbo and Bambi. Benchley himself is entertaining and it is nice that you get to know the people that work on these films. More than what I can say for Saludos Amigos. The film also starts in black and white but ends in color. Sounds weird, but I think it's supposed to show how camera technology has changed, which is nice. You also get to see some short cartoons in between. The only thing I think I didn't care for was that officer that gives him the tour and Benchley's wife. They came off as kind of annoying to me.

The cartoons themselves are nice.I liked the Baby Weems story (done entirely by storyboards, but they were in that department so it makes sense.) and the Goofy cartoon, How to Ride a Horse, is hilarious. The title cartoon was only ok, I thought. The animation and colors are nice and it does actually get a laugh out of me, (especially the dragon and Sir Giles' "fight"). Trust me, I didn't expect the dragon to sound like he does. Hell, I saw the picture of him before and though the was a girl! Didn't see that coming, but he does get a laugh out of me by just how... well, femmy he was. It makes up the final 20 minutes of the film which kind of fits into Mr. Benchley ironic situation. It's funny and entertaining, but not Disney's best short. 

So that's The Reluctant Dragon. If you're interested in the process of traditional animation or if you just want to see some entertaining cartoons, I'd say give this movie a shot. 

Here's some poetry from our dragon.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Disneyear: Fantasia (1940)

For a while now, the Disney movies had simple, yet coherent stories to them. So for their third feature, Fantasia, it seems odd that they did the total opposite of that. It's not one story, but seven pieced together with classical music. The result is a film that's more than just a movie. It's a powerhouse of art and sets new standards for not just animated films, but music videos too. It's really the first Disney film mainly for adults, but there are things that kids can enjoy about it. It's not just my favorite Disney film, it's one of my favorite films of all time. 

Like I said before, it's not just one story, but a bunch of them with no dialogue except from our host, Deems Taylor and a scene with Mickey Mouse and our conductor, Leopold Stokowski. So because of that, I'm going to analyze each segment and then review it as a whole in the end. I'll do the same for other films like this, fyi. So, let's get started!

We get our introduction from Deems Taylor about how the film is going to be. He states that there are three kinds of music: First, there's the kind that tells a definite story. Then there's the kind that while it has no specific plot, it does paint a series of more or less definite pictures. And then there's a third kind, music that exists simply for its own sake. The first piece is music of the third kind, Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. What we see are a bunch of abstract images. It may seem pointless, but if you listen to it again and close your eyes, these images may be the first to jump in your mind. It's a very interesting and bold way to start your movie and easy one of the best scenes in the film.

The second is Pyotr Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite. This scene has a lot of nature themes in it, the biggest idea being that fairies control morning dew and even help with the changing of seasons. As the music goes on, we're also introduced to Chinese mushrooms, dancing flowers and goldfish, and end with summer turning into autumn and winter. It's another scene with powerful imagery. Sometimes, just the falling of leaves has a bigger impact than the internal struggles of a character. It's amazing how these artists can read nature as if it's poetry or ballet. It's a great part and one I always enjoy seeing.

Next is the most famous scene: Mickey Mouse starring in Paul Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and the first clear-cut story in the film. We see Mickey learning under a sorcerer named Yen Sid (see if you catch that reference!) as well as doing a few chores for him. One day, the master leaves his hat, leaving our mouse to make some mischief by turning a broom alive to do the work for him. Only problem is the broom doesn't stop. So, thinking fast, Mickey chops it up with an ax only to have it multiply. They flood the place until Yen Sid comes back and fixes everything. Obviously, this is the most kid-geared section of the music, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't entertaining. Fun fact: this short is actually how the film came about. It was originally supposed to be just this one, but Disney must have liked the idea and wanted to try it out some more music and stories. The love really shows here and in the other segments.

Now we have Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Originally a series of tribal dances, the Disney artists had recreated Stravinsky's original idea for the piece: the evolution of life (at least up until the dinosaurs to avoid problems with religious folks.) This is probably my second favorite segment in the movie. There's a lot of drama and more serene moments in here, but that's life itself. Emotionally, I'm never sure how to feel when watching this. The dinosaurs are there, then they're gone. That's it. There's no good vs. evil, there's no heroes or villains. It's animals living their lives. And I always find stuff like that fascinating.

