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.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Animation Station: Disney’s Anim-Anthology Movies Part 4

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 previous 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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Animation Station: Disney’s Anim-Anthology Movies Part 1

Warning: I’m having some trouble with images on my blog. But it seems to be only on my laptop that some are not appearing and even there only on Microsoft Edge. If you’re not seeing them, I encourage you to try a different browser since this series I’m starting is very image-driven. Thank you.

Does anyone reading this remember when I took a break from blogging about adaptations and did a series on Dreamworks’s four hand-drawn animated movies?[1]Well, of course, you don’t if you just stumbled on this blog today and aren’t a regular reader. I enjoyed that so much that I’m going to do another series on a group of animated films done by a major studio that differ from their most famous output. In this case, I’m going to be reviewing a series of Disney movies that are each an anthology of animated short films, mostly related to music somehow.[2]The Many Adventures of Winnie-The-Pooh is sometimes counted as one of these, but not by me since it’s a compilation of shorts that had already been made. None of them were originally intended … Continue reading There’s not really a good name for these movies. They’ve been called “package features,” but that makes them sound like they’re about the shipping industry, so I felt like they needed something catchier if I was to give them their own series. “Disney anthology movies” is accurate, but not really catchy either. “Disn-ology movies” makes them sound like they’re about a weird scientific study and “Dis-thology movies” is really confusing. For a while,”Disn-anthology movies” was the my best idea, but that doesn’t imply anything about them being animated, so, with the court’s permission, I’m going with “Disney anim-anthology movies.”

The most famous of these Disney anim-anthologies was easily the first one.

Fantasia (1940)

Fantasia has an interesting distinction among Disney’s animated movies in that it’s the one most likely to appear on Greatest Movies lists but also the one that the average moviegoer is least likely to watch or enjoy. I’m not fond of the distinction between critics and mass audiences since the average non-critic can be just as analytical and critical as the sternest professional critic[3]Just get a Star Wars enthusiastic started on the flaws of the prequels and sequels. and critics can be just as partial to relaxing and letting a spectacle wash over them. But to the extent that such a distinction exists, Fantasia is the type of movie that appeals to critics more than to the masses. I can’t say I entirely blame the masses. Large portions of Fantasia can be boring if the viewer isn’t in the right mood for it. That’s actually true of any movie or work of art, but especially for one like this. But I don’t blame the critics either. When the viewer, by which I mean myself, is in the mood, nothing hits the spot quite like Fantasia.

For those of you not in the know, the movie is an anthology of classical music compositions set to animated imagery, the idea is that these animated shorts are what someone might imagine when listening to the music, though I doubt anyone would specifically imagine these things. We begin prosaically enough in a shadowy live action concert hall with the orchestra tuning up. Deems Taylor, the film’s musical consultant, welcomes the audience and explains the premise of the movie.

I hate to start off with some criticism, but Taylor introduces each of the movie’s segments and, boy, does he not have much of a screen presence! Despite some playful humor injected into his speeches, he comes across as dry and boring and doesn’t convey the awesome power of either the classical compositions or the accompanying imagery at their best. What’s more annoying is that for some of the pieces, mainly The Rite of Spring and The Pastoral Symphony, he goes on and on, giving away practically every detail of what the viewer is about to see. Most of the segments are pretty self-explanatory and don’t need this. With Fantasia, Disney animation was trying to show that it could be Serious and Adult. But these introductions feel like they were created to tell viewers how Serious and Adult they were instead of actually being Serious and Adult as the main parts of the movie happily are. Worse, these parts of movie feel like they were created to make it Educational! To the extent that they add to the viewer’s enjoyment by explaining the intents of the composers and the twists Disney did on them, I wish this information could have been provided in a pamphlet handed out to theatregoers. But of course that would have been far too expensive and inconvenient. Anyway, on to the first segment.

Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

We begin with conductor Leopold Stokowski ascending his podium and beginning to conduct the orchestra. (A conductor on a high place becomes a visual motif in the movie.) As he does so, colorful lights appear as if he’s conducting images as well as just music.

