Saturday, September 17, 2011

Disney's The Black Cauldron

Disney's The Black what? If you found yourself saying this, then you are not alone. The 25th Disney animated film is probably the most unmemorable and least recognizable Disney film of the canon. Is it that bad? It's not great, but it holds a special place in my childhood. I can remember going to Sam's Club with my parents and seeing the movie on the shelves and wondering what the heck it was. Little did I know that the year I was born, there was a fantasy movie that Disney had tried to pull off, mostly to appeal to all the trendy fantasy nerds. I think that was an oxymoron. I was thirteen when the movie was finally released on VHS, making the release year 1998. I thought myself exceptionally privy on Disney movies, so I was a little confused on why I hadn't seen this particular one. I begged my parents to buy it and watched it as soon as I got home. Remember that I was thirteen and kind of easy to please, so I really enjoyed the movie. This was a darker animated film with a lot of scary characters. I love anything scary, gothic and spooky so this movie was just for me. I wasn't really into fantasy stuff though, and I'm still not that much into it. Needless to say, I have a soft spot for this Disney movie.

I'm going to try and keep this summation short and sweet. This works well because there isn't a whole lot to say about The Black Cauldron. Some of the Nine Old Men had been trying to make this movie since the mid 70's but couldn't really get the ball rolling. The books the movie is based off of, The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron had came out in the mid 60's and this was right when fantasy was starting to gain it's footing in pop culture. By the time the 70's rolled around you had role playing fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons which premiered in 1974. The craze was just starting so Disney wanted to hop on the trendy bus and take it all the way to the bank. Unfortunately for Disney, the trendy bus broke down and they had to put a lot of money into it to get it going without ever getting to the bank. After the Nine Old Men couldn't tackle the dense books, the new animators decided to take a crack at it. What came from the new animators efforts was the most expensive animated movie Disney had made so far, costing 25 million dollars to produce. Keep in mind that this was the early days of computers so they decided to make a few computer animated scenes. Though it's a little hard to tell in this movie, the baubles, the boat, and the cauldron itself are all computer animated.

The Black Cauldron was adapted from the first two books of The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. Alexander's books are like most fantasy novels in that they are kind of confusing with all the funny names and have a sweeping narrative that involves the usual fair of sorcery, swordfights, unlikely heroes, and evil kings and wizards. I have, since writing this post, read Llyod Alexander's "The Black Cauldron," and I have to say that it is incredibly different from the movie. It's way better than the movie in fact, so you should do yourself a favor and check it out, no matter what your age. For one, Hen-Wen is not in "The Black Cauldron." The prescient pig is only really in Lloyd's "The Book of Three." In the book, Taran, Fflewddur Fflam, Prince Gwydion, Prince Ellidyr, Doli, and Adaon all set out to destroy the Black Cauldron, which is the hands of the evil Arawn. Like in the movie, the cauldron is able to make the "cauldron born," who are the undead and cannot be killed. Believing that the Cauldron is behind enemy lines, the group sets out to retrieve and destroy it. Princess Eilonwy and Gurgi eventually catch up to the group, not wanting to be left behind. A quick note about the characters: Taran, Eilonwy, Fflewddur and Gurgi are basically the same from book to movie. The biggest character shift is Doli, who in the movie is a fairy, but in the book is a dwarf. Doli belongs to the fair folk, but at no point in time does the reader get the impression that Doli is anything but a brutish dwarf. Oh, and Doli can turn invisible whenever he wants, though it makes his ears feel as though there are bees buzzing around in them. As for the characters that didn't make it into the movie, well they are probably the most interesting characters in the book. Prince Gwydion is the courageous hero of the first book, and the man that Taran really looks up to. Adaon is the level headed travel mate that speaks of dreams, mostly because they are the supposed future. Adaon is able to be prescient because of his brooch, but eventually passes it on to Taran. Prince Ellidyr is the bully of the book. He is one of the more complex characters of the book so I won't go into too much about him. The witches, Orrdu, Orgoch, and Orwen are present in the book, and do in fact possess the cauldron as they did in the movie. The only difference is that the group has to barter something else than a magic sword to get the cauldron. The cauldron comes with the same destruction directions: whosoever goes into the cauldron of its own free will will destroy the cauldron, but will not climb out again. There are many other characters and plot twists that I could speak of, but I just wanted to give you a small taste of the book and how it compares to the movie. Seriously, read it. Who cares if it's a young adult book.

If you happened to have seen this movie, then you may have noticed something that makes this one stand out from the others: there's blood and scary monsters everywhere. This is Disney's first animated movie to receive the rating of PG. The funniest thing about the whole production was the fact that they were actually afraid that they would get an R rating for awhile because of all the violence and scary images. Jeffrey Katzenberg had just taken over as studio chief and when he saw the first version of the movie, he freaked out. He was certain that they would get an R rating which would basically bury the movie. They did a few cuts here and there but it only went down to a PG-13 rating. They cut it down even further and it stopped at where we know it now, PG. Something happened though when they cut out all the dark and violent scenes from the movie; the movie became disjointed. The scenes didn't really mesh together that well anymore. Disney had a problem but they went along anyway hoping the movie would do well with teenage males, a group that it never really appealed to in earlier years. I would like to see what the movie looked like before the cuts to see what Katzenberg thought of as a PG-13 or even R rated movie. One of the most disturbing scenes in any of the Disney movies is the death of the Horned King as you can see by the above picture.

