Disney Classics #17: One Hundred and One Dalmatians

I remember reading the book this is based on in school, I think because the English department decided it would get them an easy day or two as they took us all to see the live action version. They could have saved themselves the hassle of a shepherding us on to buses and making sure none of us wandered off in Swansea by just sticking this on for a couple of lessons, as this is definitely the superior version.

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The story starts with narration from Pongo (Rod Taylor), who laments the bachelor life he finds dull and decides to find partners for himself and his “pet” Roger (Ben Wright). From the window he spies Perdita (Cate Bauer) and her human companion Anita (Lisa Davis), and rushes out to win her over. This sequence is quite well done, with Pongo looking out the window at the passing canines and dismissing them for various reasons, which match with their owners, going along with the notion of owners looking like their dogs.

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After a short time Roger and Anita marry, and Perdita announces she is expecting puppies. The joy is slightly marred by the arrival of Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson), an old schoolmate of Anita’s who is obsessed with furs, and delights in the pattern of the dogs’ coats. When Perdita delivers fifteen puppies, Cruella offers to buy them all, but Roger refuses.

Cruella De Vil is a great villain, a gaunt figure surrounded in noxious cigarette smoke. From her entrance at the wheel of a careening car, she is a dynamic, captivating presence and over the course of the movie she becomes increasingly dishevelled and unhinged as her mania takes over. The film’s most memorable song is the theme tune that Roger creates for her, detailing her wicked nature.

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Shortly after while the parents and their owners are out, two goons Jasper and Horace (J. Pat O’Malley and Frederick Worlock, respectively) trick their way into the house and steal the puppies. With the human police having no leads the dogs take the lead (unintentional pun) and get the word out through “the twilight bark” a method of relaying messages across the country.

One of the cool things about this sequence is that there’s a nice little easter egg for observant viewers, with several characters from Lady and the Tramp having little cameos.

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The chain yields results and the puppies, along with many others, are discovered. The message is sent back and Pongo and Perdita rush to the rescue.

The rest of the film is an enjoyable adventure, with the courageous canines saving the puppies and then trying to avoid capture as they escape through the snow. The whole thing is quite pacy and there are a few tense moments as they try to escape. The action is slapstick in places, but it works far better in cartoon form, and watching it back I was impressed, with the movie holding up quite well.

It could do with a few more songs, and the goons are a little too bumbling for my tastes, but these minor quibbles aside this is a good adventure which has a certain charm.

Disney Score: 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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Disney Classics #16: Sleeping Beauty

The third Disney Princess arrives to a suitable fanfare at the opening of this movie and the “hail to the Princess Aurora” song is irresistibly catchy. But the movie really kicks into gear with the arrival of Maleficent (Eleanor Audley), one of Disney’s best villains.

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I can’t think of another kids’ movie where the villain is such an overpowering presence, even in Disney flicks that include baddies like Ursula, Scar and Jafar, the heroes match up to them, but here the iconic image of the movie is Maleficent in her dark, regal glory.

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Stealing the show

Annoyed not to have been invited to the christening of the newborn, rocks up and curses her, possibly providing an insight into why she doesn’t get invited to parties. The curse? When the Princess is 16 she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. Luckily good fairy Merryweather (Barbara Luddy) steps in and changes the curse so it’s not death, but rather a deep sleep until true love’s kiss wakes her. Still, the King isn’t happy and burns every spinning wheel in the country, which seems a short sighted move as what will happen when people need new clothes? Also, you had sixteen years!

The good fairies, Merryweather and her sisters Flora and Fauna (Verna Felton and Barbara Jo Allen, respectively), match the King’s overreaction by kidnapping Aurora and going into hiding until her sixteenth birthday, renaming her Briar Rose. Unbelievably, as the big day approaches she is still hidden from Maleficent, because her minions have still been searching for a baby. How much more successful would Disney villains be if they hired better help?

