Tag Archives: animation

Disney’s Best Five Film Run

walt_disney_pictures_logo_slice_01The Walt Disney Company has been producing animated features for 80 years now. In that time, the company has released 55 films with a 56th on the way later this year and others in development. I’m only talking about the animated ones, because if you add in live-action and all of the films released by Pixar or under the Marvel or Star Wars banner then you’ll easily eclipse 100 films. Disney’s bread and butter has been the animated feature though, beginning in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Over the years they’ve had ups and downs and had to keep up with changes in technology and film production techniques. It’s a very interesting history, and likely numerous rankings exist around the internet listing out the films in order of best to worst, or vice versa.

For this post, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to look more at the eras of the films produced. At first I thought about just going in 5 year chunks, but that made things unbalanced as Disney has had periods where they churn out a bunch of films and periods where they don’t. Instead, I felt it would be more interesting to just divide the films up into groups, and with there being 55 total films as of this writing, it made sense to go with groups of five. These groups seem to work well as they tend to span around 7 or 8 years and result in some fun pairings. At first, I listed them out and then just did a totally subjective ranking. I was fine with the end result, but just for some added fun I added a score to each film on a scale of one to five with five being the best and then ranked them by total score and I ended up with almost the exact same list. Since that ranking felt a little more interesting, I’ll keep it and include my totally subjective score for each film as we go along while also linking to any films I may have reviewed here, so let’s get to it.

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Saludos Amigos (1942)

1942 -1949 – 10 points

Well, this isn’t surprising. By going with groups of five I inadvertently grouped basically all of the package films together in one grouping. These were the films produced during World Word II when Disney was cut-off from overseas revenue streams on its films. As a result, the company had to settle for cheaper releases. None of these films are particularly good, though each also has its moments which is why they all scored a 2 across the board (you have to be pretty bad to score less than 2, and really great to score a 5 from me). Saludos Amigos is basically a propaganda film aiming to improve opinions of South America as Disney was not opposed to making such crap. At least it has Donald Duck in it though. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad definitely has its fans too, but I personally don’t enjoy that picture very much. Basically anyone doing a ranking like this one is going to start with this quintet.

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Lilo & Stitch (2002)

2002 – 2005 – 11.5 Points

  • Lilo & Stitch – 5
  • Treasure Planet – 2.5
  • Brother Bear – 2
  • Home on the Range – 1
  • Chicken Little – 1

Also not surprising for Disney fans, this era captures Disney’s struggle to stay relevant in the field of 2D animation while also exploring CGi. Treasure Planet is a hybrid picture that at least looks good, but doesn’t offer much else. Brother Bear is okay, but feels outdated and like a picture that’s struggling to match some of the old Disney classics. The latter two are just plain awful and probably the two worst Disney animated features. Home on the Range has the fun distinction of essentially being the film that killed 2D animation at Disney – thanks! Propping this group up and keeping it from a dismal finish behind even the package film era is Lilo & Stitch, a supremely wonderful picture about two sisters trying to cope and understand each other following the loss of their parents. It basically explores depression in adolescents, but kind of hides it by also injecting the incredibly fun Stitch to the mix and it’s also gorgeous to boot. It’s really on my short list of the best films put out by Disney.

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The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

1999 – 2001 – 12.5 Points

  • Tarzan – 3
  • Fantasia 2000 – 2
  • Dinosaur – 2
  • The Emperor’s New Groove – 3.5
  • Atlantis – 2

This era represents the winding down of the New Renaissance era started in the late 1980s. You basically have two perfectly good Disney films in Tarzan and Emperor’s New Groove together with two forgettable ones and one sequel that really didn’t impress. Emperor’s New Groove might be on the studio’s most underrated films as it’s a really fun story with some great animation. Tarzan is the more popular due to its legendary character and for some reason the Phil Collins soundtrack was really popular. It’s one of those films that I think looks better than it is, but it’s fine. Dinosaur is pretty bad, it’s earnest so I won’t drop it to the dismal rankings but it just doesn’t work and has aged poorly. Atlantis, like Treasure Planet, is visually interesting and little else. And Fantasia 2000 was about as big a flop as the original. While the original benefits from being unique when it was released, and for containing the iconic Sorceror’s Apprentice (re-including that in 2000 doesn’t really count for as much) while the 2000 version just looks better and doesn’t introduce really anything noteworthy.

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The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)

1977 – 1986 – 14.5 Points

  • The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh – 3.5
  • The Rescuers – 3
  • The Fox and the Hound – 3
  • The Black Cauldron – 2
  • The Great Mouse Detective – 3

Commercially, this era of films is looked on rather badly. This is when critics were sounding the bells of doom for Disney wondering if the studio could turn it around. The Black Cauldron was one of the biggest flops the company ever endured, costing a boatload of money to produce while failing to connect with critics and audiences. Because of that status it might be lumped in with a few others as being among Disney’s worst, but it’s really not that bad. It at least contains a really memorable, and frightening, villain in The Horned King and brings back some of that old scary fairy tale vibe. It has its fans, like noted critic Roger Ebert. As for the rest, they’re all pretty good films just none are able to really rise above the cream of the crop. The Pooh shorts collected in The Many Adventures are pretty much considered classics by now while The Great Mouse Detective gets the credit for turning the studio around. It’s a fun adventure and one I’m a little surprised didn’t get a sequel. The Rescuers will get that honor a few years later, but the first outing for Bernard and Miss Bianca is the superior one. And then there’s The Fox and the Hound, a nice little buddy movie that aims big, but doesn’t quite deliver as impactful a story as it wants to. It’s still a nice little picture though.

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Tangled (2010)

2007 – 2011 – 15 Points

If this era had a title it would probably be The Great Turn-Around. After bottoming out with the pair of Home on the Range and Chicken Little, Disney really needed to reassert itself as a leading producer of quality animated features. Pixar had eclipsed them and this group of films marks the moment when things finally started to get going in the right direction, though they still needed to take a couple more lumps. It’s also, sadly, the last of the 2D animation and marks the full commitment to CG pictures going forward. Meet the Robinsons and Bolt were another duo of clumsily animated CG pictures. Bolt is the better of the two, and I considered going with a 2.5 score, but in the end it’s also really not a film I care to watch again. The Princess and the Frog is gorgeous, and Winnie the Pooh is a delightful continuation of The Many Adventures that should please most children. Tangled is the clear star though and it’s the first CG film Disney made that is on par with Pixar in terms of visuals and it’s also a modern princess film that works. It helped lay what is a new foundation for that sub-genre of films and it kind of gets overlooked because of the success of another princess movie still to come, but I actually prefer it to all of the CG princess tales.

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The Lion King (1994)

1994 – 1998 – 15.5 Points

  • The Lion King – 4
  • Pocahontas – 2
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame – 3
  • Hercules – 3
  • Mulan – 3.5

The coasting years. Hot off the success of early 90s films like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, Disney settled into a nice groove of pretty films with big songs and good enough stories. The Lion King is probably the studio’s last hallmark offering of the 90s. It’s a film some might give a higher score, but I think it’s definitely not as good as the group of films that preceded it. Meanwhile, the only dud of the group is Pocahontas, a film that has its heart in the right place, but plays too loose with actual history and is hampered by the G rating from telling the story it probably wants. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, on the other hand, found a way to tell a more mature story under the restraints placed upon it by the studio. Hercules is a fun film, nothing more and nothing less, while Mulan is a greater triumph than all but The Lion King. It tells its own Joan of Arc tale through the eyes of a strong, young Chinese woman. I wish it had a little better of a climax, which is the only thing keeping it from being among Disney’s best, but at the time it was a much needed film as it took the lead woman out of the damsel in distress role. All of these films follow the broadway format, which was getting tiresome by this stage, but all of them also look and sound fantastic. If we were ranking just by visual fidelity, then this group would probably place near the top.

