Monday, November 30, 2009

Make Mine Music - 1946

When Make Mine Music was put into production, the world was still at war and the government had control over most of the Disney Studio, leaving Walt with few resources to continue making feature films. As a result, the studio was forced to switch to making "package features," which strung short subjects with a unifying theme into a feature length film. Make Mine Music was the third package feature.

The best way to describe Make Mine Music is to call it Fantasia with modern music by 1940's standards. Fantasia set animation to classical music, Make Mine Music is mostly set to pop tunes performed by some of the era's most famous artists. Ironically, one of the sequences called "Blue Bayou" is a cut sequence from Fantasia that was originally set to "Claire de Lune." They simply changed the song. The film consists of 10 sequences.

As the title cards play, a song called "Make Mine Music" sets the tone for the whole film. As the cards progress the theater doors open and our program for the night's entertainment unfolds.

The first sequence is "The Martins and the Coys." The Kings Men sing this folk song about two country families who live by their guns. War ensues when Grandpa Coy is caught stealing eggs from the Martin's hen house. The majority of both families comically dies, leaving 1 Martin and 1 Coy to carry out the fight. However, the surviving Martin is a pretty girl and the surviving Coy is a handsome man. Naturally, the two fall in love and get married, carrying out the feud as the couples quarrel for the rest of their life.

Next is an extremely different sequence called "Blue Bayou" sung by The Ken Darby Chorus. As the pretty ballad plays, we see a lush bayou through impressive multiplane shots. A crane enters the bayou and flies around until finding a mate. The two birds fly together as the sequence comes to a close.

A much more hip number called "All the Cats Join In" follows performed by Benny Goodman and his orchestra. A pencil draws the characters as they come to life. The sequence centers around teens as they head to the malt shop dance to juke box music. The term "cats" in the title refers to the term given to cool kids in the 1940's.

"Without You" performed by Andy Russell reveals a rainy window scene that transgresses into surreal imagery. The visuals in this sequence feel like they could have been from 'Fantasia' if the music was changed to a classical piece.

"Casey at the Bat" is performed by Jerry Colonna in a mix of poetry and song. It's a famous story about a cocky turn of the century baseball star who took two strikes thinking he didn't need them, but then he missed the ball, losing the game and ruining his reputation.

"Two Silhouettes" is a ballad sung by Dinah Shore. This sequence takes the silhouettes of two live action dancers and sets them against an animated backdrop.

Familiar Disney voice Sterling Halloway (Dumbo, Bambi, The Three Caballeros) tells the story of "Peter and the Wolf" set to music by Sergei Prokofeiv. It tells the story of little Peter who goes out to hunt the wolf with his toy gun. Peter's animal friends join in the hunt and almost risk their lives in doing so, but the Disney happy ending differs from the original Russian tale in that none of Peter's friends are actually eaten by the wolf.

"After You've Gone" by Benny Goodman and his orchestra is a jazzy number that involves anthropomorphized musical instruments dancing. The sequence is quite trippy.

The Andrews Sisters perform the tale of "Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet." A fedora and a bluebonnet fall in love in the window of a department store, but the two are separated as they are purchased by different people. The two search for each other from the top of their owners' heads with little luck. Johnny eventually becomes a horses hat, but serendipitously Alice has received the same fate and they ride together atop hose heads and live happily ever after.

The final sequence has Nelson Eddy performing all of the voices for "The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met." It tells the tale of an operatic whale and an impresario who is convinced that the whale has swallowed an opera singer. So he goes out in search of Willie the whale, only to discover that the whale hasn't swallowed an opera singer, but can really sing. Willie imagines the impresario taking him to the Met and making him a worldwide sensation. However, in the middle of Willie's dreaming, he is harpooned by the impresario, never to live his dream of singing at the Met. The stories grim ending has the morale lesson of the fact that people tend to not believe in miracles. The film ends with Willie as an angel singing his big heart out. As the camera pans by the pearly gates, there is a "sold out" sign.

Critics and audiences were unkind to Make Mine Music. They considered it the first post-war feature by the studio. As a result, they expected a grand return to the style of the earlier animated features. The criticism that I agree with is that the film never fully decides what it wants to be. It has some rather funny and entertaining segments ('The Martins and the Coys,' 'All the Cats Join In,' 'Casey at the Bat,' 'Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet,' 'The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met') that really stand out. But they are mixed with segments that try too hard to be classical and artistic ('Blue Bayou,' 'Without You,' 'Two Silhouettes'). The mix of incompatible sequences is the film's demise. Some also saw putting "Peter and the Wolf" to animation as sacrilegious because the piece was meant to inspire childrens imaginations. However, Sergei Prokofeiv has sad that he originally composed the piece in hopes that Walt Disney would set it to animation.

Make Mine Music was never re-released theatrically, but many of its sequences were later released as shorts or shown on TV. As a kid, I was shown "Peter and the Wolf" in elementary music class and had seen "Casey at the Bat," "Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet," and "The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met" on The Disney Channel. The film has a presence at Disneyland, where the most popular restaurant is named "Blue Bayou," and at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, the hot dog stand on Main Street is called "Casey's Corner" after "Casey at the Bat."

Make Mine Music was released on DVD and VHS for the first time in 2000. Disney censored the movie by removing "The Martins and the Coys" for fear that modern audiences would find the guns offensive. However, nobody is ever shot on screen and it was all handled in a comical manner. In addition, guns are used in "Peter and the Wolf" and "Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet" and those sequences were not edited. I would say that "Casey at the Bat" has more violence than this sequence. With the sequence in tact, the film would still probably pass for a G rating and definitely no higher than PG. Modern Disney animated films have used guns in much more menacing ways. The film is currently available on DVD. Hopefully Disney will release the uncensored film someday with a restoration. The current transfer is plagued by white specks and excess grain.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Three Caballeros - 1944

When the CIAA originally sent Walt Disney and a team of artists to South America on a good neighbor tour, they had placed an order for 12 short films based on their travels. Instead, Walt delivered the first 4 packaged as a feature called Saludos Amigos, which was so successful that the CIAA changed their order from 12 shorts to 3 package features. The Three Caballeros was the second film in the series, although the final film never materialized the way it had been conceived. The rest of the contract was finished through a few short films and segments in later package features.

