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My Neighbor Totoro

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My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

I am the father of an all most two year old boy who loves watching The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on Disney Jr. I’m constantly trying to find new things for him to watch and get excited about just so I don’t have to watch more Mickey Mouse. And it’s not as if that show is particularly bad or anything, it’s just made for young kids and isn’t supposed to be stimulating for adult viewers. I’ve had some success getting him to watch Looney Tunes and even The Simpsons. He’ll rarely ask for either like he will with Mickey, but he’ll let me have them on the television with minimal fuss. The only show he really, actively, watches though is still Mickey, and that’s probably because of his enthusiasm for it and because the show is interactive with the characters constantly addressing the viewer. When he watches something like The Simpsons with me, it’s mostly in silence and he’ll occasionally point at an object in the show and tell me what it is.

For the first time in his short life, my son actively watched a movie. Often to get him to watch something non-Mickey, I’ll get it started on the TV before getting him up from his nap, which is what I did this past weekend with My Neighbor Totoro. I have been somewhat excitedly waiting for a time to introduce my son to this movie because it’s one I have a lot of affection for. A stuffed Totoro was even the first toy I ever bought for him before he was born. I’ve always been pretty certain that he would like Totoro, to a point, but I honestly felt like we were still a few years away from that day. To my surprise, I got him up from his nap and put him in our big recliner with a cup of juice without him even mentioning Mickey. He hadn’t been feeling well so I wasn’t sure what version of my son I would get, but he didn’t object to what was on the television and I went into the kitchen to finish up some dishes I had started before his nap ended. As I was busying myself, I could hear him laughing. I stopped and watched and he was smiling at the television. He would giggle when he was supposed to, he’d point to things on the screen, and bob his head to the music. What seems like a small, insignificant, moment is amazing through the eyes of a parent who is observing their child do something for the first time. He was engaging with a film, and it was beautiful. I chalk it up to the magic of Studio Ghibli and it’s extremely talented director and co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki.

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No wonder why my kid liked this one, who wouldn’t want friends like these?

My Neighbor Totoro is a charming tale about two young girls, Satsuki and Mei. They have just recently moved to an old home in the countryside with their father while their mother is recovering from an illness at a nearby hospital. The precocious youngsters are intensely curious about their surroundings and new home and take to the country with intense optimism. This is a film devoid of any kind of cynicism. Satsuki is the older sister and helps out her dad around the house and also by looking after Mei, who I would guess is around 3 or 4. When Satsuki is in school and her father at work, a local old woman affectionately called Grannie looks after Mei.

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A little house in the country side.

Very early in the film the girls take-note of strange creatures in their new home. These soot spirits and their existence are not challenged by the adults in the story, and we see their father encourages his girls to think like children by doing so himself. The girls seem a little afraid at first, but their dad tells them laughter is the best cure for fear, and their laughter drives the little soot spirits away. When Satsuki is away at school though, Mei happens upon the dwellers of the forrest and the massive, cuddly, Totoro who resides there. When she tells her sister about the Totoro, Satsuki is skeptical, but once again their dad is encouraging and has the girls thank the forrest for allowing them to live with it. It’s hard not to imagine that Miyazaki, a noted environmentalist, didn’t see himself in the father character present here.

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Mei in hot pursuit of two little forrest spirits.

The film follows the two girls closely and unfolds at a brisk pace. It’s an interesting tale in that there is very little conflict, danger, or suspense. There’s some implied with the film’s climax, but it’s never deceptive. My Neighbor Totoro takes your hand from the start to guide you through its story and we trust it implicitly. Perhaps more interesting, is that it all works so well. Someone who has never seen the picture would probably interpret my description of it as dull, but the film is so charming and positive that watching it is like a relaxing soak in a hot tub; it’s simple, obvious, but oh so good.

