Animation Station: The Amazing Balancing Act That Is Phineas and Ferb

For a brief interval, (theater) enables us to become gods. Stripped of all nonessentials, that, I think, is the ultimate nature of the theatrical passion, and that is why in one form or another, practically everything that goes on in the theater is based on something misunderstood by some or all of the people on the stage that is at the same time clear to the people that are watching them.-Harold Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare.

The animated series, Phineas and Ferb, which ran on the Disney Channel from 2007 to 2015 is responsible for an entire generation being unable to hear the phrase, “tri-state area” without busting a gut laughing. Actually, it also made it impossible for them to hear the word, “busting,” without doing that. Phineas and Ferb is also one of the few, possibly the only, Disney Channel show of its vintage to have real cross generational appeal. I only discovered it as an adult, years after it was cancelled, and I consider it brilliant, something that works wonderfully as a turn-off-your-brain Saturday Morning cartoon and that holds up to serious thematic analysis. I was not particularly thrilled however to hear that it’s going to get a revival on Disney+. I’m not saying said revival will be terrible; it might be quite fun. But I doubt it will be as consistently great as the franchise was in its glory days.[1]There was a spin-off movie released on Disney+ in 2020, Candace Against the Universe. While a great movie in many ways with some of the best songs to emerge from the franchise, many of its dramatic … Continue reading I want to write about it while the show can still be seen as sort of pristine and perfect. There are already a lot of articles celebrating the series, but I believe I’ve found a different way to approach it.

First, some background information.

The goal of the series creators, Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh was to create an animated show that would have the sophistication of the adult ones on which they’d worked, like The Simpsons and Family Guy, but without the crudeness and cynicism, one that adults and kids could both enjoy. In this, they succeeded. Phineas and Ferb is wonderfully witty yet also ridiculously innocent and wholesome. I’d call it ironically wholesome but how genuinely emotional it can get belies that description. And both the sophistication and the wholesomeness are integral to the show’s appeal. Like the titular characters, neither would work as well without the other.

The premise of Phineas and Ferb is both simple and complex. Juvenile stepbrothers Phineas Flynn (brilliantly voiced by Vincent Martella-all the voice acting on this show is briliant) and Ferb Fletcher (voiced by Thomas Brodie-Sangster though he seldom speaks) are determined to have the best summer vacation ever. Every day, they build a giant theme park ride or a time travel machine or a robot or a spaceship or what-have-you in their backyard. And every day Phineas’s older sister, Candance (Ashley Tisdale) tries to show this to their mom (Caroline Rhea.) But just as Mom is about to see it, events remove the invention and all evidence of it from the yard, leaving her none the wiser.

This is a fairly standard premise. In particular, the whole character-keeps-trying-to-show-people-fantastical-thing-but-it-disappears-every-time is a sitcom cliche that dates back to at least the 60s. The complex part comes from the fact that there is another storyline happening right alongside it. Phineas and Ferb’s pet platypus, Perry (whose animal noises are provided by Dee Bradley Baker), is really a Gromit-esque secret agent for OWCA (The Organization Without a Cool Acronym.)[2]If you know what Gromit-esque means, reward yourself with some cheese. Each day, he battles Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz (aforementioned series creator Dan Povenmire), an evil scientist who spends his days building doomsday devices to get revenge on those whom he perceives as having wronged him or to take over the entire tri-state area. These devices include an underwear-inator to demoralize everyone by turning their clothes into underwear, a chicken-replace-inator that replaces whatever its beam hits with a chicken, a rain-inator to rain out a soccer game which would otherwise preempt a big episode of Doofenshmirtz’s favorite TV show[3]I see nothing evil about that last one. Perry was clearly in the wrong there. and a bring-0ut-the-dessert-inator, which even he admits was kind of desperate. Perry always wins, of course, and at the end of the day, Phineas and Ferb are none the wiser as to his true nature.

Again, this a fairly generic premise for a cartoon. But something about the intertwining of the two standard plotlines makes them special. And even apart from that, well, sometimes standard plots become standard because they work, and these ones work here.

Of course, Phineas and Ferb is primarily a comedy, and the greatness of any comedy lies in, well, its comedy. But comedy is also the hardest thing to analyze without ruining it. Suffice to say, it uses many of the standard tropes of modern self-aware comedy and it uses them to their best advantage. I will say that one thing I love about it is that it’s gloriously, outrageously silly without being too silly. Too often when cartoons and other comedies, especially those aimed at kids, aim for maximum wackiness, the result feels forced and tiresome to me. But the idea of a secret agent platypus battling an evil scientist bent on tri-state area domination perfectly hits that sweet spot.

One of the things about which the show is self-aware is its formulaicness. Not only does the average episode follow the outline I described to the letter and there are a host of catchphrases that each character says. I don’t mean that as criticism. As I’ve written before, sometimes I enjoy something being formulaic. There are joys to be found in recognition and anticipation. For kids, there’s something comforting about watching Phineas and Ferb, knowing that by the end of each episode, the stepbrothers will have had the best day ever, Candace will have been reduced to sputtering impotence and Doofenschmirtz reduced to impotent cursing. This can even be part of the show’s appeal for adults. And the aforementioned self-awareness helps a lot. Even as early as the first season, Candace realizes her the hopelessness of her fate and tries to beat the system by, say, bringing Phineas and Ferb’s invention of the day to Mom rather than bringing Mom to it. (Naturally, this backfires on her.) Of course, there’s a price to be paid for all of this. So much of the show’s humor depends on the viewers being familiar with the formula and the catchphrases and the details of previous installments[4]It’s particularly necessary for episodes like Hail Doofania and Phineas and Ferb Interrupted. that a newcomer won’t really get most of the jokes if they just sample a few random episodes. But since the show is good, why would you want to limit yourself to a few random episodes?

One of the limits Povenmire and Marsh imposed on themselves in making the series was that none of the characters would be a jerk or an idiot.[5]But what about Doofenshmirtz? We’ll get to him. I would have told them they were shooting themselves in the foot with this goal. Pretty much every great comedic character in the history of fiction has been a jerk or an idiot. But the balance it creates between all the characters is actually brilliant. Most commentary on the show has, reasonably enough, focused on the “no jerks” part, but the “no idiots” is just as remarkable. (Remember when I wrote that I think I’ve found a new way to approach this?)

It’s not so much that no Phineas and Ferb character is stupid or incompetent as that none of them are completely stupid and incompetent. For that matter, none of them are entirely competent either. It’s true that Phineas and Ferb regularly do the impossible with ease, but they’re completely oblivious to obvious things like Candace’s animosity toward them or the fact that the neighbor girl, Isabella Garcia-Shapiro (Alyson Stoner), is besotted with Phineas.[6]Well, Phineas is oblivious to these things. I suspect the stoic, inscrutable Ferb picks up on far more than he cares to mention. Isabella herself is the highly competent leader of the Fireside Girls, a girl scout troop that awards patches for things like moving mountains and wrestling alligators, and easily keeps up with Phineas and Ferb yet is incapable of either moving on from Phineas or openly declaring her feelings to him.

Candace can never prove Phineas and Ferb’s exploits to her mother, but with determination worthy of a better cause, she usually comes close, managing to drag Mom away from whatever she’s doing and bring her to the scene of the “crime” just a second too late. And when she’s called upon to take part in the action scenes, she typically saves the day.

The more you think about it, the harder it is to see whether Candace or her mother is the butt of their plotline’s humor. On the one hand, Mom remains unflappable and calm while Candace is frequently frazzled and winds up looking ridiculous. Yet Mom has the most limited knowledge of all the show’s characters. We know that everything Candace claims that she dismisses is completely true and so do most of the cast.[7]A similar dynamic exists in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Theseus is the character who gets humiliated the least, but the audience is clearly shown that his skepticism of the supernatural is … Continue reading

While Perry is an ultracompetent agent who always thwarts Doofenshmirtz and destroys his inators, he also always walks right into the traps that Doofenshmirtz sets for him.[8]More seriously, he’s shown to have trouble working with others though this only comes up a few times. And, for all their goofiness and the fact that Doofenshmirtz always deliberately puts a helpfully labeled self-destruct button on them, it’s rare for any of his inventions to simply not work. He proves to be quite competent in his way and, as I wrote above about Candace, in a serious crisis often ends up being an asset to the good guys.

I wrote above that I think no character being completely a jerk is a part of the show’s dynamic that has been sufficiently discussed. But it’s such a striking aspect of Phineas and Ferb that I just have to write about it! Imagining a version of the franchise in which the viewer would despise Candace for being a killjoy or, less desirable but more likely, a version in which the viewer would start to pity her and resent Phineas and Ferb is far too easy. But neither really happens. The brothers are such sweethearts that it’s impossible to want them to get in trouble and however dangerous their activities would be in real life, they’re shown to be totally harmless in the cartoony context of the show. But before the first season is through, we understand the insecurities behind Candace’s pettiness, and she shows herself to be capable of admirable behavior. It helps that Phineas and Ferb themselves love Candace and always leave the door open for her to join in on their fun. Some of their inventions are made specifically for her benefit, such as the giant citywide version of her favorite boardgame. In at least two episodes, they actually try to help her bust them to their mother. (Naturally, these are among the few times Phineas and Ferb fail to achieve their goals.)[9]The pilot episode does imply that Phineas is trying to hide what he’s doing from Candace and Mom, but the show abandons this so quickly I’m inclined to declare it noncanonical. What’s both heartwarming and sad about Candace is that she actually has a lot of great things in her life: loving, supporting parents notwithstanding Mom’s sarcasm and disbelief, little brothers who adore her and can bend the laws of physics to their will, an incredibly tolerant and loving boyfriend (Mitchel Musso), a best friend (Kelly Hu) who points out her worst tendencies to her, and, though she doesn’t know it, a secret organization of highly trained animal agents protecting her tri-state area from evil scientists. She could be a very happy person if she’d only give up her pride and her vendetta against her brothers. In fact, the episodes when she does just that and joins in on Phineas and Ferb’s activities are the ones when she is happiest.

Much the same could be said of Doofenshmirtz. Initially, the fact that he’s unloved by his parents (Dee Bradley Baker and Cloris Leachman in flashbacks), unsuccessful in his career, estranged from his wife (Allison Janey) and despised by his teenage daughter, Vanessa (Olivia Olson) makes him the object of the viewers’ contemptuous laughter. But the longer the show goes on, the more we sympathize with him and so does Perry. As one character says in the series finale, he’s not so much evil as a nice guy who tries to be evil. Whenever he turns out to be doing something innocent, Perry supports him in it and whenever it looks like his schemes are going to backfire on him, Perry rescues him. For Doofenshmirtz’s part, as the show goes on, he starts to sound less upset when Perry shows up to thwart him and more pleased. Before long, one of the series’s running gags is that their enmity is more like a romantic relationship. It’s actually rather shocking to rewatch early episodes and see Doofenshmirtz try to kill Perry or Perry try to arrest him. Such a thing would be unthinkable later. Phineas and Ferb‘s great achievement is that we don’t root against Candace or Doofenschmirtz but neither do we root for them to succeed. We root for them to be converted.

Much the same can be said of the other characters who start out as antagonists and of the other relationships that start out as negative. Doofenshmirtz’s aforementioned aloof daughter mellows out considerably over the course of the show, especially as she becomes friends with Phineas, Ferb and Candace.[10]Without discovering Perry’s secret identity, of course. In one of the series’ most popular specials, Summer Belongs to You, her complaint about her dad is actually that he doesn’t spend enough time with her. Buford Van Stomm (series writer Bobby Gaylor) is introduced as a bully but before too long becomes just another member of Phineas and Ferb’s friend group albeit an unusually abrasive one. It’s as if he has been transformed by entering the magic circle of Phineas and Ferb’s backyard. To make a list of the recurring antagonists who don’t undergo some kind of redemption would probably be easier.[11]There’s Doofenshmirtz’s parents, Suzy Johnson (Kari Wahlgren), possessive little sister of Candace’s love interest, Mitch (David Mitchell), an extraterrestrial villain in two … Continue reading

When the characters on special occasions do encounter real wickedness, the effect is less to sour the show’s optimism than to add a welcome dash of spice to the episode, special or movie. Usually, these instances will see Doofenshmirtz teaming up with the new villains but have him fight alongside the good guys in the climax. In most cases, this is because the bad guys will have turned against him for no longer being useful but in one of the specials in the final season, Phineas and Ferb Save Summer, he defects from their ranks of his own accord because he can’t stand what they’re doing (“I’m an evil scientist, not a crazy scientist!”), a significant step in his character development.

I can think of no better example of Phineas and Ferb‘s no-total-jerks-and-no-total-idiots rule than this: compared to similar Disney animated series, like Recess or The Replacements, there are hardly any kids vs adults storylines.[12]That’s to say, there are some and they’re entertaining ones too but not many. It’s true that the main antagonist, Doofenshmirtz, is an adult and (seemingly) incompetent and, it turns out, an amazingly embarrassing parent, but he’s typically pitted against Perry, another adult, rather than the kids.[13]An adult secret agent platypuses is still technically an adult. Unlike other child empowering characters like Tom Sawyer, Peter Pan or Pippi Longstocking, Phineas and Ferb have nothing of the rebel in their natures. One of the franchise’s running jokes/catchphrases is some adult or other, typically a deliveryman, asking the boys whether they’re not a little young to be doing whatever they’re doing, upon which Phineas will reply, “Yes. Yes, we are,” and said adult will shrug it off and leave them to their devices.[14]My favorite variation on this is in one episode when the questioner’s fellow delivery man says, “Yes. Yes, he is. Sorry, Phineas, he’s new.” The show has no wish to empower anyone at anyone else’s expense.

Phineas and Ferb is all about celebrating humanity’s potential.[15]Whenever a character makes an ordinary painting or scrapbook or treehouse, the show is always careful to show it being praised. It would never want young viewers to be discouraged from doing projects … Continue reading But this humanism is tempered with an implicit acknowledgment of human limitations. Except for maybe Perry, none of the characters have a complete view of what’s going on. Phineas, Ferb and Candace know nothing about Doofenshmirtz and he knows nothing about them. Only the viewers from the godlike perspective granted them understand all. You might say that the losers of the show, Candace and Doofenshmirtz, are those who try to control everything while Phineas and Ferb, the winners, cheerfully accept that their inventions will mysteriously disappear every day and they’ll never know why. Maybe that’s why I don’t think they should try to bring back the show. Like one of the boys’ creations, it was an amazing, wonderful thing that had its moment and then was gone. Trying to force it to stay would be futile.

In many ways, Phineas and Ferb is most challenging escapist entertainment ever. The explicit challenge to viewers is to be as industrious and creative and enterprising as Phineas and Ferb. The implicit challenge is to be as kind and easygoing and helpful as they are.

References

References
1 There was a spin-off movie released on Disney+ in 2020, Candace Against the Universe. While a great movie in many ways with some of the best songs to emerge from the franchise, many of its dramatic beats were recycled from past episodes and it was clear the characters had all been developed as much as they needed to be already. Contrast this with the 2011 Disney Channel Original movie, Phineas and Ferb: Across the Second Dimension, which was great because it did things that the show proper would never do.
2 If you know what Gromit-esque means, reward yourself with some cheese.
3 I see nothing evil about that last one. Perry was clearly in the wrong there.
4 It’s particularly necessary for episodes like Hail Doofania and Phineas and Ferb Interrupted.
5 But what about Doofenshmirtz? We’ll get to him.
6 Well, Phineas is oblivious to these things. I suspect the stoic, inscrutable Ferb picks up on far more than he cares to mention.
7 A similar dynamic exists in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Theseus is the character who gets humiliated the least, but the audience is clearly shown that his skepticism of the supernatural is wrong. Consider these lines which could easily have been Mom talking about Candace, you know, if Mom were a Shakespeare character.

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends…
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

8 More seriously, he’s shown to have trouble working with others though this only comes up a few times.
9 The pilot episode does imply that Phineas is trying to hide what he’s doing from Candace and Mom, but the show abandons this so quickly I’m inclined to declare it noncanonical.
10 Without discovering Perry’s secret identity, of course.
11 There’s Doofenshmirtz’s parents, Suzy Johnson (Kari Wahlgren), possessive little sister of Candace’s love interest, Mitch (David Mitchell), an extraterrestrial villain in two episodes and Dr. Roddenstein (Joe Orrantia), another evil scientist and a rival of Doofenshmirtz. Huh, that was actually a longer list than I thought.
12 That’s to say, there are some and they’re entertaining ones too but not many.
13 An adult secret agent platypuses is still technically an adult.
14 My favorite variation on this is in one episode when the questioner’s fellow delivery man says, “Yes. Yes, he is. Sorry, Phineas, he’s new.”
15 Whenever a character makes an ordinary painting or scrapbook or treehouse, the show is always careful to show it being praised. It would never want young viewers to be discouraged from doing projects of their own just because they’d never be as cool as what Phineas and Ferb do. Both the characters and their creators would hate that.
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David Copperfield vs. David Copperfield

David Copperfield, Charles Dickens’s beloved novel about friendship, marriage, parenthood and life in general, doesn’t necessarily lend itself that well to a movie. Not only is it long, like all of Dickens’s major novels, but it’s structured like an autobiography and rather than having one major problem to be solved, new problems keep popping up just as they do in real life.[1]Great Expectations and Bleak House also have first person narrators but they’re not structured like biographies. Its slow pacing, surprisingly complex characterizations and emphasis on the day-to-day realities of life make the book more suited for the miniseries format. But that hasn’t stopped filmmakers from trying to adapt it and I can’t blame them. Of all the films that have been made from David Copperfield, either for television or the big screen, I’m going to compare the 1935 movie, which was the first sound version, and the 2019 one, which is the most recent adaptation and also a sound version. (In case you don’t get my sense of humor, that last line was a joke.) Both have elements to make fans of the book stand up and cheer and elements to make them groan and sit down in disappointment.