After that, we take a break and see the orchestra take a jazz break and watch a segment with an animated soundtrack. It's a nice break and this segment does get a chuckle out of me. On top of that, the animation on the soundtrack, like the rest of the film, is beautiful. So, I'd say don't skip it.

We come back to see an interesting interpretation on Ludwig van Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (#6). Instead of the German countryside, like how Beethoven originally envisioned, we see a delicately colorful meadow inhabited by creatures and Gods of Greek mythology, like unicorns, satyrs, pegasus families, centaurs in love, a party hosted by Bacchus and his unicorn donkey (something I'd actually like to attend. He seems like a cool guy.), Zeus breaking up the party, and everyone settling down as the days end. It's pretty colorful and I have to admit, I do enjoy this segment too. It's at least in a lighter mood after the last, really heavy segment. I should also bring up the fact that this is usually censored in almost all prints available. Disney later edited out a black centaur character named Sunflower that acted as an assistant to all the other lady centaurs. I have seen a version with this character in it from YouTube (I guess someone had the original reel) and can tell you that while it's not the most racist thing I've ever seen (It's actually hard to tell with Disney...), Disney should at least have this open for people to make fair judgments for themselves. Another thing, they kept two zebra-centaurs in the film, so why edit Sunflower out if you're going to leave those two in? Besides, the efforts to edit her out are really obvious and a little distracting.

Ok, now we have Amilcare Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours as performed by hippos, ostriches, crocodiles, and elephants. Different parts of the ballet represent different parts of the day both visually and audibly. Out of all the segments in the film, this one is probably the funniest. There's some good, silly, physical humor in it while keeping a sense of dignity like the rest of the film. The choreography of the dancing is good, too.

At last, we come to the finale of Fantasia. Combining Modest Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain with Franz Peter Schubert's Ave Maria sounds like an odd way to end your movie, but they contradict each other so perfectly that it's downright beautiful. It combines all the darkest and most evil things on earth (including a kick-arse devil animated by Bill Tytla) with all the goodness in the world prevailing over it. This has to be, emotionally speaking, the most powerful scene not just in the movie, but out of everything Disney has done that I'm reviewing this year. I swear, that choir brings a tear to my eye every time... 

So that's the film in a nutshell. It's a very powerful tour de force not just in film, but the art of animation itself. Remember what I said about Snow White and Pinocchio working due to emotional simplicity? You could argue that this is the film that perfects that concept. I also enjoy the fact that it's not about story, but moments. Some are easy to emotionally identify with, others not so much. There's also the fact that the Disney artists are able to suck you into a film so simple and yet so awe-inspiring. It's like going to an art museum if the exhibits were alive and moving in front of you. It's Disney's magnum opus. So, to me at least, this movie ages like fine wine and is easily Disney's masterpiece.

If I could find one fault in the movie though, it's that it may be an acquired taste to some. After all, not everybody was brought up on classical music like I was. I still remember my first classical CD: David Bowie narrating Peter and the Wolf performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. So, maybe this is why only a handful of people I know love this movie like I do. Who knows? Maybe if some folks watch it again, they'll at least appreciate the animation and it's sophistication. After all, everyone's entitled to their opinions and I still hold mine. 

Fun fact here: Walt originally wanted this to be a part of a continuing series of films. Unfortunately, this film didn't make the money it needed back when it was first released (even though it was the 2nd or 3rd highest grossing film that year), making another was financially ridiculous. One was made almost 60 years later, but I'll get to that one when it comes around.  

How about some clips? Here's The Nutcracker Suite and Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria with some scenes of Sunflower that I mentioned.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Disneyear: Pinocchio (1940)

After the success of Snow White three years ago, we come to another landmark in Disney animation, Pinocchio. Another critical success as well as a financial one, this film became another staple in Disney animation. Let's take a look.