The movie, on top of the cuts and violent story had another thing going against it: its characters. They were kind of dull, and audiences and critics realized it quickly. Why do you think we don't have Princess Ailonwy with all the other Disney Princesses? Why is there no mention of The Black Cauldron at any of the theme parks (OK, so there is an attraction at Disneyland Tokyo)? Why did it take Disney thirteen years to release the movie in any way shape or form? The story was a bleak one, and the characters didn't help. The Horned King was scary, yes, but really wasn't that threatening in the end. Taran is an OK hero, but doesn't really scream memorable. Then there's the one character that either made you love the movie or cringe every time you heard his voice. I'm talking about none other than Gurgi. Gurgi sounds a little like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, but is much more annoying. He likes to rhyme most of what he says like "Munchies and Crunchies" and is basically a cowardly half dog half badger for most of the movie. He ends up saving everyone yes, but man was he annoying along the way.

Despite having an awesome release poster, The Black Cauldron tanked. It only make a little over 21 million for Disney, making it an official flop. Most critics blamed the dark story material for the mediocre film, but still pointed out that the narrative was a bit disjointed and the characters weren't very memorable. One of the few who gave it a positive review was Roger Ebert, who praised the film for it's "splendid visuals." Lloyd Alexander himself claimed that the movie had no resemblance to his books, but he enjoyed watching it and hoped that people would read his books which he felt had more depth. Unfortunately for Disney, by 1985 the fantasy craze was over and no one bothered to watch their movie. I'm not sure if I'm just easy to please or what, but I still enjoy this movie, which is more than I can say for most of what Disney released in the 2000's. Check this movie out if you haven't before. You might like it!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Disney's The Fox and the Hound

Trouble was brewing at Disney Studios. Don Bluth, who had just been promoted to a lead animator for Disney's movies, decided that he would leave Disney and start his own animation studio. He brought along other animators that felt the same way he did: Disney films had lost their charm and they wanted to set out to do their own work. The last piece that Bluth would work on for Disney in a large part was Small One, the story about the donkey that Mary rides while pregnant with Jesus, in 1978. He worked on a few things for The Fox and the Hound, but not enough to be officially credited. With Bluth and other animators leaving to form a rival animation company, The Fox and the Hound was postponed for a whole year. Don't be too mad at Bluth though. It's thanks to him that we have all the great Disney films of the 90's. How is that? Bluth did something that little thought anyone could do: he created animated movies to rival Disney's and succeeded. If you look at box office numbers and critical reception, it's not an understatement to say that Bluth's animation company owned the 80's. An American Tail would go on to smash all the records for animated films and that movie was topped by his next hit, The Land Before Time. An American Tail crushed The Great Mouse Detective which came out a few months prior and though The Land Before Time only beat Oliver & Company by $10 million, it was considered a much bigger success critically. Some even called The Land Before Time a more Disney like film than Oliver & Company....ouch. What's my point? If Bluth hadn't kicked Disney in the pants with his better films then we wouldn't have The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King.

Disney had lost Bluth and eleven other animators, but they still had a good group of animators left. This would be the last production that would involve Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, who did a lot of the preliminary animation but basically passed the baton onto the new animators. Who were these new animators that Disney employed? Well, you may of heard of a few of them. John Musker and Ron Clements, who gave us The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, and Treasure Planet served as story artists and animators. Tim Burton, best known as director of Batman and Beeltejuice and producer of The Nightmare Before Christmas served as assistant and development artist. John Lasseter, who started out as a skipper on the Jungle Cruise ride and later became an animator on this film, is known for directing Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and A Bug's Life. Lastly, Brad Bird, a writer for The Simpsons and director for The Iron Giant and The Incredibles served as an animator. This group may seem impressive now, but at the time they were just young animators that had a dream. Hmmmmm...that sounded a bit corny. If you want to see a behind the scene making of the movie, click here.

OK, so I haven't said basically anything on The Fox and the Hound. Let me remedy that by getting into the voice acting. The voice cast for The Fox and the Hound was a meeting of the old and the new. Heading up the old side of the cast as adult Tod was Mickey Rooney, who everyone should know already. If you don't, then you really need to get out more. Another cast member on the older side was the voice of Amos Slade (the hunter), Jack Alberston, otherwise known as Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. A more recognizable name is Sandy Duncan, who voices Vixey, Tod's love interest. Duncan was a popular 70's TV star and stage actor, though the only thing I ever saw her in was The New Scooby-Doo Movies. Then you get the slightly younger stars such as Kurt Russel, who voiced adult Copper. Russel really got his career started when he starred in Disney films as a child such as Follow Me, Boys! and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes in the late 60's. Russel even has the distinction of having his name be the last thing that Walt Disney wrote out on a piece of paper, though nobody is sure why he did it. Some believe Disney wrote the name as a way of saying that Russel was the future of Disney films, and other people(my sister) think this was Disney's way of giving clues to whoever murdered him. And you thought that he died of lung cancer! Russel would shake off his Disney roles and star in cult classics like The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, and Escape from New York. One voice in the movie surprised me more than any, and that is the voice of young Copper, Corey Feldman. This is one of those things I didn't know until I was well into my college years. It's funny because this gig was literally his second. He wasn't the famous Lost Boys and Goonies actor when he did the voice. I guess he has Disney to thank for a few things. Keith Coogan, the voice of young Tod also broke into movies with this role, starring in Little House on the Prairie and other TV shows before this. He hasn't starred in much after 1991, but you may remember him from Adventures in Babysitting. Suffice to say, this was a mixed cast.

