Pixar’s Soul Review

Soul is the twenty-third feature film from Pixar Animation Studios, a studio that needs no introduction by this point. Though Pixar hit their first rough patches during the 2010s (Cars 2, The Good Dinosaur), for the most part, they’ve had a nearly-unprecedented streak of classics. As such, the release of a new Pixar film usually serves as one of Disney’s tentpole releases of any given year. That was to be the case for Soul as well, with Disney heavily promoting it alongside the likes of Frozen 2 a year before its planned 2020 release. Of course, like so many 2020 films, Soul saw a number of setbacks and delays, before finally being made available as a streaming exclusive to Disney+ on Christmas Day.

Soul is directed by Pixar’s new head honcho Pete Docter, who previously directed Monsters, Inc., Up and Inside Out, effectively making him Pixar’s most imaginative and whimsical filmmaker. While most of Pixar’s films are easily identifiable by a specific theme (toys, cars, fish, bugs, etc.), Docter’s films tend to be more abstract or ethereal (Monsters, Inc. probably fit in more with Pixar’s usual “themed” films, though even then the concept of closet monsters makes for more imaginatively fertile ground than the others). This was made most apparent with Inside Out, a film that presented the inner emotions of a little girl as its leading characters, as they ventured through different avenues of the human mind. In a sense, Soul is like a spiritual follow-up to Inside Out, using a similarly existential idea as the basis of its story. While Inside Out took audiences into the world of thoughts and emotion, Soul takes things a step further by exploring the human soul itself.

Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher who has always dreamed of becoming a jazz musician. He doesn’t hate his job as a teacher, but does feel stuck and held back by it. His seamstress mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad) objects to his musical aspirations, further dampening his attitude towards his life’s situation.

Things start looking up for Joe, however, when a former student – who now plays for jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) – informs Joe that there’s been an opening in Dorothea’s band. Joe makes an impression in his audition, and he’s personally asked by Dorothea to perform with her band later that night.

Ecstatic that his dreams could finally be coming true, Joe is a bit careless on his way home to prepare for the gig, and ends up falling down an open manhole. Joe now finds himself as a blobby, blue soul, riding a kind of escalator to transport him to “the Great Beyond.” Refusing to accept death on the day his life finally started to turn around, Joe stumbles off the escalator and finds himself in “the Great Before,” the place where souls gain their personalities before they go to Earth.

Here, the unborn souls are watched over by cosmic beings who all go by the name “Jerry” (abstract creatures who are simultaneously two-dimensional and three-dimensional). The various Jerrys mistake Joe for a “mentor,” an experienced soul who takes an unborn soul under their wing before the former ascends to the Great Beyond and the latter makes their journey to Earth. Joe decides to play along until he can find a way back to his body on Earth, and winds up as the mentor to a troublesome soul named “22” (Tina Fey), who has spent millennia in the Great Before as countless mentors (including Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa) have failed to instill 22 with the inspiration she needs to find her ‘spark,’ which is required before she can go to Earth.

I feel like I can’t divulge any more of the plot without spoiling the specifics, but suffice to say that Joe has his work cut out for him as he tries to figure out how to reconnect with his body and help 22 find a reason to live. Their adventure will span both this incorporeal realm as well as a few trips back to Earth (in unexpected ways), and takes a number of twists and turns.

Visually speaking, Soul is among Pixar’s most beautiful films. The human world looks more realistic than the usual Pixar fare (with the humans still having a cartoonish and exaggerated look), while the afterlife (or ‘betweenlife’ or whatever you want to call it) is a serene, visually arresting animated world, the kind you know will long stay in the memory. The aforementioned “Jerrys” as well as the “lost souls” should rank near the top of Pixar’s best character designs.

Like Inside Out, Soul seems to be having a ball exploring its concept. Not just for the visual splendor of it, but also for the creativity of its story and humor. We learn that passionate artists in the living world enter an ethereal plain simply called “The Zone” when they get lost in their art, but that the Zone can also transform souls into their “lost” selves, should obsessions and anxiety take hold. There’s a sign twirling guru named Moonwind (Graham Norton) who is willingly able to travel to the Zone through meditation. And the Jerrys question why they send so many souls into the pavilions that teach self-absorbtion. I don’t think Soul quite reaches Inside Out in making the most out of its concept, but like any of the Pixar greats, it certainly does bring a lot of charm and creativity out of it.

I feel like I’m referencing Inside Out a lot, but I feel the comparison is close to unavoidable, given that Soul is Docter’s follow-up feature to Inside Out, and that its concept makes it feel more inline with Inside Out than any other previous Pixar picture. And I’m afraid it’s in that sense that I feel Soul falls a bit short. For all the merit Soul does have, I don’t feel like it ever reaches the same heights as Docter’s previous masterpiece, whether through emotion or story.

Perhaps I set my expectations too high in regards to Soul. After all, I consider Inside Out to be Pixar’s greatest film full-stop. But again, it’s hard not to make the comparison, given the similarities between the two in both narrative DNA and as the works from the same filmmaker.

I suppose it’s not too critical of a complaint to say Soul falls short of what I believe is Pixar’s best effort, but there is that extra something missing from Soul that prevents it from sitting alongside Pixar’s very best. It’s hard to say what it is exactly, since I don’t think that Soul does anything particularly wrong, so much as it just doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have.

Inside Out used its concept to strip Pixar films to their bare essence, exposing their heart and soul (ironically enough). Pixar films have often been noted for bringing audiences to tears, and Inside Out basically expressed what every Pixar film aimed to achieve emotionally. I feel like Soul has similarly deep and meaningful things to say about life and why our passions may not necessarily be our purpose, but I feel like it doesn’t always know how to express these themes. I admit it actually took two viewings for me to appreciate what Soul was trying to say, though even now I don’t feel it in the same way I did for Inside Out.

Soul is a great movie on its own merits, don’t get me wrong. It tells a great, imaginative story with some of the best visuals Pixar has created. It has terrific vocal performances, a strong musical score and – like Ratatouille and Coco before it – has an infectious love of music and the arts. And yes, I even think the message of the film is potentially as profound as any Pixar has done. It’s just in the way that Soul often stumbles in conveying that message that holds it back from reaching the same staggering heights of some of its Pixar predecessors. With that said, even with its flaws, Pixar’s Soul is, much like Pete Docter’s previous work, a beautiful movie, inside and out.

8

Mulan (2020) Review

One of Disney’s more polarized recent trends has been their stream of live-action remakes to their catalogue of animated classics. At first it wasn’t so bad (even if the movies themselves were), with 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and 2014’s Maleficent being spaced by four calendar years, and both adaptations attempting to put their own spin on the material. But after a while, the sheer amount of these live-action remakes became excessive, and one has to wonder what exactly the point is of remaking movies that are largely considered timeless as is (other than capitalizing on today’s obsession with nostalgia, that is). Is remaking an animated film as a live-action one supposed to make it more legitimate? If that’s the mindset, that not only furthers the unwarranted and ignorant stigma that animated films are somehow not as good as their live-action counterparts, but also would seem self-defeatist on Disney’s part, given that their entire empire is built on their legacy of animated features. When 2019 saw no less than four such live-action remakes (well, the Lion King remake wasn’t actually live-action, but don’t tell that to Disney), suffice to say the live-action Disney remake well seemed drained.

