Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive – Walt Disney

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Disney Checklist Jungle Book“Look for the bear necessities…”

Chances are, if someone was to sing that to you, you would join in and sing along. That’s because The Jungle Book has one of Disney’s best and most iconic soundtracks, earning it a place as one of the best loved films from the studio. Although this song is the most famous – and rightly so, it’s infectiously joyous and carefree – the rest of the soundtrack is pretty great, too; ‘That’s What Friends Are For’ is a nice barbershop piece sung by some accentually confused vultures and ‘Trust In Me’ is dream-hauntingly sinister. Making a case for a place in the Top 5 Disney songs, however, is ‘I Wanna Be Like You,’ a toe-tapping scat fest that may just be as fun as the studio gets. It’s no wonder Baloo gets caught up in the rhythm. This soundtrack has made The Jungle Book enduring and gives it a jazzy tone that is irrepressible. It’s adventurous, funny and atmospheric.

Yet the appeal of the film is also down to one man who is worth examining when looking at this film, which comes right in the middle of his heyday. This man is, of course, Wolfgang ‘Wolfie’ Reitherman, one of Disney’s finest directors who was responsible for some of the studio’s most carefree, joyous films. His films in the Disney 52 canon are: 101 Dalmatians; The Sword in the Stone; The Jungle Book; The Aristocats; Robin Hood; The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh; and The Rescuers, although he was also on the animation team from almost all of the earlier films. He’s one of the most important people on the early Disney team, and as he was directing after Walt’s death (The Jungle Book is the first post-Walt film), there’s a sense of passing the baton to him as the main creative force behind the studio’s animated output. In The Jungle Book we see many of the hallmarks that made him such a brilliant director and gifted storyteller (even if I think 101 Dalmatians is his best).

Firstly, Reitherman had a distinctive visual style that separated his era of films from anything either side of it. Disney’s animation style went through different stages that can be loosely put into groups with a few anomalies along the way. The First Golden Age was lush and astonishingly detailed, with each frame filled with colourful art. The package films of the Forgotten Forties were a mixed bag of cheaper, simpler designs that have a more childish, comic-book look. Then there is the 1950s, a which doesn’t really have a distinctive look to it as each film tried something a bit different – Cinderella returned to Golden Age fantasy, Alice in Wonderland went for colourful absurdity, whilst Lady and the Tramp explored the possibilities of widescreen. Then in 1961 Reitherman took over as director with 101 Dalmatians and brought in a sketchy, jazzy aesthetic with rough lines, undetailed backgrounds and characters that made the most of the squash-and-stretch technique. He directed up until 1977 then in 1981 Disney entered a rather fallow period that left behind Reitherman’s style but lost some of his vibrancy along the way. The 90s saw what is known as The Second Golden Age, but I think Reitherman’s films can legitimately hold that title making this the third. These were characterised by beautiful colouring, experimentation with CGI and an exploratory, globetrotting sensibility that took in underwater worlds, provincial France and the plains of the Serengheti amongst others. Finally there is the CG period of the 00s that saw the phasing out of traditional animation for the lacklustre likes of Chicken Little.

jungle book bagheera

In spite of all these periods having quite distinctive aesthetics, it is only the 60s and 70s that has the unifying factor of the same director across all the films. That’s how important and unique Reitherman is to the Disney 52 – for two decades he brought his style to the House of Mouse and left an indelible mark on the studio’s legacy. That’s not to say there isn’t variation within his films; The Jungle Book has a notably colonial visual style, rendering Kipling’s India with a kind of dreamy Orientalism that the author would have been proud of. The humid, hazy landscapes of Madhya Pradesh are straight out of late 19th, early 20th century colonial artwork, making the film visually alluring, but almost deceptively so. It drags you into its world but you know that none of it quite feels real. This is a far cry from the homely world of 101 Dalmatians or the mediaeval Britain of Reitherman’s Robin Hood and The Sword in the Stone, yet each of the films still undeniably carry his authorial stamp.

The Jungle Book also displays Reitherman’s knack for using his voice cast to great effect. The same old voice actors keep cropping up in each new Disney film, but under Reitherman’s direction they really feel married to their characters in a way that they hadn’t previously. Take the villain of the film, Shere Khan the tiger, as voiced by George Sanders: his deep bass drawl gives the character a terrifying nonchalance that was surely an influence on the choice of Jeremy Irons as Scar in The Lion King. Then, of course, there is the great Phil Harris as Baloo. That cheery, carefree voice was responsible for the enduring appeal of three of Disney’s great characters: Baloo; Thomas O’Malley; and Little John. It’s impossible to imagine any of the films without him. Each vocal performance feels perfectly matched to their parts, whereas previously they were a little more perfunctory.

jungle book baloo

Finally we come back to the music, such an essential part of The Jungle Book but also most of Reitherman’s other films. There are hints of it in 101 Dalmatians with ‘Cruella De Vil’ but it’s in this, his third film, that he truly unleashes his jazzy side. To then follow it up with brilliance of The Aristocats, which features the unforgettable ‘Everybody Wants To Be A Cat,’ shows the director’s knack for injecting massive doses of fun into his films through vibrant, catchy soundtracks. This approach had a lasting impact on Disney, and the beloved soundtracks of Disney’s ’90s output owes a huge debt to Reitherman’s films. The Jungle Book is one of his best, and captures everything that makes him such a talented director, namely that it looks great and sounds amazing.