David Copperfield (1935)

Clearly, director George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story, Gaslight) and screenwriters Howard Estabrook had a lot of love and respect for the original book. It’s a rare scene from this movie that isn’t brimming with fan pleasing little details, like the sheep that wander into church in an early scene. Young David’s harrowing trip from London to Canterbury on foot has seldom, if ever, been powerfully portrayed as it is here. Many of the novel’s larger than life characters feel as if they’d jumped off the page.

Of course, with only two hours and ten minutes to tell the story several memorable characters were also cut, including two of the most interesting, Mrs. Steerforth, mother of David’s false friend, James (Hugh Williams), and her companion, Rosa Dartle. A sad loss but probably better than including them without being able to do them justice. David’s stint as a student at Salem House is cut and he meets Steerforth at the academy of Dr. Strong, who is referred to but never seen.[2]In the book, Steerforth’s mother specifically sent him to a poor school so he would stand out, so this change costs a bit of development for the character. He never meets his good friend, Tommy Traddles, and his love interest, Sophy, at all. To be fair, while they’re very endearing in the book, I haven’t seen an adaptation that included them and made them really work, though I will say that one of the subplots makes less sense without Traddles. The movie completely reimagines how David meets his first wife, Dora Spenlow (Maureen O’ Sullivan), and portrays her as having been raised by her maiden aunts (Marion Ballou and Margaret Seddon), dropping the character of her father. While Mr. Spenlow in the book is a great character, I rather like this change since the aunts are fun characters who would normally be cut in shorter adaptations and even some longer ones and, again, the movie didn’t have time to do Dora’s father justice.

When the film was first released, Freddie Bartholomew’s performance as the young David was highly praised and Frank Lawton as the older version of the character was written off as bland by comparison. For me though, Bartholomew grows a little wearying, mainly because he sounds annoying when he, or rather his character, cries and he has to cry a lot. However, I wouldn’t say this makes his performance bad. After all, people do often sound annoying when they cry in real life. I enjoy watching Lawton more though.

Bartholomew isn’t the only one in the cast with whom I take issue. Young Fay Chaldecott is pretty terrible as Little Emily. Fortunately, she only has two scenes and hardly any dialogue. Florine McKinney is better as the older version of the character but not by as much as you’d hope. Maybe it’s just as well she has no dialogue at all.

Elizabeth Allan perfectly captures the personality of David’s immature mother, but with her constant posing, she feels laughably like a refugee from a silent movie. (If you’re familiar with Singin’ in the Rain, you know exactly what I mean.)

Fortunately, there are far more great performances in this star-studded movie than bad ones. As David’s ultimate love interest, Agnes Wickfield, Madge Evans feels like a holdover from the silent film era in the best sense with the way she conveys her entire character through her facial expressions. (Marilyn Knowlden plays her in the one scene of her as a child.)

Other standouts are Basil Rathbone as Edward Murstone, David’s abusive stepfather, Violet Kemble Cooper as said stepfather’s equally abusive sister, Jane, Jessie Ralph as David’s loving nurse, Clara Peggotty, Lionel Barrymore as her brother, Daniel, W. C. Fields as the lovable but perpetually in debt Wilkins Micawber, Edna Mae Oliver as David’s awesome battle axe of a great aunt, Betsey Trotwood and Roland Young as the slimy, scheming Uriah Heep. Many of them portray their characters more vividly than any other adaptation.

Well…sort of.

It’d be accurate to say that the movie captures the characters from the book at certain points better than any other adaptation, but it doesn’t really capture their character development or their hidden depths, which were a big part of David Copperfield‘s appeal. For example, Oliver is easily my favorite Betsey Trotwood when she’s in awesome battle axe mode. (The scene where she gives the Murdstones a dressing down is a highlight.)

But she doesn’t show the character growing more easygoing and tolerant as the story goes on. That might not be so much her fault as it is the fault of the script. For example, in the book, Betsey Trotwood starts out opposed to the whole idea of marriage, in part due to her own bad experience of it which this movie doesn’t even mention, but she eventually mellows out to point that she becomes downright fond of David’s aforementioned first wife, who is exactly the kind of ditz that would have driven her crazy at the beginning of the story. In this movie, she is at best tolerant of Dora but never loses her disapproving air. Still, she’s better served by this adaptation than her mentally disabled friend, Mr. Dick (Lennox Pawle), who, without the subplot of Dr. Strong and his wife, is reduced to an undeveloped comic figure. The same can be said of Mrs. Micawber (Jean Cadell), a surprisingly dramatic character in the book and one who comes across as strong and even heroic as often as she comes across as pathetic. Here she only has two scenes and is simply pathetic in both of them. The only characters who have anything like satisfying arcs are David himself, Micawber and arguably Dora.[3]The minor character of Mrs. Gummidge (Una O’ Connor) doesn’t so much undergo a character arc in the book or the movie as much as she changes her whole personality on a dime. For what … Continue reading

Still, if this David Copperfield feels more like a scrapbook of memorable moments from the book than a well-designed story in its own right with fully developed characters, it’s a pretty great scrapbook.[4]Much the same could be said of George Cukor’s Little Women and I’d say it’s less of a problem with this movie than that one, though that could be I’m just a more enthusiastic … Continue reading Even thus simplified, the characters are still hard to forget, and it would be wrong to say there’s no depth to them at all. Considering how rushed the character arcs that are included are, it’s impressive how well they work. The one scene where Steerforth shows guilt is great and I’m amazed by how much the film conveys in the short section of it that depicts David’s marriage to Dora. Not every fan of the book will completely love this adaptation but every one of them should seek it out.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Director Armando Iannucci (The Death of Stalin) and his co-screenwriter Simon Blackwell also show a great deal of affection for the book, David Copperfield, in their adaptation. Including little details such as young David (Jairah Vasani; Dev Patel plays the character as an adult) wondering if the world can really be round when he sees the flatness of the Yarmouth landscape. A number of similes and analogies from Dickens’s prose are actually worked into the dialogue[5]Actually, the characters tend to speak in similes even when they’re not using Dickens’s language. It’s that kind of movie., mainly David’s, foreshadowing his career as an author. (“You should write that down,” he’s told more than once.)[6]As I’ve written before, the version of the screenplay published online contained a number of allusions to Dickens books besides David Copperfield, most of which were ultimately cut. They … Continue reading But this movie doesn’t capture the overall feel of the book nearly as well as the 1935 movie or other adaptations have, and it isn’t even really trying to do so. In the words one insightful reviewer, this is more of a Dickensian Iannucci movie than an Iannuccian Dickens movie. Still, there are worse things than that.

The main way this movie departs from the book stylistically is by putting more of an emphasis on comedy. Even young David being caned by Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd) ends up being played for laughs. So is Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong)’s alcoholism, though it still retains its dramatic function. To the movie’s credit, those laughs are pretty big. The early scene of Wickfield repeatedly trying to steer the conversation toward drink and Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) firmly steering it away is hilarious. Still, would it have hurt the movie to have him undergo some character development instead of still being a pathetic clown at the end?

A benefit of the emphasis on comedy though is that scenes, such as David’s fight with a butcher’s boy (Aston McCauley) or his embarrassing night of drunkenness.[7]That last scene is sped up like an old silent comedy, a stylistic flourish typical of this film’s whimsical sensibilities.

The humor doesn’t always feel like Dickens’s, being just a tad earthier and with more of an emphasis on self-consciously witty banter between the characters, but it’s often brilliant in its own way.

Still, this adaptation really doesn’t convey the book’s warmth. I know many readers feel that Dickens was too sentimental. I suppose with some of his books I can allow the validity of this criticism. But I defy anyone not to be moved by the relationship between David Copperfield and his old nurse, Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper in this version.) I defy anyone reading the book, that is. Their bond in this movie is…fine, but hardly as touching.

Compared to the 1935 adaptation, this one plays around with the book’s plot structure more, but it actually includes more characters, in part by combining them with each other. Thus Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) is combined with Mr. Mell, one of David’s first teachers, and Peggotty’s brother, Daniel (Paul Whitehouse), is combined with her eventual husband, Barkis. (I mean, he takes on Barkis’s role of driving a horse and cart. Peggotty doesn’t commit incest in this version or anything.) More startingly, Steerforth’s prim mother (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and the fiery Rosa Dartle become one character, which I wouldn’t have thought would work but does.[8]Emily (Aimee Kelly) also gets one of Rosa’s lines (“When James was at his truest, he loved me”) which, again, I wouldn’t have expected to make sense but does.

Like the 1935 movie, this one eliminates Salem House and has David meet Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard) at Dr. Strong’s. But rather than lose the soft-voiced, hard-hearted headmaster, Mr. Creakle (Victor McGuire), and his loud-voiced “translator,” Tungay (Peter Singh), it has them be young David’s supervisors at the blacking factory.

Unlike the 1935 movie, this one shows David’s time at Dr. Strong’s academy, but Dr. Strong’s is no longer run by Dr. Strong but by Mrs. Strong (Anna Maxwell Martin) who has nothing in common with either him or his wife from the book. This frustrates me since those characters are so seldom featured in even the longer adaptations, but this Mrs. Strong is a very fun character in her own right and feels fairly Dickensian in her comedy.

This adaptation has David run away from the blacking factory and seek out his great-aunt as an adult instead of a child. (Actually, I think he’s supposed to be a teenager at that point and only be an adult after his graduation, but it’s hard to tell, looking at his actor.) A side effect of this is that Betsey Trotwood loses the awesome dressing down she gives Murdstone and his sister (Gwendoline Christie.) A less eloquent one that David himself gives them, more or less, replaces it. As much as I hate this idea, having David and Agnes Wickfield (Rosalind Eleazer) be older when they meet allows the movie to develop their romance earlier. It pains me to admit it, but the emphasis on witty banter makes this Agnes a more fun character than her literary counterpart and the kindness she shows to Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) establishes her goodness more memorably than her introductory scenes in the book where we only see her being kind to David and her father.

I do wish though that the movie had kept her kindness toward her romantic rival, Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark who doubles David’s mother.) Here all she has for her are a few brief snippy comments. I know Dickens’s leading ladies get criticized as sickeningly sweet, but if you ask me, Agnes not resenting-or trying not to resent-Dora her luck and even having compassion for her can be very compelling. The relationship between David and Dora is vastly simplified while still paying tribute to her character arc in the book. This saves the movie from biting off more than it can chew dramatically, but it also means losing one of the most unique and interesting depictions of a bad marriage in Dickens, one in which neither partner is “the bad guy.” That’s arguably pretty unique for storytelling in general.

The book, David Copperfield, already had an unusually low body count for its author and this adaptation makes it even lower. In doing so, it makes an ending that already felt a bit too like wish fulfillment even more so. I have to say however that I prefer this lighthearted take on the source material to the gloomy 1969 made-for-TV movie, which focused entirely on David’s regrets over Dora and Steerforth.[9]It did adapt some of the book’s other famous subplots but in such a rushed and perfunctory way as to make them seem inexplicable.

The casting is fine. The best part of it is Dev Patel, who brings both an endearing earnestness and perfect comedic timing to the lovable dingbat of a lead. And when he’s called upon to imitate his costars, in his character’s capacity as a storyteller, he does so beautifully. Rosalind Eleazer and Morfydd Clark also shine, and Peter Capaldi and Hugh Laurie have some fun though I can’t help seeing them as too thin to be Micawber and Mr. Dick. But, in general, everyone is simply adequate in their roles without making much of an impression. As Uriah Heep, for example, Ben Whishaw is nowhere near the grotesque monster that Dickens described, though that could be because the movie reimagines his character so that we start out pitying him before seeing his true colors. (Not a bad idea if the character absolutely had to be reimagined.)

Still, if this David Copperfield doesn’t boast nearly as many great performances as the 1935 one, it doesn’t have as many bad ones either.[10]I seem to be beginning a lot of sentences in this post with “Still.” These are just those kinds of movies. If anyone is miscast, it’s Aneurin Barnard, who is a little too obviously evil as Steerforth.

For all that this movie prioritizes comedy over sentiment, I’d be doing it a terrible injustice if I didn’t mention that it actually does a better job giving the characters arcs than the 1935 movie and even better than some of the longer miniseries. This isn’t true in every case. Micawber, one supporting character who did have something like a good arc in the 1935 movie, loses it here as other characters take on his role in Uriah Heep’s defeat. The movie still tries to give him serious scenes, but he always comes across as pathetic in them, never heroic. And Mrs. Micawber (Bronagh Gallagher who once played a version of Mrs. Nickleby) is again reduced to a simple comic figure.

But Betsey Trotwood’s backstory, the payoff of which is often cut in adaptations, gets a new one here. And while Dr. Strong’s subplot is cut as usual, Mr. Dick is given another way to prove his intelligence and be a hero in this adaptation. Ironically, this movie does more justice to the tragic side of his character than any of the more dramatic adaptations I’ve seen. Maybe the idea behind this David Copperfield was to draw out the comedy of the characters usually seen as serious and the seriousness of those usually seen as comic. Probably not, at least with the second half, since it’s really only Mr. Dick of whom it’s true. Ah well. Mission accomplished anyway.

Concluding Thoughts

Which of these two movies do I think is the better? I really can’t say. The 2019 one has a much less lumpy, random structure. It feels less crammed with underdeveloped subplots and it’s the one which modern audiences are more likely to enjoy. But I can’t forget all the ways in which the 1935 movie strikes me as the more faithful adaptation. I know there are going to be people saying I should judge these movies on their own merits as movies. But I’m sorry, I can’t accept that. Things like Betsey Trotwood confronting the Murdstones and David’s first marriage, are objectively great.[11]I know, I know, all art is subjective. But come on! We’re talking about David Copperfield here. How can I say the 2019 movie is better than the 1935 one when it cuts them and the latter doesn’t?

My favorite adaptation, period, is the 1999 miniseries and I’m not just saying that because it’s longer than either of these movies. It’s only a two-part miniseries. There are ones far longer that I don’t enjoy as much. What makes it my favorite…actually, I think I’ll write about that in another post. But not before I bring back “The Animation Station” to commemorate the start of Summer with a post on the best cartoon series about Summer ever. (Actually, it might be the only cartoon series specifically about Summer.) My readers will just have to wait to read about my favorite David Copperfield adaptation. Hopefully, it’ll be worth it for them.

References

References
1 Great Expectations and Bleak House also have first person narrators but they’re not structured like biographies.
2 In the book, Steerforth’s mother specifically sent him to a poor school so he would stand out, so this change costs a bit of development for the character.
3 The minor character of Mrs. Gummidge (Una O’ Connor) doesn’t so much undergo a character arc in the book or the movie as much as she changes her whole personality on a dime. For what it’s worth though, the moment in which she changes is a heartwarming one in both.
4 Much the same could be said of George Cukor’s Little Women and I’d say it’s less of a problem with this movie than that one, though that could be I’m just a more enthusiastic fan of this material.
5 Actually, the characters tend to speak in similes even when they’re not using Dickens’s language. It’s that kind of movie.
6 As I’ve written before, the version of the screenplay published online contained a number of allusions to Dickens books besides David Copperfield, most of which were ultimately cut. They probably would have been too confusing for casual viewers, but I appreciate the idea.
7 That last scene is sped up like an old silent comedy, a stylistic flourish typical of this film’s whimsical sensibilities.
8 Emily (Aimee Kelly) also gets one of Rosa’s lines (“When James was at his truest, he loved me”) which, again, I wouldn’t have expected to make sense but does.
9 It did adapt some of the book’s other famous subplots but in such a rushed and perfunctory way as to make them seem inexplicable.
10 I seem to be beginning a lot of sentences in this post with “Still.” These are just those kinds of movies.
11 I know, I know, all art is subjective. But come on! We’re talking about David Copperfield here.
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Digging Up Dickens With Wishbone

I don’t think I could do a more entertaining job of explaining the premise of the old PBS Kids show, Wishbone, than this imagined version of the pitch meeting for it.

VISIONARY: So there’s this dog.
PBS SUITS: We’re listening.
VISIONARY: And he loves books.
[nodding, nodding]
VISIONARY: He knows all about classic books.
SUIT #1: Adorable.
SUIT #2: Like a cartoon dog?
VISIONARY: No, no. A live Jack Russell Terrier.
[…]
VISIONARY: He belongs to a boy named Joe.
SUIT #1: Nice.
SUIT #3: And Joe reads him the books?
VISIONARY: No, Joe couldn’t care less about books.
SUIT #3: Oh. Okay.
VISIONARY: Joe and his friends’ day-to-day scrapes resemble the plotlines of great novels, and Wishbone like, picks up on it.
SUIT #2: Wishbone?
VISIONARY: The dog.
SUIT #2: Oh.
SUIT #3: The name seems like more of a turkey thing…?
SUIT #1: Should we name him something literary? Something like Dogstoyev-
VISIONARY: No. His name is Wishbone. Unlike his human companion, Wishbone is a great lover of books. When Joe’s life reminds him of a masterpiece, as it so often does, our canine Virgil guides the audience on a journey into that book.
SUIT #3: So the dog can talk.
VISIONARY: Nope. Joe and his friends and Joe’s mom just think he’s a regular dog.
SUIT #2: …Joe’s dad?
VISIONARY: Ellen is a single mom. She’s a widow. This is a story about the limitless ecstasies of the imagination, but we want to respect the complex lives of our young viewers, so sometimes things are very real.
[nodding]
VISIONARY: Wishbone can narrate, though.
SUIT #1: So when we travel into the world of novel…
VISIONARY: Live actors, costumes, the works. Mini-Masterpiece Theater. Also, Wishbone is a character.
SUIT #2: Narrating?
VISIONARY: No, he is an actual character in the book.
SUIT #1: Ah, I get it. In the book part, all the characters are played by dogs?
VISIONARY: You get nothing. Wishbone plays a character, for example Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, and the other parts are played by adult human actors.
SUIT #3: But you said he can’t talk to humans.
VISIONARY: No, see, in the world of the book, nobody thinks he’s a dog and people understand him. Just not in the real world. But then what is “real,” right?
SUIT #2: Like they just never acknowledge he’s a dog?
VISIONARY: I mean he wears a costume, so.
[1]The whole thing is worth reading.