The art direction is wonderful, and the character designs for the forrest spirits are delightfully simple. Totoro and his little buddies are a bit rabbit-like in appearance, though cat-like in behavior. They’re cute, and it’s obvious why stuffed dolls of them exist in the first place. The Catbus, which appeared about halfway through the film, is pretty wild to take-in, but so much fun. It adds a little absurdity to the film that fits right in with the sometimes silly tone. That tone is mostly captured through Mei, who is perhaps the most authentic young person I’ve ever seen brought to life in an animated movie. Her movements, facial expressions, and behavior feel so spot-on and really add life to her character. I’m honestly a little sad whenever she’s absent from a scene, and it’s her character that lead to the biggest reactions from my own little guy as we watched.

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Just two kids riding in a cat bus.

The forrest scenery is lush and dominated by shades of green. I love this countryside as presented here because there’s just so much nature. This is the kind of film that makes me think I’d be okay with a more relaxed lifestyle that isn’t so plugged-in. My copy of the film is on DVD, and Disney finally released a high definition version a couple of years ago, but I haven’t upgraded yet. The film is gorgeous, though I notice a little grain at times and I wonder if that would be present on the Blu Ray. Normally, I enjoy a little film grain and would prefer to watch a movie on actual film than digital, but this picture is so vibrant that I find myself longing for as clean and pristine an image as possible. The film’s score is done by Joe Hisaishi, and it’s effectively whimsical and beautifully composed. Hisaishi and Miyazaki have such an amazing ability to complement one another with music and picture and this rather simple score might be my favorite of the Ghibli movies. The closing title song is adorably sweet and poppy. It probably will appeal to children more than adults, but I find it undeniably charming.

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Mei’s first encounter with Totoro.

This being a Walt Disney localized release, the english dub is of high quality and well done. Sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning play Satsuki and Mei. Tim Daly and Lea Solonga play the parents, and Hollywood’s go-to man for animal sounds, Frank Welker, plays Totoro. The cast is probably light on star power in comparison with other dubs of Ghibli films, but the actors are more than capable and make watching the english version of the film a real delight.

The film, at its heart, is also probably one that appeals more to children than adults, which makes it unique among Studio Ghibli films which don’t obviously focus on children the way Disney does. At least, my head tells me that My Neighbor Totoro is indeed a children’s movie, but I am so moved and delighted by it every time I view it that my heart has all but convinced me that this is a film anyone can enjoy and fall in love with. That doesn’t mean it’s a film for everybody, my own wife finds it criminally boring and weird, but it’s not a film confined by demographic. My Neighbor Totoro is a wonderfully charming story beautifully accented by gorgeous visuals and a moving score. It’s fantasy, but understated fantasy, and the movie effortlessly compels the viewer to buy into everything that’s on screen. It’s in some ways a perfect film, without obvious flaws, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.


A Quiet Change for a Loud Duck

donald-duck-madOne of the things I admire about the Walt Disney Company is the care in which they manage their most famous assets. Specifically, I’m speaking of Mickey Mouse and the practice of passing on the role to Disney Studio lifers.

Mickey was first voiced by Walt himself, which I would guess most people are aware of. Next came Jimmy MacDonald, a veteran sound effects man at the company, who took over during production of Mickey and the Beanstalk from the Fun and Fancy Free package film. MacDonald would then hand the role over to his assistant, Wayne Allwine, who is the voice many of my peers grew up knowing from television and Disney World attractions. Along the way, other actors chipped in here and there, but no one else voiced Mickey full-time. Since Allwine’s passing in 2009, the role has actually been passed on to two individuals:  Bret Iwan and Chris Diamontopolous. Not to disparage the work of either of the current Mickeys, their taking on the role ended the tradition of longtime Disney employees taking over, which is kind of unfortunate. Part of that can be blamed on Allwine’s sudden passing, but even before that when his health was failing, Iwan was hired to be Allwine’s understudy, though the two never got to work together.

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Clarence Nash, Donald’s original voice actor and creator, held the role from 1934-1985.

After Mickey, the most famous Disney character is likely Donald Duck, and Donald has benefitted from having just two voice actors in his 80-plus years of existence. Clarence Nash was the first to provide a voice for the irascible duck, and he did so up until his death in 1985 when the role was then passed on to Tony Anselmo, an animator with the company. As Anselmo tells it, Nash was quietly and unofficially training him for the gig for quite sometime leading up to his death from cancer. It was also Nash who told Anselmo that he would take over as the voice of Donald in what was probably a pretty emotional moment for the both of them.