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One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

1961 – 1973 – 16 Points

The Xerox era. Finding animation was too costly, Disney turned to a new technique that utilized Xerox to copy cels and thus reduce the load on the animators. The studio basically gives credit to this process for even allowing them to create One Hundred and One Dalmatians as animating all of those puppies the old-fashioned way would have just been too daunting. As a group of films, that gives them a pretty distinct look as the earliest films done this way have a very rough, sketch quality to them. It has its own charm, though I prefer the old days. This is a solid, almost spectacular, grouping though. You have The Sword in the Stone and Robin Hood, both fun little tales that can please a gathering of all ages. And then you have One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Jungle Book, two pretty big releases for the Disney company. Dalmatians, in particular, is one of the studio’s best and it’s a fun caper set in a modern setting that doesn’t beat you over the head with songs. The Jungle Book is just a good buddy comedy of sorts, and Mowgli is a relatable and sympathetic character throughout while the shadow of Shere Khan adds intrigue along the way. It also features some of the best work of the renowned Sherman Brothers. Lastly, there’s The Aristocats. If Dalmatians hadn’t come before it I wonder if I’d look upon it more fondly as it basically feels like a retread of that picture, but with cats instead. It has one pretty good song though, so at least there’s that.

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Lady and the Tramp (1955)

1950 – 1959 – 17 Points

Perhaps the most divisive grouping. This is a group of films lots of people grew up with, so they pack a lot of nostalgic value. They’re also a bit divisive as well since you have some old-fashioned princess tales where a kind, submissive woman is rescued by a dashing prince. There’s the racial imagery in Peter Pan, also not a high point for Disney, and then just the manic atmosphere of Alice in Wonderland that you either like or don’t like. As you can tell by my score, I’m among those who do not particularly care for Alice in Wonderland. I think it starts off fine, but then just gets too bogged down in being “wacky” and I struggle to remain invested whenever I watch it. Sleeping Beauty was another huge flop for the studio, but it seems like over time it’s become much more beloved. I don’t particularly enjoy the very angular features of the characters and the flatness of the visuals, plus the story is kind of the studio’s low point as far as making interesting leading women. It’s saved by the iconic Maleficent from being truly dreadful. At the other end of the spectrum is Cinderella, which tells the tale of a victim of circumstance who finds a way to be a decent person throughout it all and is rewarded in the end. By itself, it’s a nice film and I don’t find fault with the film’s message. It’s only when lumped in with other “princess” movies that it starts to feel problematic. Peter Pan is merely fine. I think it’s weak in terms of song and as an adventure it’s ho-hum. It’s more of a kid’s fantasy film, than anything. The best though is Lady and the Tramp, a really fun “dog movie” with interesting characters, a simple but effective premise, and the best visuals of any Disney movie. This one is beautiful and I get a little sad every time I watch it because Disney just doesn’t make movies that look like this anymore and maybe never will. It also doesn’t feature a ton of songs, which is a plus in my book. I understand those who may find it boring or slow, but for me it’s almost perfectly paced and just too visually stimulating for me to lose interest at any point.

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Pinocchio (1940)

1937 – 1942 – 17 Points

The group that started it all. It’s actually tied with the group preceding this one at 17 points a piece. My tiebreaker was simply to pick the best film of the bunch and go with that group, and if you’ve read my reviews for some of these films then you would know that Pinocchio is my all-time favorite Disney picture. It’s a great story that’s captivating, warm, scary, suspenseful and is pushed along by wonderful visuals and timeless songs. It’s the best example of Disney’s old way of creating an animated movie which wasn’t as reliant on song-breaks like the films of the late 80s and 90s. Joining Pinocchio is, of course, the one that started it all – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I recently reviewed this one in light of the fact that it recently turned 80(!) and it seemed like a good time to revisit it. It’s breath-takingly beautiful, even by today’s standards, which helps to cover-up a sometimes slow moving plot. It may have scored a half-point for nostalgic reasons now that I think about it, but I’m sticking with the 3.5 since it feels like it should be elevated about the likes of Dumbo and Bambi, which round out this list. Both are adorably sweet films that also have moments of fear and sadness to balance them out. Dumbo is the simpler of the two, while Bambi is the more visually impressive. Fantasia was basically Walt’s pet project and something that I think was made to appeal to him first and foremost, which makes it rather interesting. It’s not really for me, but I recognize that it has value and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment is pretty wonderful. It also has the distinction of being one of the only Disney movies to never be aired on free television.

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Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

2012 – 2016 (Present) – 18 Points

  • Wreck-It Ralph – 4
  • Frozen – 4
  • Big Hero 6 – 3
  • Zootopia – 4
  • Moana – 3

You may think this one is up this high because of recency bias, but let me assure that is not the case. This is the first, and only, grouping of all CG films and it just so happens all of them are pretty damn good. While none managed a 5 rating from me, none also fell below a 3 which is also a first on our list. Let’s start with my pick of the worst, which is Big Hero 6. It’s a great visual film, but it suffers because it just feels too derivative of other Disney films in its turning points. It also is a victim of being essentially a super hero film and there’s certainly some fatigue associated with that genre these days. If you’re a younger person who is only familiar with Disney’s modern output then it might be more appealing to you since its tragic elements feel less repetitive, but for me it’s just okay. Moana is slightly better. It’s a pretty solid adventure with a fun pairing between its heroine and Maui, a god, that would probably be better if it was a bit shorter and knocked out a song or two. Zootopia is ambitiously serious and it’s a pretty fantastic one-time viewing experience. Its lack of “fun” and reliance on mystery and plot twists cause it to not hold up as well on repeated viewings, but just judged by itself it’s actually pretty great. Frozen is the most popular film on this list, though I think it’s visually the worst. It had a whole bunch of problems during production, originally starting off as a hand-drawn picture, so it’s not really surprising to see it doesn’t look its best, but it makes up for it in charm. This is a likable cast that puts a nice twist on the princess formula. I think, musically, it’s a bit overrated. Not “Let It Go,” that song is fantastic, but other than “Do You Want to Build A Snowman?” I could do without the rest. Wreck-It Ralph is the star for me, and not because it’s a video game movie, but because it best combines characters, heart, plot, and visuals into a total package. In looking at my ratings, I’m actually thinking maybe I should bump it up a half-point to separate it from the rest, but I’ll stick with what I’ve got. It’s only real failing is that it doesn’t really take advantage of the cameos from video games, outside of the therapy session, and it does feel a bit on the long side. Still, a great movie and one I tend to get sucked into whenever it’s on television (which is a lot, it seems).

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Aladdin (1992)

1988 – 1993 – 19 Points

At last, we’ve come to our top spot and perhaps not surprisingly it captures the peek of Disney’s New Renaissance. This is a three-headed monster of films that really changed the game on what an animated feature could deliver, including the first one to be nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. It’s also a gauntlet of pictures as each one was released in a different year – five pictures for five years. The amusing part is it also contains two films that are certainly not beloved. Oliver & Company holds some nostalgic value for me because it’s the first film I can recall seeing in a movie theater. As such, I probably like it a bit more than the 2 rating I gave it, but I can see it’s faults as a film. It does deserve credit for establishing the new format that our big three would adopt. The Rescuers Down Under has the distinction of being the only theatrically released direct sequel of any animated Disney feature, a distinction that will end later this year when the Wreck-It Ralph sequel is released. By itself, it’s fine and Bernard and Miss Bianca are actually interesting enough to justify another feature, even if no one was really begging for it. Hardly Disney’s worst, but possibly its most forgettable considering the film that preceded it and the ones to follow. This group is defined by the three big ones:  The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Some dislike The Little Mermaid for being another princess tale, with Ariel needing to be rescued from the likes of her father, King Triton, and her love interest Eric – the dashing prince. I see it more as a tale of adolescence with Ariel embodying the personality of many 16 year olds I’ve come across. She has passion, a rebel spirit, and is perhaps too quick to identify what she wants. Perhaps an ending where she decides that Eric isn’t all that great would have turned things on its head and been more interesting, but it’s not as if Eric is a bad person. He actually is pretty great, so maybe happily ever after isn’t so bad? It’s also Disney’s best film when judging it strictly on the merits of its soundtrack thanks to the triumvirate of “Under the Sea,” “Part of Your World,” and “Kiss the Girl.” With Beauty and the Beast we’re treated to a heroine that’s a bit more realistic and willing to take charge of her situation. She sacrifices herself to The Beast to free her father, a noble gesture for sure even though it’s not what any father would want for their daughter. The film is hurt slightly by the fact that they need to gloss over the warming-up of The Beast and Belle, but that’ what happens with 90 minute features. Lavishly animated and wonderfully scored, it’s not a surprise why so many think it’s the best the studio has produced to date. And lastly, there’s Aladdin – Disney’s greatest tale of adventure. It’s almost surprising it took the studio this long to tackle the story of Aladdin as it fits in with a lot of the adventure pieces from both the animation department and the live-action one from the decades before, but Aladdin benefits greatly from being made in the 90s because it looks incredible and packs an iconic performance from the late Robin Williams as The Genie. This is a supremely entertaining film that might be my favorite of the bunch, but really on  any given day I could make a case for why any of those three are the best.