Despite the satirical tone of that article, there are a lot of people who look back on this show with fondness, even admiration. I like to believe there are even cultural historians who discover it as adults and become fans. I definitely got a kick out of it growing up and heartily agree with its philosophy that the greatest stories from hundreds and even thousands of years ago are still relatable today.

Besides Romeo, Wishbone’s illustrious acting career included such juicy roles as Cyrano de Bergerac, Sherlock Holmes, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, Victor Frankenstein, Robin Hood, Mr. Darcy, King David, D’Artagnan and Hercules. I thought it’d be fun to do a blog post on the three episodes of the show that adapt books by Charles Dickens. Despite the unwieldly length of Dickens’s novels, not to mention their preoccupations with legal and financial matters and the fates of fallen women, in many ways they lend themselves to short adaptations for young children very well. Not only do several Dickensian protagonists begin their stories as children themselves, but their plots have plenty of danger and suspense and they all have clear wholesome moral messages. Shakespeare’s characters and themes, on the other hand, tend to be open to multiple interpretations and while Jane Austen’s books also have clear messages that are arguably even more relevant to kids[2]Mainly, don’t let your personal biases blind you to the truth., they lack adventure and excitement, especially for the stereotypical boy.

Besides which, Charles Dickens is my favorite Capital-C-Classic author and I love blogging about his work. Let’s dive in.

Twisted Tail

“I’m so hungry I could even eat cat food!”

In this episode, Wishbone (portrayed by a dog named Soccer and voiced to perfection by Larry Brantely) imagines himself as the poor orphan boy Oliver Twist from Dickens’s book of that name. Only the first act or so of the story ends up being retold (it begins with Oliver asking for more food at the workhouse and ends, more or less, with him being cleared of pocket picking charges at the last minute) and few of its iconic characters actually appear. No Fagin, no Bill Sikes and no Nancy. There’s a certain logic to this as not only is the beginning of Oliver Twist the part with the least adult content, but the last act is really more about Nancy than Oliver. But despite adapting a very small, specific portion of the book, this episode really does convey the essence of it, mainly the feeling of poor Oliver being at mercy of a heartless world. The visual of him being a tiny dog actually serves the story well there. In fact, in some ways, this is one of the most accurate Oliver Twist adaptations ever. Despite him being nothing but an antagonist to Oliver in the book, roughly four fifths of the adaptations I’ve seen end up making the Artful Dodger (played here by Joe Duffield, son of Wishbone creator Rick Duffield)[3]Fans of the series may recognize him for his recurring role in the “real world” storylines as local troublemaker Damont Jones. a good guy, sometimes by combining him with Charley Bates (Matt Zeske in this episode), a character in the book who is somewhat randomly redeemed in the end. Not so here.[4]Of course, this episode was my introduction to the story, so maybe what’s going on is that it blinded me to whatever it is that other readers and adapters of the book find endearing about the … Continue reading While Wishbone’s smart-alecky personality is a poor fit for Oliver’s character, this adaptation retains his obliviousness to the Artful Dodger’s criminal intentions and his horror at seeing him pick a pocket. More cynical adaptations make him more openminded about thievery although the whole point of his character in the book is that he refuses to compromise his morals despite the good reasons he has to do so and is rewarded for it in the end. As a retelling of Oliver Twist, this episode may be pretty lame, but as an introduction to it, it’s quite good. And the fact that it retells so little means that kid viewers who went on to the read the original book had plenty of surprises.

In the “real world” storyline, Wishbone’s young owner, Joe Talbot (Jordan Wall), befriends a boy named Max (Marshall Ziemanski) from a group home where, we hear, he doesn’t get much to eat, and the other kids aren’t very nice to him. Well, that’s not quite true. There is Zach (Michael Edmondson), one older kid there who seems to be vying for Max’s affection-and for whose crimes Max nearly gets blamed. This ties in nicely with Dickens’s story and his message that if society doesn’t want homeless orphans to take up lives of crime, it needs to do a better job of taking care of them. It’s true that parts of this plot are really silly. (How many teenage hoodlums would steal plastic flamingoes from someone’s yard? Scratch that. How many adults would?!) But I feel like anyone watching a show like this is expecting something a little cheesy and this episode is vintage 1995 PBS Kids cheese.[5]Can something be both genuinely cheesy and also genuinely good? I would say yes, but any examples I’d give would be highly subjective.

A Tale of Two Sitters

“Least I’ve got a nice view of the guillotine.”

Where Wishbone only adapted the first act of Oliver Twist, it only adapts the last act of A Tale of Two Cities wherein former French aristocrat, Charles Evremonde (Wishbone), who has “broken from the pack”[6]Wishbone’s words, not mine. and moved to London, is forced to return to Paris where the French Revolution is in full swing and eager to make him pay for his family’s cruelties. It’s likely that with both episodes, the motives behind the choices of what specifically to adapt were wanting to include the most iconic parts of the narrative. And to its credit, the episode does a good job of dramatizing those parts in a kid friendly way and conveying what makes A Tale of Two Cities interesting. Naturally, we don’t get all the dirty details of what the Evremondes did to Madame DeFarge (Jenny Pichanick)’s family, but it’s clear that the common people of France have legitimate grievances yet equally clear that they’re treating Charles and his wife, Lucie Manette (Sally Nystuen), unjustly. Unfortunately, Sydney Carton (Brent Anderson)’s final sacrifice ends up not making much dramatic sense since his only role in the episode prior to it has been to stand around looking depressed for no clear reason. I understand if the show’s creators didn’t consider a man’s love for another’s wife appropriate for kids even if that love was unrequited, but this really makes A Tale of Two Cities a weird choice for the show to adapt at all.

In the “real world” storyline, it’s Saturday and Joe and his friend, David Barnes (Adam Springfield) want to test out a new remote-controlled car, but they’re stuck babysitting David’s little sister, Emily (Jazmine McGill), and her friend, Tina (Katy Price.) The girls are left unsupervised in Joe’s house and naturally wreak havoc there. This…doesn’t really have anything to do with A Tale of Two Cities at all despite Wishbone’s valiant attempts to tie it into the book’s famous opening. I guess you could say that just as the chaos in France was a result of the upper classes’ neglect and abuse of the people, the chaos in the Talbot home is the result of boys’ irresponsibility, but that feels so forced. (I’m guessing the writers came up with the episode’s titular pun first and worked backwards from it.) There’s an attempted parallel at the end with an act of nobility on Emily’s part, but it’s not a very good attempt since Emily takes the blame for something she actually did whereas Sydney Carton takes on a punishment that had nothing to do with him.[7]Though you could argue there’s justice in the substitution in that Sydney generally led a less moral life than Charles Darnay did. The fact that the girls aren’t the best actresses doesn’t help much. Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this episode.

Groomed for Greatness

“I’m an expert on vittles.”

It’s very easy to do a modern-day story for kids that parallels Great Expectations. With that novel, Charles Dickens pretty much made the prototype for every kids’ story about an unpopular kid who suddenly becomes popular, betrays or neglects their good unpopular friends in favor of the evil popular kids, suffers a humiliating comedown and learns a valuable lesson. It’s a credit to the Wishbone writers’ creativity that they didn’t just do that.[8]That may have been because the show had already done it in an episode inspired by Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage though the connection was somewhat forced. Instead, world class artist, Renee Lassiter (Shelley Duvall!) is enlisted to create a dog sculpture for the local park with Wishbone as the model. She, in turn, enlists David to be her assistant. This leads to him getting a big head and snubbing his friends. I consider it a particularly happy piece of serendipity that one of those friends is named Joe.[9]I know I’m breaking my pattern by writing about the “real world” plot first, but it feels right to me for this episode.

While Wishbone wasn’t generally a show that people watched for great acting[10]Though some of the cast members have had good careers. It was actually Amy Acker’s television debut!, this episode has an unusually good cast. Jenny Pichanick is solid as Miss Havisham, one of Dickens’s juiciest villains, male or female. While their characters don’t have anything like the depth they have in the book, Matthew Tompkins and Timothy Vhale are likeable as Joe Gargery and Herbert Pocket. If there’s a weak link, it’s Jenni Tooley as Estella who doesn’t exude the charisma to convince us that the main character, Pip (Wishbone), would fall in love with her despite her coldness. But, hey, it’s a very difficult part to play well. I can probably the count the actresses who have completely sold me on the character on one hand, though I find her and her relationship with Pip completely believable in the book. Unlike the previous Dickensian Wishbone episodes, this one gives a broad overview of its source material’s plot, not just the beginning or the end. The virtue of that is that it teaches kids a lot more about the story. The downside is that…well, it teaches them a lot more about the story, potentially spoiling the experience of reading the real book, including a major plot twist roughly two thirds of the way through. For what it’s worth, I saw this episode before I read Great Expectations, but my memories were vague, and I didn’t associate them with the book’s title, so it didn’t ruin anything for me. In fact, it’s probably my favorite of these three episodes. I’d like to conclude by mentioning something this episode gets right that most Great Expectations adaptations don’t. Forgiveness is a big theme of the original book but for whatever reason, most adaptations have Pip, in need of forgiveness himself, hold a grudge against Miss Havisham to the end or only forgive her begrudgingly. The Wishbone episode is one of the only adaptations, if not the only adaptation to have him immediately forgive her wholeheartedly.

Who’d have expected that?

References

References
1 The whole thing is worth reading.
2 Mainly, don’t let your personal biases blind you to the truth.
3 Fans of the series may recognize him for his recurring role in the “real world” storylines as local troublemaker Damont Jones.
4 Of course, this episode was my introduction to the story, so maybe what’s going on is that it blinded me to whatever it is that other readers and adapters of the book find endearing about the Dodger.
5 Can something be both genuinely cheesy and also genuinely good? I would say yes, but any examples I’d give would be highly subjective.
6 Wishbone’s words, not mine.
7 Though you could argue there’s justice in the substitution in that Sydney generally led a less moral life than Charles Darnay did.
8 That may have been because the show had already done it in an episode inspired by Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage though the connection was somewhat forced.
9 I know I’m breaking my pattern by writing about the “real world” plot first, but it feels right to me for this episode.
10 Though some of the cast members have had good careers. It was actually Amy Acker’s television debut!
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The Adaptation Station’s Two-Year Anniversary Top Ten List (in Alphabetical Order)

Technically, it’s no longer this blog’s two-year anniversary, but I still felt like doing this list of the top ten movies/shows/plays about which I’ve blogged. Here are some disclaimers. If you’ve been following my blog and remember the other “list” posts, you can probably guess the first two.[1]I have to keep including them because you never know which post will be the first someone reads. The third one is new.

These are the top ten movies, shows, etc. about which about I’ve blogged, not my top ten favorites ever. The list should still give you some idea of what I consider great though.

The items are listed in alphabetical order, not ranked in quality. I could probably say that a few of them are better than others, but for the most part, I regard them as equal in their different ways. Doing an alphabetical list was easier than a ranking.

When I say I’ve blogged about them, I mean that they were the specific subject of at least one post. I’m not including things I’ve just mentioned. For example, in my two-part series on Maleficent (2014), I mentioned that I’m an ardent fan of the 1959 Sleeping Beauty, but the series wasn’t about that, so I didn’t put it on this list.

Now the moment you’ve been waiting for…

As You Like It (2006)

Basically, all of Shakespeare’s comedies are about romance, but As You Like It is a particularly interesting exploration of it. It contrasts a couple, Touchstone and Audrey, whose relationship is totally based on sex with the man planning on dumping the woman as soon as he’s had his fun with her, a couple, Silvius and Phebe, whose relationship is built on poetic cliches and finally a couple, Orlando and Rosalind, whose rounded relationship encompasses the physical and the spiritual. Of course, to describe it that way makes it sound much more moralizing and censorious than it is. The play ends with all three couples, plus another, getting married and we’re supposed to be happy for all of them.

The 2006 movie captures both the magic and the humanity of this play while dealing with its narrative problems as gracefully as possible. It boasts great casting, great visuals and great music. (Actually, pretty much all of the movies on this list boast that as well as great writing. I’m going to have to be careful not to keep repeating that in this post, but I should be allowed to mention it with this first entry.) My opinion on this comfort film can best be summarized by the line, “I like this place and willingly would waste my time in it.”

Cinderella (2015)

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by the legend of Cinderella. Having seen several movie adaptations of it, I can say that this, despite only having come out in the mid-2010s and not having nostalgia to lend it luster, is the best of them. For me, it has the perfect blend of being daringly traditional and non-revisionist while putting subtle new spins on the characters of Cinderella, her stepmother and her eventual husband, making them feel like real people. In general, I feel that the Disney company’s recent line of nostalgia bait, while pathetic in how endless it is, gets a worse rap from some critics than it deserves. But this is the only recent Disney remakes that I believe transcends the category of nostalgia bait.[2]I’d argue it’s not a remake of the old, animated movie at all, just another adaptation of the fairy tale, except for the mice and the cat and the names of the stepsisters and the words, … Continue reading

Emma (1996)[3]This is the one starring Gwyneth Paltrow, not Kate Beckinsale. It’s probably fairer to identify them by directors than actors, but if I did that, readers wouldn’t recognize their names.

Guys, are you turned off by the first three movies on this list being chick flicks? Well, this is one romantic comedy where the leading lady is wrong about everything, and her male love interest is always right. If the woman in your life insists on you watching a “girl movie” with her, why don’t you suggest this one?

Seriously, folks, if you ask me, this is the only movie based on a Jane Austen book that anyone really needs to watch.[4]Well, OK, there’s also Love and Friendship (2016) and maybe Sense and Sensibility (1995.) As something of an introvert, I love that it caricatures people who are annoyingly friendly. But it also distinguishes between the annoying but genuinely friendly Miss Bates and Mrs. Elton whose annoying friendliness is calculated and phony. (The friendliness part, that is. Her annoyingness is quite natural and genuine.) Beneath its fluffy exterior, this movie provides a pretty scathing look at how nasty respectable people, like Mr. Elton and Emma herself, can be and shows that it’s not enough to go through the motions of charity while having a selfish heart.

Fantasia (1940)/Fantasia 2000 (which actually came out in 1999.)

OK, so this is actually a top 11 list, not a top 10 list. As I wrote in my blog posts about them, I feel like the strengths and weaknesses of these two “animated concerts” balance each other out. While there are some great moments of joy and humor in the first Fantasia, most notably in the Pastoral Symphony segment and the Dance of the Hours, they’re not as effective as the ones in second one. And while Fantasia 2000 has some great dark moments, mainly the depiction of a jobless man’s plight in the Rhapsody in Blue segment and the antagonist in the Firebird Suite, they’re not to be compared to those in the original. In a way, I can recommend Fantasia 2000 to more viewers since it’s less often boring, but on the other hand, I kind of admire Fantasia (1940) for daring to be boring and it does something for the few to whom it appeals that more crowd-pleasing movies don’t. If only the two films could be combined into one, they’d be one of my favorites. Still, as they are, both feature beautiful animation and music and provide an interesting opportunity for the talented Disney animators to do something outside the narrative norms of Disney.

Little Dorrit (2008)

I was a trifle unsure about including this miniseries since, as I wrote in my post about it, it has quite a few structural problems, probably more than anything else on this list has. But its virtues are just so great! It features some of Charles Dickens’s most scathing satire against high society and, despite its melancholy tone, some of his most hilarious supporting characters. The romance between Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam is also arguably one of Dickens’s best.[5]Though some would say that’s less of an achievement. Or maybe it just comes across as the best due to the lead actors’ performances. I know I wrote that every item on this top ten list features consistently great casting, so I wasn’t going to keep mentioning it, but I can’t resist gushing about this miniseries’ cast. Everyone embodies their roles so well. It might be the best cast for any Dickens adaptation I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many great ones. A messy masterpiece this may be, but a masterpiece, nonetheless.

Les Misérables (2012)

Like the Fantasia movies, this is an item on the list that I can’t recommend to everyone, not without some caveats first. Many viewers are turned off by its cinematography and its casting, as well as various other things which don’t or barely bother yours truly.[6]It also happens to be highest rated movie on this list at PG-13, though I’d argue some of the television stuff has PG-13 content. Well, those viewers can make their own top ten lists and, in some cases, doubtless have done so. I am in awe of the epic emotional powerhouse that is this movie and while my opinion may not be uncontroversial, I’m not alone in it either. As I wrote before, if I were to sum up this movie in one word, it would be, powerful. A powerful story, powerful acting, a powerful soundtrack, powerful visuals and powerful themes.

Victor Hugo’s original story, while it has plenty of cinematic elements, is also notoriously complex and difficult to do justice to in one movie.[7]More than one film concludes with the death of the main antagonist and the union of the young lovers, ignoring all the major drama afterwards. The 1985 stage musical already did a great job of simplifying the plot to make it accessible for casual viewers while still including many of the best scenes and giving most of the characters a chance to shine even if it didn’t give all of them as much depth as in the book. But if you ask me, everything from the original source material that the 2012 movie reinstates and everything it does that’s different from either makes an already amazing adaptation even more brilliant. Again, I am in awe.

