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.


Disney Classics #6: Saludos Amigos

It wasn’t until I got with MWF and saw her complete, chronological collection of the Disney Classics that I realised that my impression of the series was out of whack. I always thought there was this long Golden Age and then the shaky 70s-80s era before the Silver Age of the nineties and onwards. It turns out this isn’t the case.

The first five Disney films (see earlier posts in this series) mark the Golden Age of big, much loved and familiar hits. Then there’s this period of lesser known films before Disney emerges from the wilderness with the twelfth movie Cinderella which kick-starts the Silver Age which lasts until the early ’80s.

What’s a shame is that this film, the first of the wilderness years is actually quite a charming piece.

But it is easy to see why it hasn’t endured as much as the others. The travelogue style feels a little dated as does the South America it represents. For later audiences seeing the film open with the artists boarding a plane and some stock footage might spark memories of dull educational films. Like Fantasia it feels like a gamble and something which you can’t imagine the studio trying now.

The documentary parts are done quite well and there’s affection and respect in how they treat the local cultures even if it is brief and simplified. But they mainly serve as a frame on which to hang the different animated sections.

The star here is Donald Duck, who I’ve always preferred to Mickey (who was always too squeaky clean, and Donald’s temper makes him more relatable). Donald plays the hapless tourist who has to deal with the dangerous conditions at Lake Titicaca and a temperamental llama. This sequence is quite fun and well done, especially a dangerous rope bridge crossing.

Donald reappears in the final sequence, a musical number where he dances to samba music with Jose Carioca, a green parrot from Brazil, who introduces him to various parts of South American culture. The scene is quite cool with a catchy, cheerful soundtrack and the birds interacting with the artist’s paintbrush which is pretty cool.

The other sections are a slapstick piece about Argentinian gauchos featuring Goofy which is daft fun.

There’s also a short about a young plane trying to cross the Andes which has enough peril to keep you hooked and is rather sweet.

Due to the way it’s set up it’s not the most cinematic of films and it feels more like a TV special. But it’s entertaining enough and manages to educate while still feeling fun and keeping the momentum going. 

It lacks the level of artistry of Fantasia or the narrative drive of the other films and so while it’s charming enough it doesn’t stick with you in the same way, and it does seem dated in places.

That being said, I was glad I watched it and enjoyed it while I did, but it’s definitely a lesser entry.

Disney Score: 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Moana

Disney have been in fine form the last few years and their latest continues that trend being a delightful, charming adventure which even raised MWF’s spirits during a weekend she was suffering with “man flu”.

The story follows Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) the daughter of the chief of a small Polynesian island. Despite her father trying to guide her towards her responsibilities as future chief, she is bewitched by the sea and longs to explore it, despite the tribal law of never leaving the safety of the reef. When the fish supplies start to dwindle and the coconut harvest is rotten the island is in trouble. 

Mama’s grandmother (Rachel House) shows her a hidden cave where Moana discovers the ships used by the tribe when they had roamed the seas generations before, but stopped as monsters and storms claimed their ships. These monsters were the result of Te Fiti, an island goddess and bringer of life having her heart stolen by the demigod Maui. The heart was lost but found it’s way to Moana as a small child as the ocean had chosen her to help restore the heart.

Moana sets out to find Maui and get him to return the heart and stop the darkness which threatens her island. However, she has little experience at sea and discovers that Maui (Dwayne Johnson) is a self centred braggart who is powerless without the hook which carries his divine abilities.

She convinces him to aid her by playing on his ego and need to be the hero and they set off to find his hook so that they can complete their mission. On the way they must face a giant, treasure hoarding crab and coconut pirates.

Can they return the heart? Or will the powerful lava god that defeated Maui before be too much for him again? And when things get hard can she count on the selfish demigod?
What I love about this film is that the heroine and her quest is genuinely captivating and Moana is a strong, believable protagonist. She is driven and determined, but also fallible and doubts herself. Out of her depth she nonetheless shows grit and resourcefulness and pushes onwards. 

This all stems from a sense of duty to her people, and her responsible attitude means that she is at odds with Maui from the get go. Maui, voiced with easy charisma and overblown swagger by Dwayne Johnson steals the show somewhat thanks to his showy posturing. It’s a testament to Johnson that even removed from the physicality that made him famous his natural charisma still shines through. 

His moving tattoos are a nice touch and he is developed over the course of the film, developing nicely into the hero he proclaims himself to be at the start.

His first song “You’re Welcome” is a boastful delight and his moving tattoos, depicting his past deeds are a nice touch, especially his bickering relationship with one of them. He’s a hugely memorable character and his unwilling partnership with Moana is handled well. 

They spark off each other and his repeated attempts to ditch her are quite amusing. Their developing affection is done well, feeling natural and never clunky, and they play off each other well with her quiet determination contrasting nicely with his loud bravado.

The supporting cast don’t have much to do, although the character of Gramma Tala is very amusing and loveable. Confessing to be the village’s “crazy old lady” she is the only person who encourages and understands Moana’s desire to leave the island and guides her quest. Despite filling the “wise elder” role she is a fun presence and some of the scenes between her and her granddaughter really hit home emotionally.