When only two people have handled a singular role, it’s fun to analyze the two and figure out who did it better. Of course, Nash is the original and will always represent the best of Donald Duck. He voiced the character for all of Donald’s classic theatrical shorts as well as his appearances in Mickey Mouse shorts, with his final theatrical performance being Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Anselmo’s Donald is very close to Nash’s, and I’d wager most people can’t tell the difference upon a casual viewing. For those who consider themselves duck enthusiasts, Anselmo’s Donald is definitely a littler higher, and raspier. His delivery allows Donald to better enunciate, which probably makes his version more suitable for early childhood programs like The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Anselmo’s Donald does sound like it requires more effort, and sometimes it sounds too gassy. Voicing Donald is not an easy thing, and Nash was even said to have even passed out during a recording session, so I don’t intend for that to sound like criticism of Anselmo’s work, but as an observation.

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Tony Anselmo took over for Nash and was hired out of the animation department.

Very quietly though, Donald has been given a new voice. Just released this past January, a new cartoon starring Mickey and the gang began airing on the Disney Channel:  Mickey and the Roadster Racers. It’s said to be a pseudo-sequel series for The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, though the target audience is definitely older by a few years. The show stars the same cast:  Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy, and Pluto with numerous appearances by the likes of Chip and Dale, Pete, Clarabelle Cow, and other Disney staples. They even featured an episode with a Three Caballeros reunion and a rare Horace Horsecollar appearance (I know these things because I’m a father to a Mickey Mouse addict).

Because I’m a Donald Duck nerd, I noticed when watching the first episode that he sounded a little different. When I pulled up IMDB at the time it didn’t list a voice actor (I took my son to an early viewing of the show in October), but I kept checking as TV spots were regularly aired to remind me and eventually a voice cast appeared with this name beside Donald Duck:  Daniel Ross.

I’ve been unable to find any info on why Donald was recast. The prevailing theory seems to be that Anselmo doesn’t have the time, or his voice can’t handle, voicing Donald in multiple series. This summer, a reboot of DuckTales is set to begin airing which is said to feature Donald more heavily than the original did. There’s also Mickey Mouse shorts, the occasional Clubhouse special, and whatever other roles come up throughout the course of the year so perhaps Anselmo just can’t handle another full-time series.

Like the guys who took over for Mickey, Ross is a professional voice actor and not someone previously tied to the company. It would seem a once time-honored tradition is no more, and as the actors who have played these characters for years get older they’ll be replaced with talent from outside of Disney. A part of me is disappointed in that, though I don’t begrudge anyone for taking on such an iconic role as Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse. From what I’ve observed, Ross’s Donald is very similar to Anselmo’s. It’s quite raspy, as opposed to Nash’s more guttural performance. Ross apparently got the job through conventional means, and I found one story on the subject that’s pretty cute online, but couldn’t find anything relating to Anselmo and why he isn’t voicing the character. I’d be curious to know if Anselmo intends to stop voicing the character in the near future (he’s only 56) and if he turned down doing the series. I also wish the company made a bigger deal about Donald getting a new voice, it’s only his third voice actor, after all. Unlike with Mickey, I’m not aware of anyone else even filling in for a spot here or there for Donald which is pretty incredible (though Nash was understandably likely never as busy as Walt Disney was which is what lead to Mickey having an occasional fill-in, once even voiced by Nash) and it would have been nice to see the company acknowledge that, even if it was just a simple press release. I noticed though, and I doubt I’m the only one, so congratulations to Daniel Ross. I would guess Anselmo isn’t going anywhere, especially with Donald less than 20 years away from turning 100, which is probably a nice goal to aim for. I suspect when that day comes there will be a far bigger celebration for America’s favorite duck than what was made of his new voice.

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Donald is to be voiced by Tony Anselmo in the upcoming DuckTales reboot.