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The Borrowers; The Wind in the Willows; The Poddington Peas: children have long been captivated by the idea that there is a world of adventure right outside our doorstep. In the leaves of the trees, in the rivers and in the undergrowth, there is life – often like ours – that has its own culture and history. This is our world, but there is so much more to it than we realise. It’s a beautiful idea, and one that Epic – the new film from Blue Sky Studios, previously responsible for Ice Age and Rio – seizes to create a story that tries to live up to that ambitious title.

Mary Katherine’s father (who, according to IMDb is called Bomba although you wouldn’t know it from the film) is a scientist who believes that there is a colony of tiny people living in the forest. M.K. is a bereaved teen trying to connect with her weirdo Dad, but thinks he is just a bit nuts. The Dad (or Bomba… are we really going to call him Bomba? Is that even a name?) is proved right, however, when M.K. is shrunk to join to the ‘Leaf Men’ and she gets caught up in a war against the Boggans – a race of verminous creatures who want to suck the life out of the forest. There’s also some talking slugs, a whole load of Daddy issues and Steve Tyler voices a caterpillar.

Epic archers

In that very plot description hangs both the highlights and the issues with a film that is constantly struggling to achieve greatness. On the one hand, it’s a brilliantly realised, often breathtaking adventure, but on the other it’s a facile, familiar story that is overly concerned with catering to the kids to truly leave an impact. There’s an adventurous spirit here that should appeal to children and imaginative grown ups alike, but very few people are likely to get too involved with yet another story of a father and daughter reconnecting.

A sequence early on shows the potential of what Epic could have been, as the Boggans stage an attack against a ceremony to choose the next ruler of the forest. The Leaf Men are on edge and wary of their enemies, but nothing can quite prepare them for the astonishing sight of thousands of Boggans bursting out from underneath the bark of a tree and launching a huge assault against the forest creatures. The action is spectacular, a good old fashioned battle with spears, bows and arrows, spiced up with a bit of magic. There are enough fast paced, thrilling set pieces to convince me that an animated adaptation of Brian Jacques’ Redwall books would be both feasible and incredible. The world of the Leaf Men is well realised, their hummingbird-mounted battles and eco-monarchy make for an appealing setting for adventure.

epic beyonce

Sadly these thrilling moments are hampered by everything you have come to expect from sub-par American animation. A celebrity-riddled voice cast gives the film a tonal inconsistency – the leads are mostly fine, but in support there is Steve Tyler (who, yes, has a song and dance moment – something that should be banned totally from animations), Pitbull and Beyoncé (who is actually OK). There’s also some wildly uneven humour that seems to be lifted from another film in an attempt to appeal to a younger demographic. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a film child-friendly, but Studio Ghibli films have similar themes whilst still being loved by kids without resorting to comedy slugs. Finally, the worst crime is the insistence on making yet another animation about Daddy Issues. There are not one, but three Daddy Issue subplots in Epic. Seriously, Hollywood, get over it. Meet up with your Dads, talk it out. Stop trying for parental catharsis through cinema.

This is a film that has the potential for brilliance but wears its title tentatively: it certainly has moments that are Epic, but I don’t remember Homer and Milton ever having comedy invertebrate sidekicks or a voice cameos from Pitbull.


 

Disney Checklist Melody TimeThere are two possible approaches to Disney’s 10th animated feature film, Melody Time. One is that it is yet another lazy, poorly animated entry into the canon from the forties. The other is that it’s actually a clever satire on the role of myth in American history, and the concepts of masculinity that it contains. On the surface it may just appear to be a naff, forgettable compilation of musical shorts like Make Mine Music, but beneath that could be a subversive examination of American national identity. It’s difficult to tell so I’ll split the article exactly in two to try and decide which of these interpretations it is.

 

Melody Time is a lazy, dated, seen-it-all-before collection of shorts

Make Mine Music was a fun, if frivolous, compilation of musical shorts that used jazz and other contemporary music to tell stories of varying quality, and this is much the same but a lot less fun than its predecessor. The music isn’t as good, but there’s some interesting ideas here, such as a bumblebee trying to escape from a jazzed up version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ as the instruments come to life, attempting to chase and trap him. There’s a fluidity of animation and an inventiveness of ideas here that recalls the Pink Elephants on Parade sequence from Dumbo. It’s the stand-out scene, although you don’t find out what happens to the bumblebee, which is distressing.

