Treasure Island (1950)

  • Release date: 29 July, 1950
  • Run time: 96 mins
  • Director: Byron Haskin
  • Cast: Bobby Driscoll, Robert Newton, Basil Sydney
  • Inspired by: Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson)

“Pirates, Captain Flint! Pirates!”

Having stamped his mark on animation, by 1950 Walt was turning his attention to live action movies. With two hybrid films, combining cartoons and live action, under his belt (the best forgotten Song of the South in 1946 and the long forgotten So Dear to My Heart in 1948), Disney embarked on his first conventional feature-length film. But what caused this change of heart? A desire to be taken more seriously? A yearning to move away from animation? The simple answer is much more mundane – it was all down to cold, hard cash.

Following the Second World War, the UK imposed tight financial restrictions on businesses, designed to keep money in the country. This meant that Disney could not transfer any profits made in Britain from cartoons back to the USA. So Walt hit on a genius idea – he would use these profits to make a new movie to be filmed in the United Kingdom. Using a mixture of location footage and studio work at Denham Film Studios in Buckinghamshire, he would create a film that would allow him to eventually claim back the money elsewhere. The question, of course, was what should he film?

Original idea? If his previous film, Cinderella, was firmly aimed at girls (sexist it may be, but there is no getting away from the fact that in the 1950s stories about princesses finding their princes were very much targeted at the young female audience), then Disney’s next movie was going to appeal to the male demographic. In many ways, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island couldn’t be a better choice; Stevenson himself said that his idea for the novel was that “it was to be a story for boys”. In fact, there are absolutely no female characters at all in the film; the only reference made to any women at all is a passing acknowledgement of Jim Hawkins mother – and she is quickly dismissed in the space of a sentence.

Perhaps what is most interesting is how closely the film sticks to the original book. With only a few minor changes, Disney chose to remain faithful to Stevenson’s story – something which was rare for Walt. He had no qualms about altering the plot or removing and adding characters if he thought it would serve the cinematic telling better; it is a habit which the studio has failed to shake, even to this day. True, sometimes things which work on paper would not work on the silver screen – a movie needs to focus on the visual storytelling. Yet there are times when it seems the only thing being taken from the source are the title and character names. Not that Disney is the only studio guilty of this Two later versions by Disney would play around with the story (Muppets’ Treasure Island and Treasure Planet); it’s fair to say, both do it brilliantly. But we’ll get to those another time. For now, those who are familiar with the novel will find most of the story they know and love has made it into this version.

Family situation? As we’ve already seen, Jim Hawkins’ mother is given short shrift, barely registering a mention; Hawkins’ father, a good but weak man who dies early in the novel, doesn’t even get a mention in the movie. It’s all just conveniently brushed under the carpet to allow Jim to join the crew of a ship containing unsavory characters without too many awkward questions being asked. Instead, the responsibility of father figure lands on three key people – Squire Trelawney, Doctor Livesey and the infamous Long John Silver.

Interestingly, it is the villainous Silver who proves the most adept surrogate dad; he clearly cares for Jim and, though his moral compass may be dubious when it comes to buried treasure, he has all the hallmarks for a great father: he listens to Jim; he protects him from the more dangerous pirates; and he obviously wants what is best for him. The other two men are less successful – Trelawney is reckless and often puts his young ward in dangerous situations; Livesey is somewhat wet and rarely makes any impact on the young Hawkins.

Y’know – for kids? Well, this is a story about cut-throat pirates. But as far as bloodlust and frightening scenarios go, this is rather tame. There is an attack by the pirates on the heroes as they find themselves barricaded in a hut on the island, but there is never really any sense of serious threat (although the Captain does get shot). The story (in both the original novel and the movie) is more interested in derring-do than in an accurate portrayal of pirates on the high seas; this is about pure adventure . So while the subject matter is far more serious, this is quietly skirted around to make a more palatable ripping yarn.

Princesses, villains and comedy sidekicks? Let’s start with the main character – young Jim Hawkins. The casting of American Bobby Driscall came under some negative scrutiny at the time and it isn’t hard to see why; his whiney American accent is hugely at odds with the rest of the film. As a result, he comes across as more of an annoyance than character who children will look up to. There are times when you want to throw him overboard or pray that one the pirates will finally get to use their cutlass on him. It is a shame as it is the biggest let down of the whole movie.

Of course, the villain of the piece is Long John himself, played with great aplomb by the excellent Robert Newton. According to legend, his broad West Country accent that he used for the character was so appealing to audiences that it has become the standard voice for pirates ever since – when you find yourself saying ‘Ahh, Jim lad’, it was Newton who started it. His Silver is a brilliant creation: on the one hand, a vicious pirate out only to get the long buried treasure for himself, never letting anyone or anything get in the way of his plan; on the other, as we have already seen, he cares deeply for Hawkins and shows real depth of kindness towards the boy, bringing a sense of empathy to the character. He is more of an anti-hero – we know what he is ultimately doing is wrong, but we can’t help feeling affection for this lovable rogue. Clearly the audience of the time thought so as well, with Newton going on to play Silver in both a further film and a television series before his own booze-fueled lifestyle tragically killed him at just 51.

Sing-along a showtune? Unlike his animations, Disney’s first live action film dispensed with turning Treasure Island into a musical. It’s probably a good thing – I’m not sure if it would have been the same if Long John Silver had burst into song during one of his fights (although a sea shanty could have worked, as it does in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – but more that when we get to it in a few movies’ time). It certainly would have made Driscall’s Hawkins even more annoying than he already is. That said, the score by British composer Clifton Parker features various rousing numbers that work splendidly and is well worth digging out if you can.

I have questions: Aside from wanting to know who decided casting Driscall as Hawkins, rather than going for an English child, my main question is about what the young boy’s mother was thinking allowing him to go on this voyage in the first place? Clearly Squire Trelawney is a completely incompetent figure to be entrusting with your off-spring. How did nobody spot this? I also wonder why the other pirates choose to follow Long John Silver in this version – he isn’t really very ruthless and, despite telling his band of brigands otherwise, doesn’t really seem to have a plan. He’s just far too nice.

Feel-good factor: Poor casting choices aside, this is a fairly rip-roaring tale that does great justice to the original novel. It does seem a little quaint to a modern eye, but that said it speeds along at a fairly good pace and keeps the action going. It may not be the best screen adaption – Disney’s later versions are so much better – but for those after a bit of old-fashioned swashbucklin’, you can’t go far wrong with this. Plus it gets extra points for Newton’s excellent Long John Silver – and for inadvertently starting Talk Like A Pirate Day. I’d give it a feel-good rating of 7 out of 10.

You can watch the trailer below:

Next movie: We go back to animation as we head down the rabbit hole for Alice in Wonderland (1951).

Cinderella (1950)

  • Release date: 15 February, 1950
  • Run time: 75 mins
  • Director: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Wilfred Jackson
  • Cast: Ilene Woods, Eleanor Audley, Verna Felton
  • Inspired by: Cinderella (Charles Perrault)

“Young man, are you sure you’re trying it on the right foot?”

Things were getting tight for poor old Walt at the beginning of 1950. He’d endured a series of flops and then been left struggling as the Second World War raged (although, to be fair, many people had more pressing worries between 1939 and 1945 than the success of an American animation studio). By the time he reached the end of the 1940s, Disney was $4 million in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy. While some of the package films had helped to claw back some money, the studio was in desperate need of a hit. Work had begun on three possibilities – Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Leaving nothing to chance, Walt opted for the one closest to his only real hit to date – Snow White – and work began in earnest on the story of Cinderella. At the same time, Disney was also turning his attention to live action films as a way of making a quick buck and putting the studio back on track (we’ll get the first full live action movie in the next post), leaving the animators to do what they could without the sharp eye of their boss on them every hour of the day.