Briar Rose (Mary Costa) now an adult goes into the forest as her three guardians plan to surprise her for her birthday, because apparently revealing that she’s a princess and that they are her kidnappers isn’t going to be enough to drop on the poor girl. While out she meets a handsome young man, who turns out to be Prince Phillip (Bill Shirley), who is captivated by her singing (princes appear to have a major weakness for singers). They fall in love, neither knowing they’re actually already betrothed, and Phillip (named after Britain’s own Prince Phillip, fact fans) heads off to tell his dad that the arranged marriage is over, planning to return to Briar Rose.

The love story here is done quite well, and the sequence where the two meet and dance together to the glorious “Once Upon a Dream” is wonderfully charming. Sure, it feels rushed, but just go with the love at first sight conceit, and it’s rather sweet and well executed. At least there’s actual conversation here.

Unfortunately, despite not using magic for almost sixteen years, the fairies are useless practical skills like making a cake (even I can do that) and dress making (I’d struggle with that, admittedly), and resort to breaking out their wands. But this catches the eye of Maleficent’s raven sidekick Diablo, who raises the alarm.

I always loved this sequence as a kid, and it’s still very entertaining as the fairies make a pig’s ear of the whole situation. Throughout the movie the three fairies are good fun, bickering with each other and my three sisters each assigned themselves a different fairy.

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Briar Rose learns the truth and is taken to the castle, where she is bewitched by Maleficent and pricks her finger. At this point Maleficent adds to her evil stakes with some top quality gloating over her fallen foe before legging it.

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Maleficent gloats

Knowing that Merryweather has messed with her plans, she dispatches her minions to grab Phillip and take him prisoner.

The fairies work out that Phillip is the mysterious man Aurora mentioned and, put the entire kingdom to sleep and before setting off to rescue Phillip. At this point, Maleficent cements her place as a great villain with a truly evil plan- she’s not going to kill Phil, she’s going to keep him locked up until he’s old and allowing him to revive the still youthful Aurora. That’s delightfully vindictive.

The fairies save the Prince, and arm him. This is another of the movie’s strengths, in that Phillip is far more heroic than the other princess. He fights off the minions, and rides out to the rescue. And then he faces off against Maleficent who has transformed into a gigantic, menacing dragon.

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After slaying the dragon (Maleficent having made the classic mistake of getting caught doing a monologue), he gets to his girl and breaks the curse. And there was much rejoicing.

I used to love this as a kid, and watched it a fair few times, and I’m really happy with how well it holds up. It’s got action, romance and comedy, and benefits from a decent script and some solid characters. The three fairies and their rivalries stop them from being too goody goody, Phillip is a better hero than what had come before and then of course there’s Maleficent and her pure evil. Her imperious mannerisms and voice are fantastic, and it’s so much better that she has no back story. She’s evil. That’s what she is and we don’t need to know how she got this way.

Disney Score: 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

 


Disney Classics #15: Lady and the Tramp

Maybe it’s no surprise that as a cat person a movie dedicated “to dogs everywhere” didn’t really float my boat as a kid. In fact I grew up in a house that had, and loved, cats, so a film where the only felines are villains was unlikely to go down well.

That being said it’s hard to deny the film’s charms especially the classic spaghetti scene, which could warm a heart of stone.

Plot wise it’s pretty simple, fancy uptown dog Lady (Barbara Luddy) is feeling threatened by her owners’ new baby. She also meets Tramp (Larry Roberts), a charming stray from the wrong side of the tracks. They get into a variety of scrapes and Lady learns despite his carefree, roguish reputation Tramp is actually a good dog. After they rescue the baby from a rat Tramp accepts a place within the family and settles down with Lady.

It’s a rather sweet tale and it’s helped by a good supporting cast and some good moments. These include a rather dark sequence at the dog pound which is like a doggy death row and set’s up what for me is the film’s best song, the bluesy “He’s a Tramp” performed by Peggy Lee’s Peg.

