Thursday, April 28, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #10-12: Melody, Ichabod/Toad, Cinderella.

Part 2 of my April reviews.

Melody Time:
It's here where I'm relieved that the package film era is almost over, because there's only so many unique ways I can level the same praise and criticisms over such movies. As the tenth film in Disney's storied lineup, Melody Time plays out in similar fashion to Make Mine Music that it almost feels like a sequel to it. In fact, by all accounts, that should mean that my thoughts on it would be similar, if not worse the second time out... and yet, for reasons I don't know how to explain, Melody Time simply does it better.

For one thing, whereas Make Mine Music had the very basic and very vague all encompassing theme of music, Melody Time, while not without diversions, typically aligns its segments through the theme of Americana. There's always a sense that these shorts belong in the same feature together, and it helps that the pacing between each of them is much tighter and less erratic, never lingering too long on one of the lesser segments, but never rushing them out just to get to the next big short.

Some are less impressive, like the abstract but empty Trees, or the forgettable Little Toot, but at the very least, they're all memorable, and never outright boring. The two highlights are obviously the lengthiest of the movie, one being Johnny Appleseed, which is a charming and actually quite beautiful piece of simple storytelling, and the other is the concluding Pecos Bill, which is very fun to watch, even if the note it leaves the music on is a bit mismatched. It's a movie that probably didn't have any right to be as entertaining as it was, and might actually be one of the more underrated Disney flicks.

**** / ***** 

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad:
Excluding Fantasia, this is by far and away the best of Disney's package films. Returning to the Fun and Fancy Free mold of two extended segments forming the movie rather than anywhere between six and ten, this allows the movie to have a more cohesive and narrowed focus. But the less is more way of thinking is not the only reason it succeeds. The real reason it's this good is owed to the simple fact that both halves are equally good, with neither upstaging the other.

Even despite their different tones, they're still thoughtfully tied together through their darkly fantastical environments, with The Wind in the Willows being a suitably oddball and humorous take on its source material, full of memorable supporting characters and witty writing, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow making fabulous use of attention to atmosphere, and building up to its flawless graveyard finale. The two are also smartly tied together by the vices of their happy go lucky main characters, with the energized and obsessive compulsive Toad hopping from fad to fad with blissfully ignorant and maniacal glee, and the superstitious, and surprisingly manipulative and womanizing Ichabod showing great expression of personality despite having no actual lines. Even the narration is a standout element, and unlike previous Disney films where it becomes a distraction, it perfectly suits each story the film presents. Basil Rathbone provides a very witty and sophisticated grounding of the fantasy in Willows, while Bing Crosby's soothing tones are put to good use for the slow build of Hollow, and in typical Bing fashion, gets a few songs to show off his enviable singing skills.

And so, following the release of such a great film, another age of Disney Animation Studios had finally come to an end, clearing the way for more of the films Walt had always wanted to make.

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

With the Package Film Era having finally come to an end, Disney decided to throw all of his chips at one movie that would restore the company back to its fairy tale roots, and would set into motion Disney's next wave of great successes. Cinderella was and still is one of the studio's most popular and beloved films, forever burned into pop culture thanks to its timeless and iconic imagery and endearing characters... even if I feel the nostalgia is a little too strong in this case.

For one thing, the film is gorgeous to look at. For the first time since Bambi, the animation returns to the high quality realism that the studio pioneered, and its clear that just as much of the budget was dedicated to the smaller moments as much as the bigger set-pieces, and showcases some of Disney's most technically astounding artistry. Even today this would be impressive. The film also comes fitted with lovely musical cues, a very entertaining supporting cast, and one of the most unique and despicable of all the Disney villains.

Then we also have Cinderella, who may be one of the most... Okay, let's face it; Cinderella herself is a complete bore. She's one of the most infamously one note Disney protagonists ever to come from a Disney movie, as outside of her overly patient niceness, there's absolutely nothing to her. With how overly nice, patient, and far too perfect she is, almost to the point of self-parody, not once do I ever feel like I'm watching an actual character, and that certainly doesn't help when her own movie is far more interested in the talking mice than with her.

Love or hate the Downton Abbey-esque live-action rendition all you want, but one reason I will always prefer that version over this one is due to the simple fact that Cinderella actually has a character, one whose patience is much more believably tested, and who feels more breakable because of the demanding stress. It does a terrific job at expanding on the one-note and underdeveloped elements of the original incarnation, including giving Cinderella an actual reason to stay in the mansion, giving the Prince an actual personality, and the two characters share actual chemistry as well. Sure, the animated rendition doesn't have anything quite as annoying as Helena Bonham Carter, but I'm willing to put up with that in exchange for much stronger leads.

That said, even if only for its technical accomplishments, Cinderella is still impressive enough to overcome the flaws in its content. Much like Snow White, it's clearly a product of its time, but the timelessness of the artistry continues to hold up even today. But even then, this was just the warm up act for the next movies to follow.

**** / *****

Another month down. Join me again on May 14th, when Disney's Silver Age gets underway.

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