 

 

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Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

This past December, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs turned 80. On December 21, 1937 the world was introduced to feature-length animation. Well, maybe not the world since that date was just the premiere. It wasn’t until February 4, 1938 that the rest of the United States was introduced to the picture. The film was behest by production delays and budgeting concerns and the mood was that this would be Disney’s greatest failure before it arrived. That wasn’t the case, and it’s a good thing because had Snow White failed we likely would not have the many subsequent pictures, or maybe even a Disney. This post should have ran in December, but since I was elbow-deep in Christmas I sat on it until now, timing it with the picture’s wide release. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a remarkable achievement and a film worth celebrating any day, but especially so when it turns 80.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had to be a special film in order to justify the need for an extended running time. Prior to its release, cartoons were relegated to the pre-show, if you will. Theaters would run a Mickey Mouse or Betty Boop or some other toon before a picture along with news reels and other pieces of film. Since there was less competition from other past times, a trip to the movie theater was practically an all day affair as opposed to modern times when movie-goers are left griping that a cartoon short is too long. In order to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs stand out, Disney naturally injected a huge amount of cash into the production. Live footage was recorded to animate over, numerous backgrounds were painted in lovingly detail, and a new camera technique even had to be invented. The Multiplane camera is a massive structure that basically separates three backgrounds at three different distances from the camera. This creates a literal foreground, middle-ground, and background for a given scene and the camera can zoom or pan on the image creating an illusion of depth. It’s on display right at the beginning of the film and it’s a fun little trick that would be utilized for basically all of Disney’s animated films to come.

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The Queen approaches her magic mirror.

Originally, Walt Disney thought he could produce the film for around $250,000. That’s a tiny sum by today’s standards, but in the 1930’s a typical Silly Symphony cartoon cost about $25,000 to produce. Disney must have assumed the feature would be ten times as long and cost ten times as much money as a result. If that was his reasoning, he failed to account for all of improvements he wanted to make to the process as the picture ended up costing around 1.5 million dollars. That was a rather colossal sum at the time, especially for a cartoon few thought would be a success, including brother Roy and wife Lillian. Disney had to mortgage his own home and most likely put up every piece of collateral he could to get the picture made. It was a gamble, but it paid off since what makes the film so special is the production values which help to cover a fairly pedestrian story.

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Young Snow White will spend quite a bit of time socializing with the various animals of the forest.


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
basically establishes the template for the Disney “Princess Movie.” A kind and good-natured young woman is made the target of a ruthless villainess through no fault of her own. This young woman, either a princess or soon to be, then just sort of lets everything happen around her hoping against hope that a prince will come to her rescue and take her away to live happily ever after. It’s a common setup for fairy tales and it’s a pattern that will be reused in both Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty years down the road. Of the three, Snow White is the one that follows it most closely. When the film begins, we find out that Snow White has lost her parents and is left with only her cruel step-mother, the Queen Grimhilde (Lucille La Verne). Despite being a princess, she’s forced to tend to the castle like a commoner while her jealous step-mother looks on concerned that Snow White’s beauty will soon surpass her own. When her magic mirror on the wall confirms this, the Queen responds with violence and commands her huntsman to lead Snow White into the forest where he is to kill her and return to his queen with the maiden’s heart in a box.

Snow White (Adriana Caselotti) is a happy and contented young woman despite her station in life. I suppose being a servant in a castle is probably better than a peasant, but we are introduced to her washing the castle steps in a tattered dress while she sings a happy song (“I’m Wishing”) to the birds that swarm around her. A dashing prince (Harry Stockwell) hears her song from outside the castle walls, scales them, and surprises her by sneaking up alongside her and joining in her song. Frightened, Snow White retreats into the castle proper disappointing the prince, but a little peak his way lets us know she’s more than a little curious.

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The box intended to hold Snow White’s heart.

Love will have to wait, as the Huntsman (Stuart Buchanan) leads Snow White off to pick wild flowers where he is to do as his queen commands and end her life. When first confronted by the Queen, he is alarmed at the request and once the moment is upon him he finds he is unable to go through with it. Sobbing, he begs Snow White to flee from the evil woman sending her into a panic. She runs through the forest which takes on a supernatural quality. Trees reach out to her with thorny fingers and hideous visages as she screams and runs this way and that. Her dress gets caught multiple times, she stumbles into a bog, and bats and owls frighten her further. When the animals of the forest come to her aid she reacts with fear once more causing them to flee. Seeing their fear seems to snap her back into reality, and Snow White is soon apologetic and gradually calms down.

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The cautious dwarfs return home to find an intruder in their house.

She walks through the forest which leads her to a little cottage. Inside she finds the place a mess with dust everywhere and dishes piled high in a wash basin. She notices the tiny furniture and the many beds upstairs adorned with silly names like Sneezy and Bashful and deduces this must be the home of some children. She happily cleans and prepares a meal while the many critters assist her. Of course, this home does not belong to children but to the seven dwarfs who are hard at work in a nearby mine harvesting various wonderful gems. They sing their little song as they work, which leads into perhaps the film’s most famous tune, “Heigh-Ho,” as their work day concludes and they set off for home.

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Snow White meets the seven dwarfs.

Upon arrival, they find the house is occupied and they immediately suspect the worst. Doc, the dwarf with glasses, is apparently the leader of the troop but Grumpy is the one with the loudest opinions. Little, beardless Dopey, is apparently the one lacking in wits and he’s encouraged to venture upstairs and see who is sleeping in their beds. He sees Snow White and mistakes her for some kind of monster and the other six dwarfs need little convincing that he did not as they all scamper away in fright. Eventually, they return to the second level and see that the individual resting in their beds is not a monster, but a beautiful young maiden. She awakes to her own surprise that the inhabitants of the castle are not children, but seven dwarfs. The ice is broken almost immediately, and the new friends set in for a night of feasting, laughter, and dance.

Meanwhile, the evil queen knows her huntsman has betrayed her, and utilizing her magic mirror once more, she finds where Snow White is hiding. Turning to her book of spells, she concocts a potion that will disguise her as a hideous old hag and another that will coat an apple in poison. Any who consume a portion of the apple will fall into an eternal slumber. Only love’s first kiss can break the spell, and the Queen dismisses the possibility as soon as she reads it.

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Lots of singing, lots of dancing. This particular sequence will be re-animated numerous times in other productions, most notably in Sleeping Beauty when Aurora dances with the owl.

The rest of the story is likely not foreign to anyone reading this. The dwarfs head off to work the next morning while the Queen finds the cottage and is able to trick Snow White into taking a bite of the poisoned apple. The dwarfs, alerted by the forest critters wise to the Queen’s plan, are too late, but they do successfully chase off the Queen indirectly causing her to meet an untimely end. Unable to bring themselves to bury Snow White, they instead incase her in a glass coffin and stand vigil for many months until her prince eventually finds her and wakens her with a kiss. What convinced a prince to kiss a long-dead maiden is beyond me, but I suppose you can’t argue with results.