The result proved to be a hit, both critically and commercially, helping to finally turn Walt’s fortunes around. It even found itself up for three Oscars – including one for best song. In fact, the film (and its tie-in merchandise) proved such a money-spinner that Disney was able to create its own distribution arm (to this point it had relied on RKO for this), move into television and, perhaps most significantly of all, give Walt the cash he needed to start his ‘Florida Project’ – a small development that would eventually grow into Disney World. Fair to say, the studio owes more than a small debt to Cinders.

Original idea? Once again, Disney has turned to the world of fairy tales in order to find his muse. Although various versions exist, dating back 2000 years to Greek storytellers, the version chosen by the cartoon’s writers to focus on was the one written by Charles Perrault in the 1600s. The Frenchman is responsible for numerous tales still popular today (including Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and another of the Disney classics, Sleeping Beauty). It was Perrault who is credited with adding the pumpkin, the fairy-godmother and the glass slippers, turning it into the version we all now know. The Brothers Grimm, gathering stories 100 years later, turned their own spin on the tale – including the step-sisters mutilating their feet in an attempt to get the slipper to fit – but it is Perrault’s more sanitised version which Disney’s writers chose to adapt.

Family situation? Certainly not the happiest of families; when we are introduced to Cinders, she is living with her step-mother, Lady Tremaine, and step-sisters, Drizella and Anastasia. In an all too familiar scenario for Disney movies, both of Cinderella’s natural parents are long dead, leaving our heroine to fend for herself with her adopted family. Not that there is much love shown to her; these delightful women are forcing Cinderella to work in her own house as a general dogsbody. It really makes you wonder how she ended up with such an awful step-family – at what point did her father, who presumably married Lady Tremaine following the death of Cinderella’s mother, think that his new wife was better than life alone with his only daughter? Aside from this, having the step-family as such vile villains does nothing for those children being brought up in homes where one or both of their natural parents are no longer on the scene. And while it may not be universally true that all Disney films feature a wicked step-mother, Cinderella did much to introduce the idea that this is often the case.

Y’know – for kids? Perhaps more so than some of the previous entries, this is clearly much more suitable for a younger audience. Certainly the mice (who we will come to shortly) help to create a sense of safety for children. But parents must surely need to question the underlying messages of the movie: wicked parental figures; forced child labour; vermin problems – the list is long and lengthy. There is much to be said in defence of films produced in the past, but the cry of ‘different times’ only gets you so far when the female mice are depicted as the domestic sewers while the male mice are the hunter/gatherers, attempting to whisk the food away from under Lucifer the cat’s nose. It is safe to say that, while the storyline is more child-friendly, the societal ethics leave a lot to be desired.

Princesses, villains and comedy sidekicks? We have already covered the villains of the piece – Cinderella’s ‘wonderful’ step-mother and step-sisters. And while they are not truly evil, like the Queen in Snow White, there is a nastiness to them which is all the more real; how many children watching will have been forced into doing jobs by domineering parents? I don’t mean the necessary task of teaching youngsters to look after themselves and accept they have responsibility; rather the parents who have worked their children to the bone while they sit idly by. It must hit a few raw nerves with some parts of the audience.

The comedy sidekicks, however, do make up for it and lend a sense of comfort to proceedings. The wonderful mice – in particular Jaq and Gus – have the ability to give the audience a sense that, even in this world of enforced labour, there are still those who will stand by the downtrodden and given them a feeling of hope. Gus, above all, provides some wonderful comedy moments (aided by Lucifer the cat – who isn’t so much villain as straight man) that are cleverly played out by the animators.

And while Cinderella may not be a princess (although – spoiler alert – she does become one eventually), there is a handsome prince to sweep her off her feet. Like many of these leading men before, such as his counterpart in Snow White, Prince Charming does seem to lack any real personality and is dominated by a father who seems determined to marry him off because reasons. It makes you wonder if Cinderella would have been better served by the Fairy Godmother if she had been given a way of living on her own two feet without her step-family, rather than being given no other option for escape than with this drab (and presumably equally dysfunctional) royal family.

Sing-along a showtune? As ever, there is the usual fare of slightly sappy romantic, dreamy ballads, not least A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes. It follows all the usual conventions of the time, meaning it now sounds rather slow and insipid. If you’re not into the Disney Ballad (like me), this is not going to make you change your mind. Thank goodness it’s relatively short – while Cinderella may curse the clock chimes that interrupt her prove to be a saving grace for the rest of us. By and large, the stand-out numbers are few and far between in this movie – not helped by the chirpy mouse chorus that has all the annoying sounds of non-Disney rodents Alvin and the Chipmunks. The Work Song is akin to fingernails being scratched across a chalkboard. They are that annoying when they sing (it’s a good job they work so well as comic foils, otherwise this film would soon leave viewers feeling very angry). In general, the musical score is best described as functional – it does the job but never really wows.

However, there is one song that stands head-and-shoulders above the others: the delightful nonsense song Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo. Performed by the perfectly cast Verna Felton, it really is a fab song, predating the equally ridiculous and brilliant Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from Mary Poppins by 14 years. It may be short, but it is still a fun little number that matches the delightfully ditzy character of the Fairy Godmother. If one song can save a movie, it is this.

I have questions: I won’t touch on the obvious question about how come the shoe only fits Cinderella (clearly it’s magical and…look it’s because reasons, ok?). But I am starting to have some serious questions about the fathers in these stories. Why do they seem to have such bad taste in the women they choose when they remarry? And what is it that is then killing them off (or, at the very least, taking them off the scene), leaving their beloved child with a evil stepmother? It’s as if they simply say to themselves ‘Sod it – I’ll just marry the first woman who comes along. What could go wrong?’

I also have some serious questions about Cinderella’s ability to do her job. For someone in charge of cleaning the house, why on earth does she befriend all those mice? Y’know – those pests that, if they infested your house, would leave you reaching for the phone to call Rentakill. Surely all those rodents (and birds) would be covering the house with all their droppings. They must be swimming in…well, you get the idea. Seriously, Cinders – you need to get rid of them. It would significantly make your job of cleaning that much easier!

Feel-good factor: Cinderella doubtlessly set the standard for Disney, creating the archetype for the classic fairytales from the studio. Without it we would have no Disney empire. It’s just that, as films go, it’s all rather toothless. You never feel any warmth towards the characters. Cinderella, clearly a grown woman who can stand up for herself, should surely just tell her step-family to get lost and move on with her life. It’s all so…meh. Likewise the prince seems equally wet. It does bring a smile to the face – the mice are fun when they aren’t singing – but it isn’t really one that will give you a much needed boost. No more than a five out ten.

You can watch the trailer below:

Next movie: Disney turns its hand to live action movies with its version of the adventure classic Treasure Island (1950).

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mister Toad (1949)

  • Release date: 5 October, 1949
  • Run time: 68 mins
  • Director: Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, James Algar
  • Cast: Eric Blore, Pat O’Malley, Colin Campbell, John McLeish
  • Inspired by: The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame); The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Washington Irving)

“Don’t try to figure out a plan. You can’t reason with a headless man.”

And so we find ourselves skipping ahead a few years, jumping a handful of films in the process. As I said from the start, this is not the definitive list of Disney movies – rather it is the movies which I want to look at. Don’t worry, you’ve not missed anything too life-changing; during the 1940s, the studio focused on making a series of ‘package’ films, after the advent of the Second World War made feature animations unfeasible. Starting with Saludos Amigos, Disney produced films that consisted of shorter features, stitched together to make one longer movie (The Three Caballeros (1945), Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), Melody Time (1948)) along with two movies that combined live action and animated sections (the controversial Song of the South (1946) and Dear to My Heart (1948)). With the European market once again opening up towards the end of the 1940s, Walt could once again focus on producing full-length animated films. But he still had one package in the works, featuring two literary icons – Mr Toad and Ichabod Crane…

Original idea? Not at all. Mr Toad comes from the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, and Ichabod is the main character in…er…Gothic horror short The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But while the stories themselves come for other sources, the idea of putting the two together on a double-bill were definitely all Disney’s. Originally set to be called Two Fabulous Characters, the connection (in Walt’s head, at least) was that the two leads are ‘prone to disaster’. It’s an interesting idea and one that would make much more sense if this was the clear key to their personalities. However, I am sure few people would identify these traits as the main ones for either Toad or Ichabod: Toad is more likely to be described as a self-absorbed child; Ichabod is more of a introverted loner. If anything links the two characters, it would probably be that they both live in their own fantasy worlds within their own heads, but even this is tenuous. On the surface, there is nothing really to connect the two stories and, at a deeper level, there is still nothing to connect them either. It’s almost like the studio had two short films which it decided to put together in order to make a feature length movie, then tried to come up with an explanation as to why they worked together. But that would surely never be the case…

Family situation? Neither have any family – at least, none which are ever talked about. Both are living on their own, without support from any kin. However, while Ichabod is completely isolated, Toad has Mole, Ratty and Badger to look out for him. In this sense, it is his friends who act as his family; a set-up that was perhaps still an oddity at the time the film was released, even if it is now a much more common way of viewing your closest buddies (television hit Friends has been credited with this change in society’s views of companions over family, with the six lead characters acting more like family figures than the traditional family – and, yes, I’m aware that two of them are actually related). It is a brave move for Disney to show something other than the traditional nuclear family in its adaption of Wind in the Willows, but one which shows just how dependent we can be on our best pals.

