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My Year of Disney: Quarterly Progress Report #2

Mary-poppinsAt 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, which I finally got to in this batch!).

After I finished the first ¼, (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, which you can find here, and now without further ado, here’s the second set!

And these are the films that it covers:

19. Lady and the Tramp (1955)
20. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
21. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
22. The Sword in the Stone (1963)
23. Mary Poppins (1964)
24. The Jungle Book (1967)
25. The Aristocats (1970)
26. Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
27. Robin Hood (1973)
28. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
29. The Rescuers (1977)
30. Pete’s Dragon (1977)
31. The Fox and the Hound (1981)

Best Film: Mary Poppins - The famous description of its eponymous character, “practically perfect in every way” describes the film, as well. The winner of multiple Academy Awards, including one for Julie Andrews for Best Actress, this legendary, partially-animated musical extravaganza is one of the crown jewels in Disney’s entire canon, as well as one of the best family films ever made, period, featuring boundless imagination, superb music and endlessly witty lyrics, a central performance by Andrews so definitive that it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, and one of the wisest lessons in all of so-called children’s cinema, without a hint of condescension. Mary Poppins’ biggest secret is that it isn’t actually meant for kids at all but instead speaks to directly to parents about the importance of cherishing the precious and all-too-fleeting time they have with their children before they’re all grown with kids of their own. It’s like Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle”...but not depressing!


Fox-and-the-houndWorst Film: The Fox and the Hound - I actually loathe this film so much that just the mere thought of it makes my blood boil. Whereas Mary Poppins presents its message with a “spoonful of sugar,” The Fox and the Hound browbeats the viewer into submission with its lesson, trading in Disney’s usually uplifting, well-balanced fare for one of the most emotionally manipulative, ham-fisted, borderline cruel, and relentlessly maudlin plots imaginable. The story of a fox and hound who are best friends as children, until they grow up enough to realize they are meant to be mortal enemies, is supposed to be a morality tale about how racial prejudice destroys lives, but I spent years assuming it was just plain racist itself, preaching against people mingling with those they “shouldn’t,” so there’s a problem in execution there alone. Aside from that, while I have no issue with children’s stories that impart hard lessons, they need to serve a purpose other than making life after childhood seem like a joyless string of heartbreaks and disappointments with no relief in sight.

Favorite Film (tie): Sleeping Beauty and Bedknobs and Broomsticks - Choosing multiple films as my favorite might seem like cheating, but just know how difficult it was for me to not have this spot also shared with Mary Poppins and Robin Hood. Sleeping Beauty is my favorite pre-1990s “Disney Renaissance” fairy tale. With lush storybook animation, gorgeous music based on the score to Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty ballet, and perhaps the most imaginative use of magic in any of the Disney animated features, what I might love most about Sleeping Beauty is how it basically Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Deads the famous tale, focusing not on the princess or the prince (both of whom are completely silent for the last third of the film’s running time), but on the conflict between the wicked-verging-on-demonic fairy, Maleficent, and the good fairies who have vowed to protect Aurora from her curse. In essence, it’s a film about an unconventional family of three old ladies protecting their adopted daughter from another old lady who means her harm, and it is, by turns, hilarious, romantic, bittersweet, and genuinely frightening.

Bedknobs-BroomsticksAnd since I must have a thing for middle-aged witches, my other favorite Disney film from this era is the live-action/animated hybrid musical, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which, while it was the Disney Company’s attempt to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of Mary Poppins after Poppins author P. L. Travers (who hated the film) refused to allow them to do a sequel, and is neither as seamless nor effortlessly perfect a production as its predecessor, is still the one I love more, perhaps in part due to its problems. To use a Disney analogy, if Mary Poppins is Lady, the flawlessly trained, exquisite, upper middle-class dog, Bedknobs is the scrappy street mutt - a little rough around the edges, not quite as polished, and yet even more lovable because of it. A complete version of the poor film no longer even exists. After its initial release, it was trimmed by about half an hour, with much of the original footage lost or destroyed. In recent years, Disney was able to cobble together a mostly restored edition (minus one song, available as an extra feature on the DVD), using a combination of rediscovered B-roll footage and dubbing for lost scenes to more closely approximate what original audiences saw.