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The story is capable of charm especially when the dwarfs all line up for a goodbye kiss before work.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is an achievement not because of its story, but because of its production. The plot is well-paced leading up to and including the introduction of the dwarfs to Snow White. The whole sequence of a frightened group of men tip-toeing through their cottage is a delight and genuinely amusing. Their warming period to Snow White is needed to make their reactions to her eventual “death” convincing, though it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a significant amount of padding at this point of the picture. Not accustomed to creating features, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs falls victim to long stretches of time where nothing really happens. Just seeing characters dance and be merry might have been enough entertainment for a crowd in 1937, but to a modern audience it starts to feel long. Watching the film with young ones at home and this becomes even more obvious as their attention wanders. And yet, the film ends in a some-what rushed fashion reducing the emotional payoff of the moment when Snow White awakens. Despite that though, the dwarfs feel genuine in their remorse when they find Snow White apparently dead. From an emotional standpoint, it’s the film’s highest point as the little men, especially Grumpy, are reduced to tears at the horrible sight.

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The Queen in her witch guise will probably put a little chill in the hearts of viewers even today.

Even 80 years after the fact, the animation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is still remarkable to behold. Because live-action actors were utilized to map out the movement of the characters, everything has an elegant flow to it. It’s eerily realistic and the Queen looks especially splendid with her large flowing robes and dramatic movements. As an old hag she creeps along convincingly. If not for her cartoonish nose you’d think it was live footage and not animation. The only limitation of this approach, essentially tracing live footage onto animation cels, is in the facial animations. The small details and realistic proportions for Snow White are difficult to translate to a drawing (hence why so many animated characters have over-sized eyes and mouths) so her mouth kind of “floats” on her face and her eyes sometimes lack any semblance of life to them. The dwarfs, by comparison, have a more cartoonish appearance so they don’t have the same limitations. They mostly have large, bulbous noses and simple, but expressive, eyes. Live footage was tracked for them as well so their movements are not out of place when compared with the more human characters. All of this adds up to create one spectacularly animated film.

The backgrounds in the film are also lovingly crafted. Disney would perhaps learn eventually that not so much detail was required, but considering this was the first feature it’s not surprising they went a little overboard here. Every dusty little nook and cranny of the cottage is created. Wood grain appears on every wooden object and you can even see little hinges and bolts where appropriate. There’s also a nice water effect early in the film from the perspective of the wishing well that Snow White looks into. Such an animation trick is hard to pull off and I can only imagine how breath-taking it was in 1937. The scary forest and the Queen’s laboratory are also exquisitely drawn. In the case of the lab, it’s convincing to believe the Queen has been inhabiting this place for a long time. Her transformation into the old hag is perhaps not as ambitiously animated as it would be if done today, but is still effective and even a bit frightening. I also really enjoyed the little touches, such as a pair of buzzards stalking the old woman seemingly foretelling of her demise. And when she actually convinces Snow White to taste the poisoned apple we experience it through her eyes as she eagerly rubs her hands together and looks upon the girl with hungry eyes. When Snow White collapses, we just see her hand hit the ground by the witch’s feet as the apple rolls away. I don’t know if this was an artistic call or a bit of self-censorship on their part not wanting to show Snow White’s death onscreen, but it’s effective nonetheless.

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The most iconic scene and song from the picture probably belongs to the “Heigh-Ho” sequence.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is as much remembered for it’s stellar look as it is for its music. Music and Disney are intertwined and many of the studio’s animated productions are synonymous with their musical numbers. That is certainly the case for Snow White as many tracks have gone on to become celebrated and often associated with the Disney brand:  “Heigh-Ho,” “I’m Wishing,” “Whistle While You Work,” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” These songs are all often referenced and sung today by children and adults alike. Though societal attitudes have somewhat tarnished “Someday My Prince Will Come” as this is an easy point of reference when deriding the trope of a young woman simply waiting for a man to come and better her life. A song that has aged just fine though has got to be “Heigh-Ho,” as who hasn’t left work on occasion singing that one to themselves?

Certainly the notion that a “Princess Movie” should seek to empower young women is perhaps the biggest obstacle for an old picture like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to be enjoyed by a modern audience. As an amateur animation historian, I enjoy this picture for the story behind the scenes, the real-world struggle to get it made and the fantastic artistic results. As for the actual story within the film, I do recognize the short-comings of the Snow White character. While it’s not a bad message to encourage unfailing optimism, like a character hoping against hope that their life will improve if they stay the course and be a good person, it is a bit unfortunate to see a young woman simply rely on a prince to carry them off to the happily ever after. I suppose it would have been nice to see more resolve from the title character. Instead of running off like a frightened child she could have shown some determination or maybe even fought off her attacker. The short run time necessitates a hastening of the romance in basically all of these films, so that part I can forgive. As a “Princess Move” though, Snow White is guilty of many of that genre’s sins. When compared with Disney’s other films, I’d probably slide the character ahead of the rather boring Aurora, but behind Cinderella who is at least more sympathetic given her relationship with her step-mother is explored in greater depth than what we have here.

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Given the film’s historical significance, it hardly comes as a surprise that the characters can still be found at the various Disney parks around the world.

Given that there are numerous “Princess Movies” to show your sons and daughters, I don’t think the message contained within Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is particularly damaging or anything. Today’s kids can find better role models in modern pictures, but I also personally doubt many would seek to truly emulate the characters here because they’re fairly shallow. The dwarfs are the real stars are they’re consistently funny and charming and the Queen is memorable for being scary and cruel sure to leave a mark on a young child. Snow White, by comparison, is a bit boring and her look and even singing are some-what dated and not likely as captivating as modern characters. If your child prefers her to Elsa then consider me surprised. Because the film is a bit slow for children, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs feels more like a picture that will entertain adults more than children, especially if the audience is just looking to drink-in the glorious animation. As the first feature-length animated production in the US, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is definitely worthy. Even with a pedestrian story, it looks fantastic and stands the test of time as a result. I imagine that when production began way back in 1934, that’s exactly what Walt Disney hoped to accomplish. Well done, Mr. Disney.


Mickey Mouse Season One

disney_mickey_mouse_vol_1For many years Mickey Mouse was the star of Disney’s theatrical shorts. As his popularity grew he started to shift into more of a supporting role while the likes of Donald Duck, Goofy, and even his dog Pluto stepped in to do more of the heavy lifting with the shorts business. Mickey Mouse became more than just a cartoon character, he became a symbol of the Walt Disney Company which soon branched out from the movie theaters to television, merchandising, theme parks, and now own Spider-Man, Luke Skywalker, and have an omnipresence unlike any other. Through it all, Mickey has remained the top figurehead, especially after the passing of Walt Disney who has really been the only public face associated with the company that the average person could pick out of a line-up. With Mickey in that capacity, his animated outings dwindled. He’d show up here in there, most famously in 1983’s Mickey’s Christmas Carol and 1995’s Runaway Brain. His presence was bolstered on television, but mostly in the realm of programming for the very young. Perhaps someone at Disney was unhappy with the status of the company’s mascot, and the characters associated with him, as in 2013 he was brought out of his forced retirement to resume the role he was born to play.

Simply titled Mickey Mouse, the 2013 “show” isn’t much of a show at all, but just branding for a new line of short cartoons. They primarily air as filler on the various Disney cable platforms and can be easily found on various Disney websites. They’re also packaged together in groups of three for more traditional block programming, but considering their short run time of approximately 4 minutes, even these blocks are quite brief. The first season of shorts was released on DVD in August of 2014. Now three years later, it’s still the only season of the program to receive a physical release (a holiday collection was just released on August 29th, 2017 in limited quantities) and may end being the only one to receive such.

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Goofy’s new look comes across as the most drastic of the main cast.