Y’know – for kids? Of course Mr Toad’s tale is for kids – he’s a larger-than-life character who gets into scrapes and is never really in any danger (the weasels may be armed but the threat they actually pose is minimal – there is never any suggestion that they are going to really shoot anyone). True, Toad does undertake a daring jail break, but it is so ridiculous seeing him dressed as a washerwoman, that this hardly warrants an advocation of evading justice.

On the other hand, the same cannot be said of the adaption of Sleepy Hollow. It starts off innocently enough, but those last 10 minutes or so are some of the darkest that Disney has ever created. As Ichabod begins his ride home through the woods, he is chased by the Headless Horseman! At what point is a headless psychopathic ghost, the spirit of a man who had been decapitated by a cannonball, worthy of a children’s cartoon? It is amazing how dark the film gets – and this is after some decidedly inappropriate action from Ichabod as he tries to woo the beautiful Katrina van Tassel (ok, it’s not THAT raunchy, but it is pretty clear what his intentions are). My advice – if you’re watching with young ones, probably best if you just stick with the first half and stop the movie when you get to the end of Mr Toad’s story. In fact, not even with the younglings – if you’re spending the night on your own, I’d avoid watching this just before your own bedtime.

Princesses, villains and comedy sidekicks? This is certainly a film of two very different halves. The first half is obviously the lighter, with comedy sidekicks (and even main characters) aplenty. There is a delightful slapstick about Toad and his friends – and even the weasels have a comic touch to them. The final scene in Toad Hall, as the four friends battle to save it, has some wonderful moments as characters fly across the screen. Mr Winky, the main villain of the piece, is hardly a man to fear; looking not dissimilar to the wonderful James Finlayson – most famous as Laurel and Hardy’s long-time foil – he is as much a comedic character as he is a bad guy, and never really feels a threat.

The comedy sidekicks in the second half are noticeable by their non-existence. There are some funny moments between Ichabod and his rival, Brom Bones (who would later act as inspiration for the classic Disney villain Gaston in Beauty and the Beast), as the two battle for Katrina’s affections at her house. But the comedy is played down and, given Ichabod’s nature to act as a loner, he has no sidekicks, aside from his horse. Katrina is the closest there is to a princess, but her role is so small (she is really no more than a McGuffin) that it is hard to see her even as a rounded character.

However, as we’ve already seen, it is hard to ignore the villain of the piece. The Headless Horseman, a figure to instill terror in grown men, is so menacing as a figure that Disney still receives complaints from parents of scared children to this day. Alongside the Devil in Fantasia, this was Walt doing his utmost to leave youngsters permanently scarred. All that said, one question that has been raised by critics is around whether Ichabod is the real villain of the piece. After all, he is the one tries to worm his way into people’s homes for free meals and essentially attempts to break up a blossoming romance between Brom and Katrina. And its not even as if he fancies her; our narrator makes it clear that Ichabod is only after her for her money. There are certainly aspects of his personality which make him hard to like as a lead character. Perhaps he gets what he deserves when he finds himself on the run from the Horseman.

Sing-along a showtune? Neither film is a musical in the traditional form, but you can’t have Bing Crosby narrating a tale (as he does with the Sleepy Hollow adaption) and not have him perform a number. And the song Ichabod is a jaunty and fun track, ideally suited to Crosby’s voice. It’s one of those numbers that gets into your head and remains there for the rest of the week. But if there were more songs, then it would be hard pushed to imagine any being as good as this one.

I have questions: So the obvious question is who thought that Sleepy Hollow would be a good story for a children’s cartoon? This is one scary tale – heck, its such an iconic Gothic story that Tim Burton turned it into a movie (and his is definitely not suitable for the kiddies!). It’s no wonder that the Horseman is still scaring children – this is a character designed purely to get them hiding behind the sofa. Also, in what universe does anybody think that these two stories work well together. In isolation, they are both fine pieces of fiction, but there is no way that any right-minded individual would take one of these tales and think ‘you know what would pair really well with this’ and come up with the other. They are just too wildly different.

Feel-good factor: Based on Mr Toad’s tale, this is easily a 9. It’s fun and comedic and, even with all the mishaps, still manages to raise a smile. Like the book, it is a nostalgic and whimsical tale featuring some wonderful, larger-than-life characters. How can you do anything but love Mr Toad? However, while I do enjoy The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as a story, there is no way that it can ever be called a ‘feel-good film’ – even with the wholesome Bing narrating. It is a dark, brooding and terrifying story; it even ends on a downer, with a question mark over the fate of Ichabod Crane (sure, let’s all pretend that he’s now living a wonderful life with wife and kids elsewhere in America – even though we know that he was brutally butchered by the Headless Horseman!). Which means that it has to have a feel-good rating of 4. Unless you get your kicks from horror, in which case you can keep it as a 9.

You can watch the trailer below:

Next movie: Time for one of the most beloved of fairytales, as we look at the rags to riches story of Cinderella (1950)

Saludos Amigos (1943)

  • Premiere date: 24 August, 1942
  • Run time: 42 mins
  • Director: Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts
  • Cast: Clarence Nash, José Oliveira, Pinto Colvig
  • Inspired by: Original idea

“The traveller should be cautioned against any reckless behaviour.”

By 1941, Walt Disney’s fledgling film company had created five masterworks – Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi. His artists had grown in confidence and the technology was being produced to push the animated film to new heights. But how do you follow five of the greatest animated films ever produced? The answer, in the case of Disney, was not easily.

To be fair to Walt, it wasn’t entirely his fault. The outbreak of the Second World War had resulted in financial difficulties for the studio (any money made from the films in Europe had to be handed directly to the US Government); they had already been feeling the pinch after a massive expansion shortly before this. With animators threatening strike action – and Snow White the only film to make a profit at the time – it came close to Disney shutting up shop for good. The answer lay in a change of direction during the War Years with the release of a series of ‘package’ films, featuring a compilation of cartoons. For the first of the six, Walt turned to South America…

Original idea? This was the first film which didn’t take a fairy story as its starting point. Instead, the studio was commissioned by the United States Department of State to create a movie intended to improve relations with the countries south of the border. Many South American countries had links with the Nazis, and the USA was hoping to counteract this by showing that they could provide a better alternative. A group of 20 artists, along with Walt, went down for a tour of Argentina, Brasil, Peru and Chile on a fact-finding mission, with a loan from the US Government to produce a goodwill movie, based on the already popular Disney characters. The end result was a mix of live-action documentary footage of the animators touring cities across South America, interspersed with four cartoons looking at aspects of life in the four countries visited: Lake Titicaca, where Donald Duck is a tourist meeting the locals; Pedro, the story of a small plane delivering mail across the Andes; El Gaucho Goofy, where cowboy Goofy learns about his South American counterpart; and Aquarela do Brasil, where the parrot Jose Carioca introduces Donald to the music of Brasil.