Watching it back I realised that the story with Lady and Tramp rescuing the baby only to be blamed for the attack is similar to the Welsh legend of Gelert.

It’s not the strongest Disney movie, but it has a few high points contained within a sweet and charming story.

Disney Score: 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #14: Peter Pan

I don’t know why but this wasn’t one of the Disney flicks that I liked a lot as a kid, which doesn’t make sense as it has pirates, Native Americans, sword fights and flying, all of which would have won me over.

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I think the problem is that even as a kid the main character kinda annoyed me. Peter’s a self centred braggart and for me the idea of never growing up held no appeal. As a kid you can’t do a bunch of stuff which adults can, I wanted to be a grown up. It was only years later that I find myself wishing I could stay away from adult responsibility. I must have seen it as a kid but it never wowed me.

Watching it as an adult, Peter (Bobby Driscoll) still irritates me, but I think that might be the point? That growing up is kinda important and staying as a child would be daft?

There’s another aspect of this that I don’t think I picked up with, in that I actually feel sorry for Captain Hook (Hans Conried). I mean, sure, he’s a villain and he tries to make them walk the plank, but the poor dude lost his hand and is now a frazzled mess, reduced to a jibbering wreck whenever the crocodile that swallowed his hand is nearby.

Incidentally, this is one of my favourite parts of the film, the way the ticking arrives and the croc’s eyes move with each sound. It’s wonderfully done, and the croc is shown to be quite a malicious beastie, gleefully awaiting Hook to fall into his jaws.

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Back to Hook, he’s actually quite a good villain, with a clear motivation and some smart plans (he plays Tinkerbell like a fiddle), and there’s quite a lot of humour from the inept crew he is surrounded by.

This film actually made me laugh quite a few times, and there are some very funny moments and the action is quite good too. The plot moves along at a decent pace that just about covers up the flaws.

The flaws are numerous, with Peter’s obnoxious nature being just one- almost all the female characters are shown at varying times to be either stupid, jealous or vindictive. Wendy, Tinkerbell and the mermaids all seem besotted with Pete, and react badly when he shows interest in someone else.

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And the representation of the Indians on the island is horrible to watch. All the braves have giant noses and deep red skins, talking like cliches. You may say it was a different time, but watching it in this time it’s not pleasant.

One thing I had forgotten was just how angry and sassy Tinkerbell was. In the more recent films featuring the character she’s shown as a heroic, nice character but here she’s quite nasty. She’s madly jealous of Wendy and Peter’s interest in her, to the extent that she tries to kill the poor girl and rats out the Lost Boys’ hideout to Hook. I have to say she’s one of the more memorable characters thanks in part to the great animation which captures her mannerisms and quickly shifting moods.

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Hell hath no fury like a fairy scorned

When it works, this is great fun, and the times it stumbles are fairly brief, and you can ignore most of them if you go with the movie.

It’s a fun adventure story but the ending baffles me. Was it all a dream? If yes, then how did Wendy’s dad have the same dream? If it wasn’t a dream does that mean he was a Lost Boy who chose to leave? It makes no sense!

Disney Score: 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to. BETEO.


Disney Classics #13: Alice in Wonderland

I’m going to be upfront with you, I’ve never been overly fussed with Lewis Carroll’s creation and none of the versions I’ve seen have won me over. I think it’s because there’s a sense of self conscious, deliberate, quirky weirdness to the whole thing. It’s clearly a matter of taste as this is one of MWF’s favourite Disney movies, whereas in the Page house it was one of the ones which got taken off the shelf less often.

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For the unfamiliar, the story follows a young girl named Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) who winds up in a weird place called wonderland filled with unusual characters and creatures, where the rules of logic and sense don’t apply. The plot is kinda hard to nail down as it’s less of an overall story and more just a series of episodes as Alice goes along bumping into different characters.