But basically, Bedknobs and Broomsticks stars Angela Lansbury as Eglantine Price, a seemingly ordinary Englishwoman during World War II who is secretly an apprentice witch who has been learning magic via correspondence course. After being saddled with three orphaned evacuees from London and eventually the huckster who ran the scam school - played by David Tomlinson in a role drastically different from his most famous one as George Banks in Mary Poppins - she makes ready her plan to help bolster the war effort with her particular talents. It features a magically traveling bed, a voyage to an animated (in the drawn sense) world ruled by animals, people being turned into “nice, white rabbits,” and one of the best climactic sequences in all of Disneydom, in which Eglantine leads a troupe of animated (in the brought-to-life sense) suits of armor into battle against the Nazis, whilst riding a broom, emblazoned with the Union Jack.

Most Surprising (Positive): The Rescuers and The Aristocats - To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from either of these films. I hadn’t seen either since I was a kid and didn’t remember them very well, unlike a lot of other Disney films, which I returned to again and again. So I was surprised to find them both to be extremely enjoyable, if rather slight. Also, both point towards how underrated an actress Eva Gabor was. She instills both her lovable mouse character in Rescuers and her lovable cat character in Aristocats with such genuine warmth and heart that she easily establishes herself as the MVP of both films.

The-sword-in-the-stoneMost Surprising (Negative): The Sword in the Stone - This one is almost painful for me to say, because it was one of my favorite Disney films, growing up. And don’t get me wrong, it is still loaded with marvelous moments, such as the magnificent Mad Madame Mim sequence, culminating in the wizard’s duel. But the problem is that, in ensuing years, I had fallen in love with T. H. White’s original book and read in numerous times, and when re-watching the film now, I can’t help but notice how thoroughly it misses the point of practically every one of Merlyn’s lessons to Wart. The various animal transformations in the book are all meant to teach the young boy life lessons that will be crucial for his future role as King Arthur, whereas in the film, they all seem rather arbitrary and underdeveloped. There are also no character arcs to speak of and often rather disappointing animation. It’s still a completely fun, easy, breezy Disney film to watch, but I don’t love it nearly as much as I once did.

(Interestingly, I had the opposite reaction to Disney’s twist on another English legend, Robin Hood, which I still adore. It may be similarly episodic and seemingly flimsy from a narrative and animation perspective, but it is so overflowing with heart and comedic wit and invention and such uniquely developed characters and even a truly melancholy undertone at times, that it still remains just as wonderful to watch as it was when I was a child.)

Most Beautiful: Sleeping Beauty - Walt Disney wanted Sleeping Beauty to look like a “living storybook,” and to that end, he had his animators take inspiration from medieval art when creating the visual world for this film, and to this day, it looks absolutely breathtaking, probably the most beautiful classic Disney film, with bold, vibrant colors and stylized characters and backdrops that stand out from the softer look of the other early Disney fairy tale films. The gold standard in Disney animation.

Most Boring: Pete’s Dragon - The Disney film so tedious that I couldn’t get through it as a child, even after repeated attempts. And even watching it now from start to finish for the first time, I was white-knuckling it most of the way. It isn’t that the film is bad. It’s just that it’s relentlessly meh. The plot about an orphaned boy whose dragon friend helps him escape from his cruel foster family and find a new, better one is paper-thin, the villains not particularly threatening, the situation resolved far too easily to justify being stretched over two-and-a-half hours, and the ending stolen from the far superior Mary Poppins. But perhaps the worst thing about the film is that it actually has an extremely catchy score which is easily its most entertaining aspect, while at the same time, said score usually does absolutely nothing to advance the plot, and so, were the songs excised, it could have been a much tighter film (and, in fact, when it was first released in Europe, they did remove all but one of the songs), but it would then have been robbed of some of the only moments actually worth watching.

(Dis)honorable mention also has to be paid to The Jungle Book, which I vaguely recall enjoying as a kid but which nearly put me to sleep multiple times as an adult.

Favorite Character(s): This time, there are actually too many for me to restrict it to only one or two, so I’m going to have to just list them all: The Sleeping Beauty fairies, both the good - Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather - for being funny and charming and even a bit prickly at times, and the bad - Maleficent, one of the most terrifying villains in the entire Disney canon; Cruella de Vil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians, the third most frightening after Maleficent and The Little Mermaid’s Ursula, all three of whom, by the way, would make fantastic drag queens; my favorite “evl” comedic duo in all of Disneydom, Robin Hood’s thumbsucker with mummy issues, Prince John, and his sycophantic, sibilant snake, Sir Hiss; and the indescribably bouncy Tigger from Winnie the Pooh.