Family situation? Other than the extended Disney family of cartoon characters, there isn’t one. This is a snapshot of different cultures, rather than a traditional story with a beginning, middle and end. Although Pedro does feature an anthropomorphic aeroplane who is sent on a mission to deliver the post after his mother and father airplanes are unable to go through with it. But his parents don’t really feature heavily, so we can probably ignore even them…

Y’know – for kids? Interestingly, this was an occasion where the target audience were the adults – and the influential adults, at that. The aim was to convince North Americans that South America was worth building relations with and to show South America that there was a better alternative to the countries sympathetic to the Nazis. And it certainly worked with historians considering the film to have radically improved relations across the Americas. The message may be simple, but the impact was huge.

Princesses, villains and comedy sidekicks? Again, as it isn’t a traditional story, there aren’t any obvious heroes and villains. Other than the South Americans and Nazis, respectively, although this is more about the subtext than a blatant reference throughout the movie. In terms of comedy, Donald Duck and Goofy are always going to be comic foils, although the success of them will depend on your view of the two characters. I’ve always found Goofy slightly annoying (and I’m still not convinced about what creature he’s meant to be – I know it’s supposed to be a dog, but then what does that make Pluto?). Donald has always been a firm favourite, however, and his pratfalls and misunderstandings prove to be well placed in the first film – an extended gag involving Donald attempting to cross a rope bridge on a llama is as funny as you would expect.

Sing-along a showtune? There’s no real musical number to get your teeth into, although the final section does showcase some rather wonderful music from Brasil – in this case Aquarela do Brasil and Tico-Tico no Fubá. Both are fantastic pieces of music, but if you’re after a traditional Disney number to sing along to, you will be sorely disappointed. But you can always use this as a way of getting a bit of world culture in your blood, you heathen…

I have questions: Ok, we’ve already covered the whole ‘what the hell is Goofy meant to be’ debate (I’m going for a weird dog/cow/horse hybrid). The mix of live action and cartoon can feel a bit forced sometimes – and there seems to be no real theme linking it together other than ‘This all happens in South America’. Do the North Americans just assume that every country in South America is exactly the same? Ok, don’t answer that one. But it does seem far too generic a piece to get any nuances around the myriad of cultures found in the continent. Oh, and who thought Jose Carioca was a good idea? He was so popular, that he was brought back in another ‘package’ cartoon a few years later (the 1944 film The Three Caballeros) but he’s rather annoying, if truth be told. I would rather have just had a tour of South America led by Donald Duck for the short run time of the movie – but maybe that’s just me.

Feel-good factor: While there are some funny and, in the case of Pedro, sweet moments in the film, this isn’t one that you would put on to cheer yourself up. This is more a collection of shorts with a specific purpose – the era that this film was produced in doesn’t help in breaking down modern stereotypes either. It’s an interesting historical piece and there are some nice moments, but it won’t turn any frowns upside. I’ll give it a feel-good factor of 3.

You can watch a trailer below:

Next movie: There are another five ‘package’ films made over the next few years, all very much in the same vein of a collection of cartoons (even if they don’t have the same overarching theme of building strong political relations with other countries). I’ll save us all the trauma of repeating what I’ve already said here and skip ahead to The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad (1949) for my next review…

Bambi (1942)

  • Release date: 9 August, 1942
  • Run time: 70 mins
  • Director: David Hand, James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Graham Heid, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Norman Wright
  • Cast: Hardie Albright, Stan Alexander, Bobette Audrey
  • Inspired by: Bambi, a Life in the Woods (Felix Salten)

“Your mother can’t be with you anymore.”

While work was being finished on Disney’s first full-length feature film, Walt was already planning his second animated epic. This time his sights were set on a young deer, Bambi, and his adventures in the forest. It was a story which MGM had already considered making as a live action movie, before deciding it was too difficult to achieve. Walt’s plan was to use animation, pushing his cartoonists to their very limit in producing a second masterpiece to stand alongside Snow White. However, it soon became apparent that this was far from an easy task – as staff wrestled not just with pinning down the story but finding ways of animating the woodland creatures – resulting in Bambi eventually becoming so delayed that it ended up as the fifth animated movie from the fledgling studio. Which begs the question – was it time well spent?

Original idea? No – this one was based on a 1923 book by Austrian author Felix Salten. It was an interesting choice for Disney; rather than a traditional fairytale that could be easily adapted to suit the growing young audience, this was very much a story aimed at adults, with a clear agenda of environmentalism at its centre. And it was this which caused the biggest headache for the writers, as they tried to make it more suitable for children to enjoy. Neither was it helped by the amount of effort put into ideas that would eventually be dropped; Mel Shaw, who helped develop the script, remembered a time when Walt became fixated on an idea of Bambi destroying an ants’ nest – and the ants’ reaction. After weeks of honing the minor plot, it was decided that it did nothing to move the story on and was scrapped – a scenario that repeated itself numerous times during the tortuous production. On top of this, the animators spent months studying animals, in order to make the animation of the movements as realistic as possible.

Family situation? What can you say? It’s one of the most famous deaths in cinema. The murder of Bambi’s mother by Man (she’s never even given the honour of a name, which seems a bit harsh of Disney) still has the power to shock. And while you never actually see it, the sound of the hunter’s gun ringing out as Bambi scampers for safety in the forest is one that will haunt you for a long time afterwards. It’s one thing to leave a child to fend for itself, Disney, but to brutally slaughter a deer’s mother in the name of entertainment…what is wrong with you?! Fortunately, Bambi’s father – the Great Prince – is on hand to take care of his son. Although, the way the film is edited, you do wonder how much he really taught him. He comes across a strict, dictatorial figure who is almost as frightening as Man. Which brings us to the obvious question…

Y’know – for kids? It’s based on a novel for adults about the politics of the environment. The main character’s mother is shot and killed. And the final scene – of Bambi and Faline trying to escape Man’s vicious pack of dogs while a forest fire rages around them – is one of the tensest animated moment ever committed to film. The dogs in themselves are terrifying enough, with their snapping jaws and wolf-like faces. But add to that a fire that looks set to engulf Bambi – the animators were incredibly skilled in making the flames seem almost alive, like characters themselves – that you can feel the tension drip off th screen. Bambi’s father doesn’t help the situation. His authoritarian, Victorian-style parenting do not make him a sympathetic character; I wondered whether Bambi would be better off facing up to the hunter. With so much darkness cutting through the film, it does not seem a movie suited for children.

And yet, with its beautifully drawn animals and a story of growing up in the face of adversity, it isn’t hard to see why it connects with children. There are some sweet moments, both before Bambi’s mother’s death, as the young deer discovers life in the woods and his place within it, and after it, when he returns to find Thumper and Flower – and the love of his life, Faline. In many ways, it is a shame that the hunter’s killing dominates how the film is remembered- and it certainly does not pull any punches in introducing children to the concept of death – but there is so much more joy to the film than this moment. In fact, it says something about how shocking and unexpected Man’s intrusion is – mirroring how the animals themselves must feel – that it is the thing for which the film is best remembered. But even with the darker elements, this is still a film with kids very much in mind.

Princesses, villains and comedy sidekicks? Ok, here’s an admission – until I had seen Bambi, I had assumed that the deer was in fact female. I had no idea that he was meant to be a prince and not a princess. And, yes, I’m aware that adult Bambi had antlers, but I’d only really seen a young Bambi, and I guess, with his long eyelashes and slightly effeminate manner, I automatically assumed that he was a she. It was a shock to learn this was a male – and a prince of the forest at that. He seemed more like a princess for much of his younger years. Oh well…

Alongside Bambi are Thumper (the rabbit) and Flower (the skunk) – two great sidekicks. While their humour may not be entirely slapstick (although the attempts to walk on the ice come close), they bring a strong sense of empathy as we watch the young Bambi grow up from their point of view. Thumper is one of those great creations who almost manages to eclipse the main character, so wonderful is his personality.