Caballeros is similar to Saludos Amigos in many ways, the most obvious being the carry over of Jose (Joe) Carioca and the recurring theme of Donald Duck and South America. But the two films are similar and dissimilar in structure as well. Like Saludos Amigos, Caballeros is primarily made up of 4 shorts ('The Cold Blooded Penguin,' 'The Flying Gauchito,' 'Baia,' and 'La Pinata'), however 'La Pinata' is much longer than a traditional animated short, with a run time that accounts for almost half of the picture. This film also uses a lot of "combination scenes," blending live action with animation. Walt was so fascinated with the new process used that he would later use the technique in many of his films, including Song of the South and Mary Poppins. Unlike the previous film, Caballeros uses animated interstitial sequences instead of live action travel footage.

The first image seen after the opening credits is a giant package from South America sent to Donald Duck for his birthday (Friday the 13th). Inside the package are three presents. The first is a projector, screen, and a film reel. Donald sets it up to watch a program about strange birds. First is a story about Pablo, a penguin who moves to the Galapagos Islands to escape the cold (This sequence contains what may be the first hidden Mickey in the form of a sand bucket with Mickey and Pluto's silhouettes on it). Donald's gift continues with a montage of strange South American birds, the most memorable of which is the Arucuan, who has a song that is sure to make every viewer chuckle. Next is the tale of a young gaucho ("gauchito") who finds a flying donkey and competes with him in races. The next gift Donald opens is a book from Brazil. Jose Carioca pops out and sucks Donald in as they visit Bahia (spelled Baia in the 1940's). The Arucuan interrupts their journey a few times, much to my delight. Once in Bahia, Donald and Jose meet Ya Ya (Aurora Miranda), a live action lady who steals their hearts. Donald and Jose open the third present which is a pinata that comes with Panchito, a rooster from Mexico, who declares them the three caballeros. Panchito teaches Donald and Jose about La Posada, a Mexican Christmas tradition. After Donald breaks the pinata, they board a magic carpet that takes them through live action scenes of Mexico. Donald's girl crazy antics continue as he dances with some girls and chases after more at Acapulco Beach (the beach was actually just sand on the Disney Studio parking lot). As Donald is shown Mexico City at night, all he can see is a beautiful woman (Dora Luz) singing to him as he goes delirious with girl fever. Eventually Carmen Molina appears dancing with flowers and then cacti. Donald then enters a fake bull and has a bullfight with Panchito that results in a fireworks finale.

The Three Caballeros premiered on December 21, 1944, in Mexico City. It was very successful in South America, but met a mixed reaction in the U.S. Critics were generally split, half showering the film with praise and the rest complaining that it was too zany and inconsistent with no real substance. However, critics were unanimous that the live action/animation combination scenes were the best they had ever seen. Financially it evened out, but the film cost considerably more than Saludos Amigos. Many of the songs featured in the film became radio hits shortly after, but since none of the songs were written for the film (including the title song), they weren't eligible for Academy Award nominations. However, both the score and sound were nominated.

The Three Caballeros could have faded into obscurity and been forgotten, but in the 1970's, college students began renting prints of it after hearing about its "psychedelic" sequences. Disney noticed the trend and gave the film a theatrical re-releases in 1977. It was one of the first Disney animated films released to VHS in 1982 and has since received multiple releases on VHS, laser disc, and DVD. While the film has never achieved true classic status, it is fondly remembered by those who have seen it and its more recent popularity has helped spread awareness of its predecessor, Saludos Amigos. Guests visiting Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland can occasionally find Panchito, Joe Carioca, and Donald Duck together for photos. And the attraction at the Mexico pavilion in Epcot was enhanced in 2007 and now includes Panchito and Jose searching for Donald in Mexico.

I thoroughly enjoy The Three Caballeros. The flying donkey has to be one of the most adorable animated characters ever created. Part of the appeal for me is Mary Blaire, who was Walt Disney's favorite artist. I'm a big fan of her work and her style is particularly present in this film. She created many of the backgrounds in the "Baia" sequence and the La Posada portion of "La Pinata" is 100% Mary Blaire. While some of the animation in the film resembles that of the shorts, there are some fine examples of great animation in the film. The animation for the title song is considered one of the best sequences in animation history. Many of the zany jokes were created by animator Ward Kimball without the aid of a storyboard. And Donald's delirium at the end is a feast for the eyes.

A film was recently released to theaters called Walt & El Grupo which chronicles the Disney South American good neighbor tour. Disney Editions also released a great book called South of the Border with Disney by J.B. Kaufman that gives more insight into the tour and all of the films that resulted from it, with a large portion devoted to The Three Caballeros. The film is currently available on DVD as part of the Classic Caballeros Collection where it is appropriately packaged with Saludos Amigos.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Victory Through Air Power - 1943

In 1941, the US Army had taken over some of the Disney Studio lot for the war effort and a section of the animation studio was put to work solely on war related propaganda films. In 1942, a book by Alexander Seversky came out called Victory Through Air Power, which explained how the only way to win the war would be with air craft bomber planes. Walt Disney read this book and agreed with what Seversky said, so he quickly made a deal with the author to make a film version to help spread the word. As a result, Victory Through Air Power wasn't made for entertainment purposes, but for education purposes.

