Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #4-6: Dumbo, Bambi, Amigos.

Part 2 of my March reviews.

After the disappointing revenue of Fantasia killed Walt's original intentions, the studio quickly turned around and sought to make a simple, but pleasant film in a deliberate attempt to gain back some lost profit... and I'm not gonna lie, it shows in Dumbo, but that still doesn't mean it doesn't have its charming qualities.

I suppose my biggest complaint with the film is how padded it feels. Originally the film was meant to be a thirty minute short, but the studio added more material and doubled its length in order to justify it as a theatrical release. This means that certain sequences get stretched out in order for the film to meet its quota, and while this does allow for some inspired animation styles and tricks, no amount of inspiration can really brush away the fact that ten percent of the running time taken up by an out of nowhere hallucination with pink elephants feels like blatant padding.

That said, simplicity is part of the movie's charm, and the almost storybook-like structure moves along quite nicely, and makes for a good watch for kids, and adults can certainly enjoy the humor and the interesting supporting characters. However, and forgive the pun - let's adress the elephant in the room: the crows. Since their release, they've garnered criticism as racist stereotypes of African-Americans, and have become a subject of ridicule. I will say that it was a horribly misjudged idea that the group's leader Jim is not only voiced by the white Cliff Edwards putting on his best African-American imitation, but shares a name with probably the most offensive stereotype in history. Still, while I completely understand, I find myself being able to look past it, as the crows are quite entertaining and intelligent characters, and are the only supporting players to actually show sympathy for Dumbo. Besides, if you think they're bad here, wait until Ehren Kruger, the man behind Skids and Mudflap, gets his hands on them in the live-action remake.

All in all, Dumbo is a mostly harmless movie, a fun and brisk watch, but its lack of compelling content and padded running time are certainly an irritance. It's simply an above average sit-through.

*** / *****

The best of the Disney narratives with no real story behind it, Bambi's slice-of-life coming of age structure is one of the most graceful of all the Disney scripts to come from the studio. It's one of the most emotional experiences in Disney's entire portfolio, mainly owed to the strength of the initially timid title character. Much of the most meaningful moments of the film come simply from Bambi's reactions to new sights and new characters, eliciting either timid or excitable responses that even kids to this day can still relate to. Bambi largely has a very bright and innocent progression, but soon begins moving into more serious and even saddening territory as our young hero is forced to grow up early after great tragedy (which I'm sure most people know, but I won't spoil), and it's very satisfying once we finally see the character complete his transformation into a noble adult willing to sacrifice to save those he loves.

This movie is even directly responsible for inspiring numerous films and TV shows that tried to cash in on the aforementioned tragic moment, caused at the hands of the unseen "man" in this movie. Often, these imitations use these "man" characters to preach some misguided anti-hunting message and demonize those who kill these animals for food. On top of being one-sided and insultingly misinterpreted (the film never once explicitly took anti-hunting stances), these movies never seem to get what made the tragedy of Bambi so sad in the first place. It was simply an incidental event at the hands of chance that was what made the moment such a downer. It was the realization that sometimes, terrible things are going to happen that are beyond your control, that these things are really no one's fault. It's a challenging thing to come to grips with, but its important to accept these things and work through them, as well as take chances in order to live the most fulfilling life as possible.

If there's any one thing I don't care for in this film, it's the frequently mocked transition that goes from "tearjerking and grim" to "Lalala lalala, we're so happy". Still, I consider that a nit-pick in the grand scheme of things. Bambi is still one of the Studio's most endearing gems.

***** / *****

Saludos Amigos:
When reviewing an older film, it's important to keep in mind the historical context in addition to how it holds up today. With World War 2 having hit the studio's finances, and the country wishing to repair ties to South American an Latin countries, the studio was commissioned to embark on a Good Will Expedition and form a film based on the experiences of the many artists, technicians, and musicians in the company.

The dedication to the commitment is felt all throughout Saludos Amigos, with the animators paying great respect to the culture and customs of the countries and cities, all the while showing a (thankfully) progressive representation of the population, as opposed to some of the questionable stereotypes Disney had a hand in with films like Dumbo. The team clearly got some great inspiration out of what they saw, and the animation that comes from it are excellent to see. They especially unite to great effect in the closing Aquarela do Brasil segment, which actually served as the introduction to Disney fan favorite Jose Carioca.

That said, while I respect the intention of the film, on its own merits, it doesn't hold up nowadays. I'm not sure this even counts as a feature film anymore, given the fact that the film barely scrapes past the forty minute mark, which wouldn't be a problem if it were an entertaining sit, but honestly, it sometimes gets to feel like a drag. Mostly, the film feels like filler stitched together, and while the individual shorts can be quite fun and humorous to watch, none of them really connect or share any overarching threads in common. It's a classic case where the sums of a movie's parts work very well with each other, but when combined into a whole, their impact isn't nearly as strong.

It's a very important part of any Disney completionist's watch list, and does provide momentary fun, but lacks the impact of countless better Disney films.

**1/2 / *****

And that does it for this month, and if I may have your attention briefly, I'm announcing a slight change in schedule. Instead of my reviews showing up on the 28th and 29th of every month as I'd originally planned, I will instead be posting three reviews on the 14th of every month, followed by another three reviews appearing on the 28th. Join me on April 14th when I'll take a look at Disney's Package Film Era.

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