Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #22-24: Adventures/Pooh, Rescuers, Fox/Hound.

Part 2 of my June reviews.

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh:
As the studio started experiencing more budget constraints, and the release date gaps between films started stretching out to four years, Disney Animation Studios decided to take one more stab at the Package Film format before their real headliner for 1977, The Rescuers. However, rather than creating brand new shorts to comprise a feature film, the studio decided to stitch together their three short films based on A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh.

While admittedly seeming lazy in theory, the end result can hardly be called anything but absolutely lovable. Structured in a literal storybook setting (with Sebastian Cabot providing the witty narration), much of what has helped the film retain as much staying power as it does is the pure innocence of its main character. It's a deceptively simple, yet rewardingly layered character angle that recalls the naive, but bright-eyed optimism and sense of discovery in childhood.

Not only does Pooh come to represent that sense of wonder and joyfulness as a child, but the other characters also express a lot of enhancement to personality, embodying more allegorical psychology of young children, from Rabbit's controlling obsessiveness, Eeyore's sluggish gloominess, to Tigger's unhinged hyperactivity (featuring a perfectly placed Paul Winchell). It carries over Milne's original analysis of the impact of children escaping into those worlds of fantasy with nothing but their toys and a powerful imagination, finding a bit of their own optimism, pessimism, and fear in the personality of each pretend plaything, and even at the end of the film, the idea of leaving those fantasies behind as we age.

It's an equally atmospheric and layered, but also fun and utterly charming film in which, while geared towards children, the content moreso than many of the studio's other films at the time is especially strong in how it appeals just as well to adults. The intentionally lower budget animation fits the film like a glove, and the songs by the Sherman Brothers are of the duo's same high quality. It's not often looked at as one of the studio's finest efforts, but it is still a gem nevertheless.

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

The Rescuers:
It's no secret just how much Disney Animation Studios had riding on The Rescuers, with the struggling studio having chipped in a high budget of over $7 million dollars and enlisting all of their most high-profile animation and storytelling talent on full display. Originally shelved by Walt himself for skepticism that the initially politically minded first drafts were not up to the usual high standards, the film went through numerous iterations to get to the end product we all know now, and thankfully for the studio, was quite the success when it was originally released. But, and in no way to disparage Disney's efforts, I feel The Rescuers hasn't aged quite as gracefully as the studio's other contemporary films.

To be fair, the majority of The Rescuers is a harmless bit of entertaining adventure, with many of its action being on the low-key side. The animation team go to some very great lengths in making the typical everyday human world seem that much more imposing from the point of view of a mouse, and does feature a good bit of fun because of the opposing obstacles. However, I find the film tends to fall on the uneven side due to how it seems specifically geared towards kids with an over-reliance on cutesiness. Key among this comes from the MacGuffin of the film, the annoyingly "adorable" little girl Penny, who might be among the most pandering things that the company has ever created. Only slightly less disappointing is the film's villain Madame Medusa, whose unfunny complete rehash of Cruella DeVil, and her bumbling sidekick Snoops, is so inept and unenetertaining that we begin to wonder why we should consider them threatening.

That's essentially my problem with The Rescuers is that, while a harmless bit of fun, proves to be a very bland effort from the studio, able to entertain but immediately forgotten about once it ends, and for my money, is more notable for the up-and-coming talents that the movie would set onto the path of animation superstardom, including director Ron Clements, and future Disney rival Don Bluth. Nevertheless, the true glue that holds The Rescuers together is the pairing of Bernard and Miss Bianca, voiced with infectious enthusiasm by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, the latter being used to greater effect than she was in The Aristocats. Theirs proves to be an endearing romance, with the audience able to feel more excitement over whether these two will get away safely than they would with Penny, and the humor and perfectly matched wits elicits great sparks of chemistry throughout. It's certainly not a bad film by any means, but it's little more than a cute diversion by the end.

Now the sequel, on the other hand, we'll get to that very soon...

*** / *****

The Fox and the Hound:
Quite possibly the most notoriously retooled adaptation Disney has ever taken on (moreso than their takes on Rudyard Kipling and Victor Hugo), the original novel The Fox and the Hound by Daniel Mannix was a grim and violent parable of personal revenge in which tragedy and hatred consumes its characters, driving them to embrace their most vengeful of instincts as the story progressively reaches its depressing final stretches. Obviously it made for a *perfect* Disney film, but the studio decided it best to rework a good chunk of the story roots, and alter the order of certain events to accommodate for the changes. Yet while taming many of the grim elements of the original book, The Fox and the Hound does manage to convey quite well the themes of the novel while also staying true to their signature stamp of quality.

It isn't an especially easy task to adapt such a dark storyline to fit a film geared towards a general audience, particularly the children who will be drawn in by the cute and fuzzy animals, what with the slaughtering of young kits in the original book for example. For the most part, it manages to tailor all of these conflicting issues together neatly without it feeling jarring, and much of the reason that the film succeeds is thanks to the genuinely strong friendship between Tod and Copper. There's such a touching quality to their interactions as young pups, with a sweetly played innocence and nostalgia, but is also made bittersweet with the inevitable future that the two will be forced to accept. As the two aging characters experience their most basic animal instincts take hold, and tragedy and misunderstandings take their toll on their lives, the film allows the novel's emphasis on the consuming nature of revenge to take hold, as the desire for our two leads to reconcile become increasingly drowned out by the roles forced on them by society.

That said, the film is not always so dark, admittedly to a degree where its lightness can become as much a vice as a virtue. Infrequent diversions to the happy-go-lucky antics of caterpillar hunting birds tend to feel overly comical in nature, and without giving anything away, a tragic plot point late in the movie shows obvious behind the scenes studio interference. To be fair to the film as is, however, when it comes to focusing purely on its atmosphere, it leads to some of Disney's finest use of subtext and silent storytelling, including and especially the silent standoff and redemption following the intense face-off with the bear (which gives the attack in The Revenant a run for its money). It also leads to some of Disney's most enrapturing nature imagery since Bambi, and while it may not hit its marks quite as successfully as that film, it's subtle touches and endearing innocence have helped it age terrifically.

**** / *****

Join me back on July 14th for more of the Post-Walt era before we finally reach the Disney Renaissance.

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