Leonard Maltin calls it "The most unusual film that Walt Disney ever made," and that's probably true. The film is in full Technicolor and is about 60% animation, 40% live action. It had little commercial appeal and cost a lot of money, but Walt's hope for the film wasn't money or critical acclaim, it was the hope that government officials would see the film and apply it's teachings to the war effort. The film was released on July 17, 1943. It didn't make money and was bashed by critics, but the film did serve the purpose that Walt had wanted. It was seen by Winston Churchill, who showed it to President Roosevelt. After seeing the film, Roosevelt made a commitment to building bomber planes and using them in the war.

This was the first Disney feature to not be distributed by RKO. They refused to release it because of the lack of commercial appeal, so Walt took it to United Artists. Like Pinocchio and Dumbo, Victory Through Air Power was nominated for an Academy Award for best score. Unlike Pinocchio and Dumbo, it didn't win the Oscar.

Even though the film was made more for education than for entertainment, it isn't completely void of entertainment. The 19-minute opening animated sequence about the history of aviation and the U.S. air force is quite entertaining. The film then introduces Alexander Seversky with his qualifications as a trustworthy source of information. Seversky speaks to us from various parts of his "office," which is actually a set at the Walt Disney Studios. Seversky's talking points are highlighted by animated segments, most of which are very well done, although at times Disney used limited animation to cut the production budget.

Most of what Saversky has to say is no longer relevant, since it was geared at 1943 American audiences, but it is still interesting. To get the most out of this film, you pretty much have to be a history or war buff. Beyond that, it helps to also be an animation fan or a Disney fan or better yet, both. I myself am a Disney and animation fan, but am not so much a history or war buff. I enjoy parts of the film, but overall it is tough to sit through.

Victory Through Air Power has only ever had one home video release, which was through the Walt Disney Treasures DVD line in 2004 as part of the 'On the Front Lines' set, which contains other war-era Disney shorts. It was limited to 250,000 copies, but is still easy to come by.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Saludos Amigos - 1943

In 1941, the U.S. government asked Walt Disney to go on a good will tour of South America in hopes that the countries there would become our allies in World War II. Up until that time, most of the good will tours had been disastrous, with the parties often offending the culture of the Latin American countries they visited. However, the Disney tour was a huge success, in part because Walt and the artists tried to take in the local flavor of each country and also because Disney characters were huge stars there. Part of the agreement was that Walt would take a team of artists along with him and they would produce twelve short films inspired by the trip.

The first batch of four shorts were completed in 1942, but instead of releasing them as shorts, Walt decided that they were more marketable as a feature film, so he packaged the four shorts together into a feature film called Saludos Amigos. The shorts are linked with live action footage that was taken during the trip. However, some of the footage that you see in the film was "faked" when they decided to make a feature film. For example, shots of the artists boarding the plane were filmed in Burbank, as were a few closeup shots of the artists sketching their inspirational live action subjects. At just 42 minutes long, it is one of the shortest feature films ever released by the studio.

The film opens with the Disney team, aka 'El Grupo', boarding their flight. They arrive in Lake Titicaca, with live action footage of the region which transitions into an animated segment in which Donald Duck visits that area of Peru and Bolivia. Next live action footage follows the team to Chile, where the film transitions to the second short, 'Pedro', about a little plane who must deliver mail over the menacing Aconcagua mountain. The next transition takes us to Argentina, land of the gauchos. Here cowboy Goofy flies South to demonstrate the difference between a cowboy and a gaucho. Finally, we head to Brazil. After a paintbrush paints lots of flora and fauna in watercolor, Donald Duck meets Joe Carioca, a Brazilian parrot who shows him around Brazil and teaches him the samba.

Saludos Amigos had it's world premier on August 24, 1942, in Rio de Janeiro, but it didn't have it's U.S. premier until February 6, 1943. It was a huge success in South America and the U.S., and as the war came to a close, it was released in parts of Europe in 1944. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards for best sound, best score and best song for the title song, 'Saludos Amigos,' the only song written for the film. All of the other songs were popular South American songs, two of which became hits in the U.S. after the film was released, 'Aquarela do Brasil' (retitled 'Brazil' in the U.S.) and 'Tico Tico.' The film was so warmly received that the government changed the plan for 12 shorts and instead wanted two additional feature films, only one of which would be completed, The Three Caballeros.

As a child, I knew of the existence of Saludos Amigos because it was on the list of Disney animated classics, but I had little access to it. I had seen some of the shorts outside of the feature, but never the film in its entirety. It wasn't available on VHS and whenever it played on The Disney Channel, it was past my bedtime. I first got to see it in 2000 when it made its DVD debut. It is a wonderful film and it is easy to see why it was so successful. It's sad that time has sort of forgotten this film, but a group of devoted Disney fans have kept it's memory alive.

Recently, a film documentary was made called Walt & El Grupo which chronicles the trip to South America that Disney took with his artists. In addition, a book was recently published called South of the Border with Disney which chronicles the trip and all of the films that resulted from it. It provides much insight into the making of Saludos Amigos. The film is currently available on Disney DVD as part of the Classic Caballeros Collection, which packages it with The Three Caballeros. It should be noted that the film is censored on DVD. A shot of Goofy with a cigar in his hand has been edited to remove the cigar. It is also available on iTunes in HD.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bambi - 1942

By 1942, the US had entered World War II and the majority of Walt Disney's studio was at work on war related productions, with the exception of Bambi. Walt Disney was in debt because Pinocchio and Fantasia didn't make money, so Walt had to sell bankers on the idea of putting money into Bambi. Luckily, the bankers saw the potential for the film and agreed to finance it. Production on Bambi was also plagued by an animators strike that deeply hurt Walt and changed the family atmosphere that had been established during the early years at the studio.

Based on a book by Felix Salten, Bambi was in production for six years. The story went through multiple rewrites until it was stripped down to the bare essentials. Animators studied real animals for years to be able to animate them in a much more realistic way than was typical at the time. The film tells the story of life.