#5 – Mickey Mouse: Pluto’s Christmas Tree

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“Pluto’s Christmas Tree” (1952)

A few days ago we looked at “Toy Tinkers” and today we look at its spiritual sequel, “Pluto’s Christmas Tree.” Despite its title, this one is actually considered a Mickey Mouse short (and fun piece of trivia, this i the theatrical short debut of Jimmy MacDonald as Mickey) and not a Pluto one. Like “Toy Tinkers,” it features the duo of Chip and Dale as they try to move-in to Mickey’s house.

The short opens with Mickey and Pluto searching for a Christmas tree. Chip and Dale see the two and decide to have a little fun with Pluto, who ends up chasing them up a tree. Mickey, of course, settles on that specific tree for his Christmas tree and Chip and Dale, electing not try and elude Pluto, go along for the ride and end up in Mickey’s house. Mickey and Pluto decorate the tree and the chipmunks come to enjoy their new surroundings, especially when they find the bowl of nuts on the mantle. Pluto takes note, and unable to get Mickey to notice, ends up trying to evict Chip and Dale himself which results in disaster.

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Dear Mickey’s Christmas Tree, I want to be inside you.

The setup maybe similar to “Toy Tinkers,” but the gags are separate. Pluto, being unable to speak, is easy to feel for because he’s obviously frustrated by his inability to communicate to Mickey that they have a rodent problem. Chip and Dale, naturally, have no interest in leaving the warm confines of the house and refuse to go without a fight. They’re a bit villainous though, and I find myself naturally drawn to Pluto, though the spirit of the holidays would say everyone should coexist in peace. The artwork is excellent, especially the backgrounds. Seriously, the Disney artists convinced me living in that tree would be bliss. It’s funny and cute, and its more inclusive attitude towards the Christmas holiday helps elevate it above “Toy Tinkers” for me, but both should be considered holiday classics.

“Pluto’s Christmas Tree” is actually rather easy to come by. It’s been re-released many times on various holiday collection DVDs and sometimes is shown on television during the holidays. Most recently it was included as a bonus feature on the DVD/Blu Ray release of “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” which has yet to return to “The Vault.” However you choose to view it, I suggest you make the time to watch it this year and every year after.


#7 – Donald Duck: Toy Tinkers

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“Toy Tinkers” (1949)

For the number seven entry I am cheating a little, but only a little. I spelled it out in the intro to this feature, but I am considering theatrical shorts for this feature as long as they’ve basically been adopted by television. “Toy Tinkers” starring Donald Duck falls under that umbrella as it debuted in theaters in 1949. “Toy Tinkers” came during a time when Walt Disney was moving away from the short subject to focus on feature length films and television productions. Pretty much the only character still receiving shorts was Donald Duck, who had usurped Mickey Mouse’s role as lead character for cartoons. Mickey would receive short films here and there into the fifties, but Donald was the only one receiving consistent work.

“Toy Tinkers” is very similar to a later cartoon, “Pluto’s Christmas Tree,” because both feature Chip and Dale. In this cartoon, Chip and Dale sneak into Donald’s house after seeing him chop down a Christmas tree. When they get in they decide to stay due to its warmth and abundance of nuts. Donald, not being the friendliest duck, sees the duo and decides to have some fun at their expense. He even ends up pulling a gun on them after disguising himself as Santa Claus. Chip and Dale, of course, do not take this laying down and opt to fight back. They’ve had a few battles with Donald over the years, and just like in virtually every other one, they get the better of the duck after turning his living room into a war zone.

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Santa Donald: way better than Santa Claus.

“Toy Tinkers,” as the name implies, features lots of toys and gags centered around them. The tamest moments of the short feature Chip and Dale interacting with these toys in an innocent and curious way. The toys also play a vital role to the combat sequences that follow where pop guns, trains, and wind-up cars are put to use. It’s a clever little short that’s plenty charming. It doesn’t really feature much Christmas spirit, but makes up for it with its use of timeless characters. Seriously, if you can’t enjoy a Donald Duck cartoon then we can’t be friends.

