At the the start of this year, I decided to embark on a (possibly insane) quest to watch every single feature-length official animated Disney film this year and to blog about it at my site, Dreampunk.me. You can find all the posts here. I decided to include only the main films done by Walt Disney Animation Studios (therefore, alas, I won’t be covering acknowledged enduring classics such as A Goofy Movie and Bambi 2), and the live-action animated hybrids (mostly because I couldn’t bear skipping Mary Poppins or Bedknobs and Broomsticks).
And now that I’m roughly ¼ of the way through my Year of Disney (well, actually a bit over that, but who’s counting?), my lovely friends at Pornokitsch asked me if I’d like to write up a progress report of sorts, listing what I’ve learned so far along my journey, including some “bests” and “worsts” and that sort of thing, and so without further ado, let’s begin!
Oh, but first, here are the films that I’ve watched up to this point:
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
- Pinocchio (1940)
- Fantasia (1940)
- The Reluctant Dragon (1941)
- Dumbo (1941)
- Bambi (1942)
- Saludos Amigos (1942)
- Victory Through Air Power (1943)
- The Three Caballeros (1944)
- Make Mine Music (1946)
- Song of the South (1946)
- Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
- Melody Time (1948)
- So Dear To My Heart (1948)
- The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
- Cinderella (1950)
- Alice in Wonderland (1951)
- Peter Pan (1953)
Best Film (So Far): Cinderella - Although not my favorite of this first batch, Cinderella is its best example of a classic Disney film, because it demonstrates their formula at its purest and most perfected up to this point. It has the classic, rags-to-riches princess story, including our deserving heroine facing off against a fearsome, older female menace. It has legitimately dark moments, some genuinely sad, some verging-on-legitimately scary. It has the patented comedic subplots, courtesy of our heroine’s adorably precocious, talking animal friends. And these brave but simple mice, Jack and Gus, don’t only help her out but are also locked in a struggle against an enemy of their own with the stepmother’s practically demonic cat, Lucifer, which mirrors Cinderella’s with her stepmother. It has memorable music and beautifully rich animation. It has all of the Disney hallmarks, which can be praised or criticized, depending on your viewpoint.
Interestingly, however, although many consider this film to be Disney at its most classically regressive, from a feminist perspective, I was surprised to find the opposite. Although, yes, Cinderella does triumph in the end by finding a handsome prince, she is an enormous improvement over Snow White, who spends her entire film sighing over her prince (even in the opening, before she even meets him!), happily doing housework, and speaking in a kinda creepy infantilized voice. Cindy, on the other hand, has a deeper, adult voice, rightfully complains about the chores and burdens that her stepfamily have thrust upon her, and longs for escape but not necessarily in the arms of a man. When we first meet Snow White, she is singing, “I’m wishing for the one I love to find me today.” Cinderella, however, is singing “No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.” And when she finally does meet her prince, though she does fall in love at first sight, she doesn’t even realize he is a prince until nearly the end.
It should also be noted that this film is entirely dominated by strong female characters. The only human men are the complete cipher of a Prince – who only appears in two, extremely brief scenes, neither of which include the famous glass slipper climax, and in the second of which he doesn’t utter a word--and the comedically buffoonish King and Duke, any one of whom could easily be torn asunder by a single arched eyebrow from the terrifying stepmother, Lady Tremaine.
Worst Film (So Far): Song of the South - But, no, not for the reason you’re thinking! Based on the Uncle Remus stories, Song of the South is notorious for being so racist that the Disney company has all but completely buried its existence--um, except for its theme song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” and its animated characters, still immortalized at Splash Mountain. When I first turned it on, I was practically salivating at the prospect of tearing what I was expecting to be a laughably bigoted film to shreds. In locking it down in their notorious vault, however, all that Disney has done is made an actually extremely dull film sound like it’s much more interesting than it is.
There would be no point to MST3K Song of the South because there’s nothing really that inflammatory about it. It’s just a very sedate – practically comatose – tale about life in the post-Civil War South, and while, yes, it’s culturally insensitive as all Hell in how it depicts a rosy, consequence-free friendship between the black characters and the whites who had only very recently owned them – the African Americans still happily deferential and subservient to them – there’s nothing here that isn’t depicted far more offensively and uncomfortably in Gone with the Wind.