Gramma Tala captures the warmth that is at the heart of this film, and which comes jumping from the screen. I was utterly charmed and loved every second.

The film looks gorgeous and the characters are designed beautifully and there is plenty of visual humour from Moana’s pet chicken and Maui’s tattoos, and plenty in a clever, charming script. 

It’s laugh out loud funny, gripping and filled with wonderful characters. It’s not the best Disney film ever, but it’s pretty damn high on the list.

Verdict: Simply amazing. Fun, fast paced and full of character, this is a great family movie with a great heroine and a scene stealing Dwayne Johnson. Disney knock this one out of the park and produce another superb movie. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #5: Bambi

This is a Disney movie largely remembered for the death of one character and the fact it has made generations of children cry.

The shooting of Bambi’s mother is the film’s most famous moment and I won’t lie, it’s done remarkably well with the death happening off camera and Bambi only realising what’s happened after the fact. His dad breaks the news to him in a rather blunt manner “your mother can’t be with you anymore”. Dude, soften the blow a little.

And devastated Bambi’s reaction gives the heartstrings a massive yank.

The whole movie is a pretty decent “life of animals” tale, starting with Bambi’s birth and following the eponymous deer to adulthood. Sure some of it is sentimental and softened, but there’s still a dark edge, mainly from man but there are acknowledgements that nature is rough.

Bambi has to fight when another stag steps to his girl, in a sequence which is shot in a stark, dramatic style which makes it so different from the rest of the movie.

The real villain here is man, who after killing Bambi’s mum then run through the woods guns blazing and then start a fire. Mankind does not come off well in this movie, and some of it is harsh. One bleak scene involved some birds cowering in the undergrowth before one cracks under pressure and takes flight, we then see her body hit the deck. It’s not quite at the grim level of The Animals of Farthing Wood, but it’s got a whole lot more edge than I remember.

Heck, Bambi kills a bunch of dogs after causing a rock slide on to them. It might be a softened version of the natural world, but it doesn’t completely ignore the fact that nature can be brutal.

The circle of life is completed when Bambi becomes a dad himself, which follows a sequence where our hero and his friends become “twitterpated” which is basically  Disney slang for overcome with lust. Seriously, there is some visual innuendo going on here which had clearly flown way over my head when I first saw this movie.

Character wise it’s a little flat and the songs aren’t particularly great, but it’s episodic style works and it keeps moving. Also it handles the shifts in tone quite well and is genuinely moving in places. Also it’s very pretty to look at.

Disney Score: 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO. 


Disney Classics #4: Dumbo

I only watched this film all the way through when MWF put it on a couple of months back. Apparently as a kid on first viewing I was reduced to tears by the way Dumbo was bullied and refused to watch any more. And I never even attempted it again.

I didn’t miss much.

This is apparently the shortest film in the Classics series and yet it still feels like it could do with some trimming.

The plot is simple-minded the stork brings circus elephant Mrs Jumbo a baby, a mute elephant with unusually large ears who she rather cruelly names Dumbo. His ears draw ridicule from the other elephants and the circus workers, who put him in an act with the clowns, where he has to jump from a high board into a giant custard pie.

Side note- could this film, with the bullying and mean clowns be where my fear of them begins?

Anyway, Mrs Jumbo, naming abilities aside, is a good mother and angered by the bullying kicks off. For her trouble she is branded a “mad elephant” and locked up. 

Jumbo’s only friend is Timothy Q. Mouse (Edward Brophy) a wise guy like mouse who looks after him and feels bad for him. After a humiliating performance Timothy takes Dumbo to see his mum, in a rather sad sequence featuring the song “Baby Mine” where the other animals are with family, but all Mrs Jumbo can do is rock Dumbo through the bars.

I’m kinda glad Little Chris had stopped watching by this point because this would have broken him.
After this mouse and elephant get drunk. Yes, in a kid’s film. This sets off a trippy and creepy number “Pink Elephants on Parade” which is rather disorientating. Dumbo and Timothy are similarly freaked out and wake up in a tree, and Timothy reckons this is because Dumbo flew.

This is ridiculed by a passing murder of crows (awesome collective noun that) and they have a good life, until Timothy shames them for laughing at Dumbo. Feeling sorry and sending this is a self belief issue, the crows pass Timothy a “magic” feather and sure enough Mrs Jumbo’s baby boy takes to the skies.

Returning to the circus Dumbo takes flight, they get revenge on the clowns and nasty elephants, and he becomes a star. He gets his mother freed (never explained how this would have happened) and they live happily ever after.

Aside from being wild animals forced into captivity and made to perform for human amusement.

What doesn’t work with this movie is that it feels like a series of events rather than one fluid story. And at times the switches in tone are jarring, especially when the heartbreak of “Baby Mine” is followed almost immediately by the nightmarish “Pink Elephants”.

Also while he is cute having a protagonist who doesn’t talk is a bit of a drag after a while. 

Some of it works, but some of it doesn’t and the flow is off.

Disney Score: 4/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.