More like this please, Disney

More like this please, Disney

Yet it also suffers from a case of over-narration, much like Fun and Fancy Free, only this time all the voice-over is sung. So every ballad has the story spelled out in very 1940s songs that quickly become repetitive. The story of a little tug-boat – ‘Little Toot’ – is the worst example of this, a short horribly reminiscent of the mail plane from Saludos Amigos. It’s so simplistic and childish that it holds no appeal for adults today. Even kids might find the constant singing a little tiresome. It’s also got a psychotic story line, as at one point the titular tug is responsible for the death of (presumably) thousands of people as he crashes a cruise liner into a city. Perhaps it’s meant to be a horror story, especially as Little Toot’s guilt is later expressed by some buoys howling “baaaaaad boooooooooy” at him.

Other things that don’t work well about Melody Time include the return of Donald Duck, that most irritating of characters, and José Carioca, as if people were crying out to revisit the glory days of Saludos Amigos. There’s also Disney’s curious insistence at this time to merge live action and animation, which makes the film irredeemably dated. One of the joys of animation is that it is timeless, because drawing and art can be from any time. As soon as you put in live action footage you immediately place it in a specific time and context, and when the costumes are as naff and clearly fake as they are here it guarantees that it won’t age well, whereas the Golden Age films are still watched today because although there are dated elements, there’s nothing as awkwardly of-its-time as the moment in this film where the creepy Aryan girl from Fun and Fancy Free is being sung to by a bunch of cowboys apparently fresh from a line dancing competition.

Heartless massacre in the story of Little Toot

Heartless massacre in the story of Little Toot

So there’s much about Melody Time that is uninspired and more than a little bit dull. But am I missing the point?

 

Melody Time is an intelligent examination of masculinity and the American myth

The overarching theme of Melody Time is clearly mythology, and its place in America. Two of the segments are very overt about this, namely ‘Johnny Appleseed’ and ‘Pecos Bill’. The former is about a man who roams the American frontier planting apple trees and bringing the joy of apple pies and cider to settlers across the nation. It’s an epic tale of man vs. landscape, and how its only through embracing nature that you can succeed in the harsh world of the frontier. It’s the most simplistic version of the American dream, displaying success in the face of adversity. Yet there’s subversion here, as the eponymous hero displays none of the characteristic traits of American masculinity that you might expect. He’s weak, long haired and small; instead of hunting animals he pets them. Is it possible that Disney is changing concepts of the American man?

Creepy Aryan child makes a return

Creepy Aryan child makes a return

 

You also see this idea in opening story about two ice skaters, which is drawn, like ‘Johnny Appleseed’, in a simplistic, story book style that roots it in an American context. A young man and a boy rabbit simultaneously try to impress their sweethearts with ice skating tricks, but eventually end up almost killing them. Their frustration ends up with them in the snow and it is down to horses (a symbolic choice, I feel) to save their lady-loves whilst the men lie buried, both frigid and impotent. The Donald Duck segment sees him, once again, trying to impress a real life woman, but it just ends up with another bird setting fire to the piano and Donald’s romantic intentions are thwarted once more. Everywhere you look in Melody Time you see masculine endeavour frustrated by barriers of powerlessness and stupidity. Not for Disney, the successful, virile man of popular 50c pulp fiction.

The most telling story is that of Pecos Bill. It’s told to creepy Aryan child and a boy who we presume to be her brother. The young boy expresses his distaste at hearing stories about women; “ah, shucks, a woman in the story.” He is a man not interested in women, showing further subversion of gender tropes within Melody Time. The story of Bill himself is a tragic tale of your typical alpha male American hero. He grows up with coyotes (even suckling a mother coyote in one weird moment), and learns to survive in the Texan desert by outperforming all the animals of the wilderness. He and his horse, the Widowmaker, become famous in the land, constantly firing off his guns – read into his trigger happy nature any symbolism you wish. He does everything you can wish of a man, shaping the American landscape by creating the Rio Grande and giving the Lone Star State its nickname. Eventually the legends precede and exceed the man himself. Yet Pecos Bill becomes a tale of masculine hubris, the myths about his origins only serving to build up the pride before the fall.

Visual symbolism ahoy!

Visual symbolism ahoy!

 

He meets a cowgirl who he falls in love with, much to the jealousy of his horse. Suddenly the greatest cowboy in the west, the man of all men, is undone simply by a buxomly, Stetson wearing cowgirl. When it gets to the wedding day, Sweet Sue wants to ‘ride his horse’. She manages to stay on for a long time, but eventually the horse gets too violent and Sue bounces into the air. Pecos Bill tries to save her, but his lassoo ends up being a bit too short in a moment of symbolic fallibility. The beacon of masculinity that is Bill is found wanting at the most crucial moment, and eventually Sue lands on the moon, never to be seen again. On his wedding day Bill fails, his guns and lassoo – emblems of his masculinity – are no use to him. He is undone.

These tales of the frontier are rooted in American mythology, yet show the impotence of the American man to achieve their dreams and desires. Melody Time, therefore, could be the most cynical and satirical of all of Disney’s films.

 

On second thoughts, it’s probably just a bit rubbish.

Graph Disney8