The series is credited to Paul Rudish who was long associated with Cartoon Network before developing this program. Most of the voice actors associated with the classic Disney characters were brought on to voice their respective character. Bill Farmer is Goofy, Tony Anselmo is Donald, Russi Taylor voices Minnie Mouse, and Tress MacNeille does Daisy. The only exception was with the star character himself:  Mickey Mouse. Mickey had been voiced by Brett Iwan since the passing of Wayne Allwine who had been voicing Mickey since the late 70s. Someone involved with the casting of this show felt Iwan’s portrayal of Mickey wasn’t suited for a more cartoon-like portrayal so Chris Diamantopoulos was hired to voice Mickey. This basically means that for the first time in Mickey’s 80+ years existence he has two official voice actors. While it’s true a number of individuals stepped in during the Walt years to voice Mickey here and there, none were ever considered an official voice of The Mouse. It’s strange and somewhat upsetting for Disney historians (I tackled the subject in this post about Donald Duck suddenly having two voices) for Mickey to have more than one official voice, but I suppose it is what it is.

Brett Iwan probably could have handled voicing Mickey just fine for these shorts. Ignoring that though, Diamantopoulos’ Mickey is similar in that he’s still a high-voiced character with a smooth delivery. This Mickey is more manic than what we’re accustomed to seeing. He often overreacts to simple slights and obstacles and is prone to screaming. Most of the characters are interpreted through this more outlandish lens as the toon quality of the show is emphasized in almost every scene. Minnie is very similar in attitude to Mickey as she’s more or less a female version of the same character. That doesn’t mean she’s uninteresting as she still possesses a personality, it just happens to be very similar to Mickey’s making the two feel like a natural couple who’s been together for decades – which they have! Daisy, on the other hand, is snobbish and materialistic and often likes to brag about her man, err duck, Donald. Goofy is more dim-witted than ever, and he’s also seen the most extreme redesign. The other characters are basically just stylized takes on their classic looks, but Goofy almost looks like a different character. His model reminds me of the George & Junior 90’s “What A Cartoon” show designs. He’s kept his hat and vest, but ditched his pants and even grew a tale. He’s pretty gross too, with stinky feet and is seen scratching himself and picking lint out of his belly button. Donald actually comes across as slightly more mellow than his usual persona. He’s sometimes dismissive of Mickey, but still has his meltdowns. He’s a bit mean-spirited too and isn’t above laughing at another’s misfortune, and that’s pretty much in tune with his classic portrayal. Appearing sporadically is Peg-Legged Pete voiced by Jim Cummings. For the first time in a long time, Pete is even portrayed with his old peg leg. This is also the most cat-like his appearance has been outside of his earliest appearances.

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Mickey’s ears sometimes have a mind of their own.

Visually, the show is very 90s in its looks. Mickey and gang are still fundamentally cute in appearance, but they’re also shown in ugly lights too. When Mickey is worn out or sad his snout will droop making him resemble Mortimer Mouse more than Mickey. It’s a part of Mickey’s anatomy I’ve never seen emphasized before. His eyes and coloring are consistent with his first run of shorts in color. The only real change there is in his over-sized shorts which impossible stay around his waist. The artists and animators love playing with his ears. They slide around on his head, pop-up off of his skull when he screams, and at times they’re even detached. The physics in play are very much of the Looney Tunes variety, with that 90s twist popularized by the likes of Ren & Stimpy, Rocko’s Modern Life, and Animaniacs. The animation is done in a modern way, meaning it’s likely all CG, but it resembles classic animation with its 2D look and backgrounds.

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The animators do not shy away from portraying Mickey in an unfavorable light when the situation calls for it.

The show is very visual, with gags being the name of the game in a great many episodes, especially the season one shorts. Some of these gags are a play on the world and characters. The first broadcast short, “No Service,” tackles the age old question of why it’s permissible for Donald to strut around pants-less and Mickey without a shirt when the two are denied entry into Goofy’s burger joint. Donald ends up taking Mickey’s shorts so he can go inside and order food, leaving Mickey naked and vulnerable outside as he tries to hide from Minnie and Daisy. It’s one of the more hilarious shorts and lays the groundwork for basically all of the others in that Mickey is often presented with a simple obstacle or objective and he has to go through an awful lot to get around it. In “Stayin’ Cool,” Mickey, Donald, and Goofy have to try and beat the heat somehow. When they get tossed out of some guy’s pool they’re forced to search all over the city for a way to stay cool and wind up in an ice cream truck. You get some weird visual gags such as Goofy filling his shorts with ice cream. In “Third Wheel,” Goofy invites himself out on a date with Minnie and Mickey, and through some rather crazy machinations, the duo end up inside Goofy’s stomach enjoying a romantic dinner. When the camera leaves Goofy’s innards just as the two kiss, Goofy’s outer stomach starts a moving and a grooving. These suggestive visual gags are a bit shocking for those accustomed to only a certain brand of humor from Disney, and Mickey especially, but it’s hard to deny their effectiveness.

The music is appropriately upbeat for many of the high energy scenes in this collection of shorts. There’s also a nice sampling of low key jazz and big band music which is evocative of the classic shorts. And where appropriate, the shorts will even dig into Disney’s rich catalogue of original music here and there. There’s even cameos from classic Disney characters I won’t spoil, though some of my favorite cameos actually occur in later seasons. Some of the shorts take place in foreign countries, and in an interesting move, Mickey and his co-stars will speak the native language when the setting changes. Usually these shorts end up having minimal dialogue, but it’s a pretty neat attention to detail and down-right bold as well.

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Mickey’s mocking of Donald in “No Service” makes me laugh every time I see it.

Mickey Mouse is a great return for the ageless mouse and his cast of friends and foes. There’s an infectious energy in this cartoon series that can’t be ignored. Watching it, one gets a sense of appreciation for these characters on the part of the creators as well as a desire to re-imagine them to a point and place them in new settings and new situations to see how they would respond. I can understand if some longtime fans of Mickey and Goofy, especially, are uncomfortable with this take or find their look unappealing, but I do hope they can appreciate the humor in this series. Really, for the first time in his existence, Mickey Mouse is actually a funny character on his own. He’s been the straight man for so many years, and prior to that he was somewhat of a thrill seeker and even a trickster, but rarely comedic. The series is still ongoing and is in the midst of its fourth season with over 60 shorts released, plus the holiday specials. I hope more is on the way and a physical release is considered for the episodes that have been stranded on cable and the internet.  Season One includes 18 shorts, plus a brief making of type of feature that’s not really worth watching, and is readily available for less than 10 dollars. If you’re a Disney or animation fan it’s basically a no-brainer at such a low price point, and considering my own offspring is addicted to this disc, I can safely recommend it for children and adults alike.


From Up on Poppy Hill

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From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

I don’t envy those who have chosen to follow in the footsteps of successful parents in the same field. Apparently, neither does Gorō Miyazaki who was long said to be reluctant to follow his parents, and specifically his legendary director of a father, into the world of animation. So against the notion was Miyazaki that he went to school for agriculture and took up landscaping for many years. It wasn’t until he was 39 that he made his directorial debut with the Studio Ghibli film Tales From Earthsea. It is said he worked his way into the role of director, first starting off as a storyboard artist which impressed his bosses enough to promote him to director. This was said to have gone against the wishes of his father, Hayao Miyazaki, who felt the younger Miyazaki wasn’t ready. As a result, the two did not collaborate at all on the film, though the father gave the film a positive endorsement upon release.

The film community was less kind to Tales From Earthsea. Commercially it was a success, and there were some positive reviews for it initially, but since it has come to be viewed as probably the worst film released by Studio Ghibli. It’s the only one with a negative rating on aggregate review websites, and it would not have been surprising to see Gorō Miyazaki return to a lesser role. He did not though, and returned in 2011 with a new film; From Up on Poppy Hill. Unlike with his first film, From Up on Poppy Hill was a collaboration with father Hayao Miyazaki, whom together with Keiko Niwa, wrote the screenplay for the feature. As a result, it feels very much like a Hayao Miyazaki work as it features a hard-working female protagonist trying to make sense of adolescence on her path towards adulthood.

