Tuesday, June 14, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #19-21: Jungle Book, Aristocats, Robin Hood.

Who knows exactly how far Walt's reach across the globe would have extended were he to live any longer? With cinematic successes from both his animated and live-action branches, his theme parks that quickly grew in attendance, and an ambitious plan to create a futuristic time share community out in Florida, he could have possibly gone further. He could have taken over the whole world, for all we know. His pioneering feats were just so good, and his ideas so massive in scale, that the potential was limitless. Sadly, none of those potential ideas would ever be realized.

On December 15th, 1966, just days after his 65th birthday, Walt passed away after a battle with lung cancer, a condition caused by Walt's chainsmoking habits all his adult life. The news devastated the entire world, major news outlets mourned the passing of one of history's most defining and essential figures, and with the damaging effect cigarettes had on Walt's health, the studio later instituted a strict non-smoking policy in their films, even playing PSA's on Blu-Ray and DVD before movies where their characters casually smoked.

This later began a transitional period where the employees of the studios were clearly less confident in their abilities, and didn't manage to get their groove back for over a decade. These were the dark ages...

The Jungle Book:
Okay, so the dark ages didn't officially start until *after* this movie, the last that Walt had personally overseen from beginning to end. There was a lot riding on this movie, with the filmmakers so distraught over Walt's death that, had the film not performed well, it could have led to the animation studio's closure. Thankfully, such a thing never came to be, and was an excellent swan song for the company's visionary leader.

An in name only adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's original short stories, Disney decided to tell a largely revisionist form of the source material, taking the basic premise, concepts and characters, and the rest being of their own creation. In many ways, it's a decision that largely pays off. The two sides blend with each other very successfully, managing to fit in some of Kipling's central themes and the animals' outlook on society and humans, as well as its coming of age and morality tales. Then on the other side, we have what is one of the studio's funnier films, filled with entertaining and flavorful characters who elicit laughs from the viewer almost effortlessly, and use the voice cast to their full potential.

Generally, the film is also a very aloof one, progressing scene to scene with a very relaxed and brisk rhythm, and generally aligns its attitude (sometimes to a fault) to that of Baloo, as the fun-loving and care-free bear becomes the movie's true heart and soul, making the morality and coming of age geared just as much to adults as it is to kids by the character's inevitable acceptance of Mowgli's departure from the jungle, and Phil Harris' charm ensures the character never hits a false note.

The animation is terrific, the songs are unforgettable, and the characters are timeless and lovable. It may lack some of the finesse that previous Disney ventures were so good at, and was eventually outshined by its 2016 remake, but as the last film in Walt's long and celebrated legacy of animation, it caps off its fearless leader's career in no less of a joyous fashion than he deserved.

**** / *****

The Aristocats:
The last animated feature that Walt himself personally approved, The Aristocats is one of the more inconsequential of the Disney films, and it's here where the filmmakers showed clear lack of confidence in their abilities at the time. Geared more towards children than it was to adults, while the film's cuteness is certainly a charm, that cuteness generally tends to feel like its compensating for the deficiencies and padding in a script that plays like a randomly shuffled series of events, essentially feeling like 101 Dalmatians without the clever subtext.

Even the animation tends to feature shortcuts, with the character movements typically appearing sketchy and unpolished (which could be a stylistic choice, to be fair), and the admittedly pretty colors don't always feel like they've really had thought put into how they accentuate sets and characters. Phil Harris is once again charismatic and funny as a street-wise alley cat, but the other characters, including the bumbling Edgar who gets forced into being a villain for the film (I know it's played for laughs, but even then, the logic behind it is still silly), offer little staying value. The songs also leave much to be desired. Honestly, I can't think of anything else to say about it. It's too harmless and insignificant to rate higher or lower than average.

**1/2 / *****

Robin Hood:
The first film produced without any input or personal approval from Walt, Robin Hood stands as one of the lighter efforts of the studio's long legacy, yet still a fun film to watch in spite of those issues. One of the most well known of all Robin Hood adaptations, this animated incarnation is able to stand apart on its own through more than just a medium swap.

The closest the studio has ever come to a caper-comedy style of film, the admittedly very uneven film is at its most entertaining when focusing squarely on Robin's schemes to steal away the riches of Prince John. Oddly enough, while the film features all of the classic sword duels, arrow battles, and exciting chases that have become a staple of Robin Hood lore, most of the more memorable action beats are those focusing on the stealthier infiltration and slight of hands manipulation, including the mostly silent jail break that builds up to the chaotic climax.

Technically speaking, while the animation was unpolished, recycled and retraced from previous Disney features to within an inch of its life, and was sorely missing the use of the multiplane camera technique that the studio had pioneered, this was all also a creative way of giving the film a unique personality. The match up of various animal species for each character was spot on, from the sly Robin's representation as a fox, to the endlessly loyal Little John (once again voiced by Phil Harris) taking the form of a bear, to the ironic use of the normally "brave" lion for the pathetic and spoiled Prince John (voiced by a hilarious Peter Ustinov), and each of the film's colorful and memorable batch of characters are wisely given at least one humorous or crowdpleasing moment to shine during the film's action scenes.

It's fun, it's light, but don't expect too much more beyond that.

*** / *****

Join me back on June 28th for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The Rescuers, and The Fox and the Hound.

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