“Toy Tinkers” can be found on the Chronological Donald Volume 3, a collection of Donald Duck cartoons that is long since out of print and mighty expensive on the resale market. There is a holiday DVD from about ten years ago that included it which is much easier on the wallet, “Holiday Celebration with Mickey and Pals,” if you wish to seek it out. The Disney Channel will sometimes slip it into its programming during December as well, especially if they need to fill some small gaps in programming, but you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled to find it. If you wish to make it easy on yourself, pretty much every old Disney short can be found on Youtube. Since the company isn’t actively trying to sell them, they must not care about their availability online.

 


#24 – Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too

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Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too (1991)

Call this one a total 180 from #25, Winnie the Pooh is as safe as it gets. The gluttonous stuffed bear has been delighting children for decades along with his buddies in the Hundred Acre Woods (where Christopher Robin plays…) in the most tamest of ways. Winnie the Pooh just manages to be charming enough to not be boring, though if your kid likes to marathon Winnie the Pooh cartoons you may beg to differ.

Winnie the Pooh originated in book form by A.A. Milne (actually, Winnie originated in Canada as a real bear) but American audiences are likely more familiar with the Walt Disney version of the character. That Winnie the Pooh was brought to life on the big screen as a sort-of collection of shorts eventually packaged into one main feature referred to as The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. In 1988, Pooh was brought to television in The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, a mostly forgettable 80’s cartoon series that, like many cartoons of that era, is probably most fondly recalled for its catchy opening theme.

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Not surprisingly, things tend to work out in the end.

The New Adventures did reintroduce the character to a new audience, and the same cast was utilized on several direct to video films and specials, such as Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too. In this special, Christopher Robin writes a letter to Santa for everyone, but Pooh forgets to ask something for himself. When he and Piglet retrieve the letter, he and his friends re-write it to include more stuff as the gang all experience some momentary greed. When Pooh and Piglet attempt to resend in the letter (in a very low tech kind of way) it gets lost. Not wanting their friends to have a crummy Christmas, Pooh dresses up as Santa and attempts to deliver presents to all of his friends himself.

If you go back and watch the old Pooh cartoons from the 70’s, you may pick up on the fact that Pooh is a glutton, through and through. To the point where it’s almost not cute as he really cares about his stomach above all else. The modern Pooh isn’t quite so bad, which is why this special ends in the way it does with Pooh not too concerned about getting anything for Christmas when he has his friends already and everybody learning a lesson (but also getting presents too, so it’s not like they were made to suffer). It’s cute and it’s safe, but not offensively so. If you’re looking to check it out for yourself, Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too is sold in both DVD and Blu Ray form as A Very Merry Pooh Year and includes a New Year’s special as well. And if you’re not picky, you can probably find it for pretty cheap on the second-hand market. Otherwise, I’m not sure if it will air on television this holiday season, but you can always check this site to see if it pops up.


Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book (1967)

The Jungle Book (1967)

Walt Disney and his talented team of animators had become synonymous with feature-length animation come the 1960’s. The studio had faced numerous challenges along the way and at many times was nearly forced from the medium. The studio’s biggest challenge though came towards the end of production for The Jungle Book. Sudden to everyone except his closest family members, was Walt Disney’s passing in December of 1966 at the age of 65 from lung cancer. Disney had never planned for his own demise and the studio would be forced to pick itself up from the ashes, and it would (obviously). As a result, when The Jungle Book was released in the summer of 1967 it was like a curtain call of sorts for Walt Disney. Based on that fact alone, the film likely would have been a commercial success but it certainly helped that it was an entertaining and superbly animated film.