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Umi and Shun’s first encounter leaves Umi feeling embarrassed and angry.

Umi Matsuzaki is a sixteen year old high school student who lives at, and more or less runs, her grandmother’s boarding house. She is the eldest of three girls and takes on a maternal role to her younger sisters while their mother is away in the United States studying abroad. Her father was the captain of a trade ship that was sunk during the Korean War. Every morning since she was a little girl, Umi has risen early to raise signal flags wishing safe passage for all sailors. It was a practice she undertook while her father was alive, and continues even past his death.

The film takes the viewer to a post-war Japan, where those wishing to usher the country into a new era are clashing with those who wish to preserve history. At the center of this is a clubhouse located at the high school. It’s an old, dilapidated, building that some would like to see bulldozed, but the students who use it view it as a haven for their various clubs that occupy it. One such club is the school newspaper, and within it a poem about Umi’s flags appears one morning. A chance encounter that day with the newspaper’s editor, Shun Kazama, initially sours Umi to the young man, but she soon finds herself wondering about the poem and if Shun was the author.

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A tugboat proudly responds to Umi’s signal flags, leading to a poem appearing in the school newspaper.

The two end up striking up a fast friendship, due in part to Umi’s sister wanting to meet Shun following a daredevil stunt he performed at lunch the prior day. Umi was put-off by that same stunt, finding it reckless and foolish, but she comes to be drawn to Shun pretty easily. She agrees to help out with the paper, and things seem to be progressing the way a lot of young romances do, but soon something from Shun’s past pops up and things get complicated.

When the issue first surfaces, Shun becomes withdrawn from Umi and pays her only the bare minimum attention as she and her friends start helping out with the restoration of the clubhouse in an effort to change attitudes towards it. Umi is confused and hurt, not knowing what she did and interpreting Shun’s attitude towards her as being founded in anger. It’s a pretty relatable situation for anyone who went through high school and the awkward start to what seemed like a promising relationship. It’s a strength of so many Studio Ghibli pictures, the ability to authentically portray young adulthood, and they’re so well versed in doing it that it still translates across the ocean to a non Japanese audience.

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The rundown old clubhouse is a character itself.

I don’t want to go into detail regarding Shun’s secret that he keeps from Umi as I don’t wish to spoil anything for those who have yet to see the film, though I’ll say it’s nothing nefarious or duplicitous. The silent treatment routine doesn’t last long, and the characters are forced to confront the new conflict, though just as quickly they’re ushered into a subplot about saving their old clubhouse. The clubhouse plot felt the most contrived of anything in the film, conjuring up memories of poorly executed teen dramas from the 80’s and 90’s where the characters seek to preserve a place of refuge for themselves. It’s not very compelling, but serves its purpose to force our two main characters into an awkward situation where they must work together and not let their personal lives disrupt their shared goal. The overarching conflict between the two is resolved in the end, and it was somewhat anti-climactic and not as rewarding as it probably could have been. It’s resolved in such a neat and tidy manner that I felt the issue wasn’t given its due. It could have been explored in greater detail, but perhaps those involved felt it couldn’t have been without straying into some weird, possibly taboo, places.

The resolution of the film may have been unsatisfying, but it didn’t ruin what came before it for me. The interactions between Umi and Shun are what drive the picture. We feel their quiet affection for each other as their relationship blossoms and we can cut the tension with a knife when things go wrong. They’re both strong, sympathetic, individuals and the film is able to say a lot with small, quiet, scenes. The supporting characters around them are only portrayed in the simplest of tones. We get some sense of the camaraderie that exists amongst the women staying at the boarding house, but we’re only given the bare minimum. Sometimes Ghibli movies are guilty of overstaying their welcome and upping the runtime needlessly, but this is the rare film in the studio’s catalog that probably could have benefitted from another twenty minutes or so (it’s listed runtime is 92 minutes).

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Studio Ghibli’s scenic visuals have become routine, though no less breathtaking.

From Up on Poppy Hill is another Studio Ghibli production where the localization for english speaking audiences was not handled by Disney, but by GKIDS, who also handled other non-Hayao Miyazaki pictures like When Marnie Was There and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The GKIDS localizations tend to possess less star power than the Disney counterparts, but they’re of no less quality. I’m of the mind that voice acting and traditional acting in front of a camera are of limited relation; success with one does not guarantee success with the other. The cast assembled by GKIDS is talented and professional, and I very much enjoyed my viewing experience.

The soundtrack for the film is perhaps understated. Composed by Satoshi Takebe, it won’t be mistaken with the works of other Ghibli composers, but it’s not a fault of the picture. From Up on Poppy Hill is a grounded, quiet, story that does not need grandiose pieces of music to fill gaps between scenes. What’s here works, even if it’s not particularly memorable. The visuals in the film are of the same, superior, quality of other Ghibli works. The backgrounds are lush and vibrant and the characters expressive, even if a bit simple. My only complaint would be some awkward walking animations early in the picture, that were either absent from the rest of the film or just not picked up on by me as I became engrossed with what I was seeing.

I have some valid criticisms about From Up on Poppy Hill, but at the end of the day this is still a film I very much enjoyed. Studio Ghibli is simultaneously both masters of the fantastic and the mundane. This is one of the studio’s simpler pictures, and it’s a well done tale about two youths navigating the sea of young adulthood without resorting to corn or cliché. The conflict is legitimate, and not young adult camp, even if it’s resolved in perhaps a far too convenient manner. Perhaps it was a quiet, grounded, picture like this one needed to extract the talent present in Gorō Miyazaki, as opposed to the more fantastic Tales From Earthsea. The younger Miyazaki has not returned to the director’s chair since From Up on Poppy Hill for a Studio Ghibli feature, instead taking his talents to the small screen with Sanzoku no Musume Rōnya. Hopefully, he does get the opportunity to direct another feature as I very much look forward to what he does next.


The Sword in the Stone

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The Sword in the Stone (1963)

Walt Disney’s The Sword in the Stone has the distinction of being the final animated film released during Walt Disney’s lifetime. It was also just the second feature completed using the Xerox process introduced with the previous film One-Hundred and One Dalmatians. Given that it was the final animated feature Walt laid eyes on, it’s a bit surprising that the film isn’t more well-known. It’s not considered one of the studio’s classics, being relegated to that second tier of features that isn’t considered worthy of a “Diamond” release on home video. Based on the novel by T.H. White, The Sword in the Stone tells the tale of a young King Arthur and his tutoring by the wizard Merlin to prepare him for when he sits on the throne. There are numerous elements of fantasy and it’s a tale familiar to Disney fans in design as it follows a young misfit’s rise to importance through self-discovery. In a way, it’s like the male-equivalent of a Cinderella.

The story opens with a montage focusing on the death of Uther Pendragon and the tale of his sword which was magically sealed in an anvil and only the true ruler of England can remove it. We’re then soon introduced to our unlikely hero, Arthur, who goes by the name of Wart. Wart is an orphan taken in by Sir Ector and his ambition is to one day squire for his foster brother, Kay. Similar to Cinderella, Wart is treated like a servant by his foster family often forced to clean the kitchen and do household chores while Kay is being steered towards knighthood by his father. Sir Ector dangles the potential of being Kay’s squire as a carrot for Wart, but it would seem the old knight has no real intention of letting the boy actually serve in that capacity, preferring someone of noble birth for his true born son.

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Archimedes, Merlin’s crotchety owl, steals many of the scenes he is in.

Fortunately for young Wart, he has Merlin looking out for him. The old wizard has been to the future and back numerous times and has foreseen the coming of Arthur, right down to where Wart will fall through his roof for their first “chance” encounter. Merlin is not quite a bumbling old wizard, but he is a bit forgetful which at times gets the duo in trouble when he needs to recall the words to an important spell. He is accompanied by his owl, Archimedes, who in true Disney fashion is fully capable of speech. Archimedes is a grumpy sort but incredibly intelligent, often foreseeing the trouble Merlin is about to get himself into. Despite his prickly nature, he is a loyal pet and does look out for Merlin, and eventually, Wart as well.