Of course, there’s also the villain of the piece – Man. As we currently wrestle with our own mistreatment of the environment and battle to protect it, the role of the movie’s main antagonist takes on an even more sinister tone. We are aware of a faceless entity who seems intent of destroying all of nature. It’s no surprise that hunters in the USA were upset by the portrayal in the movie, turning on Disney for the unsympathetic way in which they were shown on screen. They weren’t the only ones to be upset – critics initially failed to take a shine to Bambi, with one describing the film as ‘unpleasant’. Walt even came under fire from his own daughter, Diane, who insisted that Bambi’s mother did not need to die and questioning why her father had kept in that aspect of the novel when he had taken liberties with it elsewhere. Even time has not dulled the sheer horror of Man as villain, with a chill running through the centre of the film that permeates every scene.

Sing-along a showtune? With Walt going for a more realistic approach in the animation, this was never going to be a movie filled with musical moments. Yet it contains, for my money at least, one of the greatest songs ever to grace the soundtrack of a film – the sublime Little April Shower. With a beat that mimics the coming rain, a glorious choir delivering the tune, building up to a whirl of instruments as a storm hits…this is a piece of music that wonderfully evokes both the freshness of a gentle rain through to the power and thrill of violent thunderstorm, all from the perspective of the young deer. In a film full of standout moments, this is one of the strongest. When you have songs this good, you don’t need much else.

I have questions: My biggest question is for Bambi’s father – where the hell were you at the start of the film?! You wait until the mother of your child has been brutally shot and THEN you turn up to take care of your kid. Talk about an absent father. It’s not like you even seem that enthused about doing the job – it’s more a case of ‘Oh great, now she’s dead I suppose I’ll have to do everything.’ Way to be an appropriate father figure. Also I have a problem with deer being ‘kings of the forest’. I know that, in mythology, there are generally regarded as so, but I’m not convinced. Besides, Bambi and his father do disappear at one point – so who is left in charge while they are gone? Is there some sort of Regent doing the ruling? A grand vizier? Seriously, what sort of government system is in place here?

Feel-good factor: With the murder – yes, murder – of Bambi’s mother and the shocking finale in the burning forest, this is not a film that pulls punches when it comes to wringing the audiences emotions through the proverbial mangle. It is a credit to Walt and his team that he is able to bring such emotions out of his work and shows the power that animation can have. And these moments are, in reality, a small part of the film, which is more interested in showing the joys of growing up and discovering the world around you – even if that sometimes brings heartache as well. It is a truly beautiful film to watch and there are some scenes which are sublime – such as the attempts to walk on the ice. I’ll mark it down a good few points for the death of Bambi’s mum (there’s no way THAT is a feel-good moment!) and give it a feel-good rating of 7 out of 10.

You can watch the trailer below:

Next movie: We head South of the Border as Disney kicks off a series of cartoon anthologies with Saludos Amigos (1943)…

Dumbo (1941)

  • Release date: 23 October, 1941
  • Run time: 64 mins
  • Director: Ben Sharpsteen, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Bill Roberts, Jack Kinney, Samuel Armstrong
  • Cast: Edward Brophy, Verna Felton, Cliff Edwards, Herman Bing
  • Inspired by: Dumbo, the Flying Elephant (Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl)

“What’s the matter with his ears? I don’t see nothin’ wrong with ’em. “

By 1941, Disney needed a hit and fast. While Pinocchio and Fantasia would go on to great acclaim in later years, both flopped on their original releases owing to the Second World War; elsewhere, Walt’s animators were still trying to finish off Bambi – at one time pencilled in as the studio’s second film after Snow White, it eventually took nine years to complete. Disney needed to bring in some revenue quickly. The idea was to create a low budget, tightly scripted cartoon that could be turned around in a short space of time. Promoting some fresh faces from earlier films (who, incidentally, would eventually become some of the most respected artists at the studio, earning themselves the nickname from Walt himself as Disney’s Nine Old Men), the team were tasked in creating a classic on time and on budget. As it turned out, it was a task that they were more than capable of doing…

Original idea? The original story was written for a novelty toy called a ‘Roll-a-Book’; children would turn a knob and the story would scroll through. In its original form, it only lasted eight pages – which included the illustrations. Somehow it was turned into a 102 page outline, which is some going when it comes to padding it out. However, other than the opening of the storks delivering the baby animals, and the pink elephants scene, very little was changed from the original story aside from some minor character alterations (Dumbo’s mum became Mrs Jumbo rather than Mrs Ella in the original story). Given how little there was to work with, then it was some going to pad it without really adding any new material.

While Disney had first bought the rights to the story in 1939, after being shown the Roll-a-Book idea, Dumbo wasn’t top of Walt’s ‘must make’ list; in fact, for a while, he wasn’t really interested in it at all. It was only when writers Joe Grant and Dick Huemer began leaving the next chapter of the story on his desk each morning, that he finally became intrigued (after a few days, he is said to have run into the writing room and asked his two story men “What happens next?”).

Family situation? Is there a better mother than Mrs Jumbo? I very much doubt it! Her relationship with Jumbo, Jr (Dumbo’s actual name – Dumbo is the rather nasty nickname given to him by the other elephants) is a thing of beauty. He becomes Mrs Jumbo’s entire world and she will stop at nothing to protect her young child from being maltreated by anyone. From smacking the female elephants for their derogatory comments, to hitting the boy who ridicules her baby for the size of his ears, her selflessness in standing up for him knows no bounds. Is there anything more heartbreaking than when she is dragged away after attacking the children who mocked Dumbo? Well, yes there is – his visit to see her in her tiny cell as the song Baby Mine plays over the imagery…well, try to keep a dry eye with that one! This is truly heart-rending stuff – and a brilliant portrayal of the bond between a mother and her child, and lies at the very centre of all that makes the film so successful.

Y’know – for kids? Of course this is for kids. I mean aside from the emotional impact of a child being ridiculed by adults, forced into dangerous situations by his work colleagues and being torn from his mother; underage excessive drinking; and a gang of crows who come dangerously close to being racial stereotypes…ok, so maybe this isn’t one for the children.

We’ve already dealt with the emotional impact of Dumbo and his mother, so let’s look at the others one at a time: we’ll start with the elephant in the room (pardon the pun) and turn our attention to the attitude that the film has towards people of colour. Now, I’m not going to deny that I wasn’t a little uncomfortable watching them as an adult – and I know Disney has come under fire in recent days for refusing to edit some aspects of it out of the movie, ready for its showing on the new streaming service. However, the problem was not the crows, who have been singled out as being offensive to African-Americans. Bearing in mind that this was made at a time when black actors were often being sidelined with roles as either slaves or lesser sidekicks (Hattie McDaniel had to defend herself for taking on the – as it happens Oscar-winning – role of slave Mammy in Gone with the Wind), there is nothing that I can see which suggests that this is the role that the crows are playing. Rather, aside from Timothy Mouse, they are the only ones who have any faith in Dumbo and are instrumental in teaching him how to fly. Whoopi Goldberg has even suggested that toy versions should be made available. Now, I am not a person of colour, so I have no real idea of what it means to see and hear them in this movie; I would be interested to hear the thoughts from someone of an African-American background. But I would suggest that a positive view of the crows can be taken for the role they play in Dumbo’s story, given that their appearance represents one of the few times when Dumbo isn’t being made fun of or being used for someone else’s personal gain.

The same cannot be said for the Song of the Roustabouts. Although set at night, the characters who come out to set up the circus tent are clearly African-American – and their ‘song’ leads a lot to be desired. The lyrics (which I won’t be repeating here) play to a highly offensive view of people of colour – and one which cannot be easily dismissed. The song and scene may be brief, but it leaves a decidedly unpleasant taste in the mouth, giving the entire film a nasty edge that it cannot shake. While the crows may or may not be racist, this scene is blatantly a nasty portrayal of the workers and their race and the film needs to be called out for it. I don’t even want to spend too much time on this; I feel dirty just knowing that it is in the movie.