It’s not without any charm and some of the visuals are quite striking and interesting in their psychedelic weirdness. There are some nice little touches along the way such as how the different flowers are portrayed and the whole size-shifting aspect is used rather well. I also like the croquet sequence with the Queen of Hearts, who falls somewhere between unpredictably scary and ridiculous, which seems the best way to approach the character.

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The “Very Merry Unbirthday” song is quite catchy, and the weirdness plays better in animated form, because at least you can’t see the actors trying their damndest to be “mad” (yes, I am talking to you, Mr. Depp). But some of it still feels like it’s trying to hard and some aspects like the Dodo don’t work for me. It feels like too many ideas were being thrown around and a lot more could have been dumped to make the film flow better.

It’s not a terrible movie at any rate, but with Alice being a bit annoying and it all feeling rather fragmented, it’s not the most satisfying either. I mean, it uses the “it was all a dream” ending that we were told to avoid at GCSE!

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Mrs F, my old English teacher probably hates this ending.

That being said, it’s probably my favourite film version of the story.

Disney Score: 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #12: Cinderella

Finally, Disney get their groove back returning to familiar territory with a feature length single story fairytale. The film introduces the second of the Disney Princesses and is a delightful movie.

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The story should be familiar but a quick recap- after the death of her father Cinderella (Helene Stanley) has to live with her evil stepmother Lady Tremaine (Eleanor Audley) and her two ugly stepsisters Drizella and Anastasia. They treat Cinderella as a servant, making her do all the work and living in a tiny attic while they spend all of her dad’s cash.

But one day the King (Luis Van Rooten), eager to marry off his son arranges a ball, to which all the women of the country are invited. Lady Tremaine says that Cinderella can go but only if she completes her chores and finds an appropriate dress. Too busy to mend a gown that belonged to her mother Cinderella is aided by her animal friends and shall go to the ball. But Lady Tremaine and the sisters realise she has used stuff they rejected. They tear the dress to shreds in a scene which is genuinely upsetting. It’s just so bloody mean, those jerks!

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Seriously, this scene gets me so angry!

Luckily, Cinderella’s fairy godmother arrives and magics her a fancy dress. She also makes a carriage for her from a pumpkin and footmen and horses from the animals around. The catch? At midnight it all goes back to normal.

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Cinders hits the ball and dances with the Prince who is smitten with her. Unfortunately it reaches midnight and she has to make a run for it, on the way losing one of her glass slippers.

The King sends out a Grand Duke (voiced by the same actor as the King) to see who fits the shoe. Lady Tremaine wants one of her daughters to win the prince, and realising that it was Cinderella at the ball locks her in the attic. Fortunately, her animal friends manage to slip her a key and she proves she was the mysterious girl. She marries the Prince and they live happily ever after.

I’m not getting into a discussion of the story’s attitude towards gender roles or how it altered the traditional story, arguments which have been flogged to death. Instead let’s just have a look how this holds up as a film.

And it works. The music is solid, especially “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” which is insanely catchy, seriously, it’ll rattle around in your head for a good while after the credits roll. The art style is a little dated, but in places genuinely gorgeous and the character work is superb.

Cinderella has a simple, elegant beauty and the stepsisters are ugly without it being overdone. The King is a Disney staple- short, rotund, bearded and bald, and the Prince is rather dull. The success comes in Lady Tremaine, voiced by the same actress who would go on to voice Maleficent, is superb. A detestable villain who is petty and cruel to her stepdaughter.

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Pure evil

The most charming characters are the animals, particularly the chubby, dimwitted mouse Gus and the more courageous Jaq. They provide comic relief and help Cinderella out along the way, and are rather entertaining.

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Also stealing the show is Lady Tremaine’s cat Lucifer. Proving that nominative determinism exists, he is properly evil, tormenting the mice and going out of his way to make life difficult for the heroine. The scenes with him and the mice, pad out the rather simple story and provide some action along the way.