The Fox and the Hound is about the harsh reality of prejudice, plain and simple. A fox is adopted by an old lady as a pet and the fox quickly becomes friends with a young dog. They have tons of fun until they are told that their friendship cannot last, since they are meant to be enemies. They grow up and the fox is told by the dog that they cannot be like they were and had to live like they are expected to: as mortal enemies. Dog's kill foxes, it's as simple as that. A misunderstanding, a chase, and a bear attack all lead to the two realizing that their friendship can be sustained even though everybody expects them to hate each other. The story has a happy ending of sorts, as we assume that they go on not hating each other.

The story was inspired by Daniel Mannix's novel of the same name, though their plots greatly differ. There are no talking animals in the book version and the fox and dog never become friends. It's more of a story about the life and death of a fox. Tod in the novel runs away from the hunter, Copper and the other dog, Chief and like in the movie, Chief is knocked by a train. In the book, he actually dies. This route was considered for the movie version but Disney was hesitant at that time to kill of a main character, as evidenced with Baloo being alive at the end of The Jungle Book and Trusty in Lady and the Tramp. So, the whole goal for the hunter and Copper is to get revenge on Tod for getting Chief killed. Wonder why they used the name Tod? Tod is similar to Todde, which means Fox in Middle English. Tod apparently has two vixens that he mates and has babies with, all of which get killed by the hunter. Hmmmm...this version might not be as cute and cuddly as the movie version. Oh, and remember how I said that the train hitting Chief was like the movie? There's one point I forgot to mention. Tod tried to get Chief killed by the train. After that, Copper chases after Tod until Tod dies of exhaustion. The hunter in the novel is an old drunk that is forced to go into a retirement home that doesn't allow dogs. Finding this out, he shoots Copper. Aren't happy endings wonderful?

The movie was released in June 1981 and became a moderate box office success. In it's four year production it racked up the largest bill for a Disney movie: $12 million. It made nearly $40 million so they made their money back, but it wasn't as big as The Rescuers. Critics weren't too favorable of this film though. Critic's deemed it completely average. Leonard Maltin stated that the movie was "good news/bad news for Disney" saying that the good news is that the new animators seemed to be in "firm control." The bad news was that the movie relied too much on "formula cuteness, formula comedy relief, and even formula characterizations." Maltin claimed this probably came from the new artists fear of displeasing the memory of Walt Disney. I'm going to take that as the new artists being afraid of the ghost of Walt Disney, who I'm assuming would continually berate them if their artwork and stories were not up to par. Maltin did go on to say that the fight scene between Copper and the bear was one of the best pieces of animation at that time and drew a lot of praise from the animation world. Other critics said basically the same thing, from calling it a cute tale to just plain dull and predictable. I kind of like the movie. It's not way up there or anything, but I do enjoy the lesson of the whole thing. Plus the bear scene is pretty awesome.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Disney's The Rescuers

Funny enough, The Rescuers was released just a few months after The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. At the time, Pooh was not part of the canon, but with it's inclusion, 1977 along with 1941 are the only two years that Disney released two canon films within the same year. 2000 holds the record with three Disney films however. Disney pulled out all the stops for The Rescuers. They wanted to bring the studio back to a time when their stories focused less on humor and more on heart. To do this, they used all of the remaining "Nine Old Men" plus a new group of animators and story writers. The new group was inexperienced, but would later create the movies of the Disney Renaissance. The film did mark the last time that Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston, and Frank Thomas would work together on a movie. One career that was just taking off though was Don Bluth's. He had been an assistant animator for Robin Hood and was now a full fledged animator. If you don't recognize Bluth's name, then you may remember a few of the films he would go on to direct in the 80's, namely: The Secret of NIMH, The Land Before Time, An American Tail, and All Dogs go to Heaven. Basically all the other animated films I grew up with. So, suffice to say Bluth's days at Disney didn't last forever.

This movie is filled with finales. Along with this being the last production that most of the Nine Old Men worked on, it's also the last movie that Wolfgang Reitherman would direct. It's also the last performances of Joe Flynn who voiced Mr. Snoops and Jim Jordan who voiced Orville the albatross, the former died right afterwards and the latter retired from movies altogether. This was the last to have the sketchy look of the 60's and 70's, though it did use a better xerographic process to give the animation a softer look. It's also sad to say, but this is considered the last movie of the Silver Age of Disney Animation, starting with Cinderella and ending here. That means we're about to go into the dark ages of Disney before we reach the renaissance. Hmmm...not a good sign.