The other big issue around the film’s family friendly position is the Pink Elephant scene; one which is clearly using abuse of alcohol for comic effect. Actually, it’s not even that comedic – if anything, it’s likely to result in years of therapy for a child. There is something incredibly sinister about the entire sequence; the way the elephants merge together and split apart, before turning into camels, snakes and (perhaps most worrying of all) alluring belly dancing elephants. On the one hand, it is a brilliantly animated surrealist sequence; on the other, WHAT THE HELL IS IT DOING IN A KIDS’ MOVIE?! It makes no sense and, other than being a tool to get Dumbo and Timothy up into a tree, there is no reason for it being here. But, hey, parents, if you want to take a lesson from this movie, leaving alcohol lying around for youngsters to consume probably isn’t the best one.

Lastly, the whole concept of animals at the circus is now frowned upon. This is one of the few times when I would argue ‘different times’ – it was acceptable at the time when this movie was released. While we need to remember to point out to children that this is no longer something which we would condone, we can still watch it and teach them that this was not always the case. I don’t feel a letter to PETA is on the cards (it’s a cartoon, after all – they aren’t even real); I just feel the need to acknowledge that it is not something we would expect to see now.

Princesses, villains and comedy sidekicks? So once again, this doesn’t fit neatly into the traditional aspects of heroes and villains; I guess the real bad guy here is society and its failure to accept Dumbo for who he is. It says something of the complexity of this film that it doesn’t need to create stereotypes for it to get its message across – that we need to be not just tolerant of others, but actively encourage them to be their best (unless you’re a Roustabout, apparently…).

Sing-along a showtune? For such a short film not known for its musical numbers, there is a surprisingly high number of great tunes. Aside from the heart-breaking Baby Mine, there is the fun music of Casey Junior’s journey along the railway tracks (“I think I can…”); the surreal chorus of Pink Elephants on Parade; and, of course, the fab When I See an Elephant Fly. It’s definitely a toe-tapper – even if I never really think of it as a musical.

I have questions: Ok, so I have a number of unresolved issues. Firstly – and I know I’ve covered this – but what are the Pink Elephants all about? Also, why was Mrs Jumbo released from her cage at the end? Sure, her son is now able to fly – making him something of a sensation, I guess – but why does that mean Mrs Jumbo gets out? She did attack a child, after all, and this in no way makes up for it. Also, given that this is about accepting who you are, isn’t it a little ironic that Dumbo essentially ends up as some sort of carnival freak show because of his ability to fly with his enormous ears? Is that what we’re telling kids now – if you’re a bit odd-looking, don’t worry because you might be able to make money from it. He’s still essentially a prisoner in the circus, for goodness sake! His life is not really any better than it was before! Does he not realise this? Perhaps Dumbo really is the right name for him…

Feel-good factor: This is another Disney movie where my instinctive answer is different from my final answer. There is lots to hold against the film – not least the underlying racism. But, that said, it still manages to be a sweet picture to watch, not least because of Dumbo himself and his endearing attitude to life. From his relationship with his mother to his friendship with Timothy, this is an elephant who carries with him a certain joie de vivre – even when he is at his lowest, he is still able to pick himself up and try again. With such a loving, gentle hero, it is hard not to feel better for having spent time with him. So, even with all its faults, I’m going to give Dumbo a feel-good rating of 8 out of 10.

You can see the trailer below:

Next movie: Get ready to blub as we head to the forest for Bambi (1942)…

Fantasia (1940)

  • Release date: 13 November, 1940
  • Run time: 126 mins
  • Director: Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen, David D. Hand, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe, T. Hee, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson
  • Cast: Deems Taylor (narrator)
  • Inspired by: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Johann Sebastian Bach); The Nutcracker Suite (Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky); The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Paul Dukas); Rite of Spring (Igor Stravinsky); The Pastoral Symphony (Ludwig van Beethoven); Dance of the Hours (Amilcare Ponchielli); Night on Bald Mountain (Modest Mussorgsky); and Ave Maria (Franz Schubert)

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

Just three films in and I have made an interesting discovery; my perception of the ‘typical’ Disney film is radically out. The idea that these movies are light and frothy – watered down versions of classic stories has already proved to be very wrong. There doesn’t seem to be a template; in fact, Walt seems to have been keen to explore and push the boundaries in his art. And it is very much an art form – something that really comes to the fore in Fantasia. Combining classical music with imagery, this was a daring project that moved from its conception as a short to one of Disney’s longest movies. So, with some adjustments to the questions, let’s take a look at this anthology which brilliantly combines two distinct disciplines into a breath-taking whole.

Original idea? It depends on what you think of as ‘original idea’. True, the music inspired the artwork – and none of the music is new (despite Stravinsky, the only living composer to be used, offering to write new material for the film). But the concepts that are developed by the artists based on the musical work are staggeringly high. They take a notion suggested by the notes and allow their imagination to run free. As a result, what is witnessed on the screen is often very different from the original thoughts behind the music. Toccata and Fugue in D Minor sees abstract art, suggesting the nature of an orchestra, fill the screen; Dance of the Hours, on the other hand, moves more towards the comic, with the ballet dancing hippos, elephants and crocodiles (or are they alligators) hilariously interpreting the tunes through the medium of dance. Because there really is nothing funnier than a ballet-dancing hippo. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that this is truly an original idea.

Family situation? I’ve changed this question slightly, as I don’t think it does credit to the many ways in which family is portrayed in Disney films. Of course, in Fantasia, it doesn’t really count at all. Or does it? True, most of the eight sections have nothing to say on family. But Beethoven’s The Pastoral Symphony, interpreted through Greek mythology, sees Pegasus’ children learn to fly and play together. In fact, with the backdrop of the Gods fighting in the sky (well, Zeus throwing lightening), this is a wonderful depiction of a family unit enjoying fellowship together, as they play and laugh. Elsewhere, you could even suggest that the wizard in Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (nicknamed by the animators as Yen Sid – Disney backwards – because of his likeness in looks and, some would say, temperament to the company’s founder) is something of a father figure to Mickey, even if he is one who has to show discipline to the mischievous mouse. Which brings us neatly on to…

Y’know – for kids? Let’s see. Starting with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it seems child-friendly enough; young Mickey gets into trouble by trying to cut corners on his task of collecting water. But there is something a little bit terrifying about the brooms – not just in the way that they seem to be unstoppable in their task, flattening the poor rodent when he tries to stand in their way, but even chopping them into bits (a frightening moment in itself) has no effect. It’s like Disney does Terminator; hasta la vista, Mickey! The relentlessness is enough to scare the smallest child. Elsewhere, there is the Rite of Spring, showing a vicious dinosaur fight (even if the stegosaurus and T-Rex actually lived millions of years apart – but never let facts get in the way of a good story) while Night on Bald Mountain, revealing a demon reaching his shadowy claws down from the top of a rocky pinnacle to the sleeping town below, comes straight out of a horror movie. Perhaps this is proof that animation isn’t just for the kids; this is one scary ride.

Princesses, villains and comedy sidekicks? Again, it’s not really that type of movie, but that’s not to say that there aren’t elements of all these things. On the one hand, you have the centaurs and centauresses (which isn’t a word but which the Disney animators insisted on calling the female centaurs) acting as princes and princesses in The Pastoral Symphony; Mickey is a mixture of everyman hero (haven’t we all dreamed of having the ability to magic hard work away) and fool as he discovers that with great power comes great responsibility; and the Devil in the final section can only be described as a nasty villain. But really, that’s trying to make the film work with the sections I have created for this blog; sort of like answering an exam question based on what you have revised rather than what is being asked.