Like many of the Walt Disney animated features, The Jungle Book is an outside story.  Based on the works of Rudyard Kipling, it is a loosely adapted feature taking most of the characters and major plot points and adapting them into a mostly unique story to fit the Disney form. The film focuses on the young boy, or man-cub, Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman, who also voiced Christopher Robin in the Disney produced Winnie the Pooh shorts) and the members of his jungle family who are trying to secure his safety. Mowgli was found in the jungle by the panther, Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot), as a baby and brought to a family of wolves who had just recently had a den of pups. The wolves raised Mowgli to boyhood, but when the man-hating tiger Shere Khan (George Sanders) returns to the jungle the pack leader determines Mowgli cannot remain with the wolves for his own safety. Bagheera offers to take Mowgli to the man village where he belongs, but Mowgli is not exactly pleased with the arrangement. When the pair encounter the free-spirited bear, Baloo (Phil Harris), Mowgli feels he’s found a kindred spirit and Baloo agrees to watch over the boy in the jungle. Baloo’s slothfulness essentially gets Mowgli into a bunch of trouble, particularly with the monkeys and their leader King Louie (Louis Prima) and eventually he’s forced to face Khan in the film’s climax.

The story is probably mostly familiar to those reading this as the film has been re-released several times over the last 40+ years. It’s an easy story to relate to as Mowgli is being driven out of the only home he knows. The characters are likable, in particular Baloo who feels like the real star of the picture though viewers are able to identify with Bagheera, who really only wants what’s best for Mowgli, easily even if they side with Baloo. It’s a simple story though with a logical resolution that some actually deem slightly controversial, but only because they fell in love with the pairing of Mowgli and Baloo. I know as a kid it kind of disappointed me, but as an adult I appreciate it more. It’s a bit melancholy, but I kind of like those endings. Otherwise it’s easy for youngsters to follow along with the plot of the film and handled with enough maturity that adult viewers likely won’t mind. At 78 minutes, it’s fairly short but the breezy plot probably didn’t even need that much time.

In some ways, the film is a buddy flick featuring Mowgli and Baloo.

In some ways, the film is a buddy flick featuring Mowgli and Baloo.

The Jungle Book is one of the first Disney animated features to really pack-in the musical numbers, which are the major contributor to the film’s running time. If not for the songs, the film could have been wrapped-up in half the time. As such, the film feels almost like a spiritual precursor to the films of the late 80’s and 90’s that took-on a more Broadway-like structure. The Jungle Book is not quite in the same style though, as there is an effort to incorporate the songs into the dialogue and plot as opposed to just having a musical number break-out. The characters also sing and dance in the actual setting of the film, as opposed to having the backgrounds change like a music video to fit the song (contrast that with something like The Lion King’s “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” where the visual style of everything around the characters changes). Composing most of the music are the Sherman brothers, Richard and Robert, who prior to this had done songs for The Sword in the Stone and several live-action Disney films. The lone song not done by the Sherman brothers is actually the most memorable from the film, “The Bare Necessities” which was done by Terry Gilkyson. Gilkyson had originally been tasked with writing the songs for the whole picture, but when they weren’t meeting the standards of Walt Disney, he had to lobby to keep just one song in. He apparently chose well. The most memorable tune by the Shermans is easily King Louie’s “I Wan’na Be Like You” with its up-tempo, swinging vibe. As I’ve stated numerous times in past reviews, I’m not a fan of musicals and I mostly tolerate the musical numbers in Disney films. The two previously mentioned tunes are the only ones I really enjoyed in The Jungle Book. Some of the others felt too interruptive (such as the python Kaa’s number) or just tacked on (the barbershop quartet of buzzards towards the end).

"I Wan'na Be Like You" is perhaps the most memorable sequence from the film.

“I Wan’na Be Like You” is perhaps the most memorable sequence from the film.

What brings me back to these films time after time if I don’t particularly care for the music? The production, of course, which also includes the film’s score. In contrast to the brighter songs, the score (composed by George Bruns) is more foreboding and slightly sinister at times. It’s mysterious with lots of slow percussion that suits the jungle theme (apparently, had Gilkyson been allowed to contribute all of the songs they would have more closely matched the tone of the film’s score). The cast of voice actors is full of veteran Disney actors that have all either done prior work for the studio or would go on to voice other characters in later films. Phil Harris, who voiced Baloo and would go on to voice Little John in Robin Hood (also, interestingly enough, a bear), was considered a celebrity voice and something Disney strived to avoid. Apparently, he had a personal relationship with Walt which was why Disney chose him for the picture. The most fun voice for me is Kaa, the python, who was voiced by Sterling Holloway, only because Kaa is a villain of sorts while Holloway is probably best known as the original voice for Winnie the Pooh. Imagining Kaa’s lines coming out of the tubby old bear amuses me more than it should.