The Rescuers isn't exempt from the dreaded forgotten films of Disney though. If you ask anybody from my generation, they generally know very little about the movie. This is unfortunate, because it is a pretty good film. It's not a favorite or anything, but it is a breath of fresh air. It's a great adventure story that has more conflict in it than the last couple films, especially Winnie the Pooh, though I hardly count not having enough honey as a serious conflict. If you aren't familiar with the story, it's basically the inspiration for Chip N' Dales Rescue Rangers. I'm appealing to my generation now! A little girl is kidnapped so she can get a priceless jewel out of a cave, and two mice set out to rescue her, hence the title of the movie. The movie does have some memorable characters, including Orville the albatross and one of my favorite characters: Evinrude the Dragonfly. I have no idea why, but I love that bug. Although it didn't mean much to me when I was a child, both main characters were voiced by big stars at the time. Eva Gabor was Bianca, the Rescue Aid Society mouse from Hungary, and Bob Newhart voiced the mouse janitor Bernard. If you read my post on Aristocats then you know what Gabor is famous for, but for anyone who has no idea who Bob Newhart is, he was a famous and very funny stand up comedian and TV star of The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart. I would consider this Disney's first star-studded cast, but that's just me. Some, like my sister, disagree and say that The Jungle Book was an earlier example.

The film was inspired by the novels The Rescuers and Miss Bianca by Margery Sharp with also some inspiration coming from the animators themselves. Some of the differences between the book and the novel are that fact that the Rescue Aid Society, called the Mouse Prisoner's Aid Society in the book series, was located in an unspecified location, while the setting in the movie is under the United Nations building in New York City. Penny is called Patience in the book and is not drawn in the book as child-like as the movie makes her appear. The character of Madame Medusa was the Diamond Duchess in the books who lived in a palace made completely of diamonds (la de da!). Mr. Snoops was also changed from Mandrake, who was the Diamond Duchess' majordomo instead of her colleague. A majordomo is apparently a funny name for a butler. In the book, the character of Patience is not kidnapped to retrieve a diamond, but is there to polish diamonds. It sounds like she had her work cut out for her. The two alligators in the film are absent in the books, instead being two bloodhounds. One of the most disappointing differences between the books and the movie is the fact that Bernard and Bianca are not romantically involved at all. In fact, in the second book, Bernard plays a very minor part in the story.

Bernard's character from the book actually carries a lot of the same personality as Bernard in the movie, keeping his character the closest to the book's portrayal out of all the characters. Mr. Snoops' appearance is actually a caricature of animation historian John Culhane. Without Culhane knowing, they had gotten reaction shots of him and mirrored the character's movements on his own. Culhane was a little perturbed that he was tricked into being a caricature, but considered it a great honor to have a character that looks like him being in a Disney film. A character that could of been much different than the final product turned out is Orville. Initially he was going to be a pigeon, but Frank Thomas remembered watching a video of an albatross taking off and landing clumsily and thought that it would fit the film better. One of the most hilarious inspirations for a character comes from Madame Medusa. She is basically a cartoon version of Milt Kahl's ex-wife, someone he didn't care too much for. Because this was his last movie, he wanted to make sure that Medusa came out perfect and did all the animation for her, not even letting his assistants help. The caricature's didn't stop there though, as Ollie Johnston was represented by Rufus the cat. Another funny way that who you cast basically decides who the character is going to turn into is the example of the character Bianca. She wasn't going to be Hungarian until Eva Gabor showed up. It would of been hard to have her character be from anywhere else with that sort of accent though.

The Rescuers took four years to make with animated work from some of the best in the business. This all led up to a release in 1977 to rave reviews. Luckily for Disney studios, the movie was a huge success with crowds and critics. With better animation, a star-studded cast and a movie that had heart and less humor. Don't get me wrong though, this movie is plenty funny. The movie earned $48 million in it's initial run becoming the highest grossing movie for Disney so far. It also broke the record for highest gross for an animated film in opening weekend, something it would hold till Bluth's An American Tail came out in 1986. The film was the last film that was a huge success since The Jungle Book, and was unfortunately the last till The Little Mermaid. It was also the last Disney film before The Little Mermaid to be nominated for an Academy Award. More than anything, the success of the Rescuers proved once and for all that Disney studios could go on without Walt. The Rescuers would go on to make even more being re-released with Mickey's Christmas Carol and again in 1990, before the sequel came out.

One last thing to mention about this film is the controversy that surrounds a certain scene. In 1999 when it was being released the second time around on VHS, Disney suddenly pulled all the copies off the shelves and announced a recall. Why? Because if you paused the movie at a certain point when Bianca and Bernard are on Orville and passing a building's windows, you can see a naked woman in one of the windows. You would have to really be sharp to catch it, but it was there if the player went slow enough. The image has apparently been there since the release in 1977 and the first batch of VHS's was apparently made from a different print. Disney re-released the VHS sans naked lady later in 1999. There are some who speculate that Disney may have made the fact come to light in order to boost sales of the movie. Controversy always helps sales! By the way, I'm not posting the alleged pic here. Go find it yourself if you're really curious. Instead, here's a picture of a crocodile playing an organ.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Disney's The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

If you were to ask me what my favorite Disney character was when I was only three I would start singing “Winnie the Pooh, Winnie the Pooh, Winnie, Winnie, the Pooh, Pooh, Pooh” That was all the words I knew from the song, but my family could tell you I was really passionate about singing that song. Winnie the Pooh is such an icon for small children and for a few adults like me, who will cherish the silly ole bear and his friends forever. Most of the credit for Winnie the Pooh’s popularity should be given to Walt Disney, though without the imagination of author A.A. Milne I could not say this. A.A. Milne’s Pooh series became the most beloved British Children Stories but had not made its mark within the U.S. Thankfully, these books made it onto the bookshelf of Walt’s daughters and were read to the girls by their mother for a bedtime story. Hearing the delight of his children, Disney knew he had to bring these stories to his animation studio. Originally it was planned to make a full-length musical animation of Winnie the Pooh, but instead Disney decided to make them into shorts. His reasoning for this was he wanted American audiences to become familiar with all the characters, feel an emotional tie to them.