Nicholas Nickleby (2002)[8]I’ve referred to this movie in the past as The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby since that’s what I remembered from the opening credits, but according to the internet, the shorter … Continue reading

If all the movie adaptations of Charles Dickens books were trapped in a burning building, rescuing this one would be my first priority. It’s classy yet unpretentious and it’s accessible to modern audiences without pandering to them.[9]As I’ve gathered that Netflix’s recent take on Jane Austen’s Persuasion does. Perhaps this was easy since so many of the elements that Dickens included in the source material still attracts people centuries later. Only the most pretentious viewers, who insist on moral ambiguity and challenge, fail to enjoy cheering for an underdog hero against a hissable villain.

I admit I may be biased in this one’s favor. I first saw it when I was around 19 and it was inspiring to have a story about someone my age standing up for his convictions, beating up bullies and saving their helpless victims. Of course, there are probably lots of stories about 19-year-old heroes doing those things. Who can say why this one specifically appealed to me? But it did and continues to do so.[10]Maybe it’s appropriate that one of the two Dickens adaptations on this list features one his best archetypally masculine heroes and the other features one of his best archetypally feminine … Continue reading

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

I’d always admired this movie somewhat, but in recent years, I’ve been drawn back to it more and more until I imagine I would include it on a list of my favorite movies period, not just that this blog has covered.[11]Maybe not a top ten list but it could make a top twenty or even a top fifteen. I think it works on a number of levels, as spectacle, as character study.[12]I know I wrote that the only really interesting characters in it were the protagonist and the main antagonist and I’ll stand by that (though, come to think of it, the old Pharoah (voiced by … Continue reading It even manages a sense of real religious awe, not something you’d expect from Dreamworks animation. Ostensibly, an affirmation of mankind’s desire for freedom, it also works as a cautionary story about human hubris. And at a time when personal bonds are often broken by conflicting political and religious convictions, its reimagining of the relationship between Moses and Pharoah is very relatable.

The Storyteller (1987-1989)

In the course of nine episodes, this show managed to include every trope you’d want to see represented in a collection of European folktales. A beautiful maiden whose father accidently promises her in marriage to an ugly monster. A wandering soldier who is magically rewarded for charity to a beggar. A sister who must take a vow of silence to save her brothers who have transformed into birds. The youngest of three sons who, in part because of his kindness to animals, succeeds in a mission where his brothers have failed. The belle of a royal ball who is secretly a grimy scullery maid. All this and more. While capturing the feel of a fairy tale, this series also gives the impression of psychological depth with little details, such as the princess in The Three Ravens missing her deceased mother whenever she’s happy, and its unique writing style gives it a personality all its own.

You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown (1972)

Of all the underrated Peanuts specials about which I’ve written this is my favorite.[13]OK, that’s not true. I probably prefer There’s No Time For Love, Charlie Brown, but I don’t have much to say about it beyond that it’s hilarious, so this works better. It’s a great comedic look at the election process or at least the election process in the USA. With some very skewed polls, over-the-top campaign promises that can’t possibly be kept, questionable attempts to make a candidate look “homey,” a radio call in show with meandering callers who hem and haw[14]No shame. If I were to call in to a show like that, I’d get tongue tied too. and a campaign manager who is exasperated by her candidate’s insistence on bringing up his controversial religious beliefs, this will always be relevant. So will its message that candidates may mean well but you shouldn’t rely on them to fix everything wrong with the world-especially if they still suck their thumbs and carry security blankets.

Well, there you have it. One Shakespeare movie. One Jane Austen adaptation. Two Charles Dickens adaptations. One Peanuts cartoon. One movie and one TV series adapted from fairy tales. Two epic musicals. At least, two romantic comedies. One animated short and three animated movies, two of which are made up of shorts. I hesitate to say that’s the perfect representation of my tastes, but it does give you some idea of my interests and what you can expect from The Adaptation Station.com.

References

References
1 I have to keep including them because you never know which post will be the first someone reads.
2 I’d argue it’s not a remake of the old, animated movie at all, just another adaptation of the fairy tale, except for the mice and the cat and the names of the stepsisters and the words, bibbiddi bobbiddi boo-OK, fine, it’s a remake! A really great remake.
3 This is the one starring Gwyneth Paltrow, not Kate Beckinsale. It’s probably fairer to identify them by directors than actors, but if I did that, readers wouldn’t recognize their names.
4 Well, OK, there’s also Love and Friendship (2016) and maybe Sense and Sensibility (1995.)
5 Though some would say that’s less of an achievement.
6 It also happens to be highest rated movie on this list at PG-13, though I’d argue some of the television stuff has PG-13 content.
7 More than one film concludes with the death of the main antagonist and the union of the young lovers, ignoring all the major drama afterwards.
8 I’ve referred to this movie in the past as The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby since that’s what I remembered from the opening credits, but according to the internet, the shorter title seems to be correct.
9 As I’ve gathered that Netflix’s recent take on Jane Austen’s Persuasion does.
10 Maybe it’s appropriate that one of the two Dickens adaptations on this list features one his best archetypally masculine heroes and the other features one of his best archetypally feminine heroines. But that’s a bit of an oversimplification of the characters. Nicholas Nickleby is very nurturing towards the disabled Smike, one of the victims he defends, and Little Dorrit rescues other characters in her own way by tending to them when they’re ill and taking care of them.
11 Maybe not a top ten list but it could make a top twenty or even a top fifteen.
12 I know I wrote that the only really interesting characters in it were the protagonist and the main antagonist and I’ll stand by that (though, come to think of it, the old Pharoah (voiced by Patrick Stewart) is a remarkably rounded character considering the little screen time he has) but, well, those two characters are really interesting.
13 OK, that’s not true. I probably prefer There’s No Time For Love, Charlie Brown, but I don’t have much to say about it beyond that it’s hilarious, so this works better.
14 No shame. If I were to call in to a show like that, I’d get tongue tied too.
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The First Ever Adaptees Award Ceremony

Today is the two-year anniversary of The Adaptation Station.com! I wanted to do something special to commemorate it. My first idea was a post about my top ten adaptations about which I’ve blogged. My second was a post that was like an Oscars ceremony where I gave awards for best actors, best costumes, best director, etc. I polled my readers and the second, more creative idea was declared the best.[1]I’m still going to do the Top Ten List later this month though because I feel like doing it.

However, instead of doing awards for all kinds of things, the Adaptees ended up just being actors.

Actually, they ended up being for the best characterizations. What exactly do I mean by that?

Well, every one of these award winners and honorable mentions is a character I consider great or at least good[2]Some of the categories with which I came up had more candidates than others, making a win for them less impressive. but I also am giving it for which actor’s portrayal I enjoyed the most. I’m not including any actors who I believe did great work on a badly written character. Nor am I including really well written versions of characters who were miscast. Basically, these are for whomever I enjoyed watching the most. Some of the winners are from things that aren’t necessarily my favorite adaptations of their source material, but I don’t consider any of them badly written. Having the awards be for the best characters also enabled me to include little “acceptance speeches” by these particular versions of them, making this post a tad more interesting than just a bunch of images.

I should say something about some exclusions. I consider the characters from the Underrated Peanuts specials about which I blogged to be just as memorable as any on this list, but they each fulfill different roles in different specials. In one of them, Charlie Brown takes the lead. In another, Linus does. In another, Lucy and in another, Snoopy. Whom should I categorize as a hero and whom as a sidekick? There were already so many candidates that excluding them was the easiest thing to do. I also didn’t include any of the characters from Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, well written and well-acted as they were, since their stories are all so short that it seemed strange to have them compete against the more fully developed figures from the other things I’ve reviewed on this site. Again, I should stress that doesn’t mean I consider them less great, just that they’re great in a different way. To me, it just doesn’t make sense to compare them.[3]I thought of giving the storyteller himself (John Hurt) an award for best narrator, but he had so little competition, even less than for best antihero or antiheroine, that it didn’t seem right. The same went for the characters from the Fantasia movies, memorable though some of them were.

As with my first-year anniversary post, keep in mind that these are only my favorites about which I’ve blogged. There are plenty of movies, shows, etc. that I love but haven’t blogged about. Some of them I will blog about in the future, others not. In some cases, that’s because they’re not adaptations of anything. In other cases, they are adaptations, but I don’t think I have anything interesting to write about them.

Now without further ado, the first ever Adaptees Awards Ceremony!

Best Purely Heroic Hero: Andrew Simpson’s Nick Nickleby

“Thanks…I owe you one.”

Runners Up: David Oyelowo’s Orlando de Boys, Jeremy Northam’s Mr. Knightley

Best Anti-Hero: Jeremy Sumpter’s Peter Pan[4]Part of me feels like I should honor Cathy Rigby’s portrayal of this character from the 2000 filmed version of the musical since that adaptation is less well known and less flawed. But the … Continue reading

“Oh, the cleverness of me!”

Runner Up: Brad Pitt’s Sinbad

Best Hero That’s Hard to Classify: Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean

“You have warmed my heart like the sun.”

Runner Up: Val Kilmer’s Moses

Best Purely Heroic Heroine: Claire Foy’s Amy Dorrit

“Please don’t kneel to me…let me help you.”

Runners Up: Lily James’s Cinderella, Bryce Dallas Howard’s Rosalind

Best Anti-Heroine: Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma Woodhouse

“If I have not spoken, it is because I am afraid I will awaken myself from this dream.”

Runner Up: Elizabeth Taylor’s Katharina Minola

Best Heroine That’s Hard to Classify: Sarah Davenport’s Jo March

“I am not interesting…if my younger self could see me, she’d straight up join a nunnery!”

Runners Up: Jodie Foster/Barbara Harris’s Annabel Andrews, Jamie Lee Curtis/Lindsey Lohan’s Dr. Tess Coleman

Best Villain You Love to Hate: Jim Broadbent’s Wackford Squeers

“Capturing wayward boys is something of a specialty.”

Runner Up: Charles Dance’s Mr. Tulkinghorn

Best Tragic Villain: David Oyelowo’s Javert

“I’ve dedicated my life to uncovering not only the obvious offenses but the hidden ones.”

Runner Up: Ralph Fiennes’s Rameses II, Russell Crowe’s Javert[5]Part of me wants to give him the award since Crowe’s casting as the character has been criticized a lot and it’s nice to root for the underdog and there are some aspects of Javert’s … Continue reading

Best Villainess You Love to Hate: Kate Beckinsale’s Lady Susan Vernon

“There’s a certain pleasure in making a person, predetermined to dislike, instead acknowledge one’s superiority.”

Runners Up: Juliet Stevenson’s Mrs. Squeers[6]Part of me really wants to let her have this award, but characters from Dickens and Les Misérables adaptations are dominating this list enough as it is and I’ve regretted that when doing lists … Continue reading, Michelle Pfieffer’s Eris

Best Tragic Villainess: Judy Parfitt’s Mrs. Clennam

“If this house were blazing from the roof to the ground, I would stay in it to justify my righteous motives!”

Runner Up: Cate Blanchett’s Cinderella’s Stepmother[7]That sounds confusing, but “Cate Blanchett’s Stepmother” would have been even more so.

Best Woobie (Male): David Threlfall’s Smike

“If I could rise up again now, completely well, I wouldn’t want to.”

Runner Up: Jamie Bell’s Smike

Best Woobie (Female): Anne Hathaway’s Fantine

“I had a dream my life would be so different….”

Runners Up: Isabelle Allen’s Cosette[8]Part of me really wants to give her the award since Hathaway has had a fairly successful career and Allen hasn’t been in any movies besides Les Misérables. (Given the fates of many child … Continue reading, Lily Collins’s Fantine

Best Mentor Figure (Male or Female): Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins[9]I know it’s weird to have only one category be for both male and female, but there were very few memorable mentor figures in anything the Adaptation Station has covered. The closest I could … Continue reading

“Please! How different can it be from riding an elephant?”

Runners Up: Susan Sarandon’s Marmee, Colm Wilkinson’s Bishop of Digne

Best Comedic Supporting Character (Male): Eddie Marsans Pancks

“Roast beef and plum pudding for everybody!”

Runners Up: Nathan Lane’s Vincent Crummles, Will Smith’s Genie

Best Comedic Supporting Character (Female): Sophie Thompson’s Miss Bates

“We are the happy ones, not only to be here tonight but for the beautiful hind quarter of pork you sent us. It has been Heaven itself. What a happy porker it must have come from! We’re so obliged for your sending it to us…and we’re so obliged for your having us tonight, very much indeed. I was just saying to Mother, ‘we should be invited,’ and indeed we are…oh, isn’t this a lovely party? Lovely, lovely!”

Runners Up: Nasim Pedrad’s Dalia, Annette Crosbie’s Mr. F’s Aunt

So that’s it for the first ever Adaptees. Did you enjoy it? Should I ever do another one?

References

References
1 I’m still going to do the Top Ten List later this month though because I feel like doing it.
2 Some of the categories with which I came up had more candidates than others, making a win for them less impressive.
3 I thought of giving the storyteller himself (John Hurt) an award for best narrator, but he had so little competition, even less than for best antihero or antiheroine, that it didn’t seem right.
4 Part of me feels like I should honor Cathy Rigby’s portrayal of this character from the 2000 filmed version of the musical since that adaptation is less well known and less flawed. But the reason I’m “gendering” the categories is to include as many characters as possible and it feels weird to include a cross-cast role.
5 Part of me wants to give him the award since Crowe’s casting as the character has been criticized a lot and it’s nice to root for the underdog and there are some aspects of Javert’s characterization in the musical that I prefer to the miniseries. (His genuinely believing he was mistaken in suspecting the mayor and asking to be dismissed, for one thing, rather than it being a ploy to catch Jean Valjean.) But I also feel bad that the 2012 movie is beating the 2018 adaptation in so many categories when it really does have some great casting and David Oyelowo’s fiery Javert is closer to the one in my imagination than Russell Crowe’s stoic Javert. Plus, I felt bad that Oyelowo didn’t win Best Purely Heroic Hero.
6 Part of me really wants to let her have this award, but characters from Dickens and Les Misérables adaptations are dominating this list enough as it is and I’ve regretted that when doing lists of best adapted screenplays, I’ve never been able to give the one for Lady Susan’s movie more than an honorable mention. These award shows really are all about the politics, aren’t they?
7 That sounds confusing, but “Cate Blanchett’s Stepmother” would have been even more so.
8 Part of me really wants to give her the award since Hathaway has had a fairly successful career and Allen hasn’t been in any movies besides Les Misérables. (Given the fates of many child actors, maybe that’s for the best.) But none of her lines sound like an acceptance speech and anyway, her character only really needs a hug during the first half of the story. Fantine’s whole life story is depressing.
9 I know it’s weird to have only one category be for both male and female, but there were very few memorable mentor figures in anything the Adaptation Station has covered. The closest I could think of to another great male one was Denis Lawson’s Mr. Jarndyce of Bleak House and I’m not sure that’s really his role in the story. Actually, it’s not a great description of Mary Poppins’s role either but she’s such a great character I had to include her somehow. So basically, this whole category is a sham.
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Caging Skies and Adapting Jojo

“The great danger of lying is not that lies are untruths, and thus unreal, but that they become real in other people’s minds. They escape the liar’s grip like seeds let loose in the wind, sprouting a life of their own in the least expected places until one day the liar finds himself contemplating a lonely but nonetheless healthy tree, grown off the side of a barren cliff.”-Christine Leunens, Caging Skies.

There have been several dark, depressing and disturbing books that were adapted into much cheerier movies.[1]There have also been movie adaptations of books that did the opposite, but that doesn’t concern us right now. The novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens and its loose cinematic adaptation, writer/director Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is a particular striking modern example.[2]For the record, Leunens approves of Jojo Rabbit, saying she’s “seen film adaptations so faithful to the book that they somehow ended up being unfaithful in essence.” Jojo Rabbit is a quirky movie and by quirky, I mean that it’s a movie about a young boy who has imaginary conversations with his personal idol, deals with peer pressure, a father’s absence and his first major crush, a movie that ends with the boy finally tying his own shoelaces to symbolize his new maturity and a goofy dance, all with colorful cinematography and a wacky sense of humor-but that boy begins the story as an ardent Nazi in the lates 40s and his idol/imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler! It’s not unheard of for comedic or otherwise lightweight pieces of entertainment to feature Nazis. Indiana Jones, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Hogan’s Heroes come to mind. But the Nazis in them are villains, not protagonists, and the stories tend to steer clear of the Holocaust and antisemitism.[3]For the record, Hogan’s Heroes is about a POW camp, not a concentration camp-which is still outrageously tasteless but it’s hard for me to condemn the show while laughing with it so hard. … Continue reading Jojo Rabbit takes the perspective (initially at least) of a supporter of the Nazi party and plays Anti-Jewish sentiment for broad satire. Gradually, it’s tone becomes much closer to that of a typical award-bait movie about World War II, but the goofiness never disappears for long.

To be fair, most of the movie is seldom as goofy as this image.

I don’t blame anyone for finding all this tasteless, but there’s also something to be said for the approach Jojo Rabbit takes. After all, the young boys growing up in Nazi Germany and imbibing jingoism and bigotry were normal boys dealing with things like peer pressure and crushes. They didn’t see themselves as tragic or rather, when the Third Reich fell, they did but it was as tragic heroes, not tragic villains. It’s worthwhile being reminded that they weren’t so different from us as we would like to think. And the element of surprise that Jojo Rabbit‘s edgy comedy carries arguably enables its message to get past viewers’ defenses in a way that, say, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas can’t.