The main issue with this film is how cripplingly boring the live action scenes--which take up the majority of the running time--are, with its meanderingly moralistic, episodic story of a young, white moppet learning about life and stuff from the kindly old, wise mystical Negro figure. The only times the film comes to life are in the animated sequences that depict the comedic exploits of trickster figure Brer Rabbit triumphing against the evil Brer Fox and Brer Bear, but they are few and far between. The film has no sense of pacing, and the screenplay really no purpose other than to provide vague excuses for Remus to regale the youth with his stories. As a cultural curiosity, I’m glad to say that I’ve finally seen Song of the South, and now I’m just delighted that I’ll never have to see it again.
(Dis)honorable mention should also be paid to Bambi, which besides being ridiculously traumatic, clumsily vacillates between cutesy humor and pretentiousness, and is utterly lacking in a single strongly developed character or arc, thanks to its completely passive cipher of a protagonist. Great animation, terrible film.
Favorite (So Far): Alice in Wonderland - This film is considered to be one of the weaker in the Disney canon, a poor adaptation of Lewis Carroll, and generally an uneven mishmash. It’s also the most entertaining of this first batch. It is genuinely weird and lovably bizarre in a way that speaks to me far more than the more traditional narratives of the other classic Disney films. It takes Carroll’s Wonderland and runs with it, creating a stylized, highly imaginative, often psychedelic explosion of colors and creatures that constantly ride the line between funny and nightmarish. How many children’s films would feature as dark, twisted, and humorous a scene as the one in which the Walrus devours the baby oysters?
I also find it a much more faithful translation of Carroll than any other film of his notoriously-difficult-to-adapt-well books, not in that it always brings each of his creations to the big screen perfectly intact but in how it captures their genuinely mad, off-the-wall spirit, bouncing poor Alice from mindbending sequence to mindbending sequence, comedic characters terrorizing and verbally abusing her all the way. The dreadful Tim Burton film committed the cardinal sin of trying to rein Wonderland in by asserting the control of an Epic Fantasy plot over it. The original Disney film understands that trying to make Wonderland understandable completely defeats the purpose, and instead just grabs Alice, and us along with her, taking us on a crazy, nonsensical journey that, despite its lack of a plot, never loses momentum or drive for a moment.
Most Surprising (Positive): Victory Through Air Power - The first surprise: that this film actually exists. During WWII, production on all of Disney’s major films had to stop, and during this whole time, the only “full-length” films that were produced were “package films” that compiled animated shorts and/or unfinished pieces of what were originally intended to be full-length films, and this: a largely animated documentary that argued that the Allied Powers could only win the war against the Axis if it made the most of air power. Apparently, this mostly forgotten film was so influential at the time that it largely helped sway both FDR and Churchill and therefore had a sizeable impact on the war’s eventual outcome. And so, from that perspective alone, it is fascinating (there was even an actual bomb designed after one in the film that was unofficially referred to as the “Disney bomb”!), but what is even cooler about it is the second, possibly even larger surprise: it’s actually really fun to watch. Its prologue, which animates the history of the aeroplane, is involving and funny, its thesis extremely well-argued, using animated pictograms that demonstrate its points with extreme clarity and depth, its battle sequences highly charged, and sometimes frightening. In short, it does its job. By the end, I was convinced that air power really is the only way we could beat those damned Nazis!
Most Surprising (Negative): Peter Pan - I’d always remembered adoring Peter Pan, but only upon rewatching this time did I realize that it wasn’t the Disney one I loved but the Mary Martin version. Disney’s version lacks a strong protagonist or viewpoint, has instantly forgettable music, butchers the key scene from the novel/play (Tinkerbell’s resurrection), and most problematically has both the most regressive depiction of female characters in any Disney film up to it and one of the most racist depictions of any ethnicity I’ve ever seen in any mainstream movie. Caricatured savages saying things like “Squaw fetchum firewood!” and singing a song called “What Makes the Red Man Red?” [SPOILER ALERT: It’s because he blushed the first time he “kissed a maid...and we’ve all been blushin’ since.”] Oy. Meanwhile, there isn’t a single female character who doesn’t get insanely jealous--often literally murderously so--when another female crosses Peter’s path, all of them but Wendy are dolled up like sex kittens, and Wendy’s only job on her Neverland trip is to tend to the boys when they go off on their adventures. Captain Hook, Smee, and the Crocodile are good for a few laughs but overall...Arrrrrrgh.