The film opens with the birth of Bambi and follows him as he learns to walk and makes friends with Thumper the rabbit and Flower the skunk. Adorable sequences find the curious young deer learning about nature as he experiences his first rain storm and first winter. Bambi's life changes dramatically when his mother is killed by a hunter. As he grows up, he learns about love and finds his mate, Faline. Another buck fights Bambi for Faline as a raging fire sweeps through the Forrest. At the end of the movie, Bambi takes his father's place as prince of the forest.

Bambi made great strides in effects animation. While the multiplane camera had been around for a few years prior to production, the opening sequence is still considered to be one of the best multiplane camera shots in animation history. The effects animation for rain, snow, and fire were so groundbreaking at the time and the same effects are still in use today in modern animated films.

There are less than 1,000 words spoken in the film. The bulk of the story is told through watching the character's actions. As a result, the music in the film is very important, perhaps more important than in other Disney films. The score was nominated for an Academy Award and "Love is a Song" was nominated for best song, but neither won. Another song from the film, "Little April Shower," has become a Disney classic, often found on compilation albums. Most of the songs are sung by a choir instead of characters, making Bambi the first Disney film to use songs more as a narrative rather than a way for characters to express their feelings or desires.

Bambi was released on August 13, 1942. Because of the war, it was not able to be released overseas, so much of its potential revenue was no longer possible. And because of the high production cost, Bambi did not make money during its initial release. However, five years later it was rereleased in 1947 and finally made money for Disney. In total, Bambi had 7 theatrical releases in the U.S. which have allowed it to become a classic over time.

'Bambi' was released on Diamond Edition Blu-Ray in 2011 and as a 2-disc DVD set. The film has been fully restored and includes many great bonus features, including a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, and a peak inside Walt's story meetings. Although out-of-print, both are still easy to find.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Dumbo - 1941

After losing money on Pinocchio and Fantasia, Walt Disney was forced to make his next animated feature on a tight budget. Dumbo cost less than a million dollars to make, a fraction of the cost of the previous three animated features. Background and character design were kept simple to save time, and as a result the animators were able to focus more on the acting. Dumbo is generally accepted to have some of the best acting in any animated film.

Dumbo is about a young elephant with big ears. He is shunned by all of the other animals and becomes a running joke in the circus. When his mother is locked up for protecting him from a group of rowdy kids, Dumbo is befriended by Timothy the mouse, who takes Dumbo to visit his mother. On the way back, Dumbo gets hiccups and Timothy finds him a pail of water, not knowing that some clowns had emptied alcohol into it. Dumbo and Timothy hallucinate about pink elephants and wake up high in a tree. Timothy puts two and two together and realizes that Dumbo must have flown them up with his big ears. Dumbo takes off in flight during a humiliating circus performance and steals the show, becoming a big star. As a result, his mother is freed and the two are happily reunited again.

At 64-minutes in length, Dumbo is one of Disney's shortest feature films. It is reported that distributor RKO requested that Walt either make it longer if they were to distribute it as a feature, or cut some material out so they could release it as a short. Walt refused to do either. This is definitely for the best, because Dumbo is the perfect length. It has no dull areas where audiences lose interest, but if it were longer it probably would. One of Walt's greatest strengths as a filmmaker was a good since of timing and trimming off what shouldn't be included.

The film has been the source of some controversy over the representation of black people because of the crows that help Dumbo realize he can fly. All of them are voiced by African Americans, except for the lead crow who was voiced by Cliff Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket. In addition, the lead crow is named Jim Crow, which is also the name of the laws that kept black people segregated from white people. However, aside from Dumbo's mother and Timothy mouse, the crows are the only other characters in the film who sympathize with him. Their song "When I See an Elephant Fly" is seen by some as taunting Dumbo, but it's actually meant as a jab at Timothy for suggesting such a ridiculous thing as an elephant flying. At any rate, the controversy goes over most people's heads and isn't seen as a big issue.

Dumbo premiered on October 23rd, 1941, and was a success, the first Disney film to make money after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Had Dumbo not been successful, it's hard to say how much longer the studio would have been around. The score won an Academy Award and one of the songs, "Baby Mine," was nominated for best song. Many modern animators claim Dumbo as their favorite film, including John Lasseter. In addition, "Pink Elephants On Parade" is heralded as one of the best animated sequences in the history of the medium.

This film was an important part of my childhood. It is possibly the first Disney film I ever saw, due to the fact that it was readily available on VHS and was frequently played on TV. In addition, I regularly watched a TV series for preschoolers based on it called Dumbo's Circus. No visit to Walt Disney World was complete for me without a ride on Dumbo the Flying Elephant, an attraction that can be found at every Magic Kingdom style park around the world. A large plush of Dumbo was among my favorite toys as a kid.

Dumbo is currently available on Blu-Ray and DVD where it has been beautifully restored and is presented in its original fullscreen theatrical aspect ratio. Bonus features on the Blu-Ray include a video commentary, "Taking Flight: The Making of Dumbo" documentary, deleted scenes, a featurette about the legacy of the film, a short piece about the Disneyland attractions based on the film, the original theatrical trailer, art galleries and bonus shorts ("Elmer Elephant" and "The Flying Mouse"). It is also available on iTunes in HD, but it doesn't come with any bonus features.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Reuluctant Dragon - 1941

World War II had cut off Disney's foreign income and Pinocchio and Fantasia had failed to turn a profit for the studio. Walt had two animated films in production, Dumbo and Bambi and needed some much needed revenue to put into those features, particularly the latter. Meanwhile, Walt Disney had become a household name and fan mail arrived at the studio in truck loads. The most common request was for a tour of the Walt Disney Studios. However, Walt couldn't have groups of people parading through the animation studio every hour disrupting production and Walt had yet to enter the live action business, so The Reluctant Dragon was the solution to the problem.

The film serves as a tour of the Walt Disney Studios and a lesson in how they made their animated films. It premiered on June 20, 1941, in the middle of an animators strike at Disney. It is reported that animators lined up outside of the premier picketing against Walt. Sadly, audiences in 1941 expected a full animated feature from Disney and were disappointed with the film. It failed to make a profit. Today, it serves as a nostalgic retrospective of what the Walt Disney Studios was like during it's first golden age. The film also served the purpose of building up hype for Dumbo and Bambi.