The first of the series was Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966) then Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1966) which unfortunately was the last picture that Walt had a hand in before he died. Following this film came Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too. Stringing these films together then brought us the 22nd full-length animated film to be released in 1977, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Later in 1983 a final featurette based on the original books was added, Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore. Maybe Walt was a fortune- teller because his choice to make shorts and then string them together later was financially and creatively smart. Not only did making shorts save the studio money, but they made and is still making an absolute killing with merchandise. Pooh’s everywhere! (Stop giggling).

Creatively the animators made audiences feel that they were actually reading a story book, including the actual words and chapter titles from Milne’s stories. You can even see some of Milne’s illustrators E.H. Shepard’s style work while pages are being turned (the black and white bumble bees are one example). A magical moment for children is to see a still scene and then magically the characters come to life and take you to the Hundred Acre Woods. A fun little thing to look out for at the beginning of the movie is a few toy soldiers and a sailor in a boat with a cannon. These are all from the live action Disney movie, Babes in Toyland. We didn't read about this, we watched the movie and noticed it. Perhaps nobody but us nerds has noticed it!

What I find great about the whole stories of Pooh is how they were created by Milne. His inspiration came to him from his own son Christopher Robin and his son’s teddy bear. Originally, the bears name was Edward, but a trip to the London Zoo would change everything. At the zoo, Christopher Robin was awe struck by a Canadian black bear by the name of Winnie ( who was previously owned by a Lieutenant during WW1 and dubbed a mascot). Pooh came from a swan by that name. Milne though further explains his reason why Winnie the Pooh is sometimes just known as Pooh.

"But his arms were so stiff ... they stayed up straight in the air for more than a week, and whenever a fly came and settled on his nose he had to blow it off. And I think — but I am not sure — that that is why he is always called Pooh." Disney included this small little tid bit during the title song of Winnie the Pooh. But instead of a fly he uses a butterfly. So Edward became Winnie the Pooh and to entertain his young son Milne made up adventures that Pooh and some of Christopher Robin’s other stuff animals went on, treating them like they were real. This included Piglet, Eeoyre,Tigger, Kanga and Roo (Rabbit and Owl were not a part of the collection but within the books).

You may be asking, “Hey, what about Gopher?” Gopher was added by Disney, as he wanted to add an American character to the group so Americans could feel some sort of connection. Gopher was also to add some comedy. Slapstick was definitely used throughout the film. I almost felt like Gopher was taking on an Abbot and Costello role with Owl when it was being decided if Gopher was going to be hired to dig Winnie the Pooh out of Rabbits hole. Gopher’s best line though is “I’m not in the book”. This was very clever, not only was it used for explaining that he wasn’t in the phone book but he wasn’t in Milne’s book.A.A. Milne wrote four volumes about this famous bear including, Winnie-the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six.

Now back to the Disney version, I don't know if you're getting tired of hearing this guys voice, but Disney could not get enough of him. Sterling Holloway lends his voice to Winnie the Pooh, his best loved role by audiences. Another familiar voice is Sebastian Cabot, (who played Bageera in the Jungle Book) narrates these wonderful tales. Paul Winchell had wonderful time bouncing around as Tigger and he even adlibbed Tigger's most famous line, " TTFN -Ta Ta For Now". Wolfgang Reitherman (director) didn't have to look very far for Eeyore's voice, he picked one of his own storymen, Ralph Wright, who had an extremely deep voice.

Critics loved The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh when it came out in 1977. Leonard Maltin called the shorts, "gems" and loved the storybook feel to the whole movie. There are others who claimed that thanks to Disney's meddling, the original books' integrity was destroyed. I find this to be a load of heffalump dung due to the fact that the shorts follow the stories from the book pretty well. Sure there are a few changes, but it's not like Disney changed the character into a bloodthirsty killer or something. In the awards category, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day won an Academy Award for Best Short, making it the only Winnie the Pooh film to win an academy award. If you can't get enough of Pooh, don't worry, there are a bunch of different shorts, movies, and TV shows that Pooh stars in. You probably remember the first one I just linked to, but how about this show?

Disney's Robin Hood

Robin Hood is a favorite of mine. That being said, I know it's not exactly the best Disney movie. I can say that it's better than most of the Disney movies that came out in the 2000's. I can't wait to get to those ones. This is truly the first Disney movie that did not have Walt Disney a part of the production. Because of that, there was a certain urgency to this movie. If it failed, then people would surmise that Disney studios would never be good again. If it did well, then things perhaps could go on without Walt. We all know today that Disney is still alive and well, so perhaps this is a little bit anti-climatic, but it is interesting to know that Disney was on the brink of shutting down it's animation department several times because of financial reasons. Unfortunately, Disney was now strapped for cash and needed to cut a few corners so save some dough.

How did they do that? They basically reused animation from older movies and from other scenes in Robin Hood. They borrow a lot from The Jungle Book and The Aristocats, but also delve into Snow White. I'm not going to lay out all the scenes myself but let this video show you.