The story goes that one night a long time ago, a puppet maker in a village (I'm guessing in Italy) makes what he considers his best work yet: a little boy marionette he names "you-should-know-this-by-now". He makes a wish to a wishing star and wants nothing more than his puppet to be a real boy. Then suddenly, a Blue Fairy comes by and grants Gepetto his wish and appoints a little cricket named Jiminy Cricket to be the boy's conscience. The fairy also mentions that if Pinocchio learns right from wrong, he'll be a real boy. Together, the two overcome some obstacles so that Pinocchio can get his wish to be a real boy. After an exciting climax escaping a ferocious sperm whale, he sacrifices his own life to save his father. Seeing this, the Blue Fairy gives him life again, Jiminy receives an official conscience badge and they all lived happily ever after.

First off, I should point out that the animation in this film is simply beautiful. Some of Disney's best even. Right down from the first ten minutes, you get some really gorgeous imagery. Take a gander.

As weird as this premise sounds, the artists create this world for the movie where it doesn't have to make sense. I especially love it when Honest John (a fox) and his pal Gideon (a cat) are just walking down the street like normal people and are shocked to see a marionette skipping past them on his way to school. It's pretty damn hilarious when you think about it. There are more weird images than this in the film, like the nose growing when Pinocchio tells a lie or turning into a donkey when he's bad. But at least it has a purpose: it's there to teach lessons. And with visuals like that, they sort of stick to you like a burr to your sock.

Remember kids: lies grow until is as plain as the nose on your face!
The main characters are pretty good ones. Pinocchio himself is, forgive the pun, a real boy. He's curious, he wants to do good and bad things sometimes, but he's not rotten. What sets him apart is that he does learn his lessons in the end. So I really enjoy him. Then there's Jiminy Cricket. I find it interesting that people have mixed feelings for this character: you either love him or you hate him. Me? I always thought he was an ok character. Give him credit, the story is told in his perspective. I do kind of like his voice and I did find him pretty appealing both visually and as a character. He clearly does want to help his friend out, but appears easily frustrated when things don't quite go as planned, which makes him a little more interesting. I give animator Ward Kimball my props for him. Oh, and Milt Kahl for Pinocchio too. One more thing: Gepetto has a few funny moments too, so you may enjoy him.

Like Snow White, emotional simplicity is what makes this film endearing. The difference being that in Snow White, where if you have a dark/sad moment, things turned out alright in the end. Here, it's not always like that. The bad guys were never defeated, they're still out there doing what they do, like the coachman (who I consider the most underrated Disney villian). He kidnapped boys and turned them into donkeys where they got sold to miners. He also keeps the ones who can still talk and God knows what he's gonna do to them. And, you know what? HE'S STILL OUT THERE KIDNAPPING MORE KIDS!

Oh, and this isn't the creepiest face ever!
The songs are fun too, the best one being the title song When You Wish Upon a Star. The song's so famous that it's basically one of Disney's trademarks! Surprisingly, I hear it's causing some controversy over the theory that the song says just wishing for things will make everything ok. Well, I see it as more of a ray of hope, a bright light in an otherwise dark and melodramatic situation. After all, kids are much smarter than we give them credit for. They know things aren't going to be fine just for wishing for it to be ok. I've never meet anyone who took that idea seriously, so that argument is really invalid. I don't know, I guess someone needed something to complain about...

It's okay. Sing your heart out, Jiminy.
My final analysis: this a great film filled with atmosphere kids and adults will appreciate, good characters and music, and some really dark and creepy imagery. Just don't watch this with anyone squeamish... Sure, it's dark as hell, but we get that happy finale that we all want to see. It doesn't always make sense, but quite frankly, it doesn't have to. And that's alright with me.

Feel brave enough? Here's the creepiest scene in the whole film... Enjoy!

Hope this makes you feel better: the most beautiful scene.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Disneyear: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Let's kick off my Year of Disney with the very first animated film ever, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The film that started it all and one that countless critics call the greatest animated film ever made. Do I feel the same way? Well, let's have a look and see.

The story goes that in a kingdom once upon a time, an evil and jealous queen finds out that she's not the fairest lass in all her kingdom. According to her magic mirror with one of those play masks inside it, that title belongs to a young woman called Snow White. So the queen hires a huntsman to kill her and bring back her heart as proof (seems logical, right?) but he can't do it. So SW runs away only to bump into some very helpful forest animals that show her to a cottage where she can hide from the queen. Only problem is that seven Mini-Me's.... er, dwarfs, live there but thankfully they agree to help her out. The Queen finds out and tries to find and kill her herself with a poisoned apple, but is saved by her prince's kiss and they all live happily ever after... except the Queen.

