Saturday, May 28, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #16-18: Beauty, Dalmatians, Sword/Stone.

Part 2 of my May reviews.

Sleeping Beauty:
The most expensive animated film that the company had ever produced at the time, Sleeping Beauty was one of the most sweeping and epic of all of Disney's films, filmed in cinemascope yet again, making more advancements in their animation, and painstakingly synchronizing everything to Tchaikovsky's famous ballet of the same name. In a fashion akin to Fantasia, while not a bomb at the box office, it's financial returns were not up to expectations, led the studio to try something more commercially viable, and its brilliance was only fully embraced in re-releases.

It's another case like Cinderella where style was admittedly more impressive than substance, but what style it is. While Snow White was important for its innovations to animation, and Pinocchio built the mold for what their artistry could achieve, its arguably Sleeping Beauty where the studio perfected their art-work. It's some of the greatest animation of all time, as far as I'm concerned. It's especially terrific work for the subtle mannerisms of the characters, valuing a sense of realism over cartoonish antics, and all are gracefully performed, including Maleficent's icily slow and restrained motions. Its color and art-direction are just as terrific, fitted to each character with very specific personality in mind, and the countless environments appropriately reflect the mood of the movie with their shifts between light and dark. I also love how seamlessly the animation accentuates the accompanying music, especially when the fierce climax reaches its peak.

However, much like the aforementioned Cinderella, its lead is something of a bore, except this one doesn't even pretend to think that she's interesting. Aurora is only slightly more dimensional as a character than Snow White is, defined only by her superficial beauty and niceness, and exists solely to be a plot device and a prize to be won at the end. She's basically a supporting character in her own film. I can't even give Prince Phillip credit either, as while he's not nearly as boring as Prince Charming, he's still such an empty shell who barely contributes to the plot at all. Before the big climax, the three fairies who rescue him even give some speech telling him "from this point, you'll be on your own." Yeah, right. They help him every single step of the way, further unintentionally showing just how useless he really is.

To be fair to the content as it is, since the movie considers these two to be the weakest part of the film (which they are), the focus is wisely devoted more to the other characters. The three fairies feel more like the main characters of the movie, considering they have the most to actually contribute, they have their own journey and arc, and have much more personality in one scene than the two romantic "leads". Their bickering and their brainstorming are some of the most engaging of the film, showing off a great back-and-forth connection between them... which is why I'm so angry at the live-action Maleficent for turning them into incompetent idiots.

But the one thing that everyone remembers more than anything else in this movie is the film's villain, Maleficent. While the character's motivations are simple on paper, in execution, the character's sophisticated and unapologetically merciless nature is genuinely intimidating stuff. A self-described mistress of all evil, and essentially the incarnation of it, she's at her best when working behind the scenes rather than getting her own hands dirty. She's the kind of villain more at home calculating and operating from the shadows and letting her minions do her bidding, until her temper is tested and she unleashes the full extent of her power, in which case, you should run for your life. It's the kind of villain that needs no elaborate backstory to show what a venomous threat she can be... and now it makes me angrier at how her live-action fan-fiction failed to understand what made the character so great in the first place

So while not too different from Cinderella's own strengths and vices now that I think about it, Sleeping Beauty's few issues are almost rendered moot due to the endearment of the many characters, and the sheer grandeur and scale of the film. It's a timeless beauty in its own right... and it deserves better than to be associated with the live-action Maleficent.

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

101 Dalmatians:
After Sleeping Beauty failed to turn a profit for the studio, the logical decision was to turn Disney's attention to something geared for a much more general audience. The result was 101 Dalmatians, a deviation from the studio's typical mold of fairy tales and musicals, and despite the context of being made to recoup their losses, is actually one of the studio's most charming efforts.

In many respects, it's not surprising how much staying power Dalmatians has retained, given that it's one of Disney's most well-rounded and widely appealing films. Seemingly possessing a little bit of everything for every viewer, it manages to play most of its cards quite successfully, finding a nice balance between the various elements. Its a very tickling comedy that goes effortlessly between cute antics for children, and more subtle and deadpan humor appealing to adults. Kids are likely to get their entertainment value out of the great adventure of the movie, keeping the excitement and suspense high with the lovable characters braving the harsh weather and engaging in quick-paced action beats, but is more exciting for those sequences of slow-burning suspense and using wits to escape a dangerous situation.

Adults are likely to find entertainment value out of the more subtle touches and themes at play, notably the clever look at how much our own pets adopt our personalities and quirks as much as we adopt theirs. Simple touches like Pongo searching for his owner's (nicknamed his pet) potential suitor by staring out the window are such brilliant little touches, and the close-knit nature of the family are affectionately detailed stuff. But all ages will be entertained by the creativity of the animation, as well as the equally fabulous and horrid villain Cruella De Vil, whose acts in the film are so unabashedly over the top that it's impossible not to enjoy watching her every time she's on screen.

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

The Sword in the Stone:
Returning back to their specialty of musicals and fantasy, The Sword in the Stone was a largely revisionist take on the legend of King Arthur. Typically seen as the black sheep of the silver era, while the idea of the film must have seemed excellent on paper, and no less imaginative than anything Walt had produced up to that point, the film unfortunately struggles to form into a cohesive whole. It's a film so lacking in consistency that its own main character bounces back and forth between three completely different voices.

First of all, I really love the message that the film wants to send children. Throughout the whole movie, young Arthur's mentor, Merlin, is consistently stressing to him the value of an education over brute strength and petty fighting. Even today, it's a relevant moral to teach that flies in the face of films placing importance on muscles, favoring using wits and knowledge to solve one's problems.

But even so, admirable as the teachings may be, it can't distract from how flimsy the narrative pieces are. While Merlin and his owl Archimedes make for wise and whimsical teachers, and Archimedes is fittingly humorous for his agitated sarcasm, the rest of the film's characters offer very little in the way of personality or entertainment value. Its attempts at humor are also very hit or miss, with much of the dry deadpan being comedic highlights, while others, like Merlin's habit of making modern references and breaking the fourth wall that must have been a precursor to the Genie in Aladdin, feel misplayed.

Just as guilty is the film's tendency of dropping new plot threads almost as quickly as they were introduced. For crying out loud, Mad Madame Mim comes absolutely out of nowhere, and while her eventual wizard's duel with Merlin is very fun to watch, it still doesn't mask the fact that it serves little to no purpose to the overall story. It's also worth noting that this was one of the first Disney movies to feature songs by the legendary Sherman Brothers, who would eventually go on to write the music for films such as Mary Poppins and the Jungle Book, and various attractions at Disney's theme parks. Yet as much as I love these two, and have less than zero disrespect for their work, I really do struggle to remember most of the songs in this movie.

On the whole, I'm really torn apart by this one. I really do want to like it more than I actually did, and I will freely admit that it is an enjoyable watch whose good qualities outshine its bad, but it's unfortunately too unbalanced due to the odd mash-up of ideas on display.

*** / *****

And that concludes my reviews for May. The Silver era was still going strong in the 1960's, and while Walt's animation empire was slowly growing, he'd even found time to start up more live-action fare, including the iconic Mary Poppins that many consider his greatest achievement in film. But that wasn't enough for him. His ambitions quickly grew beyond studios, turning his attention to his theme park empire, and further establishing himself as one of the world's most influential people.

But, even the greatest of minds reach their end eventually. Join me back on June 14th when we'll take a look at the Post-Walt era.

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