Now, to be fair, not all of these remakes have been bad (I quite enjoyed 2016’s The Jungle Book and 2019’s Aladdin), and I’ll take them over those horrible, straight-to-video sequels that tainted the legacies of Disney’s 90’s and early 2000’s output. Still, it can be hard to get too excited for these live-action remakes, no matter how hard Disney might try. And they’ve probably never tried harder with this strange sub-genre than with their 2020 adaptation of Mulan, based on Disney’s 1998 animated film (which, in tern, is based on “The Ballad of Mulan” from Chinese folklore).

From the get-go, Disney seemed to be going the extra mile and putting the extra effort into this particular adaptation, which was a pretty transparent means of trying to win over the Chinese box office, as China has become a major player in worldwide box office numbers over the last decade. Not only did the film encounter its share of controversies ahead of release, but due to the global pandemic of 2020, the film’s theatrical release – originally planned as one of Disney’s tentpole releases of the year – kept getting delayed, with it eventually skipping US theaters outright and heading straight to Disney+ (infamously costing an additional thirty dollars to watch during its first few months on the service). And when Mulan was finally released in China, it not only failed to be the international hit Disney was hoping for, but outright failed in the market Disney was banking on it to succeed in.

But is 2020’s Mulan really as bad as its lackluster performance suggests? Eh, not really. But it’s also not nearly as good as I’m sure Disney was hoping it’d be, either, given how much effort they put into its marketing. 2020’s Mulan is a resoundingly okay-ish film. That of course makes it inferior to the animated film it’s adapting, as that remains one of Disney’s best, but that’s probably expected by this point (I’d argue that only the Jungle Book remake is as good as the original full-stop, though my favorite song from Aladdin admittedly comes from the 2019 remake). But it also isn’t the worst live-action remake Disney has released in recent times.

The film, of course, tells the story of Mulan (Liu Yifei), a young woman in ancient China, who disguises herself as a man to enlist in the Chinese army in order to spare her ailing father (Tzi Ma), who was initially recruited after the Emperor decrees that one male of proper age from every available family must enlist. Mulan, now going under the name “Jun” in her guise as a man, is risking her life both on and off the battlefield. If her true identity is revealed, she will be killed by her own army.

Though the premise remains the same as its 1998 animated predecessor, Mulan makes more notable changes from the original than many of the other Disney remakes. On the plus side, I suppose differentiating itself from the animated film justifies its existence a bit more. On the downside, I think few fans of the original film will appreciate these changes.

Notably, there has been a major change to Mulan herself. Not in her personality or ambitions, but in her abilities, as this Mulan is capable of channeling her “Qi” to perform feats of superhuman agility! Basically, she’s been turned into a Jedi (and not even original trilogy Jedi, which at least would have made sense with its Eastern influence). This change is, well, it’s something…I guess. I don’t exactly understand the reason for the whole Qi aspect to Mulan, except for that it allows her to run up walls, momentarily float, and be able to kick a spear as if it were a bullet firing from a gun, which I guess is the kind of thing you might see in a Chinese action movie. It’s more pandering to the Chinese market, is what I’m getting at.

It just comes off as a bit cheesy, really. The supernatural elements of 2020’s Mulan just feels kind of shoehorned in, and it’s kind of weird how the animated Mulan was more bound by the laws of physics than her live-action counterpart. Also, Mulan has a younger sister in this adaptation named Xiu (Xana Tang), though she doesn’t really play a role in the story, so I’m not sure what the point of the addition is.

Fans of the ’98 film may also be disappointed to learn that Li Shang, Mulan’s commanding officer who became her love interest by the end of the original film, is not present. His role is taken over by two new characters: the stern Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), and Chen (Yoson An), an ambitious soldier who fills the romantic interest role. The filmmakers claim the change was made because the idea of a commanding officer falling for one of his soldiers seemed “inappropriate,” but I have to wonder if they remembered the animated film very well, seeing as it was Mulan who was always crushing on Li Shang, and the latter didn’t fall for Mulan until the end of the movie and the war was over. Maybe I’m being too technical. Or maybe the filmmakers of the 2020 film are. Or maybe everyone is.

At least this remake still includes Ling, Yao and Chien-Po (Jimmy Wong, Chen Tang and Doua Moua), so there is some direct adaptation from the animated film here. It’s perhaps appropriate that this loudmouth trio also provide the most overt references to the 1998 film (“It doesn’t matter what she wears or what she looks like. It only matters what she cooks like!”). Though for reasons I don’t understand, the cute little cricket from the original movie has been changed into a human character named Cricket (Jun yu). So that’s a thing.

Even the villains have received an overhaul. Instead of an army of Huns, we have the Rouran. In place of the hulking Shan Yu from the animated film, we have a duo of primary villains: Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the leader of the Rouran army, and Xianniang (Gong Li), a witch whose powerful Qi enables her to shapeshift. As much as I love the animated film, I don’t think anything is really lost with this change in villains. Shan Yu looked intimidating, but as a character he was pretty interchangeable with any of his high-ranking henchmen.

Now for the question most fans of the animated film had during the lead-up to the 2020 film: Is Mushu in the live-action Mulan?

The answer to that is, quite simply, no.

I understand this is a deal-breaker for a lot of fans, though I’m going to break a few hearts and say I can live with or without Mushu. I don’t dislike the Eddie Murphy-voiced dragon from the original, but he was another transparent attempt at Disney trying to replicate the magic they concocted with Aladdin’s Genie. I think Mushu was a better attempt than some of his predecessors like Timon and Pumbaa or the gargoyles from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but after a while it kind of got tiring how the sidekick characters in Disney movies were purposefully designed to be more popular than the main characters.

Still, I suppose I can see where people are coming from with their longing for comic relief. While I detest the internet generation’s dismissal of anything that “takes themselves too seriously” (God forbid a movie cares about the story it’s trying to tell), I also understand that taking one’s self seriously doesn’t mean you can’t also be funny and joyous. The Disney animated films understand this. But this Mulan seems so hellbent on being taken seriously (again, being a means to try and win over the Chinese market by removing an “American element” like Mushu), that it seems to shun the concepts of humor and joy. Even the trio of Ling, Yao and Chien-Po get limited screentime.

So Mushu isn’t in the movie, but he has something of a quasi-replacement in the form of a phoenix, Mulan’s family’s guardian. But the phoenix doesn’t talk or anything, so it’s not really a worthy character replacement and more like a visual element that vaguely plays the same role. Also, on a side note, this is the second time one of these live-action Disney remakes has replaced a dragon with a phoenix, with the first being 2019’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Maleficent no longer turns into a dragon, she turns into a phoenix. Mushu isn’t allowed in the new Mulan, but a phoenix is. I don’t know what that’s about. Is a flaming bird that resurrects itself somehow more realistic than a fire-breathing lizard or serpentine spirit? But I digress.

Another issue with this Mulan is that, much like The Lion King remake, the film is a whole half-hour longer than the animated feature that inspired it, yet somehow its story feels more rushed. It’s perhaps a credit to the storytelling abilities of Disney’s animators that they can create 90 minute movies that still feel like they take their time to establish story and character. These live-action remakes feel like so many key elements just zoom on by, that by the end of things I’m left wondering how they made it to the two hour mark.