The true star of the picture is the animation. After getting two films done using the Xerox method (One-Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone) with adequate success, the guys at Disney pretty much had the thing figured out and produced a wonderful looking picture. Where Dalmatians opted for simple, monochrome, backgrounds The Jungle Book utilizes lush, full-figured scenery that beautifully captures the jungle setting. And unlike Dalmatians, the character models are not loaded with extraneous lines or rough edges. There’s still some evidence of the process, but it’s not drastic. The characters are also sharper and more angular when compared with the films of the 40’s and that look would mostly continue into the 80’s. The character designs are simple, but effective, and they still pop against the complex backgrounds. The only character design I did not enjoy that much was Shere Khan’s, who I felt was too scrawny and could have looked more intimidating. Bagheera looked like he could have stood a chance against the tiger, and certainly an entire pack of wolves could have probably over-powered him.

The two most devious characters of the film, Shere Khan and Kaa, share an uncomfortable (for Kaa) scene together.

The two most devious characters of the film, Shere Khan and Kaa, share an uncomfortable (for Kaa) scene together.

Khan’s character is both a strength and a weakness of the picture. His looks may not have been as intimidating as it could have been, but the work of voice actor George Sanders adds a lethal quality to the character. He comes across as more menacing than some of the more one-note villains from films past. His scenes are uncomfortable for both the viewer and the characters he shares the screen with. He’s cunning, the sort of villain that lulls the character into a false sense of security before slipping a dagger in their belly. Of course, being a tiger Khan has claws and no thumbs, so he can’t really wield a dagger. Those claws represent one the more jarring pieces of the film, as when Khan pops them out during some banter with another character they make this tacky spring sound. If you’ve seen any of the Donald Duck shorts featuring the cougar character you’re probably familiar with the sound and effect. In those shorts the aim is for humor but in The Jungle Book Khan is meant to be frightening and it breaks the mood of the scene. Perhaps that was part of the aim, to inject an element into the picture to lessen the scene’s weight, but it doesn’t work for me.

All in all though, The Jungle Book is an entertaining and enjoyable picture, a worthy film for Walt to go out on. It’s not the best work from Disney, and is probably more successful at entertaining children than adults, but it’s still suitable for all audiences. The picture best succeeds as both a musical and with its animation, which helps make it more of a stand-out film in the Walt Disney lineage than it normally would be. This review is based on the Blu Ray, and the film is practically meant for that format. If you have your own collection of animation at home and it’s missing The Jungle Book, I encourage you to reconsider.


Porco Rosso

Porco Rosso (1992)

Porco Rosso (1992)

It almost seems pointless at this point to sing the praises of Studio Ghibli and its famous director, the great Hayao Miyazaki. The internet is dotted with support for his brilliance and his films are readily available on US soil thanks to an agreement between Studio Ghibli and The Walt Disney Company. Even so, it’s still worthwhile repeating that Miyazaki is a supremely gifted director with an apparent synergy with the animation medium. Many of his works are animated films because that’s just what Miyazaki does. They could have easily been shot in live-action and more obviously marketed towards adults. Some possess such fantastic imagery that it’s clear to see why they are animated, while a film such as The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s most recent and possibly his last, is essentially a drama well-grounded in reality that just happens to be animated.

Porco Rosso is one of Miyazaki’s older works. Debuting in Japanese cinemas in 1992, it tells the tale of a former Italian flying ace turned bounty hunter cursed to live out the rest of his life with the face of a pig. Like The Wind Rises, it romanticizes the role of the pilot and easily could have been a live-action piece (though the pig-faced Porco may not have played as well as an actual person). And like many of Studio Ghibli’s films, it’s now available via Disney Blu Ray which is how I had the pleasure of experiencing it.