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The whole thing is very simply done and sweet, with the familiar story retold in a charming manner. It might have dated in the style or the way a female heroine is portrayed (Cinderella is never really mistress of her own destiny), but it’s a gem of a movie and easy to see why it still captivates young audiences to this day.

Following the underwhelming run they had delivered before this is a major return to form for Disney and a film which still stands up. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am glad to be out of the wilderness and into Disney’s Silver Age.

Disney Score: 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #11: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad

The final film of the wilderness period is another I hadn’t seen before, this includes stories based on The Wind in the Willows and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. These are narrated by Basil Rathbone and Bing Crosby respectively.

For my money the Ichabod Crane story works best, as it’s got a stronger story and is done with genuine humour. The story is handled well and the animation is cartoony but well done, and Crosby’s voice is a good choice for the narrator.

The eponymous character is slightly pompous which makes the mishaps that befall him more entertaining.

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The Mr Toad portion was unlikely to score big with me as I’ve never liked The Wind in the Willows and the character of Toad is such a douche. The court sequence however is well done and the characters are well realised, but the plot is simple and like I said, Toad is just annoying.

This feels like a lesser film from the get go and despite sterling work from Rathbone and Crosby, neither half really catches fire. It’s entertaining enough, but compared to many other Disney movies it’s weak and rather forgettable.

A shame because as a short the Ichabod half would work quite well, but bolted together it doesn’t quite work. It’s better than the compilation of shorts that preceded it, but it still doesn’t feel like a proper film.

Disney Score: 4/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #9: Fun and Fancy Free

This movie is essentially a double feature of shorter stories, and both parts are pretty decent, if flawed.

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The linking device is Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards), who sets up both stories. Firstly he arrives in a playroom where he plays a record which plays music by Dinah Shore that serves as narration for the first part.

This deals with the story of Bongo, a circus bear who fed up of his “gilded cage” escapes and winds up living in the woods. He struggles to adapt at first but soon finds his feet and falls for Lulubelle.

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Unfortunately, having been raised in the circus he has no idea of bear courtship rituals which apparently involve slapping each other, and he is hurt when Lulubelle strikes him. Lulubelle then gets grabbed by the hulking, bullying Lumpjaw. When Bongo realises his mistake he runs back to Lulubelle and fights off his rival.

I kinda dug this part because the story is quite well done and the action is madcap and fun. There’s also a marvellously surreal sequence as Bongo and Lulubelle fall in love, which is rather trippy. I also like that as with Dumbo the film is pretty hard on how circuses treat animals, which is quite ahead of it’s time. There are a few parts when it drags a little and the song isn’t particularly catchy, but it still mostly works.

Jiminy then finds a invitation to a party and goes to it. Here he arrives at the weirdest party ever. I get that this film comes from a more innocent era, but for a modern viewer it’s kinda weird that a grown man throws a party for a little girl which is only attended by her and his two ventriloquist dummies. I guess that in the context of the film the ventriloquist dummies are meant to be real characters, but it still feels odd. Why not throw in another couple of kids?

Also, ventriloquist dummies are creepy as hell anyway, but one of them in particular, Mortimer, will haunt my dreams.

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What nightmares are made of

The ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen, then narrates the story of “Mickey and the Beanstalk”, with the dummies throwing in gags along the way. Some of these gags actually work, and the dummy Charlie offers sarky commentary and postmodern nods to the story. The story is of course Jack and the Beanstalk but with Mickey in the role, accompanied by Goofy and Donald.

It’s worth mentioning that this movie would be the last feature length outing for Mickey where Walt himself provided the voice.

The story is familiar and told with a few changes, Happy Valley is suffering because the Golden Harp has been stolen, and when they grow the beanstalk they find it in the possession of the giant. It’s an okay story, but it goes on a bit long and sags in the middle.

There are a few moments where it works, such as when Donald, mad with hunger, tries to kill the farm’s cow, which the little girl is appalled by. And Donald is the most entertaining as the barely controlled ball of rage.