Sing-along a showtune? There are definitely some hugely recognisable musical pieces – although perhaps calling them ‘tunes; is rather disingenuous. Everybody can hum along to The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy or tap their foot to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In fact, Mickey and his brooms have become so synonymous with Dukas’ classic that it is impossible not to conjure up the young mouse the minute that you hear the opening bars. But, in terms of a classic song to sing along the lines of, say, Whistle While You Work or Hey Diddle Dee Dee, then no. These are classic pieces to appreciate, not some jolly number to play in the car. Honestly, we’re not heathens…

Feel-good factor: A difficult one to answer. In terms of concept, this would easily be a 9 (I’m dropping a point for the Rites of Spring which, even after the rearrangement of the music – much to Stravinsky’s annoyance, does drag somewhat and isn’t the easiest to listen to). In terms of animation, it would definitely be a 10. But in terms of feel-good… well, there is something endearing about some of the sections, but it doesn’t follow a particular narrative which allows emotional engagement. As a result, it is more about detached appreciation of the art than trying to illicit a specific feeling. So, for feel-good alone, I’d give it a 4 or 5. But, that said, if you’re not after an easy Sunday afternoon movie to cheer you up, but want something a little more cerebral, this is certainly a must-see.

You can watch the trailer below:

Next movie: We take to the air with the adorable Dumbo (1941)…

Pinocchio (1940)

  • Release date: 7 February, 1940
  • Run time: 88 mins
  • Director: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Norman Ferguson, Jack Kinney, Wilfred Jackson, T. Hee
  • Cast: Dickie Jones, Cliff Edwards, Christian Rub
  • Inspired by: The Adventures of Pinocchio (Carlo Collodi)

“A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face” 

Having set the template for future Disney films, Walt promptly broke it with his next feature release. In fact, looking ahead to some of the films coming up, it’s amazing how varied the subject matter of these films are – certainly it isn’t often a case of noble hero rescuing fair princess from evil queen/witch/dragon. So after the Germanic fairytale of Snow White, we head across the border to Italy (to what looks surprising like a German town) and the tale of Pinocchio. Originally to be the studio’s third feature length film, it was bumped up to take on the position of difficult second album movie when problems with the proposed second film, Bambi, forced Walt to put it on ice (if you’ll pardon the reference). And difficult it proved to be – despite being another leap forward in animation with a brilliant story and well-rounded characters, the advent of the Second World War meant Pinocchio flopped on its initial release in 1940 (I’m guessing that people living in Europe had other things to worry about than heading to the cinema).

Original idea? Nope. Based on the story by Carlo Collodi, the book had been hugely popular since its first release in 1883. In fact, originally written in serial form, when there was a pause in the story for a few months, demand was so great that it was quickly re-started. It’s not hard to see why Disney was so keen to turn his hand to it (“Walt was busting his guts with enthusiasm” according to animator Norman Ferguson); its a fantastic fable with danger lurking everywhere. True, the character of Pinocchio isn’t as nasty in the cartoon as he is in the book, but we’ll get to that…

Dead parents? Well, given that Pinocchio isn’t alive himself to begin with, can he really be said to have parents? Besides, his maker, Geppetto, is still very much alive and kicking throughout the movie. So technically, the parents are alive. But the boy is dead. Except somehow magically alive. It’s complicated – let’s just move on…

Y’know – for kids? Compared to the original book, it is most definitely more child-friendly. Pinocchio, in his storybook form, is certainly far from pleasant – before he’s even been finished, he’s kicked Geppetto in the leg; he then gets Geppetto imprisoned for child cruelty; murders a talking cricket (poor Jiminy doesn’t even get a name in the book); and has his feet burned off after falling asleep in front of the fire. That said, it may be toned down, but there’s still plenty in there to give the children a nightmare-filled sleep. The villains are petrifying and the poor puppet finds himself getting into some serious horrible situations (he’s trapped on an island where boys are kidnapped and turned into donkeys, for goodness sake!). Talk about ‘be good or the boogieman will get you’ threats – sweet dreams after this one, kiddies!

Princesses, villains and comedy sidekicks? Hmm, not really any Disney princesses here. Unless you count the brief appearances of the Blue Fairy. Could you call Pinocchio the hero? He seems to be too naive to be anything more than the protagonist rather than a heroic figure – he seems to fall from one disaster to another, constantly being led astray rather than listening to his conscience. At least he has much more character than Snow White; he’s so likable that you can’t help rooting for him, even when he clearly should have a lot more common sense to him.

However, villains the movie has in spades. When you consider that Honest John the fox and Gideon the cat are probably the nicest nasties that Pinocchio encounters, you know this is going to be one twisted tale. Just when you get over Stromboli, the puppet master, and think things can only get better, the puppet finds himself in the clutches of The Coachman who takes him off to Pleasure Island (you know, that place where naughty boys are transformed into donkeys and sold into slavery). And let’s not forget Monstro the whale. Seriously, save some evil for another film!

Fortunately, the sidekicks save the day. Obviously we have Jiminy Cricket (who manages to avoid being squished in the Disney version), acting as Pinocchio’s conscience – and generally making everyone feel better whenever he’s on screen. How we believe a tiny insect can make a difference is beyond me, but it is one of the smart moves in the story to make the audience confident that Jiminy can somehow make everything right. Odd, given that he’s never around when Pinocchio needs him – and the one time when he can make a difference, unlocking a cage and freeing the wooden boy, he somehow manages to mess it up and has to wait for the Blue Fairy to come along and do the job. You had one job, Jiminy!

Alongside Jiminy is the wonderful character of Figaro, Geppetto’s pet cat. A beautiful creation that manages to convey a broad range of emotions and acts as an hilarious comic foil whenever he is on screen. Apparently a favourite of Walt, who demanded to see more of him in the movie, it isn’t hard to see why. Figaro could easily have been a mistake; a cross-over from one of the Silly Symphony shorts who seems lost in a bigger movie. Instead, he is probably the stand-out of the whole piece – which is saying something for film that has numerous scene-stealing characters in it.

Sing-along a showtune? Plenty. Clearly When You Wish Upon a Star has transcended everything to become the Disney Corporation theme tune (and can you blame them), it is still eclipsed by three even greater songs. Okay, so Give a Little Whistle is only slightly better, but it’s still a corker. Then you have I Got No Strings, a wonderfully joyful song about living a life of independence (or at least, it was until Avengers Age of Ultron managed to make it deeply sinister – thanks Iron Man). But topping it all off is the underappreciated Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me); sung with gusto by Honest John, it is sheer brilliance (helped in no small part by the wonderful Fozzie Bear and Rawlf doing an hilarious cover in an episodes of The Muppet Show – seriously, give it a watch. Even if it’s just for the “halibut”…).

Feel-good factor: Ooo – a tricky one. Pinocchio is an out-right classic; it regularly features on Best of… lists for animation (Terry Gilliam named it among his 10 greatest animated films of all time – and he knows a thing or two about animation). The artwork is stunning, the story is filled with action and adventure, the characters are superbly rounded, the songs are sublime. But…in terms of feel-good, it is a decidedly dark and twisted tale. You get not one by five villains, along with some of the scariest scenes ever produced in a Disney film. Is that enough to lower the rating? Frankly, no. I’ve always been a fan of the dark and twisted, so something like this is going to make me feel better, no matter what. It has to be a 10 (but feel free to give it a lower score if darkness and horror aren’t really your thing…).

You can watch the trailer below:

Next movie: We move even further from the traditional Disney tale with Fantasia (1940)…

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

  • Release date: 21 December, 1937
  • Run time: 83 mins
  • Director: David Hand, William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce, Ben Sharpsteen
  • Cast: Adriana Caselotti, Lucille La Verne, Roy Atwell
  • Inspired by: Snow White (The Brothers Grimm)

“Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”

This is the one which really started it all. It wasn’t the world’s first full-length animated feature (two from Argentina are now lost but it’s worth looking up the brilliant The Adventures of Prince Achmed from 1926 – a silhouette animation based on One Thousand and One Nights). But it was the first feature-length cel-animated film from the United States – and it was the one which opened the way for a whole industry. It was a huge risk at the time; nicknamed ‘Disney’s Folly’ by others in the movie business, even Walt’s own brother, Roy, and wife, Lillian tried to talk him out of making it. Fortunately, he ignored them and arguably created the Disney template. Let’s take a look at some of the building blocks that first emerged with Snow White:

Original idea? Well, obviously not. Surely all children have heard of the original story of Snow White, even if they haven’t actually read it. How much of this is down to knowing the storybook tale as opposed to Disney’s retelling is anybody’s guess. Given that there are actually very few changes to the story, the story is pretty faithful to the Grimm classic, so it would be hard to tell. In fact, most of the alterations were made for purely practical reasons – such as nobody being able to draw the Prince (hence his smaller role) or needing to push the story along (leading to the removal of the Queen’s first two direct attempts at killing Snow White with the lace corset and the poisoned comb). Otherwise, it’s all there on screen – aside from the original ending (but we’ll get to that…).