Okay, I’m sounding largely dismissive. But 2020’s Mulan isn’t a total bust: the acting is strong, and helps give the film the proper emotional weight. Visually speaking, 2020’s Mulan is also very pleasant to look at, with great costumes and sets (though I could do without some of the obvious green screen bits). This Mulan remake retains just enough Disney charm to keep it afloat. But “just enough” might be the key words here, and for these live-action remakes on the whole.

I fully admit I had some good fun watching this version of Mulan. But you know what’s considerably more fun? Watching the animated original. But hey, it still beats the straight-to-video Mulan II. Let us speak no more of that.

5

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh Review

The 1970s were not one of the high points for Walt Disney Animation Studios. This “Bronze Age” came about after the death of Walt Disney, and during a dark age for animation as a whole. That’s not to say that every Disney film released during this time was a total dud, but it might be saying something that the studio’s best film in this timeframe was a compilation of previously released shorts.

Yes, Disney was in such a state that they dipped back into the package film well in 1977, though they went even further with the concept this time around by stringing together short films that had already seen prior releases (the package films of the 1940s were at least all new shorts at the time).

On the plus side, these short films were those featuring the characters of the Winnie the Pooh universe, and is there a cast of Disney characters more charming than the studio’s adaptations of A.A. Milne’s creations? As a bonus, Disney did provide new animation in between the shorts in order to more properly mesh them together. Thus The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, the 22nd Walt Disney Animation Studios film, was born. Although its Frankenstein’s monster approach of merging previously-released material may not exactly make it the most original Disney flick, I’d have to have a heart of stone to say anything too harsh about Winnie the Pooh.

Yes, even if its production may have been tying together tried-and-true past successes and calling them new, there’s a charm, innocence and whimsy of the Winnie the Pooh universe that makes it all too likable, and impossible to resist.

Like many of the classic Disney films, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh begins by opening up a storybook (this time, however, the characters are well aware that they exist in a book, even interacting with the written-down words on the pages). The book tells different stories by Christopher Robin, the young boy who brought Winnie the Pooh and his friends to life with his imagination.

We’re introduced to characters like Owl and Rabbit and Piglet and Kanga and Roo, as well as Gopher (the only character not from A.A. Milne’s original books, which the film points out on a few occasions), Eeyore, Tigger and, of course, Winnie the Pooh, the bear of very little brain himself.

These characters are just so likable and endearing. Because within the context of the story, they’re all part of a kid’s imagination, they all have a childlike simplicity about them (even Owl, the oldest and wisest of the lot, isn’t as knowledgable as everyone – including himself – thinks he is). Pooh’s primary concern is when and where he’ll get his next “smackeral” of honey, while Tigger just wants to bounce everywhere he goes, and Rabbit, being something of a less jaded and cynical precursor to Squidward, just wants a neat and tidy house, and to prevent Pooh from eating all of his honey.

As you may have guessed from the title The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, or from the fact that the film is comprised of previously released shorts, there’s not really an overarching plot here. The film plays out like a series of episodes that each contain their own little plot or two. This episodic nature may not be ideal for a movie with a more traditional plot, but for something like this – in which these characters exist in a world void of any real conflict – it plays to the film’s benefit.

We have storylines like Pooh trying to get to a beehive high in a tree to get to its honey, Pooh eating all of Rabbit’s honey and getting stuck in the rabbit hole of his house, Tigger bouncing so high he gets stuck in a tree, and Eeyore trying to find a new house for Owl, after the latter’s treehouse is blown away on a windy day.

Not every movie needs to be a grand epic, and not even every Disney movie needs to be an adventurous fairy tale. Sometimes a little slice of lighthearted entertainment is all you need. And The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh provides just that. It’s an enjoyable, relaxing, charming series of (relative) adventures by an endearing cast of characters.

Winnie the Pooh would become of of Disney’s bigger franchises, with a television series in the 1990s, a series of straight-to-video movies, and even some that made their way to the big screen (one of which, 2011’s oddly titled Winnie the Pooh, being something of the “official sequel,” as it is counted as one of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s proper films, as opposed to a subsidiary). While that may seem like overexposure for some franchises, the simple charms of Winnie the Pooh make it easy to want to revisit its world again and again. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh epitomizes this infectious charm.

 

7

One-Hundred and One Dalmatians Review

The 1960s were an interesting time for Walt Disney Animation Studios, namely because during the entire decade, the studio only released three new feature films (the slowest decade on record for Disney, though re-releases of past films helped keep things stable). Though many consider the “silver age” of Disney animation to have ended with Sleeping Beauty in 1959, the fact that Disney’s output in the 1960s were so few – as well as being the last batch to be released during Walt Disney’s lifetime – often sees them lumped into Disney’s silver age as well. I’m inclined to agree with notion. Although there is a rougher quality to the animation in Disney’s trilogy of features in the 1960s (which began with One-Hundred and One Dalmatians in 1961 and continued with The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book), the films themselves are on par with Silver Age Disney films like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and certainly better than the “Bronze Age” that was to follow in the 1970s. Though maybe not one of the great Disney features, One-Hundred and One Dalmations is an endearing addition to the Disney canon in its own right.

It also may just be the most straightforward Disney film in terms of plot: it’s about a group of Dalmatian puppies who are kidnapped, and their family’s (both canine and human) quest to rescue them. It really is a simple plot, but it makes for an entertaining film, not to mention it inspired one of the all-time great Simpsons parodies.

If you need a little more detail, the film begins with Pongo, an adult Dalmatian who lives with his “pet” human, Roger. Pongo feels Roger deserves better than the life of a bachelor, and plans to find him a significant other (though the fact that Pongo only scouts women with female dogs makes me question who the search is really for). Pongo chooses an attractive woman walking her own Dalmatian (naturally), and sees her enter the park. So Pongo goads Roger into a walk in the park, and arranges an “accidental” meeting between Roger and the woman, whose name is Anita. Sure enough, the two humans fall in love and get married, and Pongo falls for Anita’s Dalmatian, Perdita, and they get…dog-married, I guess.

Some time later, Perdita is pregnant with a litter of puppies. Roger and Anita are approached by the wealthy, fur-coat loving former schoolmate of Anita, Cruella De Vil (how she was Anita’s schoolmate despite the glaringly obvious age difference, I’m not sure). Cruella is interested in buying the entire litter of puppies when the day comes, but Roger mistrusts Cruella (even writing a song about how despicable she is, as Disney character wont to do), and denies Cruella the future puppies. This leads to a falling out with Cruella, who storms off in a rage.

Perdita eventually gives birth to fifteen puppies (awww!). Yes, despite the jokes people often make about the movie featuring a dog giving birth to ninety-nine puppies (even the aforementioned Simpsons episode cracks a joke on the subject), Perdita only gives birth to fifteen of them.

The family doesn’t have long to celebrate, however. One night, while Roger and Anita are out with Pongo and Perdita, a duo of hired goons make their way into the house, and kidnap all fifteen puppies!

