Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Chronological Animated Disney Canon - The Golden Age part one

The reason why I'm not gushing about my trip last week yet is because I had the Disney Animated Films posts all set to go and it would be a total pain to shuffle their dates at this point. But the other reason is because I am sick as a dog. There were more sneezing, coughing people in the little room we waited in to leave the boat than there were during the entire trip, and I think I caught some horrible rare disease from one of them. Been coughing up a lung since Sunday night.
Speaking of, here is how I felt Sunday night, in all it's crappy MS Paint glory:
Yeah, this sucks. On to the Disney Movies!

The Very First Animated Disney Feature Film: "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves"
I have to admit, I never particularly counted "Snow White" among my favorite Disney movies. And that is damn weird for me to say because, honestly, I have only sat down and watched the thing twice.
Some background is in order for readers still in their teens. Believe it or not, there was a time, not very long ago, when Disney was awful about releasing their animated films on home video. The long, weird story of Disney movies on home video/DVD release can be read on this Wikipedia page, but the short story is that throughout the early to mid-80's, you either watched the movies in the theater during their rare re-releases or not at all.
Gradually, Disney movies did make their way onto video but it was a long and rather nonsensical process. ("Pinocchio", which may be the greatest Disney animated film ever, was one of the first ones on video but the craptacular "The Sword In The Stone" was kept off shelves because it was one of the "untouchable seminal films upon which our legacy was based". Seriously.) In a situation rather similar to that of "E.T.", Disney originally teased that they would never release "Snow White" on home video. We Disney Channel brats had to settle for teasing tidbits dispersed throughout clip shows and such. The Dwarves' marching songs here, the Queen's transformation sequence there, "Whistle While You Work" over there and so on. That, more than anything, built the movie's reputation up in our minds.
Disney held out on their vow not to release "Snow White" onto video until 1994, and with my love of a good ironic ending to a story, I'm actually kind of glad the movie wasn't available on Netflix. I watched "Snow White" on one of the original videos published in '94.
On the whole, the movie is much, much better than I recall. There are a lot of things Disney would do better in future films, however. Snow White herself is one of the blandest heroines Disney ever devised. Her big scene comes when she stumbles into the Dwarves' bachelor pad and immediately starts playing Suzy Homemaker. Later, she addresses the dwarves like a teacher shepherding a rowdy Kindergarten class. She spends the last act of the movie asleep and I really didn't notice much.
But while Snowy is almost too ditzy to live, she's at least more interesting than the Prince. He doesn't even get a proper name! You can't call yourself a Disney fan if you don't transpose the lyrics of his one big number to: "One line! / I have but one line! / One line in this whole movie!!!"
Ah, but the Dwarves are wonderful. It's really quite impressive when you think about it; we have here seven fairly identical people but each one of them has a unique personality. There is a point about a half hour into the movie where they first arrive at their newly cleaned home and the pacing threatens to grind to a halt (one thing I noticed on this viewing is that, save for this one scene, the movie is almost an opera). But then, during this sequence, each of the Dwarves gets his own great, funny little character moment. It's wonderful.
Rounding out the cast, I have to admit the Wicked Queen owns the whole show. She's all resentment and intimidation. The first in a long line of great Disney movie villains, she sets the standard very high.
The special effects are amazing, especially when you realize that they must have taken months and months to do at the time. Overall, I'm glad that I gave this another look.

Film #2: "Pinocchio"
Sincere and scary, this is the best of the Golden Age. It could easily be the best Disney movie ever.
Doing the research for this project, and specifically the home video release history of these films, I was struck by a couple of revelatory things:
1) The first wave of animated Disney movies released on Home Video did not include any previews. In fact, they had no advertisements on them in any way, shape or form.
Repeat: Disney movies. Released for home viewing. With NO commercials. None.
Ten minutes of commercials of all imaginable kinds in front of "Pinocchio" later, that kind of trivia breaks my brain.
2) Pinocchio is only the second full-length feature Disney made, but it's never been treated as well as "Snow White". As a matter of fact, while Disney threatened to never release "Snow White" on video, "Pinocchio" was one of the first five or so features released!
This is especially weird to me because, let's face it, "Pinocchio" tops it's big sister in every way. The special effects are jaw-dropping. It's the most dramatic of the features (indeed, it's more tense than many live-action thrillers I have watched) and it pointedly does not avoid scaring the hell out of the audience. It's greatest achievement, from a storytelling standpoint, is understanding how kids really see the world.
And it is also very, very funny. People tend to forget that. Jiminy Cricket is just about the best character ever and everything he says is hilarious (his exchange with the Blue Fairy is wonderful and easily overlooked; you wonder how much of it was scripted).
This is early Disney at its peak.

Film # 3: "Fantasia"
Well, first things first. This movie is taken way too damn seriously, especially in the animation fandom. There. I said it. The thing centers largely around dancing animals for cryin' out loud!
"Fantasia" is the first really wildly inconsistent Golden Age Disney movie (it's long-delayed sequel is often panned as being inconsistent, which is just about the dumbest argument ever; inconsistency runs in the "Fantasia" family). Fortunately, it's also an anthology movie. As you'll see, Disney made several of these. Most of them centered around music in some way. It seems more fair to approach such features as several short films rather than one long and confusing movie. Therefore:
"Toccata and Fugue" - Trippy, man. Trippy.
"Nutcracker" - Very nice with excellent effects.
"Sorcerer's Apprentice" - Everyone's favorite. I like it too but it struck me, this time, how odd it looks in context as it's the only segment with a real plot!
"Rite of Spring" - Cool. You can tell the animators were testing their skills on realistic animals, probably as preparation for "Bambi". And it's very strange how influential this one sequence is (early Dinosaur artists copied Charles Knight; early Dinosaur film-makers copied this. Heck, what am I saying "early"? You can see echoes of this as recent as "Land Before Time"!)
"Pastoral" - I always hated this bit. Really, without the Beethoven, this has as much artistic merit as a particularly good episode of "My Little Pony".
"Dance of the Hours" - It's fun. There's some wonderful character animation here.
"Bald Mountain"/"Ave Maria" - Now here's an amazing sequence. It's also our second encounter with a show-stealing villain. As a matter of fact, I'm sure many people completely forget the "Ave Maria" finale (it is a nice sequence with one wonderful effect, but it's amazingly anticlimactic).
It's funny how "Fantasia" was never supposed to be released on video either. Once again, us Disney Channel brats only got to see disconnected bits and pieces here and there. Often, we had no clue that these were all from the same movie. I remember finally getting to see what all the fuss was about and being just a little disillusioned ("Wait, that whole bit with the dancing hippos is "Fantasia"?!) Topping this off, when "Fantasia" was finally released on video, it had no previews (which had become a trademark of Disney videos by then) and it's clamshell box was black. Serious. Business.
I like the movie better now.
Oh, and for the record, the "Fantasia"/Smashing Pumpkins trick really does work. Mostly because there isn't really a wrong way to do it.

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Next Post: "Dumbo" and "Bambi". For more posts in this series, go here, or click the Chronological Disney Animated Canon tag below.

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