Saturday, May 14, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #13-15: Alice, Peter Pan, Lady/Tramp.

With the government relinquishing control back to Disney, and restrictions having been lifted as to what Walt could make, he soon turned his attention away from package films such as Make Mine Music and Melody Time, and returned the studio back to its whimsical, fairy tale roots with Cinderella. Still considered one of the crowning achievements of Walt’s time at the studio, it ushered in a new age of continuous successes. This gave Walt the opportunity to make the films he’d planned to make since teasing them in Pinocchio, which included Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Even when Walt found himself drifting away from the feature film market to focus on his theme parks, and the planned EPCOT (which became its own theme park after his death), his presence was still felt in every film the company released.

Alice in Wonderland:
Perhaps the definitive version of Lewis Carroll’s original stories, Alice in Wonderland is not only the most insane of Disney’s movies, but one of the most outlandish and trippy movies ever made. While diverging away from some of Carroll’s original text, no other adaptation has better encapsulated the pure bewilderment of Wonderland than this film does. This is especially apparent in the contrasting animation schemes, offsetting colorful and extravagant character designs with dark and unsettling backgrounds. With Wonderland’s own internal logic flipping back and forth with whiplash-like frequency, the very environments around Alice are always bouncing between threatening and playful, with surprises greeting us at every single turn.

This then leads to the excellent characters, and what characters they are, too. Given brilliant and unique life by the many great voice actors, including Ed Wynn’s hilarious Mad Hatter, we’re never totally sure of their intentions. We never know whether they’ll shake Alice’s hand, go on the attack, or back away from her in terror. As the Cheshire Cat puts it, even the characters themselves have virtually no clue. Even Disney is undecided with how often they do or don’t include certain characters in the Villains merchandise and roster. This makes us able to easily tap into Alice’s point of view. With all logic being turned on its head and then back around at only a moment’s notice, she becomes a natural surrogate for the viewers, allowing us to share in all of her frustrations, cheerfulness, and terror as the eccentric characters flip personalities on a dime. It’s an utterly confusing piece of filmmaking, but is all the better for it.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what I thought of the Tim Burton live-action adaptation. While I will admit that the film is a marvel when it comes to conceptual designs, as well as featuring a plentiful amount of impressive sets and costumes (the latter courtesy of Colleen Atwood), and features one of Danny Elfman's most severely underrated scores, the movie carries none of the oddball charm of its predecessor. Outside of inconsistent characterizations and performances (including an uncharacteristically bored Mia Wasikowska), as well as many of the effects already appearing dated, the film's most fatal flaw is in how it tries to give Wonderland logic. The entire point of Wonderland is that it has no point, and yet it does at the same time, but that it's merely turned on its head, and then turned back around again. By trying to give Wonderland some form of consistent rationality robs the film of the soul that made the original stories so engrossing, making everything feel so dull. Yet even when the film tries to layer in Wonderland's endearing craziness, it all feels badly misplayed, with the Hatter frequently jumping between upper-class British and Doric Scottish dialects, and the less said about his eye-sore dance the "Futterwacken", the better. It's an underwhelming and lifeless movie that wastes the fantastic talent on display, and doesn't hold up to scrutiny compared to the animated classic.

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

Peter Pan:
Perhaps not as definitive a representation to James Barrie’s original stories as Alice was to Carroll’s Wonderland books, but Peter Pan is another terrific joy to be had, albeit not always as faithful. Drifting away from some of the darker elements of the original source, the Disney feature tends to favor more the enchanting fantasy and adventure of the story, and also adopts a bit more of a comedic edge. This comedy is especially prominent in this film’s incarnation of Captain Hook, one of the best of Disney’s purely comedic villains. I love how effortlessly the character switches from deadpan and dry to cowardly to fuming angry, and Hans Conried’s vocal inflections especially make me laugh every time.

But laughs are only as entertaining as the adventure that goes with it, and Peter Pan has plenty of great adventure and action to spare. It’s especially fun thanks to the characters on display. The film’s incarnation of Peter feels particularly terrific, at once being every bit as cocky, playful, arrogant, witty, and enthusiastic as the one in Barrie’s tales, mainly thanks to Disney staple Bobby Driscoll’s wonderful voice work. While downplaying a bit of the romantic undertones between he and Wendy, the two make for an appealing double act, and Kathryn Beaumont (returning after voicing Alice) provides similarly great work acting as the logical authority figure of the film.

The film is certainly not a perfect one, as some of the slapstick can be a bit much, and of course, we have to put up with more outdated stereotypes, here represented by the Indians (Honestly, they make Rooney Mara’s Pan casting look subtle by comparison).  Still, despite whatever imperfections there are, I can’t deny that I always enjoy the film every time I watch it.

**** / *****

Lady and the Tramp:
Taking a break from their usual fairy tale fare, Lady and the Tramp (one of the first Disney movies I ever saw) took a very simple, but brilliant idea of the world from a dog's point of view, and despite not boasting the same popularity that something like Alice in Wonderland or Sleeping Beauty did, is one of the more undervalued gems in their lineup.

For the first time in the studio's history, Lady and the Tramp brought Disney's animated features into the Cinemascope format, allowing for the animators to create a much more expansive and beautiful world, as well as giving the multiplane cameras a greater field of movement for more sweeping takes. As for the actual character animation, it was some of the best and most realistic out of all the Disney films. So much of the film's enjoyment really does come from even the most miniscule of details, from capturing with flawless effort the mannerisms and movement of canine behavior, to its still impressive weather effects. The animation of the dogs in particular is absolutely ageless, and few animated features (even from Disney's own lineup) have been able to match the standards this film set for animals.

Technically impressive as it is, it would be nothing if not for the simple and lovely story. At the center of it all is the irresistible romance between the title characters, but unlike most of Disney's traditional romances, this one takes a bit of work to get to where it eventually is. The two meet after a conversation about very unpleasant topics, and the two are such polar opposites in their view of homelife and class divides, with Lady being more at home with her classy family life and responsibility, and Tramp preferring a simpler and more care-free life, embracing the bigger adventures outside of a life within the fence. However, through very well placed and effective moments (as well as natural chemistry), the two continually begin to let their guard down to bond, and it makes for one of Disney's most unforgettable love stories.

The supporting characters are all excellent as well, brimming with personality and wit, the songs and the score sound beautiful, and even the few action sequences (including and especially Tramp's fight with the rat) are some of Disney's best. A very notable step out of the man's usual wheelhouse, but one whose simple pleasures I still cherish to this day.

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

Join me again on May 28th, when we'll continue exploring the Silver Era with Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, and The Sword in the Stone.

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