Roger naturally suspects Cruella, but Scotland Yard has already investigated her and found nothing. With no leads, Roger and Anita are at a loss. So Pongo and Perdita are left to investigate things themselves, and use the “Twilight Bark” to spread news about their missing puppies to their fellow dogs (think the beacons between Gondor and Rohan from Lord of the Rings, but with dogs barking). This chain of barks spreads far and wide, eventually reaching the farmhouse of an Old English Sheepdog named Colonel and his friends, a horse named Captain, and a tabby cat named Sergeant Tibbs. The militantly-named farm animals soon discover a dark secret. The two dog-nappers, Jasper and Horace, are staying at the seemingly abandoned De Vil family estate, Hell Hall (geez, at least try to hide your malevolence, Cruella!). Not only are Pongo and Perdita’s litter being held captive by Jasper and Horace, but an additional eighty-four Dalmatian puppies as well! It turns out, Cruella has hired the bumbling jailbirds to hide out with the puppies in the once-abandoned house, and as soon as the dogs are big enough, Cruella plans on having the dogs skinned to make a Dalmatian fur coat! Most Disney villains are pretty evil, but you usually love to hate them, because they’re cool sorcerers like Jafar or charismatic pirates like Captain Hook, but Cruella just wants to straight-up skin dogs for a fur coat! That’s pretty messed up!

Anyway, the Twilight Bark makes its way back to Pongo and Perdita, who set off to save the puppies with the help of Colonel and his cohorts, and even a few other dogs as well.

Again, it’s arguably the most straightforward plot in any Disney movie. It doesn’t feature any real moral lessons, plot twists, magical happenings, sub-plots, or much of anything outside of the main quest of “puppies kidnapped. Rescue them.”

I don’t mean that in a negative way though. It’s incredibly simple, but One-Hundred and One Dalmatians is an undeniably fun and entertaining film. The animation is certainly rougher than it was in Disney’s previous film, Sleeping Beauty (this was the era where you could see more of the sketch lines in the characters during the final animation), but the characters’ movements are still fluid and detailed. Less forgivable however, are a few frames of animation that are recycled (Cruella can apparently only glare out her car window one very specific way). The lack of songs is also notable, with Roger’s little number about Cruella – while fun – being the only song in the film, unless you count the Kanine Krunchies jingle (which I don’t). Even just another song or two may have spruced things up.

Though One-Hundred and One Dalmatians may suffer from the negative trend of old Disney films not having interesting main characters, it’s a little more forgivable here considering most of the characters are dogs. And, well, dogs are innately more likable than humans. The villains are kind of fun though, even if a dog lover like myself can only see them as the evilest Disney villains. Jasper and Horace are like the proto-Wet Bandits, being bumbling criminals who exist solely for the audience to laugh at their misfortune, while Cruella herself – while maybe not quite stacking up to the most memorable Disney villains – leaves an impression with her gaudy wardrobe and in-your-face personality.

One-Hundred and One Dalmatians may not boast the depth to make it one of Disney’s best animated films, but it has a deserved confidence and charm about it that makes it hard to resist. Plus, it has so many dogs!

 

7

Sleeping Beauty Review

While princesses have become synonymous with Walt Disney Animation over the decades, it may come as a surprises to learn that for the first twenty-two years from the studio’s first full-length feature, there were only three Disney Princesses, with a fourth not arriving until The Little Mermaid was released in 1989! Snow White was in the very first Disney feature in 1937, with Cinderella arriving in her titular film in 1950. The lone princess to arrive in between Cinderella and The Little Mermaid was Aurora, who was the central character of Sleeping Beauty, released in 1959.

Well, maybe referring to Aurora as the film’s central character isn’t quite accurate, as she – along with her love interest, Prince Phillip – aren’t much of characters at all. In fact, Princess Aurora infamously only gets around eighteen minutes of screen time in the entire feature! That’s a shame, because otherwise Sleeping Beauty has a strong cast of characters: It features a trio of comical fairies, a duo of bombastic kings, and arguably Disney’s most iconic villain in Maleficent.

Sleeping Beauty plays out very similar to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Aurora takes the role of a beautiful princess under a sleeping curse from Snow White herself, the three good fairies play a similar role to the Dwarves, Maleficent is an evil sorceress/queen like Snow White’s villain, and Prince Phillip is…well, he’s a Disney prince. They’re all basically the same, really.

The story here is that Aurora is born to King Stefan and Queen Leah, and at her christening, she is betrothed to Prince Phillip, the son of King Hubert of a neighboring kingdom, to unite their people. Also at the christening are the three good fairies, each of whom are to give Aurora a gift.

Flora, the red fairy, gives Aurora the gift of beauty. Fauna, the green fairy, grants the gift of song. But before Merryweather, the blue fairy can bestow her gift, the christening is interrupted by the evil fairy, Maleficent. You have to give it to Disney, they really know how to introduce a villain, with Maleficent’s arrival being met with fear by the humans in attendance, and contempt from her fellow fairies, instantly telling the audience she’s bad news.

Maleficent, holding a grudge for not being invited to the christening, takes out her frustrations by cursing the child. Maleficent’s strangely specific curse states that, on her sixteenth birthday, Princess Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. Maleficent then vanishes, and Merryweather steps in to counter the curse as best she can. Though Maleficent’s dark powers are too great for Merryweather to undo the curse outright, she is able to alter it, making it so Aurora won’t die by the spinning wheel, but fall into a cursed sleep that can be broken by “true love’s kiss.”

King Stefan then orders that every spinning wheel in the kingdom be burned, and as an added precaution, Aurora is sent to live in the woods with the three fairies until the day after her sixteenth birthday, at which time she will return to her family and kingdom and resume her life as a princess. The fairies disguise themselves as human peasants to raise Aurora, fearing usage of their magic would alert Maleficent to their whereabouts.

Fast-forward sixteen years, and the fairies are preparing for Aurora – who  they have named “Briar Rose” to hide her identity – to return home. They decide to do something special for the occasion, and plan on making a new dress and a birthday cake for Briar Rose. So the fairies send Briar Rose to pick some berries while they prepare for her surprise party. While out, Briar Rose meets up with Prince Phillip, though because they haven’t seen each other since one was a kid and the other an infant, they don’t recognize one another, especially with Aurora going by “Briar Rose” now. The two instantly fall in love anyway, and this creates a fun sub-plot where King Hubert believes his son Phillip is set to marry a peasant girl, and can’t find the words to explain the situation to Stefan.

While Briar Rose meets up with Prince Phillip in the forest, the fairies’ plans for the surprise party go awry. Still not having mastered human ways in sixteen years, their attempts at baking and sewing lead to disastrous results. The fairies cave in to their impatience, and decide to break out the old magic wands, figuring using magic for a cake and dress wouldn’t be enough for Maleficent to detect.

Aurora has successfully eluded Maleficent for sixteen years largely due to the fact that the evil fairy’s henchmen – an assortment of pig and bird-like goblins – have still been searching for a baby for all these years, not understanding the aging process of humans. With time running out for her curse, Maleficent sends her pet crow to track down the lost princess, which he does by witnessing the fairies using their magic for Aurora’s would-be surprise party.

