Monday, March 28, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #1-3: Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia.

After a string of successful animated shorts that included Steamboat Willie (which pioneered the age of synchronized sound in motion pictures), and Flowers and Trees (which did the same thing for color in film), Walt Disney quickly became a prolific name in the medium, but his ambitions stretched further than any 7 minute constraints. He had the idea of creating an animated film just as long as any of the eighty minute golden age classics at the time. It was a brilliant idea in hindsight that, nevertheless, made everyone, including friends and family, fear that this would be the downfall of the entire studio once and for all. Little did the skeptics at the time know that Walt would set into motion not only a studio that would still be enchanting audiences eighty years later, but forever revolutionized filmmaking in general.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:
The very first full length animated feature ever made, the ageless Snow White is hailed not only as one of the most important films ever produced, but frequently ranks among the greatest animated films of all time, including reaching number one on the American Film Institute's Top Ten Animated Features list.

That said, it's not a completely ageless movie, because if we were to really analyze the movie's content piece by piece, it's very clearly a product of its time. As much as I love the characters, none of them feel fully-dimensional or all that intriguing below the surface, with Snow White herself being among the most zero note Disney protagonists. Also, while its simplicity in storytelling is certainly a charm, it feels more in line with a feature length Silly Symphony than the traditional Disney mold we've come to know and love. Not only that, but it set into motion morals with very mixed signals and intentions that the company themselves continue to rectify even to this day.

But let's face it, as much as we can complain about the content, some films do deserve all the praise they receive for their innovations and importance to cinema. While the scripting is clearly a product of its late 30's timeline, it's to the credit of Walt and his most reliable animators that the beautiful hand-drawn work still looks as beautiful and as seamless as they did back in its original release. To this day, its ingenious squash and stretch movements and fabulous character designs, as well as the beautiful multi-plane camera work is studied and adored by animation students everywhere. Not only that, but its orchestral score is still as lovely as it has ever been, and despite its flatness, the story's emotional resonance can still be felt even to this day. It may be empty underneath, but it's still a welcome piece of old-fashioned nostalgia.

****1/2 / *****

While Snow White was certainly important in bringing animation into serious  critical analysis, it's Pinocchio where the studio established itself as one of the great studio giants. With the studio taking a growth in animation skills, the colorful and staggering artwork and characters of the film are even more impressive then their older counterpart, and the further perfection of the innovative Multiplane camera movements allows for some of the most sweeping of Disney's hand-drawn efforts. Even the music took a step up, with the signature "When You Wish Upon a Star" (practically Disney's anthem at this point) setting the enchanting mood very well, and still retains the gorgeous resonance it did many years ago.

The story was also a massive improvement. Whereas Snow White felt in line with the Silly Symphony style of storytelling, Pinocchio managed to carve its own unique style out, introducing us to a series of fantastic and memorable supporting characters, from Geppeto and Jiminy Cricket to Honest John and Stromboli, and while that meant the protagonist was the least interesting person in his own movie, they still managed to make him feel like a genuine boy. The themes even got an upgrade, stressing the importance of following the right path, even when temptation and bad people try to sway you. In fact, it's one of the rare Disney movies where the villains don't even get a comeuppance at the end, with the late Pleasure Island scenes still remaining just as haunting to this day. All around, it's just a terrific film.

****1/2 / *****

The most singular and experimental film that Walt ever had a hand in bringing to life, Fantasia combined the spectacular talents of the Disney company's greatest artists, joined them with the majesty of the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of the legendary Leopold Stokowski, and was an early pioneer in cinematic surround sound. Marrying them all together through the abstract, the story-driven, and the incidental, Fantasia remains one of the studio's most accomplished and stunning gems.

Combining the sophistication of a genuine concert hall performance with the enchanting and whimsical scope of Disney's fabulous animation, the often welcome choice of foregoing any big stories gives the animators a limitless potential of imagination and creativity, pushing their abilities to the limit to match seamlessly with the tempo of every musical piece, with their work ranging from stirring and epic, to luscious and entrancing. It's hard not to feel yourself get lost in the movie as both the imagery and the soundscape merge into a hypnotic symbiosis, and not only that, but in a very wise decision, lets the emotional responses of the segments themselves feel as abstract, allowing the viewer freedom to decide upon their own feelings and responses.

It's a film defined by its individual moments, with each segment telling such unique and wildly different stories, and each of them are perfectly well suited to the many suites on display. One of the many graces that the film has in its favor is it's general sophistication, and how seriously that it takes the viewer's intelligence. Sure, they slip in some of their signature cartoonish stylistics in a few segments, such as the Dance of the Hours and Pastoral Symphony, but most of the time, the way that it lines up more for adult tastes allows it to go into some very mature, grim, and haunting imagery. Obviously, the Night on Bald Mountain segment is one of the riskiest things the company has ever created, and is excellently followed up by the Ave Maria finale, but even segments like The Rite of Spring pepper in some brutal and frightening filmmaking with the slow and grueling extinction of the dinosaurs. The balance between the grim and the playful is superbly judged, with one never outshining the other.

Disney actually intended this to be an annual event type of film, continually swapping out old segments with new additions. This never took hold due to the film's disappointing box office returns, though the idea was revived many years later, but we'll get to that soon enough. On it's own merits, Fantasia is simply a beautiful work of art, standing as one of Disney's most definitive achievements.

***** / *****

Join me tomorrow when I'll review Dumbo, Bambi, and Saludos Amigos.

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