Similar to MGM's The Wizard of Oz, Disney's The Reluctant Dragon starts in black and white and eventually transitions into Technicolor. The film opens with comic actor Robert Benchley playing in his pool while his wife reads him a children's book titled The Reluctant Dragon. His wife tells him that the book would make a great Disney film and forces her husband to visit the studio to see Walt. On his way, Robert ditches his tour guide and enters the model department, where animators are examining a live elephant for production on Dumbo. He next stumbles into the music room where an orchestra is recording music for a Donald Duck short. Robert is treated to a performance by Clarance Nash and Florence Gill, the voices of Donald Duck and Clara Cluck respectively. His tour guide finds him and continues the tour, but Robert gets side tracked into the foley room, where he gets to witness foley artists making all of the sound effects for an exclusive scene of Casey Jr. from Dumbo that doesn't appear in that film. After that, he ends up in the camera room, where the film switches into Technicolor. After an overview of the multiplane camera, they show Robert how they film each cell one at a time to make a Donald Duck cartoon. Eventually, Donald Duck takes over to explain the process as he comes to life on celluloid. He then enters the ink & paint department where we see Disney's paint lab mixing their own paint and ladies applying color to cells. A cell of Bambi is displayed and the tiny deer runs away in fear of Mr. Benchley. We then see the maquette department, where you can catch a glimpse of characters from 'Peter Pan,' which was in development but wouldn't be put into production until ten years later. An artist creates a bust of Robert Benchley for him as a souvenir. Next, he finds himself in a story room for a short called "Baby Weems," which the story men present to Benchley in storyboard form. The sequence is delightful and sadly, the short was never put to full animation. From there, he ends up in the animation department, where Ward Kimball, Fred Moore, and Norm Ferguson are animating a Goofy short. Then they preview Goofy's latest short, "How to Ride a Horse." After the short, the guide finally catches up to Mr. Benchley and escorts him to the screening room, where Walt is waiting for him. Before Robert can hand Walt the book he brought to show him, Walt screens their latest film, a 20 minute short called The Reluctant Dragon.

The titular short tells the story of a knight, Sir Giles, who goes to fight the village dragon and a small boy who befriends him. However, the flamboyant turquoise dragon has no interest in fighting and would much rather have tea and recite poetry. The knight turns out to be a fan of poetry as well and they become friends so to please the village, they stage a fight and Sir Giles pretends to kill the dragon. After the short, Robert Benchley's wife scolds him on their car ride home for being so late to bring the story to Walt's attention. In retaliation, he speaks like Donald Duck and says "Aww phooey!"

As an entire film, The Reluctant Dragon would have little appeal to someone who is not a die hard Disney fan. Since I do fall into that category, I enjoy the film greatly. It serves as a great time capsule for the studio. The film in it's entirety has only been released to DVD once, as part of the 'Walt Disney Treasures - Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studios' 2-disc set. That set was released in 2002 and was limited to 125,000 copies, which are sold out. The short, "The Reluctant Dragon," has a much wider appeal. Literally anybody can sit down to watch it without prior knowledge of other Disney films and enjoy it. The characters are fun and the short is full of humor. That short has been released on its own several times, and is currently available as part of the Walt Disney Animation Collection, packaged with other shorts with a similar theme. The full film is also available on iTunes.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fantasia - 1940

"The Concert Feature," as Walt called it, originally started as a single short, in which Mickey Mouse would play a sorcerer's apprentice and the piece would be set to classical music. It was to be part of the Silly Symphonies series of shorts. By coincidence, Walt met Leopold Stokowski at a restaurant and explained the short to him. Stokowski expressed his interest in conducting the music and from there, the two decided to expand the concept into a feature, where Disney artists would present their animated interpretation of the music.

Everyone who worked with Walt said he was at his best when he was doing something that had never been done before. Walt's ultimate vision for Fantasia was that it would be re-released every year with a new segment replacing an old one. Unfortunately that dream was never fully realized, although a sequel was made in 2000 that acted as if this did happen and included 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' as the only segment that was left in from the original.

Walt Disney is credited with the creation of stereophonic sound, which was created for Fantasia. Nowadays, surround sound is the norm, but this would have been the first time that audiences heard sound coming from multiple areas in the theater. It was called Fantasound and it included more than thirty speakers per theater. Walt won a special achievement Oscar for his advances in sound.

Fantasia premiered on November 13, 1940, in New York City. The full Fantasound version only played at twelve theaters because of the cost of installing the speakers. It did not turn a profit during this initial run. This roadshow version was distributed by Walt himself, but in 1941 RKO took over as distributor and edited the score into mono sound for a wide release. The film was hard to sell, so RKO edited it from 124 minutes to 81 minutes later that year, cutting out most of the live action segments as well as "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor." This is the way that most audiences experienced Fantasia in 1941. With the cuts, audiences were unable to understand what Fantasia was supposed to be and they didn't respond well to it.

It is reported that Fantasia didn't make money for Disney until 1969 when it was released to theaters for the fifth time. Thankfully for us, Fantasia has since become a classic and is considered a monumental piece of film and animation history. It has stood the test of time and is now considered to be one of Disney's best animated features.

The original roadshow edition was mostly put back together in 2000 for it's 60th Anniversary DVD release. It is that version of the film that I have used for this review.

The film opens as if a curtain was parting. In real theaters, a curtain would have opened as the film began, creating the illusion that the orchestra was really behind it. No beginning credits sequence is provided as we see the orchestra take their seats and start tuning their instruments. The reason Fantasia has no opening credits is because audiences at the roadshow edition of 'Fantasia' were handed programs that gave them credits. The whole movie-going experience of 'Fantasia' was to feel like you were attending a live concert. Deems Taylor steps up as our master of ceremonies and introduces himself as he explains the concept of 'Fantasia.'