Aunt_SarahLeast Favorite Character(s): Aunt Sarah, Lady and the Tramp - for converging upon Lady’s home, leaving her to the mercy of her awful cats, and muzzling her, although in many ways, I am even more disdainful of Lady’s humans, who left her to the mercy of this dog-hating harpy in the first place, simply because having a baby makes them lose their old-fashioned, heterosexual minds.

Also, Amos Slade, The Fox and the Hound - The hunter who destroys everyone’s lives. Don’t even get me started.

Best Song(s): This is one of the strongest eras for Disney music, particularly thanks to the legendary Sherman Brothers songwriting duo, so limiting to only one song is practically impossible. If I had to choose just one, it would probably be the haunting, bittersweet, and devastatingly beautiful “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins, but in a score that also has “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Chim-Chim-Cheree,” “Step In Time,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and more, that’s a tough call. I also can’t fail to list “Substitutiary Locomotion” and “Portobello Road” from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, “Once Upon a Dream” from Sleeping Beauty, and “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers” from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which was one of the best things about my childhood.

Worst Song: “What is a Baby?,” Lady and the Tramp - Basically a half-sung monologue in which Lady asks the question in the title, the song seems so thrown together and underdeveloped, it sounds like a first draft. It’s also terrible. Perhaps not as terrible in some ways as the Siamese Cats’ song, because OMG SO RACIST, but that one has the benefit of being insanely catchy.

Saddest Scene(s): Yet again, this one is going to have to be a short list. Now, the very saddest scene is the absolutely, gutwrenchingly miserable moment when the old lady from The Fox and the Hound has to drive the fox, Tod, away from her home and leave him in a nature reserve, to protect him from her crazy next door neighbor, but I usually like to pretend that that entire film never happened. Trust me, though, Bambi’s mother’s death has nothing on that scene for pure tear-jerking anguish. Then, there is the infamous squirrel sequence in The Sword in the Stone, in which a young, female squirrel falls head over heels in love with Wart and then has her tiny little heart shattered into pieces when Merlyn turns him back into a boy. The sounds of that poor creature’s sobs still haunt my dreams.

And for your consideration, we also have the jailhouse scene in Robin Hood, during which the entire town of Nottingham is incarcerated for failing to pay their taxes, the most heart-stirring moment being when a small family of mice share a single crumb of bread as a meal; and then the opening of The Rescuers, during which a little girl on a rickety old showboat, watched over by two frightening crocodiles, sends a message in a bottle to beg for help, whilst the theme from the film, “The Journey (Who Will Rescue Me?)” mournfully plays in the background.

Happiest Scene(s): One of the happiest scenes in either this or any batch of Disney films occurs in this set, and it is namely the eponymous dogs’ first date in Lady and the Tramp - which is one of the most romantic scenes ever captured on film, perfectly capturing the shy awkwardness of a first date, as well as how that slowly transitions into an absolutely perfect night, from the classic spaghetti dinner to a moonlit stroll under the stars in the park.

Two of the other happiest scenes in this batch of movies are from live-action musicals, and both laced with a saddish undercurrent. The first is “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins. The joy on George Banks, his wife and children’s faces when he finally takes Mary Poppins’ advice, lets loose, and embraces having a day of fun with his family is completely infectious and deeply moving, and the quiet moment in which Mary Poppins claims to not be sad to leave without the children having said goodbye to her, bittersweet and beautiful. The second is the triumphant medieval English arms and armor v. Nazis conclusion of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which feels like the spirit of England itself is rising up to fight off its invaders. It’s also very funny and more than a wee bit haunting, and laced with sadness in the end, when the Nazis blow up Eglantine’s studio, and all of the knights slowly deflate.

Scariest Scene(s): Any moment that Maleficent is on screen in Sleeping Beauty qualifies, but particularly her first appearance at Aurora’s christening, and the film’s climax, when she transforms herself into the scariest dragon of all time, breathing terrifying green fire. Also, Cruela de Vil’s frenzied drive through the snow, chasing down the dalmatians. The Medusa look on her face, complete with hypnotically multicolored eyes and snake-like hair, standing out in every direction, is what nightmares are made of.


And there we have it! Until next time, when I’ll finally be reporting on the Disney Renaissance, which I’ve been looking forward to for ages. In the immortal words of the great Tigger, “TTFN! Ta-ta for now!”


Visit the magical kingdom of Rob Berg over at Dreampunk.me, or you can watch him being bouncy, bouncy, bouncy, bouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun on Twitter at @robbwillb.