That one shows many other deja vu moments in Disney films. There are two other videos I found interesting that can be found here and there. As you can see, Disney basically kept a lot of the same movements and put new animated characters on it. This is something that you would have to be completely crazy to notice on a casual watch. Luckily for us there are a lot of crazy people out there!

The animation isn't the only way that they basically reused ideas. Little John is Baloo the bear. He's even voiced by the same person. I realized this when I was very little. I had no idea why Baloo had turned into a brown bear and was now running around with a fox dressed like Peter Pan. That's another thing. The costume for Robin and Peter is basically the same. Apparently this has led to some confusion between the characters, but who gets a boy and a fox mixed up? Crazy people, that's who. Another character that is a recycled version of another is Sir Hiss. It's Kaa from the Jungle Book, plain and simple. They have different voices, but they're both snakes and both have the hypnotic eye thing. This movie is like the greatest hits of the 60's and 70's of Disney animation.

If you don't like cross-dressing, then this movie isn't for you. Little John and Robin decide to pull a Mr. Rochester and dress up like a lady gypsies to fool someone. While Robin seems to have pulled the whole thing off, voice and look, I can't say the same for Little John. He doesn't even try to use a female voice! He even gets one of the guard rhinos to take a fancy to him!

One of the things I like most about this movie is the songs. I think I still like the beginning of this movie more than any other Disney movie just because of the opening animation along with the song "Whistle Stop." The name may not sound familiar, but you may know it from the movie, or when it was sped up and used for the Hamster Dance. Famous country honky-tonk singer Roger Miller provides the regular and singing voice for Alan-a-Dale the rooster and sings both "Whistle Stop" and the next song that I enjoy a lot, "Oo De Lally." "Love" is a nice romantic song to accompany Robin and Marian's relationship. "Love" even ended up being nominated for best song at the Oscars, but lost to Barbara Streisand. A funny addition to the story is the football theme "Oh, Wisconsin" played when Lady Kluck beats up Prince John's goon's football style. No one can say that this movie isn't a lot of fun to watch.

The characters are the best part of the movie. Robin is the clever and suave hero. Little John is the more responsible Baloo, but still lots of fun. The long suffering Sir Hiss is one of my favorite characters to watch, especially when he's having his back and forths with Prince John. Speaking of Prince John, he's basically the best character in the whole movie. Peter Ustinov, who voiced the character, was famous for playing over-the-top villains, and Prince John is no different. His spoiled and weak-willed portrayal of Prince John is basically the same character he played before as Roman Emperor Nero in Quo Vadis. Prince John gets all emotional when he hears about his mother's preference for his brother and sucks his thumb. The whole "Mother always did like Richard more than me" bit was an homage to a Smothers Brothers routine in which Tom would bemoan the maternal preference of his brother, Dick. Prince John is a campy, over-the-top character that is just menacing enough to take serious as a villain.

While the movie did have people from Britain doing voices, there were plenty that were from America, and made the setting in England seem a bit off with their voices. This is most evident with Alan-a-Dale the Rooster, who sounds like a country singer. One that is painfully obvious when you really think about it is The Sheriff of Nottingham. He clearly has a southern accent. I'm not sure why I didn't realize it when I watched it, but it's there clear as day. You can also hear the southern twang in Friar Tuck. Speaking of Friar Tuck, his character was actually supposed to be a pig. That was until the Disney animators realized that religious folk might take offense at a friar being a pig. He was changed to a badger, making him look like a more rotund version of Mr. Badger from The Wind in the Willows.

The funny thing is that this movie was started by thinking about a fox, and not Robin Hood. Initially, the studio wanted to do a movie about Reynard the Fox. Who's Reynard the fox you say? Well, I didn't know either, so I did a little research and found out. Reynard has many forms in European literature, but started out in Alscae-Lorraine folklore. His use was spread throughout to France, Germany, the Netherlands, and England, most putting him in fables where he is a peasant hero of sort, a monk, or a trickster figure. Sometimes all three. Walt didn't think that Reynard was a suitable choice for a hero, so he turned it down. We can assume the discussion happened in the 60's and wasn't dusted off and changed into Robin Hood until the early 70's. Ken Anderson, who was in charge of the story, made up some characters for a version of Robin Hood that had anthropomorphic animals instead of people, using ideas from the fables of Reynard. Unfortunately for him, his drawings and designs were not followed, and it is said that he wept when he saw how his character concepts had been processed into stereotypes for the animation on Robin Hood.

The story of Robin Hood is very long, so I'll spare you all the detailed history. The movie does a pretty good job of portraying the the story of Robin Hood, besides them being all animals. Besides this, and the disjointed plot at times, it is a pretty accurate portrayal of what Robin did. He stole from the rich to give to the poor. The Sheriff of Nottingham is more the villain in other works about Robin Hood, as in this version Prince John is the main villain. Robin Hood also had more people in his merry band, not just Little John. The tale of Robin Hood is only hinted at in it's earliest history. Later on there were ballads dedicated to this man who helped the poor. The story is different for each ballad though. Some considered him a yeoman, while later depictions had him as an aristocrat who was wrongly dispossessed of his lands by a unscrupulous sheriff. Robin's relationship with Maid Marian is well known throughout the folklore, along with his battle against the Sheriff of Nottingham and the unjust ways of Prince John. I'm sure that you've seen many version's of Robin Hood, whether it be the Kevin Costner version, the new Russell Crowe version, or the classic Robin Hood: Men in Tights directed by Mel Brooks.