Dead parents? Most Disney films begin with dead parents (seriously. It’s like you can only have an adventure if you’re an orphan). In the case of Snow White – well, who knows? In the story by the Brothers Grimm, the Queen had died in childbirth, with the King remarrying an evil woman who practices witchcraft. The king suddenly becomes something of an absent father (presumably realising how awful his new queen is and deciding to bugger off elsewhere to get out of her way). As far as the Disney version is concerned, we don’t ever learn about either of Snow White’s real parents. There is just an evil stepmother who wants to be rid of her annoyingly pretty stepdaughter (it’s not much motivation, but I guess we’ve all had bad hair days). Let’s just assume that the King is otherwise engaged with important matters of state and hasn’t noticed his new wife’s wicked intentions or the fact that his only daughter has disappeared, only to be found to be working as a housekeeper for seven men…

Y’know – for kids? Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is surprisingly dark. For fairly obvious ‘this is for the kiddies’ reasons, it does without the original’s ending (the Wicked Queen is forced by the Prince to wear red-hot shoes and dance herself to death – which is certainly one way of dealing with the in-laws), and as a result does feel like it has an abrupt ending. But Snow White being forced to work as a slave for her stepmother to the Queen’s creation of the poison apple and her own ghastly appearance, this is not a film that shies away from frightening the younger members of the audience (“Won’t somebody think of the children?!”). Perhaps the most terrifying of all is Snow White’s initial run into the forest – from the moment the Huntsman sneaks up on our heroine (before a sudden change of heart), through to Snow’s run through the dark forest, with trees looming out…frankly, it’s enough to give anyone nightmares.

Princesses, villains and comedy sidekicks? Snow White is certainly the archetypal Disney Princess; the template for so many who followed her. She dreams of true love; she must overcome a nasty villain; and she is, quite frankly, as dull as ditchwater. I know that we’re looking at this through the prism of 80-odd years, but she is a wet blanket. No wonder she has been ripe for parody (even by Disney themselves – but we’ll get to Enchanted eventually). I’ve seen arguments that try to defend her: she’s resourceful; she’s romantic; she’s takes no nonsense from the dwarfs. But I don’t buy it. She’s bland and forgettable.

Thank goodness, then, for the Queen. Apparently based on Joan Crawford, in terms of look at least (let’s not go into her fearsome reputation here), the Queen is a force to be reckoned with from the start. Her looks of contempt are matched by a viciousness that fascinates. As is often the case with so many films (not just Disney) it is the baddies who are the most interesting. Her vanity and obsession with looks still screams volumes to today’s society and the battles being fought against the dictation of body image to young people. Plus she’s just wonderfully nasty. The film just seems to light up whenever her dark presence appears on screen. Even her old crone is a joy to watch – incredibly both parts were played by Lucille La Verne (she took out her false teeth to achieve the crone’s rasping voice).

As for the comedy sidekicks, the Seven Dwarfs also take some beating. True, a couple of them do merge into one (could you tell the difference between Bashful, Sneezy or Happy from a single image?). But Doc is a fantastic leader, Grumpy (like the Queen) is the most interesting with his bitter side, and Dopey is simply a wonderful comic creation – proof that you don’t need to say a word to illicit a laugh (originally Mel Blanc was going to play him, until Walt decided that none of the attempts to get a decent voice for the character and he deemed that Dopey would be better mute).

Sing-along a showtune? There are plenty of classics here, many of which have become standards. In fact one even inspired The Beatles (aka The Greatest Band of All Time – Fact); the opening line of I’m Wishing took Paul McCartney’s fancy as he penned Do You Want to Know a Secret? Romantic love songs owe a huge debt to Some Day My Prince Will Come (it may sound rather sappy now, but it’s still a well-written song); and you won’t get any better than Whistle While You Work or, my personal favourite, Heigh-Ho. Plus the incidental music is beautiful; it’s worth searching out the soundtrack album for that alone.

Feel-good factor: Let’s go with 7 again. There is plenty going for it – the sing-along songs, the vile villain, the comedic dwarfs. And, for the most part, it keeps the viewer’s interest. But it loses points for the slightly annoying lead character, who seems to slow the film down too much whenever she is on-screen too long. Plus, it does feel slightly dated; the stereotypes tend to work against it. True, some of these tropes were started here, so they can’t be accused of being cliches at the point they were made (even if they are now), but it does make it hard to watch. But, if you’re feeling low, and just want a slight story then this will do the trick. And, hey, without Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, where would animated movies be now?

You can watch the trailer below:

Next movie: Pinocchio (1940)

Steamboat Willie (1928)

  • Release date: 8 November, 1928
  • Run time: 8 mins
  • Director: Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks
  • Cast: Walt Disney
  • Inspired by: Steamboat Bill, Jr (Buster Keaton)

The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.

Before we get to any of the feature length films, it makes sense to go right back to where it all began and the introduction to the world’s most famous rodent. It is all but impossible for most of us to imagine a world without Mickey Mouse, so going back to his humble beginnings is a strange experience; to watch his antics with the eyes of a viewer who is witnessing the birth of a cultural icon. Did those early cinema patrons realise what they had seen? Was it possible to spot, even then, the genius that lay behind the paint pot?

The story is slight – Mickey, who works on a steamboat, attempts to impress passenger Minnie with his musical prowess, while overcoming the hurdles laid down by the boat’s captain, Pete, and a hungry goat. This was Mickey’s debut (two other shorts – Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho – had been produced earlier but were not released until after Steamboat Willie). Disney had pushed this effort forward after watching The Jazz Singer and deciding he wanted to use sychronised sound; as a result, Steamboat Willie was the first animation to feature a fully post-produced soundtrack.

Given the inspiration, Disney was setting his sights high. The Jazz Singer had pushed the boundaries of what cinema could achieve and, even if the story itself is slight, the use of sound was truly groundbreaking. Perhaps even more audaciously, Disney turned to one of the masters of comedy for his plot. Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr is a motion picture masterpiece; a breath-taking slice of cinema by the greatest comedy performer who has ever worked in the medium (including Chaplin). It was a particularly bold move by Disney to allude to Keaton’s recently released film, given that it was regarded at the time as a box office failure (fortunately, it has long since been recognised as one of Keaton’s very best). It shows the faith that the animator had in his project.

It is strange looking back on Mickey in his early form: he doesn’t speak (he would have to wait another year for The Karnival Kid before he found his voice); his eyes are just black dots (it would be over a decade before he acquired whites to his pupils, in 1940’s Fantasia); and his behaviour is incredibly childish. And yet, there is something in his character that is endearing – it will take some honing, but the young rodent is already showing the resourcefulness, wit and sympathy that would turn him into a giant. Besides, it’s rather fun to see a more rough and ready Mickey, rather than the saccharine image which he ended up possessing. Even the supposed animal cruelty (a scene showing him swing a cat was excised from the short for a time, for fear that it would cause offence – it has since been re-inserted) is so cartoonish as to raise a smile at its inventiveness.

The characters are all larger than life and the speeds along without any fat to slow down the action. It is not hard to see why the world took to Mickey and how he quickly became the face of Disney’s growing animation empire. After more than 90 years, Steamboat Willie still stands up as one of the great animation shorts of all time.

Feel-good factor (out of 10): Probably a 7. It is rather on the short side to allow you to wallow in it, but it certainly raises a smile for its minimal run time. Not really something to put on if you need a longer pick-me-up, but if you need a quick and simple 10 minute boost, this will do the trick.

You can watch the full short on Disney’s own YouTube animation channel:

Next movie: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)