After Briar Rose is informed of her true identity and secretly brought into her castle by the fairies, Maleficent more or less cheats her way to having her curse fulfilled by conjuring a spinning wheel out of magic, and hypnotizing Aurora to touch it (the movie is titled Sleeping Beauty, so I don’t think I’m spoiling much by revealing Maleficent’s curse comes to fruition). Devastated that they failed within the eleventh hour, the fairies put the people of Aurora’s kingdom into a deep sleep to spare them their grief, and they will only awaken when Aurora herself does (I hope for their sake there aren’t any hostile kingdoms nearby, as the fairies’ spell – while well intentioned – seems to not take into account the grizzly possibilities of a defenseless kingdom). Luckily, the fairies manage to eavesdrop on King Hubert at the last moment, and piece together that the mystery man Aurora met in the woods and Prince Phillip are one and the same. So the fairies rush to aide the prince in a daring quest to save Aurora.

Despite its strong similarities to Snow White, Sleeping Beauty still manages to stand on its own two feet. Though the fairies are lesser in number than the Dwarves of Snow White, they have similarly strong personalities, charm and comedic appeal. Maleficent is a memorably scary villain who earned her place as one of Disney’s most memorable foes (even if the more recent duo of live-action remakes centered on the dark fairy have kind of altered her reputation for modern audiences). And both Kings Stefan and Hubert are given some extensive time to win audiences over with their antics.

That’s why it’s such a shame that Princess Aurora and Prince Phillip are probably most people’s go-to examples when it comes to the frequent criticism of Disney movies having cardboard main characters who are completely outshined by the supporting cast. And although not a flaw per se, it does seem kind of funny to modern audiences to see a movie like this try to pass off an arranged betrothal as “true love,” especially considering how little Aurora and Phillip know of each other. Sure, Sleeping Beauty is a very direct fairy tale in that regard, which can have an appeal of its own. But I find it weirder that some audiences criticize contemporary Disney movies for ‘modernizing fairy tales,’ when a movie like Sleeping Beauty is kind of proof that fairy tales needed some modernization.

Although Sleeping Beauty can’t quite recapture the same quality as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it comes close enough to be considered something of a Disney classic in its own right. It’s vibrantly animated and full of visual detail (Flora and Merryweather’s disputes to magically change things pink and blue are a particular visual highlight). But if we’re being honest, we watch Sleeping Beauty for Maleficent, the fairies and the kings. No one is watching it because Aurora and her prince have anything interesting about them.

 

7

Peter Pan Review

Disney has a way of turning their adaptations of classic stories and fairy tales into the definitive versions of those stories. Though Peter Pan is based on the 1904 play and subsequent 1911 novel by J.M. Barrie – a story which has seen countless interpretations over the past century-plus – when most people hear the name ‘Peter Pan,’ they think of the 1953 Disney film. It isn’t too hard to see why: its combination of whimsical fantasy, colorful characters and joyous imagination in many ways make it the most “Disney” of all Disney movies. Though some glaringly outdated elements prevent Peter Pan from remaining one of Disney’s best.

Telling a story that “has happened before, and will happen again, but this time happened in London,” the film begins at the home of the Darling family. Wendy is the eldest child, and often tells fanciful stories of Peter Pan – a boy who never grew up – to her two younger brothers, John and Michael. Their mother Mary is supportive of their imaginary adventures, while their father George – being described as a “practical man” – is less patient with their games. But the children believe the stories of Peter Pan and his world of Neverland are true.

One day, when George and Mary are preparing for a party, a series of mishaps leads George to lose his temper, and he becomes fed up with Wendy’s stories. He proclaims it’s time for Wendy to grow up, and starting the next day, she is to get her own room, away from the nursery with her younger brothers (what a different time this was. These days, a kid would jump for joy for getting their own room). George and Mary then leave for the party, but not before Wendy tells her mother to leave the window open, as Peter Pan will be coming to reclaim his shadow, which Wendy has locked away after the family dog got a hold of it.

Sure enough, when George and Mary leave the house, Peter Pan flies through the window in the middle of the night, accompanied by the pantomiming pixie, Tinker Bell. Wendy sews Pan’s shadow back onto him (via his shoes, which makes me wonder how his shadow situation works when he takes his shoes off), and Wendy makes a reference that she is to grow up the next day. Peter Pan, who loves Wendy’s stories (because they’re all about him), invites Wendy to come to Neverland, where she will never grow up. Wendy agrees, but only if John and Michael can come along as well. And with a little help from Tinker Bell’s pixie dust, the Darling children find themselves able to fly just like Peter Pan, and they all fly off to Neverland.

From there, the film can feel a little episodic, but it’s nothing too detrimental. We get introduced to the different peoples and locations of Neverland, including mermaids (who are as jealous of Wendy’s relationship with Pan as Tinker Bell is), the Lost Boys (a group of lost children taken under Pan’s wing) and Native Americans who are referred to as “Indians” (more on that in a moment). Most importantly, we are introduced to the villainous Captain Hook and his pirate crew, which includes Hook’s bumbling but gentle assistant, Mr. Smee.

Hook is obsessed with gaining revenge on Peter Pan, after the flying youth cut off Hook’s left hand and fed it to a crocodile (I can’t say I blame him. If some punk cut off my hand and fed it to a wild animal I’d be pretty P.O’d as well). Said crocodile has followed Hook ever since, hoping for the full meal. Thankfully for Hook, the crocodile swallowed an alarm clock, so the sound of tick tocks warn the pirate whenever the beast is near.

Tinker Bell may be the most marketed character from the film (even getting her own spinoff franchise in the late 2000s/early 2010s), but it’s Captain Hook who stands out as one of the best characters in any Disney movie. He’s  one of those great villains who can play both the cartoonish oaf and also be genuinely evil at times (he shoots one of his own men dead for singing a few sour notes). Hook has the perfect combination of comedy, charisma and villainy to make him one of the all-time great Disney villains (Walt Disney even had the ending altered from Barrie’s original story so that Captain Hook survives, as he rightfully guessed audiences would like this Hook too much to see him become crocodile chow). And his interactions with Mr. Smee provide that great domineering villain/unappreciated loyal lackey dynamic, which is always fun.

The film is beautifully animated and filled with color and whimsy. Its flying sequences were arguably the most uplifting in animation until Hayao Miyazaki came along and made it one of his staples. And its filled with some terrific visual comedy (mostly provided by Hook and Smee).

It isn’t difficult to see why the Peter Pan story has resonated so well with children, and even adults: no kid wants to grow up, and most adults long to see the world as they did as children. It’s got magic, pixies, mermaids, flying, animals, adventure and pirates (pirates being one of those things children seem to have an inherent fascination with, like trains or dinosaurs). Neverland is one of those children’s fantasy worlds where it doesn’t focus on one set motif, but is a collection of colorful things to spark the imagination.

By all accounts, a world this imaginative should be timeless. And Peter Pan mostly is. But there’s no way around the elephant in the room: the film’s depiction of Native Americans is stereotypical even in its less offensive moments. The more defensive side of Disney’s fanbase would point out J.M. Barrie’s original story is to blame for the caricatured depiction of Native Americans, but does it really matter who started it when it comes to something like this? The fact of the matter is it’s aged terribly. And well, making a song titled What Makes the Red Man Red, that’s all on Disney.

Yes, unfortunately Peter Pan is one of those old Disney movies that is blemished by the ignorant tropes of the time in which it was released. It’s facepalming, collar-tugging levels of uncomfortable in the moments with the Native Americans.