The Disney version actually has an alternate ending. For those who don't want to watch the video, it's basically Robin being injured when he jumps off the burning castle, is rescued by Little John, and then cared for by Maid Marian. Prince John and Sir Hiss follow them to a church and prepares to kill him but is stopped by his brother, King Richard. Richard doesn't banish him but severely punishes him for basically ruining his kingdom. The King has Friar Tuck marry Robin and Maid Marian and everyone lives happily ever after....except Prince John and Sir Hiss.

The movie was released in 1973, earning $9.5 million on it's first run, a good amount for a movie made on a budget of $1.5 million. Disney's cost cutting had worked and they had a crowd pleasing movie. This didn't go for the critics though. They found the animation to be sub-par. The rough pencil style used in that era apparently didn't look that good to begin with, but at least Aristocats and The Jungle Book had done it well. When I watched the film last night, I have to admit that the animation isn't very good. It's not terrible, but definitely not up to par with other Disney animated films. Critics also complained about the disjointed plot and the uninteresting main characters, citing Prince John as the only character that had some depth to him. This didn't stop the average movie goer from seeing the movie however, and Disney had proved that it could go on without Walt.

Oh, and the part where the Sheriff of Nottingham steals Skippy the rabbit's birthday coin still makes me incredibly sad every time I watch it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Disney's The Aristocats

This is where things start getting funny. Without the direction of Walt, the Disney animated films started to slide. It all began with The Aristocats and lasted until The Little Mermaid. Don't get me wrong, some of the movies between these are pretty good, but no one would put them in the ranks of the classics like Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, Bambi and Cinderella. The Aristocats isn't a bad film per se, it's just a little bit tired. The story of a bunch of rich kittens getting stolen so the butler can get an inheritance isn't exactly a classic story, and it's surprisingly devoid of a solid moral. The story writers had a chance to further explore the issue of class, but it's like they just didn't feel like it. There is no strife between the two groups of cats, the poor completely willing to help out the rich cats, and the rich having no problem partying it up with the poor cats. Duchess doesn't have that upper class pretension, and Thomas O'Malley is far too eager to please the richer cats for the class issue to be even remotely touched upon. Even the romance between them seems to not have much of any flair to it. Another thing is though you definitely feel for the cats, what are they gonna do with all that money? They're cats!!! Should the butler have stolen them? No, but it does seem a bit of a slap in the face to him that Madame Adelaide is giving all her money to animals. Can you blame him for being a little upset?

The story and characters may also seem a little familiar if you think too much about other animated films you have seen. In fact, though the story is not the same, the movie Gay Purr-ee, which came out in 1962, involves two cats in Paris and their love story. Even some of the characters in the movie are copies of past Disney characters or archetypes. Thomas O'Malley is basically the same character as Baloo the bear, this connection growing stronger knowing that the two characters are both voiced by Phil Harris. Also, the kittens seem to be every young, curious character that has been in a Disney movie. It's not unfamiliar territory for Disney.

OK, I know I'm being a little down on this movie, but after doing some research it became obvious that this may not be a terribly great Disney movie. The one thing I found a little distressing actually was the lack of information about the movie. This isn't just me either, as I have seen others mention in their blogs or reviews how little information there is on the production of The Aristocats. All I know is that this was the last movie to be OK'd by Disney himself, and that the movie was worked on by five of "Nine Old Men." Like with all the Disney movies until the 80's, Wolfgang Reitherman directed. Knowing that though, it just seems odd that they didn't go for a better story. Don't get me wrong, it has some great music, especially everyone's favorite, "Ev'rybody Wants to be a Cat." While the other songs aren't completely memorable, they are fitting for the setting. The Sherman Brothers even convinced Maurice Chevalier to come out of retirement and sing the English and French version of the title song.

One of the best parts of the movie though is the voice acting. There are a lot of familiar names from past Disney films, and even one that may be recognizable from other things. Like I mentioned before, Phil Harris voices O'Malley the streetwise alley cat. Harris voiced Baloo and went on to voice Little John in Robin Hood. Eva Gabor, who you may know from the sitcom Green Acres, voices Duchess the upperclass cat. Gabor would later voice Bianca for The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under. Scatman Crothers voices Scat Cat, one of the jazz musicians that is friends with O'Malley. You may know the musician by name only, or from voicing Hong Kong Phooey or Jazz in the old Transformers cartoon. And for all you horror nuts out there, he was also the groundskeeper in The Shining. The funny thing is that Scat Cat was originally going to be voiced by Louie Armstrong, but he pulled out at the last minute. Though they changed the name and voice, Scat Cat still looks a little like and has the same moves as Louie Armstrong. Sterling Holloway, who voiced Winnie the Pooh amongst a bunch of others voiced Roquefort the mouse. The last one I wanted to mention was the voice of one of the other Jazz cats, Billy Boss, who is voiced by Thurl Ravenscroft. Ravenscroft is best known f0r being the voice of Tony the Tiger for many years and the singer for The Grinch who Stole Christmas. For those who visit Disney World/Land, there are also a few attractions that use his voice.