Most Beautiful: Fantasia - While not always the most fun or entertaining Disney film, from a pure artistry level – speaking both visually and aurally – Fantasia sets the gold standard for animation. Sometimes rapturously gorgeous, sometimes funny, sometimes scary, sometimes all at the same time, this series of classical music vignettes is actually more engaging than some of Disney’s plot-driven fare. The portion from The Nutcracker, in which ice fairies skate on a frozen pool, creating frost patterns with their feet, and in which anthropomorphized flowers dance might be the most beautiful sequence in any Disney film. Meanwhile, there are few moments that match either the raw power of A Night on Bald Mountain or the cosmic forces at play when Mickey steals his master’s magic hat in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Most Boring: Make Mine Music - Basically a companion piece to Fantasia, this film is composed of short musical segments, most of which are drawn from pop standards of its era, 1946. Whereas Fantasia’s segments had thematic links, steady momentum, and consistent quality, however, Make Mine Music shifts from genuinely classic pieces like “Peter and the Wolf” and “Casey at the Bat” to some of the most mindnumbingly dull segments imaginable, such as “Blue Bayou” and “After You’ve Gone,” which are so boring that you might hardly have the willpower to even make it through the good stuff when you get to it. Picking and choosing the good bits and skipping the bad chapters is crucial to survive this experience.
Favorite Character: Figaro the Cat from Pinocchio - Despite never uttering a peep, Geppetto’s cat, who I had hardly remembered from previous viewings, completely won me over this time around. I devoted a portion of my Pinocchio review to a visual essay, celebrating the wonders of this amazing feline, but for here, I will summarize by saying that what makes him so brilliant is how actually cat-like he is. He behaves like a real kitty, the elements of anthropomorphism asserting themselves more through small, subtle embellishments rather than in Disney’s standard talking animal mode. He alternates on a dime between sweetly mischievous, genuinely sweet, and grouchily offended and jealous, most often pertaining to his belly and how much food is being bestowed upon it at any given moment. He is also the best cuddler in the world. Thematically, his precociously bad behavior parallels Pinocchio’s, but really what makes him so awesome is that he is as cute as a button while also sometimes being a total demon just like all kitties and one of the best examples of Disney blending reality and animation.
Best Song: “When You Wish Upon a Star,” Pinocchio - Out of all of the songs from this first set of movies, this is the most classically Disney, to the point that it could be a theme song for their entire canon. Because it’s so famous, though, I don’t know if people ever really notice how good it actually is. “When your heart is in your dream / no request is too extreme...” A simple melody with powerful lyrics. Solid. Cinderella’s “Sing, Sweet Nightingale” also deserves special mention for not only being beautiful and melancholy to listen to but also to watch, with the famous soap bubble reflection sequence.
Worst Song: “What Makes the Red Man Red?”, Peter Pan - No further explanation required. Another solid runner-up: “Your Mother and Mine,” from the same film, which isn’t offensive so much as so dull, you forget the tune as it’s being sung.
Saddest Scene (tie): Bambi’s mom’s death, Bambi / “Baby Mine” in Dumbo - It’s difficult to say what’s worse: a young fawn running away from a hunter’s shots with his mother, only to turn around and realize that she’s no longer following or a heartbroken baby elephant being rocked by his mom, who is sticking her trunk out of her jail cell – where she was put for defending him –clinging to whatever bit of physical contact they can have, as she sings him a lullaby.
Happiest Scene: Dumbo’s climactic flight in Dumbo - Disney taketh away and Disney giveth. Though Dumbo and his mom are both put through an awful lot of trauma, his ultimate triumph against the odds and the mean circus clowns, and his reunion with his mom are truly uplifting and awe-inspiring.
Scariest Scene (tie): Snow White running through the forest in Snow White / The Headless Horseman in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad / Lampwick’s transformation in Pinocchio - The former two are pure terror (with some subtle humor woven into the latter). No one does dark forests with menacing figures popping out at a protagonist like Disney. The latter, in which Pinocchio watches his new friend squeal in fear and sob for his mother as he transforms into a donkey is straight-up body horror.
And for now Th-, th-, th-, that’s all, folks! Oh, oops. Wrong cartoon company.