Caging Skies isn’t without a sense of humor, though I wouldn’t describe it as wacky. Technically, it’s a sense of irony as young Johannes Betzler is devastated that his parents don’t believe in Aryan-superiority. Our first real inkling of the vast difference between the book and the film doesn’t have to do with the tone. It’s an early scene where Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) or Jojo as the movie call him, as part of a Hitler Youth exercise, has to kill a cute animal with his bare hands. In Caging Skies, it’s a duck or rather a pen of ducks and in Jojo Rabbit, it’s a rabbit hence the movie’s title.[4]I guess Waititi just felt Jojo Duckling didn’t sound catchy. I think it could have worked. Johannes doesn’t enjoy killing the ducks, but he grits his teeth and does it. Jojo, on the other hand, can’t bring himself to snap the rabbit’s neck and makes a futile effort to help it escape, earning him the scorn of the other Hitler Youth, and sadly disgracing himself in his own eyes. Thus, while both Johannes and Jojo are established as victims of a cruel culture, Johannes also shows more potential to be a villain.

I’m going to have to give a broad summary of both Caging Skies and Jojo Rabbit here, so those who don’t want either spoiled should bypass reading this post. For what it’s worth, I’m going to be spoiling much more of Jojo Rabbit since it ends halfway through the plot of Caging Skies. Also, for what it’s worth, my summary will be broad, and the details are a large part of what make both the book and the movie memorable, so reading/watching them, even having read this post, is hardly a waste of time.

Accidents keep Johannes and Jojo at home and away from serving the Riech as they wish. One day they are horrified to discover Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish girl, hidden away in their house. She’s an old friend of Johannes’s deceased older sister[5]Her name is Ute in Caging Skies, Inga in Jojo Rabbit. and his parents are harboring her from the Nazis. The movie’s Elsa easily gets the better of Jojo and threatens to get his family in trouble if he reports her. The book’s Elsa puts up no resistance to Johannes even when he looks like he’s about to kill her, believing that would be the most practical solution to his problem. What stays his hand isn’t so much loyalty to his parents, whom he claims aren’t nearly as important to him as the Fuhrer though that may just be bravado, as it is physical attraction to Elsa.

The movie gives us a best-case scenario with Jojo and Elsa becoming friends and him gradually abandoning his belief in Aryan superiority, symbolized by him finally expelling his imaginary friend, Hitler (Waititi himself) from his house. While a bond certainly forms between the two in the book, it’s far, far darker and more disturbing with Johannes using her fear and guilt at endangering his family to manipulating her into becoming his lover. (It’s important to keep in mind that in the book, Johannes is a teenager at this point. Caging Skies follows his life from early childhood to adulthood. In Jojo Rabbit, we just see his equivalent go from ten to ten and a half.) The film retains Jojo’s jealousy of Elsa’s (unseen) boyfriend, Nathan, but it’s played much more for laughs, though it still ends up fulfilling a dramatic function. In the book, Johannes resents her love for him when “she had a superior Aryan right in front of her eyes.” Both Johannes and Jojo eventually become disillusioned with Hitler after hearing of his disgraceful death and other shameful secrets, but Johannes never completely loses his antisemitism. According to him:

“Somehow, whatever one learns as a child in school leaves behind a solid core; and it’s impossible to replace this core within oneself; one can only grow on from there. One’s beliefs through life resemble the rings of a tree, each year solidifying what we successively thought, doubted and believed. Nature takes no note of the contradictory ideas, all of which are packed in, one after another to make the trunk we are: the compact unified remainder of our diametric past.”

Both Caging Skies and Jojo Rabbit have a scene where Elsa lists famous and well-regarded Jewish people to a skeptical Johannes but suffice to say that the two conversations have two very different tones.

Jojo’s mother (Scarlett Johansson) is also a more positive character in the movie. Not that her Caging Skies equivalent is as bad as her son, but she grows to resent having to take care of Elsa at great risk to her own family and ends up neglecting her to the point that she has to be rescued by Johannes. The mother in Jojo Rabbit, says, at one point, that she doesn’t know what she’ll do if she has to choose between Elsa and her son, but she proves to be a good, nurturing maternal presence in both their lives.

Now we get to the real spoilers, so this is the last chance to bail out.

By the time the war is over and Jewish people can come out of hiding, Johannes is the only one alive taking care of Elsa. On a whim, he tells her that the Germans have won, keeping her effectively his prisoner. Later, he lets her have information about the Holocaust but not the fact that the people responsible for the atrocities are facing justice. Again, this is roughly halfway through Caging Skies. There’s plenty more to come in the novel and it isn’t pretty. Jarringly, after Jojo Rabbit has devoted so much time to rehabilitating Jojo, and even wanted us to see him as basically innocent while he was still in full Nazi mode, it has him to do the same thing, only to have him repent in practically the same scene and show Elsa that she’s free, ending the movie. We don’t get any idea how Jojo and Elsa are going to do now that they’ve lost their parents and their country is occupied. The book goes into great detail about that.

I’m cynical about the way Jojo Rabbit scapegoats Hitler, implying that everybody pretty much got over their antisemitism once he’d died.[6]I do think it’s fair to say the Holocaust made antisemitism relatively less popular. Not only does Jojo get over his prejudice, but so does his friend, Yorki (Archie Yates), without the bother of a transformative relationship and there’s an authority figure, besides Jojo’s mother, whose antisemitism is all but stated to have been an act. Caging Skies, by contrast, knows that evil didn’t begin and end with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Even if Johannes were to get over his racism, which it’s doubtful he ever does, he would still have plenty of terrible vices.

That being said, I can’t bring myself to denounce Jojo Rabbit or say I’d rather watch a more accurate adaptation of the source material. I enjoy the character of Elsa Kor much more in Jojo. Her response to being told that Jews are weak compared to Aryans is pretty awesome.

“There are no weak Jews. I am descended from those who wrestle angels and kill giants. We were chosen by God. You were chosen by a pathetic little man who can’t even grow a full mustache.”

Of course, there’s a very strong case to made that the character of a Jewish girl trying to evade the Holocaust should not be one that could be described as fun or enjoyable, bringing us back to the question of whether or not Jojo Rabbit is in good taste.

I don’t know. You’ll have to come to your own conclusions.

Bibliography

Leunens, Christine. (2010) Caging Skies. New York: Random House Inc.

jojo-rabbit-final-script.pdf (deadline.com)

References

References
1 There have also been movie adaptations of books that did the opposite, but that doesn’t concern us right now.
2 For the record, Leunens approves of Jojo Rabbit, saying she’s “seen film adaptations so faithful to the book that they somehow ended up being unfaithful in essence.”
3 For the record, Hogan’s Heroes is about a POW camp, not a concentration camp-which is still outrageously tasteless but it’s hard for me to condemn the show while laughing with it so hard. An uplifting comedy that actually does prominently feature a Nazi concentration camp is Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful. It’d be interesting to compare Jojo Rabbit to that film, but I haven’t seen it and it’s not an adaptation.
4 I guess Waititi just felt Jojo Duckling didn’t sound catchy. I think it could have worked.
5 Her name is Ute in Caging Skies, Inga in Jojo Rabbit.
6 I do think it’s fair to say the Holocaust made antisemitism relatively less popular.
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Animation Station: Disney’s Anim-Anthology Movies Part 5

As years passed since Fantasia’s initial release in 1940, it became increasingly revered. Finally, in the late 90s, the Disney company was confident enough (or alternatively hubristic enough) to do an official follow up. Well, they were confident enough to make an official follow up but not necessarily to make one that was just as challenging as the original. On the spectrum of art to entertainment, which can be admittedly arbitrary, Fantasia is closer to the first one and Fantasia 2000 is closer to the second. Despite some attempts to have the new segments correspond to the original ones, it’s almost impossible to imagine someone liking the two movies equally. (By the way, my readers have probably forgotten a lot of the details about Fantasia by now, so they’d better go back and skim my post on it because I’ll be making comparisons.) A fan of the first Fantasia will probably say that it represents a time when the studio was more daring and ambitious and the more recent one shows how limited they’ve become. A fan of the second Fantasia will probably say it represents how much the studio had learned since the original, which was only their third full length feature. I won’t give away my opinion of which movie is the superior right away, but I will say in 2000’s defense that (a) it may be more audience friendly than the original but if you watch it in the context of 90s Disney animated movies, which had a very specific narrative formula, it’s still startling different, (b) while Fantasia is able to appeal to people in a way 2000 can’t, the reverse is also true, and (c) it’s at least a worthier follow up than either Make Mine Music and Melody Time.

Fantasia 2000 (which was actually released in 1999.)

We begin with giant screens or possibly giant pieces of paper, showing scenes from the original Fantasia (including the meet the soundtrack interlude!) floating through space. These rectangles form a concert hall which contains not only the orchestra for this movie and its conductor, James Levine, but also its animators seated at their desks. This is a really cool idea which makes it seem as though both the musicians and the animators are being conducted at the same time. The whole magical orchestra in space thing is also much cooler than the framing device for the original movie. But in a way, I feel that the very prosaicness of the first Fantasia’s concert hall made a better contrast to the magic of the animated segments. I’m happy I don’t have to choose between the two framing devices.

One of the aforementioned giant images from Fantasia is of Deems Taylor’s first introduction. We hear a portion of it which also serves as the intro this Fantasia’s opening segment.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5

This short resembles the original movie’s first segment, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, in that they’re both made up of colorful abstract images.

Where they differ is that Beethoven’s Ninth has a plot albeit a surreal, hard to describe one. (It’s basically about a group of flying creatures made up of brightly colored rectangles battling a group of similar flying creatures made of dark rectangles.) This is one of the major differences between the two Fantasias. The first one only set music to stories when the original music was supposed to tell a story. For “pure music”, they used pure imagery. With Fantasia 2000 every segment has a definite story with a conflict and a resolution.[1]Though admittedly this is less true of Pines of Rome than of the others.

This is in keeping with how the movie is less interested than its predecessor in honoring the composers’ original intentions. For example, Stravinsky intended his Rite of Spring to express primitive life, so Disney set it to images of dinosaurs. Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony was supposed to be about a day in the countryside, so Disney showed a day in the arcadian countryside. OK, so it wasn’t exactly what the composers had in mind, but for all Fantasia’s creativity, it always had more of a connection to the original intent behind the music than 2000 has. (Elgar intended Pomp and Circumstance to be played at many solemn occasions so in Fantasia 2000 it accompanies the story of…Noah’s ark. That was a solemn occasion, I guess.) Because of this Fantasia is probably more likely to please classical music fans than 2000.[2]Although I’m given to understand neither is popular with purists because of the edits they make to the compositions and to the visuals’ potential influence over what viewers imagine when they … Continue reading

Having written that, I don’t think there’s any reason why being truer to the composers’ intentions makes the shorts better per se. And I honestly enjoy this one better than Fantasia’s Toccata and Fugue. While it can’t compete with the most striking imagery from that one and has less variety, its more consistently enjoyable to watch. And having a plot gives it a clear theme of good vs evil, making it more emotionally compelling. Besides which, I honestly like Beethoven’s Ninth better than Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, though both are powerful pieces of music.

After that, we meet our new host, Steve Martin.

Wait. What?

Ah, yes. Unlike the original Fantasia, this one has a different host for each segment and they’re all, or practically all, celebrities, famous musicians, singers and actors. The idea, according to producer Don Hahn who directed these intros, was that they wanted representatives of every art, not just music. But you don’t have to look far on the internet to find people criticizing this avalanche of celebrities as annoyingly pandering.[3]If the idea was to make the movie more marketable, the marketing department itself doesn’t seem to have picked up on it. I don’t remember any of the celebrity hosts being mentioned in … Continue reading I can’t say those objections are wrong though I will say in this movie’s defense that all of these celebrities have a better screen presence than Deems Taylor did. The larger problem for me with the introductions from both movies is that they seldom feel necessary. I find myself skipping them half the time whenever I watch either Fantasia.

Respighi’s Pines of Rome

This segment features whales, who fly up into the sky when touched by the aurora borealis. Seriously.

Crazy as it sounds, this short is absolutely beautiful with a particularly awe-inspiring finale. Its epic scale and grandeur recall the first Fantasia’s Rite of Spring and its whimsy brings to mind The Nutcracker Suite or the Pastoral Symphony. It has a bit of a conflict in the middle, but less of one than any other segment in Fantasia 2000. Because of this it shares the aimless appeal of the plotless parts of the first Fantasia but doesn’t risk becoming as boring for some viewers as they did. If I had to pick one segment of either movie to save from a burning building, this would be it.

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

This segment is based on the artwork of caricaturist Al Hirschfield. It follows a day in the life of several residents of New York City, some rich and some poor, during the Great Depression. I’ll admit I was skeptical of this material at first. The first Fantasia featured fairies, magicians, dinosaurs, unicorns, gods, ghosts and demons. Aren’t caricatures of New Yorkers unworthy of such company? But while it’s not my favorite, this segment won me over. Hirschfield’s artwork lends itself wonderfully to animation. The characters are a joy to watch and the short is full of great gags.

This has the distinction of being the only Fantasia segment to feature a cameo of the original composer.

It also has a lovely moment towards the climax in which the leads all stare down at an ice-skating rink and fantasize about their secret wishes. Hey, who says being cartoony means it can’t be emotionally powerful?

Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major

This segment is an adaptation of The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Hans Christian Andersen, the story of a love triangle between a one-legged toy soldier, a beautiful ballerina figurine and an evil jack-in-the-box.[4]Who, in this version, looks kind of like the villain from Shrek.

This one reminds me of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in that there’s nothing particularly unique about it visually or in the choice of material. It’s just a really strong example of wordless storytelling.

The adaptation gives the story a much happier ending than the original literary one had. Not being a particular fan of the source material[5]Though there are other stories by Hans Christian Andersen of which I am a fan., I don’t mind much but it brings up another noteworthy difference between this movie and the original Fantasia. In that film and in Disney’s other anim-anthology movies from the 1940s, some segments ended happily, and some didn’t. In Fantasia 2000, every ending is a happy one. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but it does make the movie stand out less among Disney’s animated oeuvre. [6]Incidentally, a short adaptation of The Little Match Girl, another Hans Christian Andersen story, was made by Disney, apparently as part of an abandoned follow up to Fantasia 2000. Unlike Piano … Continue reading

Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Wasn’t the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from the first Fantasia? It was but…. Wait, I forgot. That isn’t the next segment.

Saint-Saens’s Carnival of Animals Finale

This short is about a group of flamingoes who wish to perform a serious water ballet but one of them keeps messing it up with his desire to play with a yoyo. Honestly, that description is probably funnier than the actual segment. If I were to pick the most disposable of all the segments of Fantasia and Fantasia 2000, this would be it. Which actually says great things about both films because it’s a perfectly fine cartoon. The premise is pleasingly absurd, and the character design of the nonconformist flamingo is appealingly goofy.

And I love the way that, similar to its obvious counterpart from the original Fantasia, Dance of the Hours, it starts out as a serious ballet before the comedic bits take over. But the visual gags aren’t nearly as memorable as those of that short. Maybe if it were longer and had more time to develop its conflict, it would make more of an impression. Then again, maybe that would wear its premise completely thin.

Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Wasn’t this segment from the first Fantasia? Well, apparently Walt Disney’s original idea for Fantasia was that it would be a continuous project and the studio would make a different version every couple of years or so, keeping some of the old shorts, presumably the ones people felt worked the best, as well as showcasing new ones. Fantasia 2000 was supposed to pay tribute to that idea. But since The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the only classic short included, it sticks out rather awkwardly. Maybe Disney felt there was no way they could market something called Fantasia without this segment.

To be fair, while it feels like an odd inclusion now when the two Fantasias are available in a two-disc DVD/Blu-ray collection or on Disney+, back when 2000 was originally released, not everyone could be expected to have seen the original movie recently. They probably appreciated getting to see this iconic part of it. And everything I wrote in praise of it when writing about Fantasia still applies here.

Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance

This segment, a short featuring Donald Duck as Noah’s assistant on the ark, obviously seems like the new Sorcerer’s Apprentice, telling a classic story with a famous Disney cartoon star in the lead. But its comedic tone and its penultimate placement make it more like Dance of the Hours. And it’s a more than worthy successor. As with that one, I can’t explain why it’s so entertaining without spoiling it but suffice to say, it’s full of hilarious moments.

It also manages to be touching thanks to the plotline of Donald and Daisy each believing the other has perished in the flood and continually just missing each other, which isn’t nearly as annoying to watch as that description makes it sound.

Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite

This segment tells the story of a benevolent nature spirit, her friendship with a stag, and her conflict with a destructive volcanic spirit whom she inadvertently awakens.[7]I’ve read this described as a rip-off of Princess Mononoke. While I’m familiar with (English dubs of) some of Studio Ghibli’s movies, I haven’t seen that one, so I can’t … Continue reading

It’s a dazzling piece. If I were the type of person whom movies made cry, the lowest point of the story would have me in tears, thanks to the dryad’s great facial expressions.

While the stag is animated in a realistic way and doesn’t have much in the way of facial expressions, he manages to be a tear-jerking presence too, in context.

The short ends on a beautiful, uplifting, inspiring note[8]Sorry for the broad spoilers but Angela Lansbury’s introduction already kind of gives them away. on which, if I’m being honest, I feel the original Fantasia should have ended.

The end credits also grant my wish from the original to see the musicians (and the animators) packing up and leaving after the concert.