Another outdated element to the film is the depictions of its female characters: Wendy doesn’t exactly showcase much independence at all (in fact, even when she has a falling-out with Peter Pan and is kidnapped by Hook, she is still confident Peter Pan will come to save her and her brothers, as opposed to attempting anything herself). Pretty much every other female character who shows up is defined by jealousy over their relationship with Peter Pan, whether it’s Tinker Bell or the mermaids (heck, even Wendy gets jealous of the Native American princess, Tiger Lily, when she makes Pan blush). Again, you could blame the timeframe the movie was released over the movie itself, but it doesn’t change the fact that the movie was a victim of that time, and that it blockades the film’s potential timeless appeal.

It’s aged stereotypes that prevent Peter Pan from being one of the all time great Disney films, and its often episodic nature also prevents it from being as great as it could have been from a structural standpoint. And that’s a crying shame, because what is good here in Peter Pan, is really good.

Peter Pan is a fun, imaginative adventure, and a good movie. But getting past some of its more outdated elements is, well, you can’t get past them. At least Captain Hook remains a highpoint for Disney Animation.

 

6

Alice in Wonderland Review

In the 1950s, Disney finally managed to rebound after World War II forced the company into its first dark age. With the sustainability the package films brought to the company, Walt Disney Animation Studios was finally able to resume production on larger animated features. Cinderella kickstarted the “Silver Age” of Walt Disney animation in 1950, and the very next year, Disney followed suite with Alice in Wonderland. This surrealist, nonsensical adventure is based on the Lewis Carroll novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and is appropriately the strangest animated feature from Disney not titled The Three Caballeros. Though this strangeness can be entertaining in its own right, Alice in Wonderland lacks the heart that Disney’s best animated features are known for.

Alice is a young girl with her head in the clouds. As her elder sister Dinah is giving her a history lesson, Alice grows bored and wishes for her own world “where everything is nonsense.” Soon enough, Alice sees a waistcoat-wearing white rabbit claiming to be ‘running late for a very important date.’ Curious, Alice follows the rabbit, and ends up falling down a rabbit hole that takes her to Wonderland, a bizarre place where, sure enough, everything is nonsense.

From there, the movie is more or less a series of strange things happening, as opposed to a coherent plot. I’ve actually never read the original Alice novels (it’s on my to do list), but from what I understand, the Disney film embraces the absurdity of the books, but deviates away from the tone and subtler details (the books have some kind of commentary on mathematics…it’s a whole thing).

Disney’s interpretation is enjoyable enough, with the nonsensical nature of the material leading to some fantastic animated sequences, and plenty of “what the hell” moments to provide some laughs. But Alice never feels much like a character, more like a vehicle to get from one bizarre situation to the next. We probably only get a minute or two to learn anything about Alice before she ends up in Wonderland, and the film doesn’t exactly make much of an effort to establish her character (her brief longing for her own ‘nonsense world’ is literally all we get).

Don’t get me wrong, Alice in Wonderland is a fun film, with its complete removal of logic being a blank canvas for the animators to go nuts with. On the downside of things, the film’s re-releases during the 1960s (the ‘psychedelic era’) has forever given the Alice in Wonderland story an association with drugs, a stigma that extends to the greater fantasy genre even today, much to my chagrin.

Alice in Wonderland has numerous fun moments: a Dodo telling Alice to run in circles with fish and birds in order to stay dry, all while they’re being pelted with tidal waves (the Dodo is standing on a small hill out of the waves’ reach, a detail he seems completely ignorant to). The same dodo trying to help the White Rabbit get a giant Alice out of his house. Alice encountering the wicked Queen of Hearts, who blatantly cheats in a game of croquet (involving flamingos as clubs and hedgehogs as balls, naturally). And of course, Alice stumbling upon an “unbirthday” tea party celebration held by the Mad Hatter and the March Hare (Ed Wyn’s vocals as the Mad Hatter remain among the studio’s most bluntly hilarious, with many voice actors imitating the performance for similar characters even today).

“The film does have a walrus in it. That’s always a bonus.”

The problem with Alice in Wonderland is that those “moments” are all it is. There’s no real storyline tying it all together, and as stated, Alice isn’t much of a character at all. The film is a series of fun and colorful sequences, but it lacks any heart or substance to make it anything more. Alice doesn’t grow as a person or gain anything as a result of her adventure. She’s just the mechanism that leads the audience from one weird thing to the next.

To further sully the experience, Alice in Wonderland features an abrupt “it was all a dream” ending, which has always been a pet peeve of mine, particularly for fantasy films. What’s the point? To try and justify the strangeness of its fantasy world by writing it off as a dream? If you think fantasy is so strange you have to write it off as a dream, why even bother making a fantasy film?

Maybe I’m overthinking that a bit. My point is the ending feels like a cop-out. Imagine if Pinocchio ended with its titular puppet waking up from a dream, and realizing he was actually a real boy all along, and his adventure to become one was just a dream. You’d feel kind of ripped off.

As a kid, I absolutely loved Alice in Wonderland. But nostalgia can only take something so far. While I still think Disney’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s stories has enough entertainment value to keep it afloat, thanks to its sheer strangeness and the visuals that come with it, but Disney films – even the most simple ones – usually have something to them. Sadly, that doesn’t really apply to Alice in Wonderland. It makes for an entertaining enough viewing, but it is a bit of a step down from Cinderella, and not quite the Disney classic it’s often made out to be.

A very merry “Unclassic” you could say.

 

6

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad Review

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is the sixth and final film of Disney’s Package Film Era, and the eleventh feature in the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon overall (yes, there was a moment when Disney had more package films than proper features). As the title implies, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is a showcase of two short films, one based on The Wind and the Willows (Mr. Toad) and one based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Ichabod). Together, these two shorts closed out Disney’s first dark age, and did so on a surprisingly high note.

It seems Disney really learned their lesson when it came to the filler segments of these package films by this point. That is to say, they realized they were unnecessary and dropped them entirely. Both Ichabod and Mr. Toad have brief introductions (using the Disney tradition of live-action storybooks leading into the animated films), but that’s it. No cutaways during the films, no banter between different narrators, none of that. This makes this particular package film feel closer to Disney’s more traditional feature films.

Both shorts are given a celebrity narrator (Basil Rathbone for Mr. Toad, and Bing Crosby for Ichabod), but they’re only acknowledged via the opening credits, and actually feel like their casting added something to the shorts, as opposed to having the film blatantly point them out in live-action segments like they’re guest stars on a sitcom.

As for the shorts themselves, they’re pretty good! Both get about a half hour of running time, which is enough for them to feel like complete stories instead of just random segments chained together like some of the previous package films.

Mr. Toad comes first, and tells how the titular amphibian comes from a line of wealthy toads (his family estate, Toad Hall, is a local landmark, and the pride of the community). J. Thaddeus Toad is less responsible than the previous Toads of Toad Hall, however, and often splurges entire fortunes on whatever “mania” he’s currently obsessing over. Mr. Toad’s close friend, Agnus MacBadger, takes it upon himself to be Mr. Toad’s bookkeeper to prevent Toad from going into complete bankruptcy.