The first sequence presented is "Toccata and Fugue In D Minor." As Bach's classical piece is played, we see silhouettes of the orchestra and Stokowski's conducting against a color changing background. The sequence really sets the mood of the film and prepares the audience for the groundbreaking film experience they are about to embark upon. As the sequence progresses, it switches to animation of various instrument parts and shapes moving across the sky.

A transition from Taylor introduces us to "The Nutcracker Suite" by Tchaikovsky. As Taylor explains, the titular character is nowhere to be found in the imagery created by the Disney artists. The sequence opens with beautiful fairies at nighttime placing dew drops on nature, making it sparkle and shine. Their dew eventually hits a small cluster of mushrooms, who proceed to dance as if they were Asian men. We then see flowers falling on water, where they turn inside out and dance like ladies in dresses. Next we go under the water where elegant fish perform an underwater ballet. More flowers take over as they perform a Russian-style dance. As the flowers end their dance, the fairies return to bring Fall to the land by turning everything that was green into gold, causing leaves and cotton to fall in an aerial ballet. And finally, the ice fairies come to bring winter to the land as they skate across the water, turning it to ice. Snowflakes shimmer as they fall, ending the sequence.

As Taylor introduces "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" by Paul Dukas, he explains the story we are about to see about a sorcerer's apprentice who uses magic beyond his power to help with his chores, which causes a big mess. As the sequence begins, we soon realize that the apprentice Taylor was talking about is in fact the one and only Mickey Mouse. In the most iconic sequence of Fantasia, Mickey dons his master's famous blue conned hat with silver stars and moons to help him make a broom carry buckets of water for him. As Mickey drifts off to sleep, he imagines himself as a great sorcerer on a pedestal altering the stars in the cosmos. He then starts to control water, making it splash as high as it can. He wakes up when the water starts splashing him to find that the broom has flooded the house and he can't get it to stop. His attempt to chop the broom into pieces is thwarted when the shards turn into hundreds of brooms which continue to pour water into the house. As Mickey is caught in a whirlpool about to drown, the sorcerer stumbles upon the mess and puts everything back in order. Upon getting his hat back, he points Mickey towards the door, signaling that he is fired. A bit of trivia: the Sorcerer's name, while not mentioned in the film, is Yensid, which is Disney spelled backwards. As we switch back to the orchestra, Mickey's silhouette runs up to Stokowski to congratulate him. Note that this was the debut of Mickey's new design, the biggest change being his eyes, which now had pupils.

Next up is "The Rite of Spring" by Stravinsky, which presents the story of the beginning of the Earth in scientific terms. The sequence opens with black that slowly comes into focus on our solar system. We zoom past our sun, catching it's fire as we pass, narrowly avoid a few commits, and zoom in on a hot red planet that isn't Mars, but is in fact Earth. We see the molten lava streaming out of volcanoes, forming land. We then go into the water where we see some of the earliest single-celled organisms evolve before our eyes, eventually leading to prehistoric sea creatures. Eventually, a sea creature with appendages crawls out of the water and we transition to the time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. We get a glimpse of how scary dinosaurs can be as pterodactyls peck fish out of the ocean and large sea creatures drag the winged beasts into the water to be eaten. We also see how peaceful life could be, as herbivores eat and babies are born. It doesn't last long though, because a ferocious T-Rex is on the hunt, eventually cornering a stegosaurus and getting into an intense battle with it. Next we transition to find the dinosaurs starving for food and water, which has practically disappeared. We see herds of dinosaurs trying to find sustenance. We even see a mighty T-Rex fall down dead, a sharp contrast to the one who just defeated another dinosaur. More time has elapsed and we see dinosaur bones sticking out of the ground, soon to be completely covered and fossilized. Earthquakes rip the land apart, creating mountains and caverns. Water floods the new space, creating rivers. As an eclipsed sun sets, we see a much more familiar view of Earth, drawing the sequence to a close.

Next up is a 15 minute intermission. We see the orchestra stand up and walk away to go on break and the black curtain closes. It reopens and the orchestra reappears to take their seats and tune up. Deems Taylor comes back to welcome us to Act II and introduces an animated sequence titled "Meet the Soundtrack." It doesn't technically count as one of the eight sequences of 'Fantasia,' but provides a fun way to learn about what sound looks like for each instrument.

Beethoven's "The Pastoral Symphony" is the fifth segment, which is based on fictional characters from Greek mythology. As the sun rises over Mount Olympus, a group of baby unicorns come running over the hill. They meet some flute playing fawns and play with each other. We then meet a family of pegasus who fly together. They land in a lake and have some fun, with the adorable children diving and splashing into the water. We then see beautiful centaurettes bathing in a pool. Little angels help them get ready and signal the arrival of the centaurs. It should be noted that this sequence originally contained an offensive character named Sunflower who has been edited out of subsequent versions. Sunflower was an over-the-top portrayal of a black centaurette who helped the other girls get ready. Walt Disney admitted to being in favor of cutting the character out of the film in re-releases. As the centaurs arrive, they go off together in couples to fall in love. The angels lead one centaurette who couldn't find a partner to a centaur who had the same problem and the two go off to share the same happy ending as the others. We next see the centaurs preparing for a celebration as they bring grapes, which the fawns crush into wine. Bacchus, the god of wine, and his delightful unicorn donkey enter the scene to take part in the merriment. A dark cloud brings rain to the party as Vulcan, the god of thunder, plays lightning darts with Zeus. As the sun returns, Iris, god of rainbows, paints the sky, bringing joy back to the mythological creatures. As the sun sets, we see Morpheus riding his golden chariot. Apollo flies across the sky, bringing night to the peaceful scene. Diana shoots her arrow, throwing the stars into the sky as we leave the beautiful Mount Olympus.