The film opens with Porco battling sky pirates: pirates that choose to attack luxury cruise ships via seaplane. The setting is post World War I and Porco has apparently been hired by the ship owners to keep the pirates away. We immediately get a sense of the film’s tone as the pirates are pretty bad at what they do and Porco is quite nonchalant in his attitude towards them. He combats them via a seaplane of his own, a beat-up old red thing that has trouble getting off the water, and has little trouble foiling their plans and freeing their hostages. There’s an obvious lack of danger throughout the sequence despite the bullets flying through the air but it doesn’t harm the enjoyment of the scene. Following this confrontation, we’re shown a little more of the setting. The pirates, looking to rid themselves of Porco once and for all, have turned to an American named Curtis. Curtis sees this as an opportunity for fame and fortune as he yearns for a career in Hollywood. He also would like to woo Porco’s longtime friend and proprietor of a local establishment frequented by pirates and pilots alike, Gina.

Preparing for take-off.

Preparing for take-off.

Curtis is an interesting character from a westerner’s point of view. Some may call his portrayal unflattering, or even offensive, as he does not possess any obvious virtues. I found it interesting to see how an American is stereotyped outside of the country and found the character pretty amusing. He is a skilled pilot and represents some sense of danger in an otherwise light-hearted film, and is a natural foil for the care-free Porco.

After a confrontation with Curtis that leaves Porco’s plane in need of repairs, Porco is forced to head back to his homeland of Italy where he is wanted for desertion. Porco’s mechanic Piccolo is introduced, along with his family and a large contingent of locals, and proves to be a very entertaining addition to the cast. What could have been a slow and boring part of the film turns into a strength. Some credit should go to the english translators who are able to come up with snappy dialogue to suit the original tone of the scenes as well as fit the mouth-flaps of the animated characters. The film builds towards a confrontation between Porco and Curtis, one Porco seems disinterested in, and plays upon the notion of pilot’s honor. There’s also a bit of a romantic angle thrown in that feels tacked on but isn’t focused on enough to be a distraction.

Porco and Fio are a natural movie pairing. I'd dog the two for being too typical an odd couple if they didn't work so well together onscreen.

Porco and Fio are a natural movie pairing. I’d dog the two for being too typical an odd couple if they didn’t work so well together onscreen.

The star of the film is clearly the Porco character, not just because of his prominence in the title but in his personality as well. He’s a flawed human but an inherently interesting one. He’s funny, boorish, yet charming. The english version features Michael Keaton as the voice of Porco. At first, I wasn’t sure his voice suited the character but I warmed to it quickly. Keaton is almost deadpan in his delivery at times, but he’s able to lend his charisma to the character through the excellent script and his superb delivery. The rest of the cast features some names familiar to those who have watched a lot of anime. Gina is played by Susan Egan, who has done a lot of work in the field of animation and is a consummate pro. Brad Garrett, who also seems to be amassing a lot of voice credits, plays the leader of the seaplane pirates and Kimberly Williams-Paisley portrays Piccolo’s granddaughter Fio with charming exuberance. Joe Hisaishi is once again the composer who utilizes a lot of period pieces to help enhance the film’s setting. The main Porco theme is one of my favorite works he’s composed as its perky nature suits the tone of the film perfectly.

Even the "bad guys" in this film are likable.

Even the “bad guys” in this film are likable.

The animation, as always, is breath-taking. The colors are rich and are only more so on the Blu Ray medium. I particularly love the shade of red used for Porco’s seaplane and the understated blues of the ocean water. Milan is drawn wonderfully and a sequence featuring Porco racing through the city’s canals is probably the most technically impressive of the whole film. The level of detail shown in the plane components was something I found myself appreciating and it’s quite clear that Miyazaki has a love for airplanes.

The film moves at a comfortable pace, wrapping up in just over 90 minutes. It’s tone never wavers as it’s quite high-spirited and inherently fun. I don’t know if I was just turned off by Porco’s look going in, but I wasn’t really excited to watch this film at first but it quickly won me over. It compares quite favorably to My Neighbor Totoro in that it isn’t a deeply serious film with a lot on the line. It’s really just a good old-fashioned adventure full of likable characters, captivating action, and gorgeous visuals.