I honestly don't even have any stats on how it did in the box office the first time around. All I know is that it was met with mixed reviews. This isn't to say that the movie doesn't have its fans. Many people love this movie, I'm just not one of them. One person who likes the movie especially is Snoop Dogg. You can read his review here. Trust me, it's worth it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Disney's The Jungle Book

Walt Disney’s next film went deep into the jungles of India to tell a tale of a young boy raised by a pack of wolves. The Jungle Book brought us so many lovable characters including the “man-cub” Mowgli , Louie king of the Apes, and good ole papa bear, Baloo. This is truly one of my favorite Disney movies because the uniquely different personalities within the characters. Disney was surely a genius when he casted the voice actors. For the cast of the Jungle Book, Disney used familiar actors/singers like Phil Harris, Louis Prima, Sebastian Cabot, and George Sanders. Disney had used familiar voices to audiences before, but not as much as he did in the Jungle Book. It's funny both Phil Harris the voice of Baloo and Louis Prima, who voiced King Louie, would both go onto say that they are best known for lending their voices to the Jungle Book instead of all their other accomplishments.

The music though is what also really makes this film in my opinion. Who can forget the memorable songs of the Bare Necessities and I Wan’na Be Like You. Baloo was always moving to the music, feeling the groove. While King Louie had a swinging Dixieland jive-talking number. A fun background story to this song is the Sherman brothers (who began writing songs for Disney starting with 101 Dalmatians) were in charge of convincing Louis Prima a well known musician to take on the role of King Louie. He came in and listen to the Sherman brothers play King Louie’s song "I Wan’na be like You," and at the end of the song Prima said “ What are you trying to do, make a monkey out of me” The Sherman brothers said “yes that is exactly what we are doing”. Amused by this, Prima said “You got me”. Louie Prima brought along his band mates and began to monkey around. Here is a clip of them doing exactly that.
No one could ever say Disney didn't go out of it's way to make their movies unique and unforgettable.

Bill Peet went to Walt and declared that after doing The Sword in the Stone, they wanted to do something with more interesting animal characters. Peet offered the idea of adapting Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" and Walt agreed. Like with the last two films, Peet came up with the story himself, with little supervision from Walt. Walt stepped in after the original story was fleshed out and decided to voice his concerns. Peet had followed Kipling's novel very well in terms of the novel's dark nature and story about man's struggles with animals. It was too dark for Disney, who wanted a friendlier. light-hearted version, insisted that Peet change it. Peet refused and left Disney studios. Disney hired Larry Clemmons to take over as the writer and gave him a copy of Kipling's novel telling Clemmons, "the first thing I want you to do is not to read it." Clemmons looked at the book anyway and realized that it was a disjointed storyline without continuity. To fix this problem that he saw, Clemmons wanted to change a few things, most of all, applying in medias res (starting at the middle of a story and using flashbacks to explain the beginning. Think Kill Bill Vol. 2 or The Usual Suspects.). Disney disagreed and stated that he wanted a straight storyline, and also wanted Clemmons to stick to the meat of the picture and establish the characters.

Like they had done with Maleficent's character and her voice actor, the animators decided to make Shere Khan look a bit like his voice, George Sanders. Like in other Disney movies, animation was also basically reused; in this case, the wolf cubs are basically re-animated dalmatians. All the animals movements were based on real life animals, but especially Shere Khan's, being the least cartoon-ish of the characters. Another fun fact about the animation is the dance that King Loiue and his monkey friends do is based off of Louis Prima and his bandmates performance at their audition.

Something I always thought was interesting was the fact that the Beatles could have been part of the movie. It was a long shot, but it could have happened. Disney came up with the idea of having the vultures based off the Beatles and voiced by them too. Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, thought it was a great idea, but didn't clear it with the boys first. Once John Lennon found out, he vetoed the decision and the Beatles would not be a part of The Jungle Book. This didn't stop Disney from making the vultures look and act like the Beatles however, giving them the trademark mop-top haircut (sort of) the Beatles incidentally weren't wearing anymore as they had phased the mop-top look out for Sgt. Pepper's.

The original Jungle Book story is much more segmented then the movie version. In fact, Mowgli goes back to the man-village several times in the book. Also, the story of Mowgli being kidnapped by a bunch of monkeys (sorry, no King Loiue in this version.) is told after the story of Mowgli fighting Shere Khan with Bagheera and Baloo, making it a prequel story of sorts. One cannot argue with Clemmons wanting to start the movie in the middle. The book includes many more characters that don't make it into the movie such as Chil the Kite (it's a bird, not the toy.), Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the Mongoose, and Boldeo the hunter. Kaa is also a good guy in the books, as he helps rescue Mowgli from the monkeys.

A bitter part of the release of The Jungle Book in theaters during 1967 was that Walt Disney was not there to see it. Disney had died ten months earlier of lung cancer. The Jungle Book was the last movie he worked on before his death. The movie was a success in theaters, making 13 million in it's domestic earnings on it's first go around. The movie succeeded due to it's musical numbers, but Walt's death probably had something to do with it too. I think everyone wanted to see the last thing that Walt Disney had a hand in. Walt's death surely effected how critics viewed the film, almost all of them giving the movie rave reviews. It wasn't undeserved praise either. The Jungle Book was and is a great animated film with fantastic musical numbers. It's one of my favorite of all the Disney films and I'm sure it's other people's too.