Next up, Taylor introduces Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours." We enter a large room where ostriches in ballet slippers wake up and start their stretches before attempting a beautiful and graceful dance. As they go outside, a hippo emerges from a tiny pool of water. As she steps out, it is revealed that she, too, is wearing ballet slippers. More hippos come in tutus, bringing one for the lady who just emerged. They powder their noses and admire their "beauty" in mirrors before attempting their graceful ballet. As the hippos take a nap, a group of elephants in ballet slippers come in to perform with bubbles and "dance." They create tutus made of bubbles as they continue to defy physics with their performance. The elephants leave as night falls and some alligators in capes eerily enter the scene. One would expect the alligators to eat the sleeping hippo, but instead they are taken with their "beauty" and perform a dance of love. Ultimate hilarity ensues when a hippo leaps onto the alligator, expecting him to catch her.

Finally, Taylor introduces the last two segments of Fantasia. The first is "Night on Bald Mountain" by Mussorgsky. The segment takes place on Halloween as Chernabog raises the souls of the dead. He throws little devils into fire and then makes dancing ladies out of fire, which he turns into ugly animals and then demons. The mood is intense and eerie. This is probably the darkest piece of animation that exists in the Disney canon. In the end, Chernabog is driven away by the sound of church bells, which perfectly leads into the final segment.

"Ave Maria" by Schubert presents the almost exact opposite tone as the previous segment. It is calm, peaceful, and serene. A line of people are walking to church with candles, passing over a gorgeous bridge and through a beautiful forest. It is one of the longest single multiplane camera shots in any Disney film. This is the only segment of Fantasia with singing. As we enter darkness, we zoom on a narrow arch, the only source of light. As the arch widens, we see another arch made of trees and a blue sky behind it, which we zoom in on. The golden rays of the sun fill the sky as the music ends and we fade to black.

Fantasia isn't just a movie, it's an experience. An experience that was completely lost on me as a child. I would fast forward my VHS tape to see the segments I was interested in, so as a kid the 81 minute RKO cut probably would have been easier to watch. However, as I got older I came to appreciate Fantasia for the piece of artistic genius that it is. It's a shame that it wasn't a success in it's initial release, but thankfully time has made up for it by placing Fantasia on a high pedestal.

Fantasia was last released on Blu-Ray and DVD in 2010 and is now out of print. Both sets included a new restoration of Fantasia and bonus features about the Walt Disney Family Museum and Walt's inspiration for a sequel. Exclusive to Blu-Ray is the 2003 short Destino based on a collaboration between Walt Disney and Salvador Dali, newly discovered documents revealing secrets about Fantasia, interactive art galleries, audio commentaries and Disney's Virtual Vault. A book called Hippo in a Tutu explores how dance has been used in many Disney animated films and the challenges of bringing them to the screen, taking it's main influence from Fantasia.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pinocchio - 1940

I can only imagine the amount of pressure that Walt Disney must have been under after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Audiences were so anxious to see what Walt would do next and Disney rose to the occasion with their second animated feature, Pinocchio. The film premiered on February 7th, 1940, and was a big hit with audiences and critics. Unfortunately, the production cost was so high that even though the film was successful in the U.S., Walt didn't make any money from it. Whats worse is that World War II broke out in Europe and the overseas revenue from the film wasn't allowed to be shipped back to the studio. In some countries, it couldn't be released at all.

Thankfully for us, time did not forget this amazing film. It was re-released to theaters five years later in 1945 and finally turned a profit for the studio. From that point on, it was given at least one theatrical release in each decade until the 1990's, when it went to theaters for the last time in 1992. That is when I first experienced this amazing film. I was 7 and I still remember being amazed by the beauty of the Blue Fairy, delighted by Pinocchio's performance of "I've Got No Strings," and terrified by Monstro the whale.

Pinocchio is the tale of Geppetto, a puppet maker who wishes he had a son. One night, the Blue Fairy grants Geppetto's wish by bringing one of his puppets, Pinocchio, to life. However, Pinocchio will have to prove that he is brave, truthful, and unselfish before he will turn into a real boy. With the help of his conscience, Jiminy Cricket, he will face a myriad of obstacles to make his father's wish come true and become a real boy.

In the three years between Snow White and Pinocchio, Disney was able to elevate the animated art form in such a way that this film almost feels like it couldn't have been made so shortly after. This truly is one of the best examples of great animation. Like Snow White, Pinocchio has stood the test of time thanks to it's strong cast of appealing characters. Even the villains are appealing, which is a good thing because there are a lot of villains in this film (Fowlfellow, Giddeon, Stromboli, the Coachman, and Monstro). Pinocchio is also filled with memorable songs. In fact, it won Disney's first Academy Award for Best Song for "When You Wish Upon A Star," which has become the studio's anthem. They even use it in their studio logo on all current films.

It's hard to find anything bad to say about Walt Disney's Pinocchio. Surprisingly, this film was put into production before Snow White was released, but after more than a year of work on it, Walt wasn't happy with the results and made his team start over. It's a good thing he did, too. In the original version, Jiminy Cricket was an ugly character who was only in once scene. Jiminy Cricket went on to be one of Disney's most popular characters and his role as Pinocchio's conscience throughout the film help move the plot along in a way that isn't as entertaining without him. All subsequent film versions of the original book have been disasters, probably because the cricket is hardly in them.

Without a doubt, Pinocchio stands as one of Disney's best animated features. It is definitely deserving of the tremendous success it has enjoyed as each new generation is introduced to this important part of childhood. While the film is full of life lessons for children, it is just as easy to enjoy it as an adult as it was as a child.