So is it as good as the critics make it out to be? Well, I think so. It's as basic as a film can get, but there's a lot of heavy atmosphere in this film for being a Disney film. You get sucked into the film from minute one. There's also some really dark imagery, in fact some of the darkest ever. Hell, I remember being freaked out by the scene where SW first gets lost in the woods. Speaking of imagery, the artwork is just incredible. Just looking at some of these backgrounds and animation just blows me away. After all, this was the studio's first film and by the look of it, they really put their damnnest into this flick.

But that doesn't mean the film is100% perfect. Some of the scenes feel like filler to me, like when SW cleans the house with the animals. Then again, turning a seven-page story into an hour and a half feature isn't the easiest thing on earth to do, so I'll let it slide. The prince is really boring (he's only in two scenes and barely speaks a line) The queen, as a villain, is only a jealous bitch. Compared with some of the other villains we'll see later, her motives and persona are not that strong.

I have mixed feelings for Snow White. She's not the most interesting Disney princess either. She's nice, that's it. But on the upside, she's.... nice. Hey, want proof that she's nice? She makes a pie for Grumpy near the end of the film. GRUMPY!!! And is it me, or does her singing remind you of Mae Questal's singing for Betty Boop?

The best characters by far are the dwarfs themselves. I like how the Disney artists decided to make each dwarf different by having their names represent their emotional status. They're the most interesting characters in the whole movie and to me are the heart and soul of the film. The relationships between them and Snow White is a rather interesting one. You really feel like they care about this girl and want to keep her as safe as possible. If I had to pick a favorite, it's Grumpy, hands down.

Can you name them all?
The best scenes? Well, it depends: if you wanna laugh, then the scene when the dwarfs get back home after a day's work and find there's something their house really leaves me in stitches. The climax where the dwarves chase the queen after she kills Snow White is really friggin' good (speaking of which, her death is really one of the most gruesome in a Disney flick. Hell there's vultures following her. That should say something) I'll admit, I got really teary-eyed watching when the dwarfs have a funeral for SW. THAT is the most depressing scene in a Disney film ever! The dwarfs are crying, no sobbing for they lost the only woman that's ever come in their lives. It's just a wake, right down to the organ music. When Grumpy starts to break down, that's when I just lose it.

So does Snow White still hold up even if we emotionally de-attach from it even though we saw it as children? The key word there is "emotion". This is a film fueled entirely on emotion. Logic plays no part in it. To be honest, I find films like that fascinating.The film doesn't please your sense of logic, but gives you whats your emotions want to see. Though not complex, the film's emotional simplicity taps into the audience so deep that we don't care if some of this stuff doesn't make sense. Overall, I'm glad I saw this film again and it really is one of Disney's best. Not the best, but top 10 easily.

To finish off, here's a clip of the best song in the movie:

The Year of Disney

Happy New Year, readers!

If you guys read the Blue Bayou post, I'm planning on reviewing all the Disney animated features. That's my plan and I'm sticking with it. So you're probably asking why on Earth I'm doing this. Well, I love the Disney films (well, most of them as you'll see). After all Disney is usually the first thing we're ever exposed to as kids, and it's really hard to avoid it once something like Disney has entered your life. Hell, it's practically family to us. Also, as an animator, you can't help but feel that these are more than movies. They're works of art! I suppose I could have just made a list of what were my favorites to see if anyone agrees, but I always feel like I have to express why it is I like/don't like the film, that way, it comes off stronger.

So here's how this is gonna work; once or twice a week, I'll watch a movie in order of thier release and give my two cents on it, as well as share a video of what I consider the best scene. (I'm not uploading the whole film, just a smidge of it) If you like or don't like anything I like or don't like, that's fine. Everyone has their own opinions and I have mine. That's part of why I made this blog. So maybe tomorrow or so, I'll get started on the reviews, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the Year of Disney.