Not that this does much good. As Mr. Toad is off on the latest fad (horse-drawn carriages), he happens upon someone driving an automobile. Having never seen anything like it, the automobile immediately becomes the newest ‘mania’ for the poor Toad. Despite an attempted intervention from his friends Ratty and Moley, Toad is hellbent on obtaining an automobile. But with his access to his fortune being cut off by MacBadger, Mr. Toad can’t simply purchase the vehicle, and is willing to try other means to claim a car of his own.

The next morning, Mr. Toad is arrested for stealing an automobile! Toad insists it’s a mistake, and that he made a trade for the car by signing away the deed to Toad Hall, only to discover after the fact that the car was stolen. But witnesses at the trial prove otherwise, and Mr. Toad is sent to jail. Thus it’s up to MacBadger, Ratty and Moley to bust Mr. Toad out of prison, clear his good name, and retrieve the deed to Toad Hall.

The Mr. Toad short is simple and straightforward, and it’s undeniably charming. Keeping in mind Disney’s early habit of making the main characters the most boring ones in their features (being too perfect if they’re given any personality at all), it’s refreshing to see a flawed main character like Mr. Toad – who is kindhearted but irresponsible -come from the studio’s earlier years. I also like the supporting cast of MacBadger, Ratty and Moley. And it’s pretty fun to see a Disney movie where the main focus of the plot is to reclaim the deed to a mansion.

The second short, based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, isn’t as immediately captivating as Mr. Toad, but it gets there eventually. The plot here is focused on Ichabod Crane – a lanky, gangling character with a funny face and “feet like shovels” – who is to be the new schoolmaster of Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod is also something of a miser, finding any and every way to spend as little money as possible (from attending parties for the free food to even riding a “borrowed” horse).

Despite his peculiar looks and skinflint behavior, Ichabod is inexplicably a ladies man, often putting up with the misbehaviors of the school children, provided their mothers are “good cooks” (whether the film is aiming for a euphemism here, or simply making Ichabod’s womanizing more Disney-friendly by literally centering it around food, I’m not quite sure). This eventually sees Ichabod fall head over heels for Katrina Van Tassel, the most beautiful woman in Sleepy Hollow… who also happens to be the daughter of the wealthiest man in the town.

This leads Ichabod to run afoul of Brom Bones, the town’s local prankster who also has eyes for Katrina. Brom Bones does his best to bully and embarrass Ichabod, but the odd Mr. Crane is more clever than he lets on, and continuously outwits Brom at his own game.

It’s hard to tell who we’re supposed to root for here. Mr. Toad is certainly flawed, but he’s also a decent enough fellow that we have sympathy for his plights. Neither Ichabod nor Brom are particularly upstanding figures, but Ichabod seems to be far more focused on Katrina’s family wealth than Katrina herself, whereas Brom – despite being a prankster – is described as “meaning no harm to anyone.” So I guess Brom is the lesser of two evils.

While it may at first appear that the short is presenting Ichabod as a wily Bugs Bunny type (outsmarting his rival at every turn) the film ultimately gives Ichabod the greater comeuppance.

At the Van Tassel family’s annual Halloween party (where Ichabod has seemingly once again gained the upper hand in his rivalry for Katrina’s affections), Brom Bones discovers Ichabod’s great weakness: It turns out the schoolmaster is dreadfully superstitious. So Brom uses this to his advantage by telling the tale of the Headless Horseman, a soldier that lost his head to a cannonball blast that now haunts Sleepy Hollow to claim a new head every Halloween night.

Broms’s plan works, as his ghost story has Ichabod spooked silly. And sure enough, on his way home from the party, Ichabod Crane is tormented by the Headless Horseman, with the frightful dullahan chasing Ichabod through the night.

Much like how Mr. Toad featured a more flawed main character than most Disney films of the time (and most of them for the decades to come), Ichabod also breaks away somewhat from Disney traditions by featuring a more interpretive ending. In the original Sleepy Hollow story, it is left ambiguous as to whether or not the Headless Horseman is real, or if it was Brom in disguise playing off of Ichabod’s fears, though it heavily implies the latter. In the Disney film the answer is even more up in the air. It gives some small hints that it could be Brom scaring Ichabod out of town, but also makes it seem more likely that Ichabod is spirited away by the apparition.

Personally, I like to think the Horseman is real, because it’s just more badass to have Ichabod pay for his selfish ways by means of an evil specter. But that’s just me.

Both short films included in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad are enjoyable and well animated. They both feel distinct (Mr. Toad being charming and cute, and Ichabod becoming genuinely frightening before all is said and done), but they both still compliment each other, and they come without any of the fluff to distract from the main attractions like some of the previous package films.

I first watched these Disney package films around ten years ago to complete my viewing of the entire Walt Disney Animation Studios canon. At that time, I didn’t feel won over by The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. But when watching it again for this review, I find it to be the best Disney film of this dark age by some margin. The Three Caballeros is worth a look for its utter insanity, but if there’s one feature from Disney’s oft forgotten Package Film Era that has held up, it’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.

 

7

Melody Time Review

The fifth film in Disney’s oft forgotten “Package Film Era,” Melody Time is another series of short films tied together and released as a feature film. This time, however, the shorts were themed around popular and folk music, similar to what Fantasia did with classical music. But comparing Melody Time to Fantasia is giving it way too much credit. While some of the shorts are decent enough, Melody Time lacks Fantasia’s scope and sense of artistry, nor does it feel like the segments are all collective parts of a singular vision like Fantasia did. Melody Time is simply another package film from Disney’s first dark age in the late 1940s.

One thing I definitely give Melody Time credit for is that it features no filler segues in between the animated shorts. So the film just goes from one short to the next, which is a nice change of pace after Fun and Fancy Free had way too much filler.

Melody Time features seven short segments of varying quality: The first is Once Upon a Wintertime. It’s a simple romance story between a boy and girl who spend time ice skating before tragedy almost strikes and the boy has to save the girl. It’s okay.

The second short, Bumble Boogie, livens things up a bit. Taking inspiration from Rinsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee (a song that was considered for Fantasia), Bumble Boogie sees a lone bee trying to survive amidst the surrealistic sights and sounds of the short. It’s fun.

The third film included is also the longest, The Legend of Johnny Appleseed. It really is the simple story of John Chapman planting apple trees in the days of the pioneers. The short also has a bit of a Christian overtone, which is interesting given that Walt Disney was against featuring overt religious references in his films. The Legend of Johnny Appleseed has its charms, but again, it’s unspectacular.

For round four, we have Little Toot, the story of a mischievous young tugboat. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I generally don’t care for anthropomorphic vehicle characters (they’re just so limited), but I found myself kind of bored with this one. It’s not horrible, just mediocre and forgettable.

Trees, the fifth short of Melody Time, is a short poem that provides some colorful visuals, but not a whole lot else. Honestly, there’s not much else to say.

The sixth short is Blame it on the Samba, which reunites Donald Duck with José Carioca the parrot (Panchito Pistoles is regrettably absent). Here, the duck and parrot duo encounter the Aracuan Bird (the gibberish-speaking bird from The Three Caballeros), who introduces them to the samba. This short is good fun, and features the surrealism that usually accompanies Donald Duck and José Carioca, including another mixture of animation and live-action. Blame it on the Samba picks the film up a little, but it does also kind of make you wish you were watching The Three Caballeros instead.