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Mickey and Goofy are their usual selves and the story is told well enough. The ending where Willie the Giant is shown to have survived is a cop out and a daft flourish the movie doesn’t need.

The two part structure actually works, with both stories having enough room unlike in the previous episodic movies. But it doesn’t feel like a complete film and the presence of the creepy dummies hurt it a lot in my view.

Disney Score: 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #8: Make Mine Music

We’re still deep in the wilderness years for this one, which is kinda like a pop music version of Fantasia, with this being a series of animated pieces to music. The problem is that in terms of art and music it can’t match the earlier effort. This is understandable as this was made during the Second World War and many of Walt’s men were overseas or making propaganda. Feature length animation had stopped being a priority and like Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, this is a package affair.

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While those were linked by themes of location, here it’s a much more muddled effort and as such the segments are rather hit and miss. As a kid I must have seen some of this as I remember the “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met”, the final part and this is one of the stronger, telling a complete story which uses music well and is quite funny.

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Aside from this it all felt new to me. Some pieces like “After You’ve Gone”, “Two Silhouettes” and “Blue Bayou” are incredibly forgettable, and I’d struggle to give many details on any of them, despite having watched it a few hours before writing this.

These are the more serious parts and they all fall flat, with the comedic entries having to carry the film and even here they drop the ball. “Casey at the Bat” a reading of a poem about a cocky baseball player coming a cropper is quite fun, but goes on a bit.

“Peter and the Wolf” is the closest this gets to classical and it’s a well done piece, with the different instruments working well and the cartoon style in bringing the characters alive is charming, even if the ending is a cop out.

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The hillbilly star crossed lovers who turn up in “The Martins and the Coys” are quite good fun too, even though it is a bit weird to see a bloody turf war turned into comedy. Nonetheless, it’s got some nice touches and the ending where the loving couple fall out after marriage is a neat kicker to the story.

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“Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet” is sweet enough but rather dull, but the jazzy “All the Cats Join In” is a treat. Capturing the fun, fast paced life of a group of teenagers it’s cleverly animated with the artist’s pencil adding details as the story progresses. The dance scene is quite good fun, and the energy of the piece lifts the film, although any momentum is utterly lost in “Without You”, a mournful ballad of lost love.

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All in all this is a frustrating watch with the changes in tone jarring and the lack of a through line to connect the pieces means it never feels like a movie and rather just a collection of shorts. And you wonder why they’ve been put together in this order.

Disappointing.

Disney Score: 4/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #7: The Three Caballeros

The second film of the “wilderness period” struggles as it feels far too close to it’s predecessor. Like Saludos Amigos this is based in South America, episodic and features Donald Duck.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have watched them so close together but I had no idea how similar they would be. Similar, but with the earlier film being superior.

The problem here is that they rely too much on mixing live action and cartoon and in some places this looks a bit creaky. Also the Donald Duck parts are the weakest mainly concerning Donald running around chasing women.

Some of these sequences are flat it trippy as he and his companions Jose Carioca and Panchito Pistoles (a red rooster from Mexico) jump through the pages of books about the continent. Donald chasing after real human women is a bit weird and you wonder what Daisy must have thought. While played for laughs it feels drawn out and starts leaning into sex pest territory.

Luckily some of the other sections work quite well. The music is quality and the different folk dances are quite good. But the real winners are the animated shorts which are rather charming. The first about a penguin who dreams of escaping to warmer climes is funny and well done with a “grass is always greener” ending.

The other is a goofy but entertaining story about a young boy who finds a flying donkey who he buddies up with and uses to win a race. The whole thing is narrated by the boy as a grown man, exasperated by his youthful stupidity and there’s a nice breaking if the fourth wall. It helps that the donkey is cute and likeable.

It’s okay, but drags in places and hasn’t aged well. There’s also a sense of trying to cover old ground. The animated shorts work but you wonder if they wouldn’t have been better as stand alone shorts.
Not without it’s charms but a weak effort.

Disney Score: 4/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.