Merlin is forced to endear himself to Sir Ector in order to serve as Wart’s tutor. He’s permitted to inhabit the old tower outside the keep, which is badly in need of repairs. The bulk of the film consists of Merlin trying to teach Wart lessons that will serve him well as king in the future, often by way of changing Wart into another creature to experience nature from another perspective. This is how the film sources its various gags as Wart becoming a small fish inevitably leads to him being viewed as food by a hungry predator. The best gags probably occur when Merlin changes the two into squirrels and an eager female takes a liking to Wart. These scenes are fairly light and innocuous and Disney tries to incorporate some danger into them, though the characters rarely feel like they’re in true peril. The film also doesn’t take many risks with its humor, often resorting to the simplest of jokes which contributes to the film’s safe tone. The climax of the film actually arrives rather quickly with little fanfare or much teasing of the outcome giving the film a rather abrupt ending. It’s not all together unsatisfying, but the film could have perhaps lingered a little longer with the fallout of Arthur pulling the sword. Once again, this invites a comparison to Cinderella in how that film is essentially over once she puts on the glass slipper and we don’t really see the fallout with her step family.

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The film sources a lot of its humor from the repeating gag of Merlin having some object or knowledge of the future.

Narratively speaking, The Sword in the Stone is a simple tale that’s not likely to offend, but also not likely to delight in the ways some other Disney films do. When the narrative is a bit lacking, these films turn to two important components: their looks and their songs. The Sherman Brothers contributed to the film and it’s not one of their best efforts. Merlin’s song, “Higitus Figitus” sounds like a “Bibbidi, Bobbidi, Boo” knock-off that’s not nearly as charming. The best sequence is probably the villainous Mim’s number “Mad Madam Mim” but it’s not exactly memorable when compared with other Disney tracks. Being that the film was done with Xerox, it’s also not as attractive as Disney’s best, but it is a step-up from Dalmatians. The backgrounds have a bit more personality, though there are scenes of flat, monochrome, backdrops that feel lazy. These are mostly reserved for some of the interior shots as the exterior ones look quite good. They’re not on the same level as Bambi, and The Jungle Book would do better, but they’re perfectly fine to look at. The characters have a sketch quality to them, a hallmark of the Xerox process, but it seems to suit the subject matter of the film better here than others. The film had the opportunity to add some nice visual effects for all of the transforming scenes, but chose the easy way out and just had the characters vanish in a puff of smoke only to reappear as a fish, squirrel, etc.

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Because every film with swords and wizards needs a dragon.

If you head over to Amazon.com and check out reviews of the Blu Ray release, you will see a lot of negative ones regarding the film’s transfer. I view all of the my movies that I review on Blu Ray on a 55″ LED television and I use a Playstation 4 to watch them. I found my viewing experience to be fine so maybe I’m not as big of an animation snob as I thought. I also do not own the film’s older DVD release so I can’t compare the two. It’s possible people are just sensitive to the scratchy Xerox look now that it’s being presented in high-definition, and being one of the older films, The Sword in the Stone has minimal clean-up in that regard. This film also did not get a Diamond release, so I don’t expect it to look as good as something like The Jungle Book, so maybe expectations should be held in check. Simply put, if you decide to purchase this film and find it’s not up to your standards you can always return it.

The Sword in the Stone is a rather basic entry in the Disney catalogue. It can entertain kids and adults but only so much. It’s probably rare to find the fan that says this is their favorite Disney film, but it’s also probably just as hard to find someone who detests it.


Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Studio Ghibli is a cultural institution in its native Japan. It’s credited with the anime revival of the 1980’s and for popularizing the form in and outside of Japan. Many of its films have gone on to influence not just anime, but other works of animation as well with its characters even making cameos in Pixar films. Studio Ghibli was officially founded in 1985, but many consider its beginning to be with the film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Released in 1984, it was directed by Hayao Miyazaki and future Ghibli director Isao Takahata was named producer. The film’s success is essentially what founded Studio Ghibli with most of the crew joining the studio.

Nausicaä is a film that almost didn’t happen. Fresh off his well received directorial debut in Lupin III:  Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki was approached to direct another feature length anime picture by Animage. Miyazaki came up with the concept for Nausicaä then, but the studio wasn’t interested and the project was aborted. Miyazaki took Nausicaä to the manga form where he was able to build up a fanbase for the property leading to another opportunity to bring the story to the anime form.

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Nausicaä atop her glider.

It’s easy to see why Nausicaä is considered the spiritual beginning for Studio Ghibli. It goes beyond the fact that it’s a feature-length anime production featuring names that would become synonymous with Ghibli. The film, thematically, is very much in line with a great many of Ghibli’s films, most obviously the one’s directed by Miyazaki. The film contains a female protagonist with a Buddhist-like point of view towards nature and the people around her. The film can simply be described as an environmental picture that also strongly endorses pacifism, subject matter that would be covered in other Miyazaki works with the most obvious being Princess Mononoke. The film’s themes are clear and easy for any viewer, even the very young, to pick up on. The film’s themes are so obvious and central to the plot that it’s one of weaknesses as well as Miyazaki would become better skilled at relaying his message in future films with more skill and subtlety. The film’s directness sometimes leads to stilted dialogue and some uninteresting villains.

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In the path of an enraged Ohm is not someplace you want to be.

Beyond the film’s sometimes amateur story-telling, there aren’t a lot of negatives to be had. The film focuses on the princess Nausicaä, who lives in a small dessert village on the outskirts of the poisoned forest. Mankind is forced to live in a world dominated by insects with the most formidable being the massive, tank-like Ohm, following an apocalyptic event occurring a thousand years before the events of the film. These insects are hated and feared by most of humanity and the toxic forests they inhabit slowly kill the people who live close by. Warring factions of humanity eventually bring harm to Nausicaä’s home with her people becoming casualties of war when a prison ship crashes on the outskirts of the village. Nausicaä is able to rescue one of the passengers who instructs her to destroy the ship’s cargo: the remains of a Giant Warrior which brought about the apocalypse of a thousand years ago. The owners of the ship, the Tolmeki empire, come after the ship and its contents bring their war to Nausicaä’s doorstep. The princess is pressed into battle and even takes human life in the process, but it’s all for naught. The Tolmekians, lead by a princess of their own named Kushana, wish to revive the Giant Warrior to destroy the poisoned forest. The village priest deems this unwise as doing so would only incite the Ohm who’s massive stampedes have brought great destruction to humanity in the past.

The Tolmekians are also embroiled in conflict with the Pejite people. Kushana, taking Nausicaä as hostage to ensure the cooperation of her people, and her airships encounter the Pejite which allows Nausicaä to escape. Circumstance forces her into working with a Pejite pilot and the two discover an amazing secret beneath the toxic forest. Nausicaä’s journey becomes one of self-discovery for herself and her world. With few people even interested in understanding the Ohm and the forests they dwell in, she finds herself as the only one who can prevent a second cataclysmic event that would surely doom her people as well as others. The machinations of the film’s plot are easy to follow and easy to predict. Still, the end result is not particularly harmed by this as the film presents a satisfying climax and conclusion for the story.

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

As a protagonist, Nausicaä (voices by Alison Lohman in the english dub) is easy to like and understand. Her sense of adventure is contagious and represented most by her mastery of a unique jet-propelled glider she often zips through the sky on. She has a special empathy with nature which is shown early in the film. She’s fearless and possesses a strong conviction for what is right. She kills early in the film out of rage and self-defense and is affected by it. Through her actions we can see she would make an excellent killer if that was her aim, but chooses a different and noble path. Her closest ally is the sword master Lupa (Patrick Stewart), who also seems to embody a form of pacifism as we don’t see him kill in his parts of the film, though we see him demonstrate his incredible talent with a blade in each hand. Asbel (Shia LaBeouf), the Pejite pilot Nausicaä befriends, is our set-in-his-ways character who learns to see the world through a new lens during his trials. He’s the character most affected by Nausicaä and her outlook on life.