Finally, the film ends with Pecos Bill, the only short in Melody Time to get an introduction for some reason. The short is introduced by actor Roy Rogers, who is telling the story of Pecos Bill to child actress Luana Patten (the same actress from Fun and Fancy Free. Geez, Disney couldn’t even get new actors during this time).

The short itself is…poorly aged, to put it lightly. Pecos Bill is a wild man raised by coyotes who becomes a cowboy, helps shape Texas, smokes a lot (his cigarettes are uncensored for the first time in decades on Disney+), and rides a horse named Widowmaker.

Pecos Bill would be a bland short as it is (it’s also the second longest in Melody Time), but it gets bumped down several pegs for how dated it is. Pecos Bill is supposed to come across like some kind of wild rogue hero, but instead comes across like an ignorant jackass. He shoots at a tribe of Native Americans to scare them away because they exist, and when he woos and kisses the first woman he sees, his pistols remove themselves from their holsters and fire into the air in what is the most overt sexual innuendo in the history of Disney animation (all the weirder considering the more conservative time period the film was released in). It’s just kind of…uncomfortable.

In the end, Melody Time is an inconsistent series of short films. Another mediocre hodgepodge of a compilation that, for some reason, is accepted and embraced as part of the official canon of Walt Disney Animation Studios films. I like the Samba short (which proves once again that Donald and José are the saving grace of these package films), and the bumblebee short is fun.  Three of the shorts are watchable but nothing noteworthy, Little Toot is kind of a bore, and Pecos Bill can be outright offensive.

I understand that Disney was in a tight spot in the 1940s, so these package films were a means to make something cost effective that could bring in money to keep things afloat. But the fact that Disney continues to acknowledge these package films as official entries in their animated canon is baffling. The package films just feel like they’re filling out the numbers in Disney’s animated history, without actually contributing anything meaningful to it.

Melody Time has some good segments, but more of them fail to leave any kind of lasting impression. And closing out the ‘film’ with the Pecos Bill short was definitely a bad choice, one that has only been magnified with age.

 

3

The Three Caballeros Review

I don’t think you could name a weirder Disney movie than The Three Caballeros. That itself isn’t a bad thing (it has always baffled me that so many people consider “weird” to be a negative connotation). If anything, the weirdness is the saving grace of The Three Caballeros. As the second film in Disney’s oft-forgotten “Package Film Era,” The Three Caballeros is another example of shorter segments haphazardly strewn together and labeled as a ‘feature film’ within the Disney canon.

The Three Caballeros is also akin to being Walt Disney Animation Studio’s first sequel, as it is something of a follow-up to Disney’s previous package film, Saludos Amigos. Not so much in storyline (Disney Animation has only seen three canonical narrative continuations in their entire history, the first of which didn’t happen until 1990), but in that it features Donald Duck in a Latin American setting, and brings back the character of José Carioca the Brazilian parrot.

Like Saludos Amigos before it, The Three Caballeros was a product of a “goodwill tour” of Latin America for the Walt Disney Company commissioned by the United States Department of States in the wake of World War II. While Saludos Amigos was comprised of four short animated segments interspersed with clips of said tour by the Disney animators, The Three Caballeros has a bit more of a connected story linking most of its segments together. And when live-action does show up in Caballeros, it’s weaved in with the animated characters, instead of simply showing the audience who’s making the movie you’re watching.

The “story” here is that it’s Donald Duck’s birthday (which the film identifies as simply being “Friday the thirteenth”), and Donald Duck gets some presents from his friends. Presents that have increasingly surreal properties.

The first two gifts are short films of their own, given to Donald by José Carioca: The first is titled The Cold-Blooded Penguin and tells the story of Pablo, a penguin from the South Pole who wishes to live in a warmer climate, and ends up visiting many places in Latin America to find his new home. The second short is The Flying Gauchito, and involves a little boy in Uruguay who befriends a flying donkey.

These two opening shorts are okay, but much like the segments of Saludos Amigos, they are really nothing special. What’s all the weirder here is that the remaining segments go back to revolving around Donald and his friends (tied together by the loose narrative of Donald’s birthday). This makes the first two shorts feel completely disconnected from the rest of the film, and may leave you scratching your head as to why they were even included in the first place.

Again, the remainder of the film centers on Donald, José Carioca, and Panchito Pistoles, a pistol-packing rooster introduced here who represents Mexico. One additional segment kind of segues away from the beaked trio in telling the story of a group of Mexican children who celebrate Christmas by re-enacting the story of Mary and Joseph searching for a room at the inn, but this segment is narrated by Panchito, who is telling the story to Donald and José, so it’s also still kind of part of the main story.

The remaining segments are where the film gets really weird, with Donald, José and Panchito experiencing different Latin American cultures, interacting with live-action humans (mainly women whom Donald can’t stop lusting after), or being thrown into surrealist situations not dissimilar to the Pink Elephants number from Dumbo.

I mean, I don’t know how to describe some of these. The easiest one to explain sees the avian trifecta traveling the beaches of Mexico City, with Donald once again pining for every woman in sight, while José and Panchito try to keep him focused on their travels. The other segments though, are more about spectacle than anything, and can’t be so easily summed up.

“No comment.”

One scene involves an extended samba sequence with Donald, José and more real humans. Another sees Donald multiply himself to dance with another live-action woman, who then becomes an animated flower but still retaining the woman’s face. My personal favorite part sees Donald and José inexplicably shrunk so small that Donald can’t open his next present, so José teaches Donald a magic trick to return to their normal size. But I don’t mean the usual kind of Disney fairy tale magic by means of Fairy Godmother or evil witch. What José (and subsequently Donald) does is a bizarre series of movements that results in them blowing into their glowing index fingers to grow back to normal size. The movie’s finale involves Panchito setting a firecracker-packing toy bull loose to attack Donald, with the irritable duck charging headfirst into the bull to ignite the fireworks. Oh yeah, there’s also a hyperactive, gibberish-speaking bird who interrupts the film by breaking the fourth wall on an occasion or two.

Did you get all that?

The point is, the movie is a trip. But it’s that sense of surrealism and outright “what the hell am I watching?” moments that make The Three Caballeros much more enjoyable to watch than its predecessor. Unfortunately, the film’s fragmented structure takes something away from the proceedings, which is only magnified by the first two shorts which feel like they were stapled onto the picture for the sake of padding.

Like Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros doesn’t really play out like a movie because of this. Which is a shame, because had Disney used Donald, José and Panchito’s bizarre antics as the basis for a more fully-realized adventure, The Three Caballeros might be an all-time great in the Disney canon (Seriously, why have none of the characters of the “Mickey Mouse universe” ever been trusted to carry an entire movie?).

“Perfectly normal.”

As it is, The Three Caballeros can be a lot of fun when it has you scratching your head at what you’re seeing onscreen. But the whole package film structure plays against it, making you long for what the film could have been under different circumstances. Disney’s more “cartoony” animal characters on an epic adventure that’s as wacky and insane as this? Why has that never happened?

On the plus side, José Carioca and Panchito Pistoles have reemerged from obscurity in recent years, so maybe there’s still hope…

 

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