Pinocchio was released on Blu-Ray and DVD in 2009 and has since gone out of print. The high-definition restoration is spectacular, presenting a clean print with accurate colors. In addition, the set serves up a second disc of bonus features, including a making-of documentary, deleted scenes, and a Cine-Explore video commentary (exclusive to Blu-Ray). Pinocchio is expected to be released again in 2016.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - 1937

There are a multitude of expressions that are commonly used to describe Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but my personal favorite, and the most fitting for this post, is "The one that started it all." As a child, I was very aware of the existence of this film and its importance to the company through Sing-Along-Songs videos and the attraction at Walt Disney World, yet I didn't get to see it until I was eight, when it made it's final theatrical release in 1993. I loved every minute of it and you can imagine my excitement when it finally came to VHS a few months later. Flash forward sixteen years to 2009. The film has had its third home video release and is now available on a new medium, Blu-Ray. It is this most recent Diamond Edition Blu-Ray that I am watching for this review.

The film opens with a message from Walt Disney expressing his gratitude and appreciation to his staff, which is fitting because this film had all of the odds against it, yet Walt's loyal team followed his vision and the end result changed the way movies were made forever. The press called it "Walt's folly," claiming that audiences would never sit through 90 minutes of animation. They made outlandish claims, such as the bright colors would hurt your eyes after more than ten minutes. It is for this reason that Snow White uses a softer color palette than most of Disney's animated features. Thankfully all of the naysayers were proven wrong when the film premiered on December 21st, 1937. It was both a critical and a financial success. The film won a special achievement Oscar, and a rather unique one at that: one regular sized Oscar and seven little ones. And with the revenue from Snow White, Walt was able to build a bigger and better studio in Burbank, which is the current corporate headquarters for The Walt Disney Company. Walt Disney was famous for saying "It all started with a mouse," but the company wouldn't be anything close to what it is today had it not been for this film.

In case you have somehow managed to never see this film or hear the classic fairytale, it's about Snow White, a princess who has been forced into servitude by her stepmother, the evil Queen. Every day, the Queen asks her magic mirror to tell her who is the fairest in the land. One day, the mirror answers the Queen's request with the words "Snow White," and because of the Queen's insane jealousy, she orders the huntsman to kill Snow White. Unable to do it, he sends Snow White into the forest, where she meets and lives with seven dwarfs. But when the Queen's mirror continues to tell her that Snow White is the fairest in the land, she takes matters into her own hands by disguising herself as an old peddler woman and giving the princess a poisoned apple. However, the apple has one major stipulation: the poisoned party can be reawakened by love's first kiss. And so when the Prince happens upon Snow White's glass coffin and is compelled to kiss her, she awakens, climbs on his horse, and they ride off into the sunset to enjoy the first of many happily ever afters in Disney films.

The storybook opening prepares us for the world of fantasy that is about to open up to us. Part of what Snow White does so well is move the story along in such a way that doesn't feel rushed, but never gets slow either. That's a pretty big accomplishment for any film, but it's even more impressive when you consider the fact that it is more than seventy years old. Another key factor to the success and timelessness of the film is its cast of appealing characters. Snow White is incredibly likable and appealing. You genuinely care for her and want her to succeed. The seven dwarfs provide one of the best supporting cast in any film. Perhaps the greatest addition that Walt Disney made to the original tale by the Grimm brothers was giving each dwarf a name and personality. Two of them, Dopey and Grumpy, are still frequently used in Disney merchandise and apparel. The Evil Queen, in both her elegant and her haggard form, is one of the most famous villains from all of film history because she is so iconic and fascinating. And while the Prince doesn't get much screen time, he exudes charm and it is easy to understand why Snow White is in love with him.

Part of the reason that Snow White was such a big success is the music. It was the first time that music was written for a film that moved the plot along. Prior to Snow White, songs in films were simply for entertainment and usually stopped the story. In Snow White, the songs continue to move the story along. And on top of that, they are incredibly memorable. Two of the songs, "Heigh-Ho" and "Some Day My Prince Will Come" are among Disney's most widely known songs. And one of my personal favorite Disney songs comes from this film, a love ballad sung by the Prince called "One Song." The music was so well received by the public that Snow White had another "first" beyond being America's first feature length animated film. It was also the first film to have an actual "soundtrack" release. Prior to this, records were released of songs from films, but they were re-recorded. This was the first time that people could buy an album of the songs as heard in the film.

The quality of the animation is excellent by today's standards. I can only imagine how jaw dropping it must have been to see this in 1937. While many animation studios, including Disney, had attempted realistic human characters before, none were able to pull it off. But Disney managed to get it right in their first feature film, and lucky for them. The film probably wouldn't have stood the test of time so well had the human characters not been convincing. The high definition restoration makes it easy to see some of the animation flaws, most of which happened during the photography of the cells, but it takes a keen eye to notice them and they are minor.

There are volumes that can be written, and have been written, about Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. If there are ten Disney films that should be in everyone's collection, this is without a doubt one of them. Not just because of the crucial role it has played in the history of the company, but because it is a fantastic film in its own right. There have been some amazing and memorable Disney films made since, both animated and live action, but this film really holds its place alongside of them. I honestly can't shower this film with enough praise. If you are a Disney fan who is reading this blog who doesn't own it, I suggest you make a point of getting it soon. Disney doesn't usually keep it available for long and they wait 7 years between releases.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released on Diamond Edition Blu-Ray and DVD in 2010 and is now out of print. The Diamond Edition Blu-Ray treats the film the way it deserves to be treated. The most impressive bonus feature is called 'Hyperion Studios,' named after the studio that Walt Disney owned and the place where 'Snow White' was made. This is a comprehensive and interactive feature that basically gives you some Disney history and insight into the production of the film. I did everything and it took me over four hours to get through this one feature. There is a unique feature called 'Snow White Returns' about storyboards that were recently discovered for a follow-up short cartoon that was never produced. And in addition, many features from the 2001 Platinum Edition DVD have been ported over. The restoration is immaculate. This is the first home video release that has presented the film with the original colors. Before this, restoration technology was only capable of getting close, not exact. Snow White is expected to remain out of print until 2017.