Conclusion

So I know I said it was almost impossible for someone to love both Fantasias equally. But I think I, myself, do! Both have their flaws and their virtues. Fantasia 1940 is arguably a little too ponderous and pretentious for its own good. Fantasia 2000 is arguably a little too fluffy and eager to please to live up to its potential. I feel like Fantasia 1940 begins slowly, starts getting really great in the middle and then ends a tad anticlimactically. Fantasia 2000, on the other hand, gets off to a sparkling start, flounders a bit in the middle and then goes out on a high note. In a weird way, they balance each other out. The most powerful bits of the first Fantasia are images of doom and destruction. (Mickey being overwhelmed by the inexorable broom army in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The extinction of the dinosaurs in The Rite of Spring. The thunderstorm in The Pastoral Symphony. The unholy revels on Bald Mountain.) The most powerful bits of Fantasia 2000 are images of joy and restoration. (The whales ascending into the heavens in The Pines of Rome. The unexpectedly granted wishes in Rhapsody in Blue. Donald and Daisy’s heartwarming reunion in Pomp and Circumstance. The revival of the sprite and her beloved forest in The Firebird Suite.) I can’t imagine one without the other.

What could a new Fantasia bring to the table? I don’t know. It’s hard for me to imagine modern Disney make something like these movies. But then again, it was hard to imagine Disney making anything like them in the decades they did…

Bibliography

Culhane, John. (1999) Fantasia 2000: Visions of Hope. Disney Editions, New York.

References

References
1 Though admittedly this is less true of Pines of Rome than of the others.
2 Although I’m given to understand neither is popular with purists because of the edits they make to the compositions and to the visuals’ potential influence over what viewers imagine when they next hear the music on its own.
3 If the idea was to make the movie more marketable, the marketing department itself doesn’t seem to have picked up on it. I don’t remember any of the celebrity hosts being mentioned in trailers or commercials. Maybe they plugged it a lot when they were on talk shows back in the day.
4 Who, in this version, looks kind of like the villain from Shrek.
5 Though there are other stories by Hans Christian Andersen of which I am a fan.
6 Incidentally, a short adaptation of The Little Match Girl, another Hans Christian Andersen story, was made by Disney, apparently as part of an abandoned follow up to Fantasia 2000. Unlike Piano Concerto No. 2, it stays true to the tragic nature of the original tale. It’s also a thing of beauty, so check it out if you can.
7 I’ve read this described as a rip-off of Princess Mononoke. While I’m familiar with (English dubs of) some of Studio Ghibli’s movies, I haven’t seen that one, so I can’t really comment, but I suspect that to the extent the accusation is true, it doesn’t invalidate Firebird Suite.
8 Sorry for the broad spoilers but Angela Lansbury’s introduction already kind of gives them away.
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Animation Station: Disney’s Anim-Anthology Movies Part 4

Among the few who have reviewed all of the Disney anim-anthology movies from the 1940s, Fun and Fancy Free and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, each of which consists of two featurettes, seem to be regarded as the best or at least one and a half of them are. You won’t find me fighting that consensus, though nostalgia may play a part in my case. These are the two I watched the most as a child, which isn’t so impressive when you consider that the only other one that I had an opportunity to watch then was Melody Time. But still I rented Melody Time once as a kid and never felt the need to do so again. These two films, on the other hand, I rented multiple times.

Fun and Fancy Free (1947)

The party-tastic vibe for which this movie strives and which, in my opinion, it generally achieves is apparent from the very design of the opening credits, which are accompanied by the title song.[1]I haven’t been mentioning who wrote all the songs for the Disney anim-anthologies except for Fantasia‘s classical compositions. That’s partly because there were so many of them by … Continue reading

We immediately segue from that into another song, Get a Happy Go Lucky Feelin’, with pretty much the exact same message. It’s being sung by Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Cliff Edwards) as he cavorts around a modern human-sized house. (It’s later implied that this house is in Hollywood and is the home of Disney child star, Luanna Patten. You may remember her from Melody Time, which wouldn’t come out until later.) The song’s sentiment, that everyone needs to stop worrying and just relax, doesn’t strike me as consistent with Jiminy’s conscientious character from Disney’s Pinocchio, but what do I know? Speaking of Pinocchio, if you’re a fan of that movie, you may be tickled to see Jiminy encounter another character from it in this scene, Cleo the goldfish. The cat, however, doesn’t look like Figaro for whatever reason.

Jiminy has been described as the host of this movie as he’s the one who introduces the different segments, but he doesn’t really address the viewer much at all and he only introduces the segments in the broadest sense of the term. His role here is quite random. You see the aforementioned cat chases Jiminy into the adjoining room, a children’s playroom where he meets a depressed looking doll and a droopy teddy bear. To cheer them up, he plays “a musical story sung by Dinah Shore” on the record player.[2]I wonder if the fact that Jiminy doesn’t choose one of the records labeled Bach or Beethoven in the background can be seen as a renunciation of Fantasia.

Bongo

The first half of Fun and Fancy Free was based on a short story by Sinclair Lewis. I remember studying Sinclair’s novel, Babbit, in high school. For those of you who haven’t had that experience, it’s a cynical satire about the emptiness of then current American middle-class society. That’s the kind of thing for which Lewis was known. From what I’ve gathered the literary Bongo was less depressing than Babbit but more cynical than the cartoon that Disney ultimately made out of it. The title character is a performing circus bear who longs to escape his gilded cage and lead the life of a wild bear in what appears to be the Canadian Rockies. He gets his wish, but navigating the wilderness proves to be harder than he expected.

I’ve always considered this the less rewatchable of the movie’s halves, and that seems to be the general consensus, so it’s always a pleasant surprise to rewatch it and find that it’s so good. The story with its theme of nature vs. nurture is pretty unusual for Disney[3]I’d call this a Disney-fied Call of the Wild, but there actually was a Disney version of Call of the Wild in 2020. and while it’s not the most unpredictable thing in the world, it’s less predictable than, say, Little Toot from Melody Time. (I don’t think anyone would guess what the complication in Bongo’s romance with Lulubelle, the wild bear he meets, would be.) The visual gags work, and the songs are all pleasant. The most visually entertaining scene is a romantic fantasy of Bongo and Lulubelle in a heaven of heart-shaped clouds accompanied by mischievous little cupid bears. There’s also a fun action-climax that makes great use of Bongo’s unicycling skills, but I won’t share any images from that for fear of spoiling anything.

What mainly keeps this from being one of the best shorts in all the Disney anim-anthologies is that Bongo himself isn’t a very distinctive character. He’s pretty much an ursine clone of Mickey Mouse. Still, that’s not the worst thing even if it isn’t the best either.

Mickey and the Beanstalk

As random as some of these anim-anthologies can get, Fun and Fancy Free might be the most random of them all. Not only does it consist of two unrelated stories stitched together, it can barely be said that they share a framing device. After Bongo, Jiminy Cricket finds an invitation addressed to Luanna Patten. It’s to a party at the home of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummies, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. (The outside of Bergen’s house is animated in this movie and the inside is live action.) Jiminy heads on over and is just in time to overhear Bergen tell Luanna the story of Mickey and the Beanstalk.[4]At one point in its production history, when it was going to be a feature length movie, Mickey and the Beanstalk was apparently going to have a very different framing device, one that sounds more … Continue reading

This opinion is not uncontroversial, but I love the use of Edgar Bergen and his characters in this movie! Mind you, it’s easy to see that Bergen’s lips are moving as his dummies’ speak, but their comedy really makes me laugh. I especially enjoy Charlie McCarthy’s un-Disney-esque cynicism and the way he constantly deflates Bergen’s overdramatic narration.

Bergen: All was misery, misery, misery!
Charlie: Just like the eighth grade.

The cartoon itself, as you can guess from the title, is an adaptation of the famous English fairy tale, Jack and the Beanstalk with Mickey Mouse (voiced partly by Walt Disney and partly, for the first time, by James Macdonald) taking on the title role. Actually, he shares it with Donald Duck (Clarence Nash) and Goofy (Pinto Colvig)[5]It’s kind of refreshing to write about a cartoon featuring multiple voice actors. with Donald also fulfilling the role of Jack’s mother by throwing away the magic beans for which Mickey trades the trio’s cow. While I’m much more of a fan of the Looney Tunes characters than I am of Mickey, Donald and Goofy,[6]Actually, that’s not quite true. I’m mostly just a fan of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. I don’t care much for Tweety or Sylvester or Wile E. Coyote or the Roadrunner. And it’s … Continue reading I will say that it’s impossible to give the main roles in a classic story to the Looney Tunes characters without either having it devolve into a simple chase scene/battle of wits or of being untrue to the spirit of Looney Tunes. Mickey and the Beanstalk, on the other hand, manages to be quite a decent retelling of its source material and a highly engaging cartoon comedy. As I mentioned, a lot of the humor comes from the narration but there are also some very funny visuals like the impossibly thin slices into which our impoverished heroes cut their last loaf of bread near the beginning.

There’s also a fun and slightly eerie sequence of the giant beanstalk growing inside their house, breaking it apart and carrying it up, up into the sky while they obliviously sleep.

We also get a great comic villain in Willie the Giant (Billy Gilbert)[7]Whom Disney fans may remember also voiced Sneezy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. who is entertainingly and even endearingly silly but also poses a palpable threat.

Like Bongo, Mickey and the Beanstalk has a very pleasant collection of songs. And it has an even better climax with Mickey having to steal a key from the sleeping giant’s pocket to free his imprisoned friends. Maybe somebody at the Disney company shared my love for that scene because not many years later their movie, Cinderella (1950), would have a very similar climax with mice characters to boot.

If I have any criticism of this featurette, it’s that it feels just a tad too short. (Maybe this reflects budget limitations.) While it spends a great deal of time establishing how bad the characters’ conditions have gotten at the beginning, we’re only told by Bergen that they improve after the giant’s defeat. We don’t actually get to see the happy ending. And it’s rather odd that we never learn who gave Mickey the magic beans. That seems like a rather crucial plot point not to explore. It’s pretty rare for any part of Disney’s anim-anthologies, even Fantasia, to leave me wanting more. I like it.

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

The Wind in the Willows

In contrast to the weirdly elaborate framing devices of Fun and Fancy Free, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad has just one framing device and it’s the most bare-bones of any Disney anim-anthology other than that of Make Mine Music. We open in a library as an invisible narrator (Basil Rathbone) talks about fabulous English literary characters. His favorite, he claims, is J. Thaddeus Toad from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.[8]Actually, he’s only named J. Thaddeus in this adaptation, not the source material, but who’s keeping track? I am, that’s who. The book is pulled off the shelf and we segue into the first story.

Toad (voiced by Eric Blore) is the richest animal along the riverbank and owns the most respectable estate, Toad Hall, but his weakness for the latest fads, mainly those involving modes of transportation, and his reckless driving skills are drowning him in debt. It’s gotten to the point that his friends, Rat (Claude Allister), Mole (Colin Campbell) and MacBadger (Campbell Grant) stage an intervention to keep him from buying a motor car. But Toad will not be stopped-at least not until his motor mania lands him in jail.

I’ve written about an animated adaptation of The Wind in the Willows before and if you go back and read that post, you can guess my criticisms of this one. As a fan, I’m displeased by how it simplifies and reimagines the characters, the better to make them comic foils for Toad. Rat, who, in the book, was very friendly and easygoing though he still had a temper, is here presented as a stereotypically uptight and stuffy Brit. Badger in the book was even more easygoing with his indifference toward table manners and grammar. He was also very physically intimidating, one of the few people who could pull Toad up short. Here he’s a weary, long-suffering codger, run ragged by the herculean task of managing Toad’s estate. Mole is actually reasonably close to his characterization in the book but with the focus solely on Toad, he naturally doesn’t get any of the original’s depth or nuance.

As you’d expect, this adaptation pretty much foregoes all of the poetic aspects of The Wind in the Willows and focuses entirely on comedy.[9]Which renders the title pretty inexplicable. Fortunately, they don’t mention it much. On its own terms though, this is something of a mini comic masterpiece. Toad is the character whose personality is closest to that of his literary counterpart, and he makes for a wonderful cartoon character with his indomitable energy and swagger. He’s beautifully animated and Blore’s vocal performance is perfect.

In fact, the character animation in this short in general is great. I love all the subtle yet hilarious touches like the way Mole keeps fumbling with his hat.

Skip this paragraph, if you don’t want to read any spoilers. The most notable change this Wind in the Willows makes to the original book’s plot, as opposed to its spirit, is that Toad is framed for stealing a car by the villainous weasels rather than actually taking one for a joyride. Instead of climaxing with the heroes driving the weasels out of Toad Hall by force, they have to steal the deed to Toad Hall from them to prove that Toad gave it to them in the exchange for the hot vehicle.[10]The book just sort of weirdly assume that once Toad reaches home after escaping from prison, he won’t be rearrested. This doesn’t really make a lot of sense. It seems like all the characters would have to do is send the police over to Toad Hall to ask the weasels what they’re doing there. If they responded by showing them the deed, that would prove Toad was telling the truth and if they burned the deed, then the police could evict them, which, to be fair, would mean Toad could never be exonerated and that’s not what the heroes want. Maybe it’s the weasels’ plotting that I should be criticizing. But, anyway, if you ignore the lapses in logic, I have to admit this reimagined climax is far more fun and interesting than a simple fight like the book’s climax would have been.[11]Someone at Disney must have agreed with me because the 1967 Jungle Book would reuse part of its choreography, though with switching the good guys and bad guys oddly.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Back in the library, Bing Crosby takes over voiceover narration and turns the subject to fabulous American literary characters. The one he picks as the best is Ichabod Crane, the superstitious schoolmaster from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. That wouldn’t have been my choice, but oh well, it’s probably better than some of the other candidates he mentions like Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan.

This is my favorite of the movie’s two halves, mostly because I’m not attached to the source material. As much as I appreciate Washington Irving’s prose, his stories don’t do much for me. If anything, I’d say this adaptation improves the story by playing it more broadly for laughs. You see, none of the characters are particularly likeable. Ichabod is a vain gluttonous gold digger, and he ends up coming across as a sympathetic underdog by default. His romantic rival, Brom Bones, is a violent boor who scares away any man that might get between him and his girl. And the lynchpin of this love triangle, Katrina Von Tassel, is implied to be a heartless flirt who leads Ichabod on to tease Brom. What makes this work is how humorously it plays out as well as the short running time which doesn’t demand any particular investment from the viewer. Ichabod is a brilliant piece of comic character design with his spindly limbs and weirdly shaped head, and the middle section of the cartoon, with Brom increasingly desperate to pummel him and Ichabod evading all his attempts through cleverness, Katrina’s intervention or sheer luck, is hilarious.

Sorry for the inconsistent quality of the images. As usual these days, Movie Screencaps. com is being a pain.

The backgrounds in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow are prettier than those in The Wind in the Willows and that’s no faint praise.

This is another short where a single person does all the voices-well, a single person and a backup chorus. Bing Crosby and The Rhythmaires are more than up to the task. The three songs by Don Raye and Gene de Paul[12]The credits specifically credit them for the Ichabod half of the movie. are all hidden gems. The catchiest and most fun is definitely The Headless Horseman which Brom sings at Katrina’s Halloween party.

This, of course, leads to the scene of Ichabod riding home alone through the haunted wood and being pursued by the phantom, which is one of the most masterly scenes in any Disney anim-anthology. The buildup, the reveal, the chase…If you want to watch something that’s terrifying, really funny and rated G, this film perfectly fits that specific and somewhat contradictory bill.

More spoilers in this paragraph. Reading the original Legend of Sleepy Hollow, it’s hard not to conclude that the headless horseman was really Brom in some sort of Scooby Doo-style disguise and that he either murdered Ichabod or scared him out of the community for good. At first, it seems like this version is going to lean harder into that as Brom is the one who initiates the talk about the horseman and does so with a rather malicious and crafty expression on his face. (In Irving, Brom’s ghost story is just one of many and is even one of the less scary ones.) But we get such a close look at Ichabod’s pursuer that this seems doubtful. At one point, Ichabod even peers down his neck hole. On the other hand, if the horseman is really what he seems, what was Brom up to earlier? Was he just trying to give his rival a heart attack? Are he and the ghost in cahoots somehow? Did he use black magic? The story doesn’t really make sense if you think about it, but, for me anyway, it’s easy to not think about it and, like Toad but unlike Ichabod, enjoy the ride.

Conclusion

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is generally considered superior to Fun and Fancy Free. I can’t build a super strong case against that, mainly since it’s the more consistently great of the two. It’s mostly the second half of Fun and Fancy Free that I love. But maybe because I’m fonder of that second half than I am of either half of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, I prefer the earlier movie. I’ll grant you that it’s the more random of the two. Even the title, Fun and Fancy Free, is kind of arbitrary. (While both segments are lighthearted on the whole, the characters in them do face grim challenges at certain points.) But its randomness feels like it’s by design almost and, for me, is part of its appeal. The slightly less random quality of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, on the other hand, makes its randomness stand out more. Why just two stories about larger-than-life literary characters, an English one and an American one? Why not throw in a French one or something?[13]You could argue another thematic connection is that both Toad and Ichabod are ruled by their instincts and appetites, which gets them into trouble. I suppose that would either make the movie too long or require cutting from both halves, a sad prospect. To me, there’s something appealing and relaxing about the laidback atmosphere of all Disney’s anim-anthology movies.[14]Part of their appeal for me may also be that books, not movies, are my true love and there are plenty of books that are anthologies of short stories. The idea of a movie being like that doesn’t … Continue reading While they have plenty of excitement within the individual shorts, there’s no overarching question hanging over any of them besides, “what comes next?” In the words of a song from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, the one song from the Wind in the Willows part, they’re “merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily on their way/ to nowhere in particular.” And Fun and Fancy Free might just be the most laidback and appealingly random of them all.