The film is set with many suspenseful moments like daring escapes from doomed aircraft and stunning rescues. Much of the film takes place in the air as the most prevalent piece of technology in the film are the massive airships piloted by the Tolmekians and Pejite. Anyone familiar with Miyazaki’s works know he’s a lover of aviation so it’s not surprising to find it here. When the film is not in the air the setting either shifts to vast desserts or the wondrous toxic forests. The forests are portrayed in cool shades of green and blue with mostly imaginative looking flora, some of which looks like it belongs under the sea. The look of the film is a bit dated, which should be expected of a thirty-year old picture. Still, it’s not unpleasant to look at and it still has some wonderful moments. The audio is also a bit dated, mostly in the sound effects department, but the score (Joe Hisaishi) is easily the part of the film that best stands the test of time. The english dub is also handled well by Disney and the Blu Ray release contains the Japanese audio for purists.

Anime fans owe a great deal to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Not only did its popularity and success in Japan help to pave the way for future anime releases, but its butchered original western release helped to convince Miyazaki and others to oversea the localization of future films. Studio Ghibli’s famed “no cuts” policy is born from Nausicaä and I think all fans of animation can agree that’s something we’re all happy is in place. It’s hard to separate a film, or any work of art, from its legacy, but in doing so Nausicaä still holds up us a nice picture worthy to rest in the library of Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli films. As a legacy piece, it’s a fascinating look at the beginnings of a great director and a fun piece of nostalgia for animation buffs around the world.


When Marnie Was There (film)

When Marnie Was There (2014)

When Marnie Was There (2014)

In my review of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya I detailed the state of Studio Ghibli and its decision to suspend all production on animated features. It was a sobering bit of news and remains so as the studio certainly seems to possess enough talent following the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki to press on and a film like When Marnie Was There only reinforces that thought.

When Marnie Was There is based on a novel by Joan G. Robinson. I had never heard of it nor read it so my experience with the story is entirely via the Studio Ghibli film. The film is written and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi in his second go-around as director for a Studio Ghibli film, the first being the very good The Secret World of Arrietty. Even though this is only his second turn as director, Yonebayashi has been with the company for over a decade working on several other animated films in various roles. Takatsuga Muramatsu handles the music for the film making the film feel like a promotion of the studio’s younger talent. The film is wonderfully animated and visually resembles very strongly another recent work by the studio, The Wind Rises. Like that tale, When Marnie Was There is a mostly grounded film from a visual sense and lacks some of the studio’s more wildly imaginative settings and characters.

The film follows Anna, a young girl of about thirteen who has a hard time fitting in. The film never explicitly states it, but she’s quite obviously depressed at the start of the film and is paralyzed by a social anxiety order that seems to manifest itself in the form of severe asthma. As the film progresses, we learn the root cause of most of her issues is her sense of abandonment as she lost her parents and grandmother at a young age and has been in foster care with the same family for most of her life. She is having a particularly hard time coping with a recent discovery about her foster parents that lessens her sense of self worth. She states that she hates herself, and following another asthma attack early in the film, her foster mother decides it may be good for her health to visit some relatives in the countryside.

The film is visually quite earthy, with many lush and well-detailed backgrounds.

The film is visually quite earthy, with many lush and well-detailed backgrounds.

It’s in the countryside where the film’s plot gets rolling along. Anna stays with the Oiwas, relatives of her foster parents, in a seaside town located somewhere near Kushiro and Nemuro. It’s a small, quiet town located on the coast. Her family tries to get her involved with the local girls her age but Anna struggles to make friends. She soon finds herself drawn to an old, rundown mansion on the coast that she enjoys drawing from the shore. It’s there she encounters Marnie, a lonely young girl about the same age as Anna. Marie tells Anna she dreamed of her and the two form a fast friendship. Marnie is the child of wealthy socialite parents who are rarely home leaving Marnie in the care of an abusive nanny and two maids. Anna and Marnie have an instant connection and the two are free to express their love for one another. It’s a sisterly kind of love, but when Marnie invites Anna to a party her parents are throwing and dances with a young man, Anna is seen as jealous and possessive of her new friend. It becomes obvious to the viewer that Anna has never had a real friend before, and it’s touching to see Marnie wordlessly pick up on this and tenderly sooth her friend.

What the film doesn’t obviously address for a long time is the nature of Marnie’s existence. During the day, the old mansion where she lives is run-down and abandoned, but at night, time seems to rewind around the old house and restore it to its former beauty. As the viewer, we’re left to wonder if Marnie and the people in the mansion are ghosts or if everything is a product of Anna’s imagination. Anna seems to think Marnie is an imaginary friend, as she’s confronted later in the film by a young girl who’s family has purchased Marnie’s mansion and is renovating it. The girl, Sayaka, notices Anna staring up at her room and mistakes her for Marnie. She knows that name because she found an old diary by a girl of that same name when her parents bought the mansion. Anna and Sayaka soon become determined to unravel the mystery of Marnie. I do not wish to spoil anything further, but I’ll say it’s a very satisfying tale and the film answers all of the questions it poses which helps give it a sense of closure. Repeated viewings are also satisfying because knowing the end adds added context to a lot of what happens during the film.

The mansion seems to call out to Anna beckoning her to investigate.

The mansion seems to call out to Anna beckoning her to investigate.

The film may contain a mystery as part of its central plot, but it’s really secondary to the story of friendship between Anna and Marnie. Both characters possess tragedy about them and both are instantly likable even though both also possess obvious flaws. Anna’s inability to communicate with others is a frustrating flaw for the viewer, but also a heartbreaking one. Meanwhile, Marnie is so clearly neglected that it’s sad to see just how happy she is when she’s able to sneak outside at night knowing what awaits her when she eventually returns home. The film’s reluctance to really address how Marnie is able to exist allows it to focus on the growing friendship, and all of the trials and tribulations a new friendship creates. Once Anna becomes so attached to Marnie an anxiety brews. When Marnie disappears for a few days Anna immediately assumes it’s because of something she did to anger her friend. The film makes it easy to think back on one’s own adolescence and recall similar feelings.

The film moves at a comfortable pace and the english dub is well done, even if the film was not picked up by Disney for release outside of Japan. Universal handled it, which also handled the release for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and the english cast features some notable names such as Geena Davis, Catherine O’Hare, and John C. Reilly. Hailee Steinfeld and Kiernan Shipka voice Anna and Marnie, respectively, and both do an admiral job giving a voice to these characters. It is especially important that the english dub be of a high quality because it would be a true shame to mar the visual presentation of such a film with subtitles. The look is so vibrant and colorful that I often found myself delighted by even the most simple of shots. This is one of the studio’s finest productions and it’s a joy to see it was not wasted on an inferior story.

There's a lot to distract the viewer from what is at the heart of the movie: two lonely souls desperate to find a kindred spirit.

There’s a lot to distract the viewer from what is at the heart of the movie: two lonely souls desperate to find a kindred spirit.

When Marnie Was There is the kind of film that you either connect with or you don’t. I suppose for those where the film’s characters and plot do not resonate they’ll see it as a perfectly fine little film about friendship. For those able to connect with it on a more personal level will find something truly captivating and beautiful. I do not know why the film made such an impact on me, it’s not as if I could truly relate to any of the characters because of a personal experience, but I think it’s because the film was able to tastefully portray Anna’s struggles without being heavy-handed that it made everything to follow so believable. The score is impressive and there isn’t a scene in the film where the music isn’t perfectly suited. Even the closing track, “Fine on the Outside,” is utilized at just the right moment and feels wonderfully suited to close out the picture. When Marnie Was There possesses the heart and magic that has made Studio Ghibli one of the premiere production houses in the world when it comes to animation. It is my sincere hope that it is not the final feature from the studio, but if it turns out to be, it’s a wonderful way to cap an unprecedented run.