Still, Ichabod and Mr. Toad did end the trend of Disney anim-anthologies on a high note-though it didn’t end them forever…

To Be Continued

References

References
1 I haven’t been mentioning who wrote all the songs for the Disney anim-anthologies except for Fantasia‘s classical compositions. That’s partly because there were so many of them by so many different people, that it’s hard to keep track.
2 I wonder if the fact that Jiminy doesn’t choose one of the records labeled Bach or Beethoven in the background can be seen as a renunciation of Fantasia.
3 I’d call this a Disney-fied Call of the Wild, but there actually was a Disney version of Call of the Wild in 2020.
4 At one point in its production history, when it was going to be a feature length movie, Mickey and the Beanstalk was apparently going to have a very different framing device, one that sounds more like something Warner Bros or Dreamworks would do. (In fact, Warner Bros actually did do it with the 1950 Daffy Duck cartoon, The Scarlet Pumpernickel.) Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy would be going on strike, demanding that Disney give them roles in a feature film. Mickey and the Beanstalk would be their pitch. At the end, the producers would reject the proposal, saying that the lack of princesses and cute animals made it unmarketable.
5 It’s kind of refreshing to write about a cartoon featuring multiple voice actors.
6 Actually, that’s not quite true. I’m mostly just a fan of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. I don’t care much for Tweety or Sylvester or Wile E. Coyote or the Roadrunner. And it’s mostly the Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng versions of Bugs and Daffy that I love. I don’t care much for the older takes on them.
7 Whom Disney fans may remember also voiced Sneezy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
8 Actually, he’s only named J. Thaddeus in this adaptation, not the source material, but who’s keeping track? I am, that’s who.
9 Which renders the title pretty inexplicable. Fortunately, they don’t mention it much.
10 The book just sort of weirdly assume that once Toad reaches home after escaping from prison, he won’t be rearrested.
11 Someone at Disney must have agreed with me because the 1967 Jungle Book would reuse part of its choreography, though with switching the good guys and bad guys oddly.
12 The credits specifically credit them for the Ichabod half of the movie.
13 You could argue another thematic connection is that both Toad and Ichabod are ruled by their instincts and appetites, which gets them into trouble.
14 Part of their appeal for me may also be that books, not movies, are my true love and there are plenty of books that are anthologies of short stories. The idea of a movie being like that doesn’t bother me the way it does some people.
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Animation Station: Disney’s Anim-Anthology Movies Part 3

OK, I’m going to cheat a little here. So far, I’ve been covering the Disney anim-anthology movies in the order they were released. But an interesting thing about the series of Disney anim-anthologies that went from 1942 to 1949 is that they can be divided into pairs. We’ve already seen that there were two that tried to educate US audiences about South American cultures and celebrate them. Then Disney made an animated anthology that could be and has been described as a “poor man’s Fantasia,” using dialogue and forms of music besides classical. Then they made one that was less of a “package feature” and more of a “double feature,” consisting of two stories clocking in at around forty minutes, each of which had at some point been planned as a feature length movie. Then they made another “poor man’s Fantasia.” Then they made another “double feature.” And then the company made Cinderella (1950) and would not do another anim-anthology for decades. To me, writing about the entries in the series that paralleled each other in the same blog posts makes the most sense even if it means jumping back and forth in the chronology a little bit.

Why was Disney doing so many of these during the 40s? Well, I don’t entirely understand it myself.[1]Perhaps I should have tried to explain this in the last post, but I also had to explain about the Good Neighbor policy thing, and this isn’t supposed to be a blog about history. I thought it … Continue reading Their more artistically ambitious animated films had underperformed at the box office. They’d lost some of their best talent after a bitter strike and more talent had been drafted into World War II. Those that remained had to make propaganda movies. The anim-anthologies were apparently cheaper to make and training ground, of sorts, for artists returning from war to get back in the zone. You can guess from that that most of these aren’t the most visually appealing cartoons out there, but every now and then these movies manage to dazzle while working under their admitted limitations.

Make Mine Music (1946)[2]Don’t ask me what the title means.

I didn’t describe the opening credits for Saludos Amigos or The Three Caballeros because they weren’t very interesting. The same can’t be said of the credits for Make Mine Music. We open outside a theater with a brilliantly lit marquee. Before we even see the title of the movie, we’re slapped in the face with the names of the vocal and musical talent it will feature.

This brings us to something interesting about the post-Fantasia Disney anim-anthologies. They’re full of big-name stars to an almost Dreamworks-ian extent. I kind of enjoy this aspect of them. It gives you some idea of who was popular back then, or, more accurately, who Disney believed was popular then, or, even more accurately, who was popular and willing to work with Disney. It can come across as a little desperate at times though.

The rest of the credits appear as posters inside the theater. Then the doors to the concert hall open and a pamphlet fills the screen, explaining that this will be “a musical fantasy in ten parts.” This brings us to one, I repeat, one area in which Make Mine Music improves on Fantasia. Each segment is introduced with a rather beautiful placard briefly explaining what kind of piece it is going to be and what talent it will feature. This is much more economical than Deems Taylor’s dry and lengthy verbal intros.

The Martins and the Coys sung by The King’s Men

When this movie was first released on VHS/DVD, this opening short about a pair of feuding families in the Appalachian Mountains was omitted and it might be the reason it’s currently not on Disney+. Depending on whom you ask, this was either because of its offensive “hillbilly” stereotypes or because of its cartoony gun violence. While I certainly don’t blame anyone from Appalachia for being offended by the cartoon, I’m rather baffled by the first possibility since Disney continues to release old movies containing offensive stereotypes of groups with far more powerful lobbies behind them.[3]This is the last time I’m going to mention ethnic stereotypes in this series. I’ve written about the topic in previous posts and the average adult knows enough to expect outdated … Continue reading The second possibility makes a little more sense but not much. I mean, this kind of thing is pretty common in cartoons of the era and even the ensuing decades and I don’t know how many easily influenced children are going to be attracted to Make Mine Music anyway. It’s one of the few Disney anim-anthologies to feature neither Mickey, Donald nor Goofy.

I guess the body count for this one is unusually high.

We’re clearly a long way from Fantasia with this first section and that’s not a compliment. Both the backgrounds and the simply cartoony character designs are very bland. But, hey, it’s not like this part is trying to be Fantasia. It’s trying to be funny and, well, it’s not unfunny. I can’t say it’s really hilarious either. Mildly diverting is a fair description.

Blue Bayou sung by the Ken Darby Chorus

This segment was actually something cut from Fantasia. You can tell because it’s so beautiful.

You can also tell because…well, as with several of the Fantasia segments, not much happens. Now I will defend the “boring” parts of Fantasia on the grounds of the wondrous subject matter they contain. (Fairies, dinosaurs, centaurs, earthquakes, volcanoes, winged horses, weirdly sexy goldfish.) Here we’ve just got a lovely lagoon and some cranes.[4]Or storks? I can’t tell the difference. Maybe it would have worked with the composition originally intended for it: Claire de Lune from Claude Debussy’s Suite bergamasque. The song we get, Blue Bayou, is indeed lovely, but it’s obviously a lullaby. I guess that’s not the worst thing. Some people do fall asleep in the cinema or in front of the TV and enjoy doing so. It’s not usually the content creators’ intent though.

All the Cats Join In performed by Benny Goodman and his Orchestra

The beginning of this one cleverly fools the viewer into thinking it’s going to be about actual cats when the title really refers to cats in colloquial sense.[5]Sorry for spoiling that punchline, but it’s impossible not to do so while explaining this short. A bunch of teenagers go hang out at a malt shop and dance to the jukebox’s music. The setting and characters are all portrayed as drawings in a sketch pad that come to life and sometimes move a little fast for the unseen artist’s pencil. For example, a car speeds off before it’s done being drawn and the pencil has to race ahead to do the road.[6]You may recall Saludos Amigos did some of the same thing. Chuck Jones’s 1953 cartoon, Duck Amuck, would have the most fun with the premise.

The art style is even more simplistic than that of The Martins and the Coys but this one’s a lot funnier and more energetic. It probably helps that the song is better.

I know this gag of the boy’s reaction to part of a girl’s body being erased to make her shapelier is offensive, but I can’t help chuckling at it. Mea culpa.

Without You sung by Andy Russell

Then we get a constantly shifting series of images that change to reflect the lyrics of a sad song about an absent girlfriend. It’s quite beautiful, easily my favorite of the really artsy segments of Make Mine Music.

Casey at the Bat read by Jerry Colonna[7]Fans of old Disney movies may recognize radio performer Colonna as the voice of the March Hare from Alice in Wonderland.

This one’s easily the least musical of the shorts. There’s a bit of a song (Casey, the Pride of Them All), but it’s basically a cartoon adaptation of Ernest Thayer’s classic poem about pride going before a fall on the baseball field. However little it fits in with the rest of the movie though, it’s one of the best bits, featuring some of the funniest sight gags in the whole film if not the funniest period. I especially love the overelaborate sneer of Casey’s lip.[8]In 1954, Disney would actually do a sequel cartoon, Casey Bats Again in which the disgraced athlete hopes to father a son but is disappointed to sire nine daughters. Before you get mad, the girls … Continue reading

Two Silhouettes sung by Dinah Shore

This short is basically two rotoscoped ballet dancers (David Lichine and Tania Riabouchinskaya) performing in silhouette against an animated backdrop. That backdrop is very beautiful but, sheesh, who had this lame idea?

It should be obvious at this point that Make Mine Music has had a very particular pattern thus far. First, we get a visually unappealing but engaging comedic cartoon. Then we get a slow and sleepy but eye-catching artistically ambitious short. While Fantasia definitely had a variety of moods, I can see all the shorts in it as having the same target audience. On the other hand, I can’t imagine the viewer who gets a kick out of All Cats Join In as loving Without You or vice versa, not right afterwards anyway. I know I praised Make Mine Music for not wasting a lot of time on introductory stuff like Fantasia did, but maybe longer breaks between different episodes would have given viewers time to change gears. As it is, not only do you have to get in a specific mood to watch the movie, but you also have to get in two completely different moods at the same time.

The reason for this is probably that many of the shorts weren’t originally intended to be in the same movie and were randomly thrown together at the last minute. Yet this weird yoyo rhythm is so overt that I can’t help thinking it was intentional. Fortunately, its abandoned from this point on and while not all of the remaining segments are great, they all find a happy medium between the artistic and the entertaining. Like this next one for instance.

Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf

I’ve heard that this short was originally conceived as part of Fantasia. While its take on the classical composition isn’t as creative as the ones in that movie, it’s probably my favorite part of Make Mine Music. Maybe not quite as funny as Casey at the Bat or as visually stunning as the artier ones, but more satisfying. The characters of Peter, his grandfather, Sasha the bird, Sonya the duck and Ivan the cat are all highly amusing to watch. I’d expected the wolf to be comic too but he’s actually kind of terrifying.

I think that decision works wonderfully, making for a cartoon that is both funny and very suspenseful.

As with Pablo the Penguin’s short in Three Caballeros, the only words spoken in this are by Sterling Holloway’s dryly humorous narrator. Again, I’m not sure if narration was necessary at all since the story unfolds so clearly, but it has its moments.

Holloway: Peter, don’t just stand that way!
Holloway: And don’t stand that way either.

After You’ve Gone performed by the Goodman Quartet

If you’re familiar with such surreal animated scenes as, say, Pink Elephants on Parade from Dumbo, you’ve seen this short about constantly shapeshifting musical instruments done better. But it benefits from the virtue of brevity.

Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet sung by the Andrews Sisters

This one tells the story of two hats in a department store who fall in love but are tragically separated.

The various hats are anthropomorphized in some clever ways. I especially admire a scene where a bar brawl is portrayed as a fight between the brawlers’ headgear.

As this suggests, Johnny’s search for Alice gets pretty dark and dramatic. I kind of like that about this cartoon.

On the whole, one of the better sections though I can’t shake the feeling it had potential up to which it didn’t live.[9]In 2013, Pixar released The Blue Umbrella, a short with a similar premise that while less dark, ended up being more emotional due to better chemistry between the leads.

The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met featuring Nelson Eddy

The final short is about Willie, a whale who can sing opera in tenor, baritone and bass. An impresario called Tetti Tatti reads about this in the paper and guesses that a singer is trapped inside the animal. He sets out to harpoon Willie and get his hands on this incredible new talent. When Willie sees a newspaper clipping about the expedition, he happily assumes that he is the talent Tetti Tatti wants to discover. I wouldn’t call the ensuing story particularly engaging but it is interestingly weird. Nelson Eddy sings and speaks for all the characters and it’s a good showcase for his talent.

Remember what I wrote about how Fantasia represented a time when the Disney brand was less set in stone and they could be a little depressing? Well, the same could be said of the tragic end to this segment, which isn’t called an opera pathetique for no reason. And since it’s the last one, by extension the whole movie ends tragically. (At least Fantasia made sure its last piece was an uplifting one.)

As a matter of fact, of all the narrative shorts only Peter and the Wolf and Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet have really happy endings, though I wouldn’t call the conclusions of The Martins and the Coys or Casey at the Bat sad so much as cynically humorous. Couple that with the sadness of Without You and the grim middle section of Johnny Fedora and you’ve got one of the least cheery Disney movies out there. If Make Mine Music has some kind of connective tissue, maybe that’s it, though it kind of gives the lie to the title song’s lyrics, “Music will play the shadows away when everything seems to go wrong…”

Melody Time (1948)

The second “poor man’s Fantasia”[10]Which arguably isn’t any more driven by music than Disney movies generally were back then but, hey, they had to title it something. also opens by flexing its starry cast. I kind of hate myself for saying that because I kind of love these opening credits but the description isn’t inaccurate. We begin with a stack of sheet music on a music stand and as we flip through it, we’re shown the names of Melody Time‘s big stars with the corresponding songs they sing or perform in it.

Then we move to an easel. A paintbrush paints a theatre and a dapper theater mask voiced by Buddy Clark who serves as our master of ceremonies. He introduces each segment, half the time in rhyme, and I must say he’s a lot more fun than Deems Taylor. The brush also creates a trio of other masks that serve as female backup singers but sadly I can’t find who voiced them.

Anyway, on with the show.

Once Upon a Wintertime Sung by Frances Langford

This song is set to a vignette of a pair of human sweethearts who go on a sleigh ride and then ice skate accompanied by a rabbit couple. It’s all very warm, cozy and nostalgic feeling.

At least that’s how it starts out. Later, it becomes quite dark and suspenseful as the ice breaks and the lovers are imperiled.

As with many animated Disney movies from the 1940s and 50s, the backgrounds were done by the wonderful Mary Blair, but what’s unusual is that the characters look like they were done by her too. Well, the animals do anyway; the humans are pretty standard. I don’t mind that this wasn’t the norm at Disney. As much as I love her backgrounds, Blair’s rather expressionless characters wouldn’t have animated well. But the complete Mary Blair-ness of this short makes it something of a must-see for her fans.

Bumble Boogie performed by Freddy Martin and his Orchestra

The music for this one is actually a swing-jazz variation Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. The visuals consist of a bee being menaced by piano keys. It starts out pretty slow but becomes much more entertaining as the artists find new ways to anthropomorphize piano keys and it’s smart enough not to outstay its welcome.

Basically, this is what After You’ve Gone from Make Mine Music should have been.

The Legend of Johnny Appleseed portrayed by Dennis Day

Day narrates and does all the voices in this short biography of the American folk hero.[11]I know that John Chapman was a real person, but this is clearly the legendary version. I’ve read some people praise it, but I find it pretty dull myself. There’s not much in the way of humor or action. I understand that this cartoon is trying to celebrating a peaceful nonviolent hero and that’s great, but even stories about heroic pacifists typically involve some kind of conflict or struggle. Here Johnny, after being given a peptalk by his guardian angel, sets off on his mission and…basically accomplishes it without much fuss. Even before he befriends all the wild animals, none of them try to attack him. They just wait for the local skunk to scare him away.

Still, Mary Blair’s artwork makes this worth a look and it deserves credit for featuring the only song from Melody Time to have a life outside of it, The Lord’s Been Good to Me.

Little Toot sung by the Andrew Sisters

This adaptation of the children’s story by Hardie Gramatky is about a mischievous little tugboat whose rare attempt at being helpful causes a huge accident.

This gets Little Toot banished from the harbor, but he redeems himself by helping a distressed ship.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the cartoon but there’s nothing that stands out as brilliant either. My favorite aspects are how the waves and lightning during a storm appear as menacing trying to grab Little Toot and that’s something you see in other Disney cartoons of the era.[12]I remember when I was three or four years old, watching Sing Me a Story With Belle on Playhouse Disney, which repackaged old Disney cartoons with new songs and tried to use them to teach moral … Continue reading

Trees performed by Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians

Joyce Kilmer’s classic poem is set to dramatic music by Oscar Rasbach. The visuals for this segment are breathtakingly beautiful, making it the most visually impressive part of Melody Time. I kind of hate to say that since it doesn’t look like Mary Blair’s work. The only other artist credited for color and styling is Claude Coats but the other backdrops in this movie that don’t scream, “Mary Blair,” are so forgettable that I’m inclined to credit these to her anyway.

Blame It on the Samba featuring Ethel Smith and the Dinning Sisters

Donald Duck and Jose Carioca are back for another encore. Here they’re depressed (possibly because they read my last blog post) and stop at Cafe do Samba where their waiter, the Aracuan bird slips them a “little musical cocktail” with “a dash of the samba.” This is basically leftovers from The Three Caballeros but really good leftovers. Frankly, I’d much rather rewatch this than that movie. Maybe it’s because the surreal visual gags are funnier. Maybe it’s because the song is catchier than anything in The Three Caballeros with the possible exception of that film’s title track.

Pecos Bill performed by Roy Rogers and the Songs of the Pioneers

The finale is actually two segments for the price of one, not unlike Fantasia‘s Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria combo. “Any story about Pecos is bound to be strong medicine,” says Buddy Clark, “maybe it’s best to sashay into it gently.” Thus, we get some animated footage of a desert at night while the soft song, Blue Shadows on the Trail plays. It’s no Trees but still very pleasant.

Eventually, we find the singers, Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers gathered around a campfire with Roy’s horse, Trigger, and some children including Disney’s child stars, Bobby Driscoll and Luanna Patten. The melancholy noise of coyotes howling inspires them to tell the story of American tall tale hero, Pecos Bill. (When told that Bill’s horse was named “Widowmaker,” Patten laughs and say, “that’s a funny name,” which is sort of disturbing.)

The raucous cartoon that ensues might be even more fun than Blame It on the Samba. The “just so story” aspects make for a host of fun visuals like Bill digging the Rio Grande, painting the painted desert (sort of) and unintentionally scattering gold in California. And the song, Yippee-I-Yay, might just be the catchiest in all of Melody Time.

While I enjoy this one much more than I do Johnny Appleseed, I can’t help but wonder if they should have switched places. Given how Johnny emphasizes the differences between its lead and the stereotypically violent and macho hero of the American frontier, it feels anticlimactic to go from him to a “normal” one. Who knows? Maybe if I had Bill fresh in my memory when watching Johnny, the contrast would make his story more interesting. Both shorts incidentally continue the trend from pervious Disney anim-anthologies of not every story having a happy ending, though it’s up for debate which one is the less happy of the two.[13]For those of you don’t mind them being spoiled, Johnny Appleseed dies but gets to continue his mission of planting apple trees in Heaven while the last we see of Pecos Bill, he’s alive … Continue reading

Conclusion

It’s hard for me to say which of these I’m more likely to recommend. The parts of Make Mine Music that I love, I love more than my favorite parts of Melody Time. At any rate, they’re more interesting if I may make the distinction between interesting and good. But, on the other hand, Melody Time has a much smoother flow to it and is more cohesive. I feel safer recommending it to my friends who aren’t necessarily interested in animation the same way I am. They’d still probably be a bit bewildered as to why I recommended it, but they’d be more likely to forgive me. Obviously, neither counts as the best animated thing that Disney ever produced, but in some ways, they’re the most fascinating.

To Be Continued

References

References
1 Perhaps I should have tried to explain this in the last post, but I also had to explain about the Good Neighbor policy thing, and this isn’t supposed to be a blog about history. I thought it would be a bit much.
2 Don’t ask me what the title means.
3 This is the last time I’m going to mention ethnic stereotypes in this series. I’ve written about the topic in previous posts and the average adult knows enough to expect outdated stereotypes from old cartoons.
4 Or storks? I can’t tell the difference.
5 Sorry for spoiling that punchline, but it’s impossible not to do so while explaining this short.
6 You may recall Saludos Amigos did some of the same thing. Chuck Jones’s 1953 cartoon, Duck Amuck, would have the most fun with the premise.
7 Fans of old Disney movies may recognize radio performer Colonna as the voice of the March Hare from Alice in Wonderland.
8 In 1954, Disney would actually do a sequel cartoon, Casey Bats Again in which the disgraced athlete hopes to father a son but is disappointed to sire nine daughters. Before you get mad, the girls surprise their father by being natural baseball players and form a team. Despite not being based on a classic poem, it’s a fairly worthy follow-up.
9 In 2013, Pixar released The Blue Umbrella, a short with a similar premise that while less dark, ended up being more emotional due to better chemistry between the leads.
10 Which arguably isn’t any more driven by music than Disney movies generally were back then but, hey, they had to title it something.
11 I know that John Chapman was a real person, but this is clearly the legendary version.
12 I remember when I was three or four years old, watching Sing Me a Story With Belle on Playhouse Disney, which repackaged old Disney cartoons with new songs and tried to use them to teach moral lessons or promote literacy. Little Toot was one of the ones that got the treatment and while the show was aimed at the youngest viewers and the Disney anim-anthologies generally tried to entertain multiple generations, I think the song they came up with for it was catchier than the one the Andrews Sisters sang. You can decide for yourself.
13 For those of you don’t mind them being spoiled, Johnny Appleseed dies but gets to continue his mission of planting apple trees in Heaven while the last we see of Pecos Bill, he’s alive but haunted by the memory of a lost love.

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Animation Station: Disney’s Anim-Anthology Movies Part 2

I admit one of my biggest hurdles when I started off on this series was the thought of reviewing Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, which I remembered as being the most boring of the Disney anim-anthologies. It’s true that I described Fantasia as boring or potentially boring and I still love that, but it feels like it’s being intentionally boring. These two movies are trying to be fun and often failing at it. Fortunately, they’re both so fluffy that I think I can cover them in one fast paced blog post.

These films, or at least the first of them, are actually the result of the US government asking Walt Disney to take his animators on a tour of South America to make a movie about it as part of the United States’ Good Neighbor policy. The resulting pieces of cinema turned out to be more about explaining South America to North America rather than vice versa. If people in Latin America were really keen to see Disney cartoon stars interacting with their cultures, I find it odd that Donald Duck and Goofy, mostly the former, were featured in these movies but not Disney’s main icon, Mickey Mouse. Maybe Donald and Goofy were mad about not being in Fantasia. Maybe Mickey knew these movies weren’t going to do anything for anyone’s career. Anyhow…

Saludos Amigos (1942)

We begin with documentary footage of Disney animators boarding a plane while a voice-over narrator (Fred Shields) explains what’s happening. Then we see an animated version of the plane flying over a map of South America and the four areas on which this movie focuses are highlighted.

First, we get some footage of Peru, specifically the neighborhood near Lake Titicaca. We see the Disney artists sketching the things they see while the narrator explains about them. He doesn’t get into much depth and it’s all rather dry and dull. The part that talks about llamas made me think wistfully about watching The Emperor’s New Groove instead.

Then we get our first real cartoon, one featuring Donald Duck (voiced by Clarence Nash) as an American tourist. It starts out pretty dull with visual gags that are basically fine, but which should be familiar to anyone who’s watched Disney animated shorts from this time period. It gets much more fun and visually engaging halfway through though, when Donald buys a llama that responds to pipe music and the two of them then have to cross a precarious rope bridge.[1]Now I’m really reminded of The Emperor’s New Groove!

We then get footage of the Disney tourists flying over the Andes. The narrator informs us that learning about the planes that deliver mail inspired the next short, which is about a family of anthropomorphic aircrafts, the youngest of whom, Pedro, has to take such a flight when his parents are sick.

It’s pretty ho-hum. The best things about it are the design of the mountain which menaces little Pedro and the twist at the end about just what the letter for which our hero risked so much contained.

More dull documentary stuff follows, this time showing the animators in the Argentinian Pampas, studying gauchos and folk dancing.

It feels like it goes on a long time without telling us anything interesting about its subject, but since the last bit of live action footage we got was unusually brief, maybe they felt they had to make up for it.

Our next cartoon features Goofy (Pinto Colvig) as a Texan cowboy who gets transplanted across the border to become an Argentinian gaucho. It’s got some good funny moments, mostly to do with contrast between what the narrator describes and what actually happens onscreen. But most of them are near the beginning and I was soon ready for this part to be over.

The final documentary section is about Rio Janeiro in Brazil, ending with a carnival. Forgive me for being ignorant of just what the carnival is about. Like I wrote, despite being ostensibly about explaining South American cultures to American audiences, Saludos Amigos doesn’t go into much depth.

Apparently, the carnival is an annual thing though. “Each year hundreds of songs are written especially for this occasion,” says the narrator, “and the dream of every composer is to have his song chosen as a Carnival hit. One number stood out as a perfect background for the first Brazilian film. Its author, Ary Barroso, has made use of the samba rhythm to paint a musical picture of his native land, Aquarela do Brasil, a watercolor of Brazil.” Naturally, the cartoon that ensues features an actual painting of Brazil. We see a giant paintbrush creating a Brazilian jungle and its inhabitants.

That water moves unusually sluggishly for Disney which usually did a good job animating water, but maybe that’s because it’s really supposed to be paint in this instance.

One of those inhabitants, or rather the lone tourist, is Donald Duck. There are some bits with him and the paintbrush interacting that are quite funny even if they do make me wish I were watching Daffy Duck in Chuck Jones’s masterpiece, Duck Amuck.

I love how Donald is inspired to try his wing at animation…
…only to be punished for trying to usurp his creator.

Donald meets Jose Carioca (Jose Oliveira), a character created by specifically for this movie, who takes him out for a night on the town.

Jose’s stereotypically Latin temperament is a bit overwhelming for Donald but not enough for it to be particularly hilarious.

Like Fantasia before it and most of Disney’s anim-anthologies after it, Saludos Amigos comes to an abrupt halt at the end. An especially abrupt halt in fact. The movie clocks in at about 42 minutes. Yet it still feels long and somewhat boring.

The Three Caballeros (1944)

This movie’s framing material takes place against a plain dark background. I don’t know enough about animation to say whether this was done because it was somehow cheaper than a regular backdrop, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case.[2]From what I understand, the Disney company was not exactly rolling in dough when it made these movies. I’ll try to explain in the next post. The movie begins with Donald Duck receiving a huge package of birthday presents from his friends in South America.

The first one he unwraps, which, unlike the others, isn’t from a specific country, proves to be a film strip of a “documentary” about rare birds. It consists of three parts. The first is a cartoon short about a penguin named Pablo who hates the cold and sets out on a perilous trek to the Galapagos Islands, which are part of the republic of Ecuador and so, I guess, count as South American.

If you’re wondering why I didn’t identify Pablo’s voice actor, it’s because he doesn’t have one. The only vocal work in this part comes from veteran Disney voice actor Sterling Holloway who narrates. He’s hilarious, though I’m not sure if this needed narration at all. The visuals do a great job of telling the story by themselves. I was pleasantly surprised by how many great gags there were here.

Like Pablo “running into” the equator.

We then shift to something closer to an actual documentary with narrator Frank Graham sharing facts about Latin American birds. It’s not nearly as much fun as what just preceded it, though there are a few amusing moments.

Like this scissortail bird using its tail as an actual pair of scissors.

It introduces the Aracuan bird who escapes from the screen and pops up once or twice later to annoy the other characters. He’s not very funny if you ask me.

The “rare birds” section of The Three Caballeros concludes with a story that turns out not to be about birds at all. A third narrator (Fred Shields again) tells of how when he was a Uruguayan gauchito he captured and tamed a winged burrito[3]As in little burro, not the food. and then illegally entered him in a horse race.

This short is more fun than the bird stuff that preceded it but not as funny as the Pablo part. The best bits involve the narrator, though I’m not sure how his being an older version of the protagonist squares with the ending. It’s interesting, to me anyway, that all the Disney anim-anthology movies share basically the same sense of humor yet vary drastically in how funny they are-and, for that matter, how funny different segments within the same movies are.

On the whole, the rare birds section of The Three Caballeros is probably the least weird part of it, which, considering that it involved a heat loving penguin and a flying donkey, should give you some idea of how crazy it gets.

The second present Donald opens is a popup book about Brazil. It opens to reveal a miniature Jose Carioca.

Jose sings a rather boring song about Baia which is accompanied by some equally uninteresting tracking shots of the state.

Then Jose splits into a bunch of clones and sings another livelier song about the same place.

The punchline to all this is that he’s never actually been there himself. But that can be remedied. He shrinks Donald down to his own size and the two of them board a train in the pop-up book. This leads to some interesting backgrounds evocative of chalk drawings.

But it also turns out to be unnecessary since what actually gets them to Baia is turning the pages in the book. Donald and Jose both try to flirt with singer Aurora Miranda, but to their annoyance a bunch of male samba dancers appear and steal their thunder.

I’m not kidding. At one point, Donald gets so mad he almost commits murder.

He eventually gets lucky after giving Miranda a bouquet.

Then the scene gets really weird as we see two of the dancers fighting[4]Or dancing? It’s hard to say. in silhouette who briefly turn into roosters and the very backgrounds come to life and join in the dance.

The song, Os Quindins de Yaya, isn’t particularly to my taste and the scene goes on far too long, but I have to admit parts of it are enjoyable.

I have to give the movie credit too. I thought it would forget that Jose and Donald had shrunk, but once they’ve emerged from the book, Jose shows Donald the magic trick for restoring them to their normal sizes. Donald initially bumbling it is actually the funniest part of the film.

I also love Donald interacting with a spotlight like it’s a physical prop.

Donald opens his third gift to reveal…well, it’s hard to describe. First, we get a parody of the Meet the Soundtrack part of Fantasia. Since Fantasia was understandably not a huge box office draw upon its release, I have no idea what the Disney animators were doing, parodying a movie they couldn’t expect audiences to recognize. But as a Fantasia fan, I’m sure grateful they did.

Then we meet Panchito (Joaquin Garay), a raucous rooster vaquero, who passes out sombreros and declares himself and the other two birds to be “three caballeros.”[5]I assumed caballero meant cowboy but, no, it apparently means gentleman or gallant.

Our newly dubbed heroes launch into the title song, which is something of a hidden gem, a catchy tune with clever lyrics. And the accompanying animation is also fun. But neither Panchito nor the unexpected Fantasia parody were actually Donald’s present. No, that turns out to be a big piñata. Donald is eager to crack it, but first Panchito explains about Mexican Christmas traditions and shows pictures of them.

I believe this and other images from this interlude are the work of Mary Blair, one of my favorite Disney artists of all time. They’re really not her best work, but I’m trying to accentuate the positive here.

Donald eventually smashes the piñata to reveal a plethora of Mexican paraphernalia[6]Wait. Mexico isn’t part of South America! including a giant guidebook. Panchito opens it and gives another lecture, this one on the history of the Mexican flag and Mexico City.

Another boring montage set to a boring song ensues, this one slightly alleviated by the influence of Mary Blair. Then the three caballeros hop aboard a magic serape and fly into the live action world of the guidebook.

Maybe if you’re interested in Mexican folk dancing, you’ll enjoy this little travel montage. I find it dull, though there is one aspect that can definitely be called interesting.

When writing about Fantasia, I argued that it represented a time when the Disney brand was less set in stone, and they could be a little more adult.[7]You could argue they’ve returned to that in recent years with the studio regularly releasing PG-13 movies, but the Disney brand still carries certain associations of fluffiness. Well, much the same can be said of The Three Caballeros where Donald is in a constant state of lust over live action women. All three of these birds are really, but especially him. Can someone more familiar with the character’s history tell me if this was always a part of his personality? It’s not so weird when it’s just Aurora Miranda, but in the Mexican section, it gets downright creepy. At one point, he drops in on a beach and starts harassing all the women. Maybe it’d be funny if they were animated or ducks, but, as it is, it’s just kind of off-putting. Jose and Panchito eventually have to drag him away.

Once outside the guidebook, Panchito turns the page to talk about Mexico City’s nightlife.

But instead of showing that, we get singer Dora Luz singing a song called You Belong to My Heart and Donald pursuing her. (See previous section.)

He searches for her through a surreal star scape, then through a surreal garden, all of which is spliced with surreal flashbacks of previous scenes. Note the frequent use of the word surreal.

I kind of love how bored Luz looks.

Then we get Donald dancing with Carmen Molina and a bunch of cacti.

Then, without any transition,[8]Maybe one was deleted., we see Panchito having a mock bullfight with Donald as the bull. Jose lights the dynamite attached to Donald’s “tail” which explodes into a firework display. In a nice touch, we end with the words “the end” in each caballero’s native language in the colors of their respective country’s flag.

It’s hard to pinpoint why I don’t love the “trippiness” of this finale, or the movie in general, when one of my favorite Disney animated movies is the polarizing Alice in Wonderland, which is also an episodic story full of surreal visual humor. I think it’s because Alice is a better character than Donald Duck, one who responds to her surroundings with a relatable mix of appreciative wonder and increasing impatience.[9]I wouldn’t say that Donald can’t ever be relatable but he’s not here. Plus, the surreal visual humor in Alice in Wonderland is simply funnier and the songs are more consistently great.

Conclusion

Their trip across the border may have given the people at Disney inspiration in that it gave them new things to animate, but it didn’t give them many good ideas about what to animate them doing. The question with these two movies is which is the bigger waste of time. The Three Caballeros is the longer and, in that sense, the bigger waste. But it also has more flair and more genuinely fun parts. Rewatching it for the purposes of this blog, I enjoyed it more than I remembered and if I had to choose one of these two films, would probably pick it. It’s true though that the boring and even annoying parts have longer to drag in Caballeros. I can definitely understand the position that however tiresome Saludos Amigos may be, at least it’s over quickly.

Fortunately, while not all of Disney’s anim-anthologies that followed would be great, they would all be better than these South American-themed ones.

To Be Continued

References

References
1 Now I’m really reminded of The Emperor’s New Groove!
2 From what I understand, the Disney company was not exactly rolling in dough when it made these movies. I’ll try to explain in the next post.
3 As in little burro, not the food.
4 Or dancing? It’s hard to say.
5 I assumed caballero meant cowboy but, no, it apparently means gentleman or gallant.
6 Wait. Mexico isn’t part of South America!
7 You could argue they’ve returned to that in recent years with the studio regularly releasing PG-13 movies, but the Disney brand still carries certain associations of fluffiness.
8 Maybe one was deleted.
9 I wouldn’t say that Donald can’t ever be relatable but he’s not here.
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