The first half of this part consists of silhouettes of the musicians, playing their instruments against colorful backgrounds.

Then it shifts into a series of abstract images, at first obviously corresponding to the individual instruments, then growing gradually more surreal before we’re brought back to reality and Stokowski. This is definitely one of the most potentially boring parts of the movie, especially if you aren’t already a fan of symphony music. There’s a long time where we just watch ordinary musicians playing against a strange background. And even when the abstract imagery starts, it’s debatable how engaging it is. Some of the images have a haunting evocative power.

Others just…are.

I feel that’s sort of the point though. This segment’s job is to give the audience a very basic example of the connection between music and imagery in this movie. It’s not trying to do much else. The risk in that is that the audience will be uninterested in something so simple. The art to it is that something so simple helps transition the audience into a state of mind in which they can easily accept more complex offerings of the movie’s bread and butter. As Deems Taylor explains, in one of the more necessary of his intros, this segment represents the mindset of an audience member during the first song in a concert. “At first, you’re more or less conscious of the orchestra…than the music begins to suggest other things to your imagination.” Seen from this perspective, the segment becomes an indispensable part of the viewing experience, though I doubt anyone would rank it as the best part. And the piece of music is so powerful and the imagery, at its best, so beautiful that I have to give it a thumbs up.

Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite

This segment is basically a ballet, a ballet performed by tiny, weather-and-climate-controlling fairies, anthropomorphic flowers and mushrooms and a weirdly sexy goldfish.

Being a ballet, there’s not much that happens except for dancing and for many viewers, that’s going to get boring very quickly. When I’m not in the mood, I find it that way myself. But when I am in the mood, I love it. From the description I gave, you’d expect this part to be mainly cute. But that description drastically undersells the beauty of the visuals.

And there’s also a cleverness to the designs of the flower dancers beyond simple cuteness.

If nothing else, this segment is worth watching for a lovely moment when two windblown autumn leaves appear to be dancing with each other.[4]A much later and more crowd-pleasing Disney animated movie would do something similar with a pair of floating lanterns.

Basically, this is like a sunset or a mountain. You don’t watch it expecting a lot of action. You’re just supposed to stay still and marvel.

Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

If you’ve heard of any part of this movie, it’s this, the first segment to tell a story. In fact, I’m not even going to bother describing it.

I’m not sure it deserves that fame. Unlike most of the other segments, it’s not particularly unique or ambitious for a Disney animated short. The character animation is great but then Disney movies generally have strong character animation. The backgrounds are probably the least interesting in the movie, though their dark, cavernous beauty does serve to create an appropriately spooky atmosphere for the story.

But not standing out doesn’t make it not a great short. It’s basically just a great example of wordless visual storytelling. I admit I found the lack of humor in it a bit jarring on a first viewing, given that it stars a famous cartoon character, even if Mickey Mouse is considered the least funny of Disney’s trio of toon stars, Mickey, Donald and Goofy. But if you’re openminded about the idea of a Mickey Mouse short that’s not comedic, it’s pretty great.

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

I’ve heard this described as the most boring part of Fantasia. I don’t get that at all. For me, this is where the movie really starts to get great. It opens with a breathtaking tracking shot that takes us through the galaxy to a prehistoric Earth.

We see the evolution of the dinosaurs and their eventual extinction. The naturalistic animation of the gigantic lizards is awesome, and the combination of it with Stravinsky’s pounding, edgy music makes this easily one of the most exciting parts for me.

Readers who know me personally might question how I can enjoy this section of the movie so much when my religious beliefs are in conflict with the view of early history it portrays.[5]Others would argue they aren’t in conflict and that the parts of the Bible describing the creation of the world should be interpreted figuratively. I’d argue they don’t really line … Continue reading Well, for one thing, science itself has evolved since this movie’s release to the point that few modern scientists would regard this movie’s portrayal of evolution or Earth’s prehistory as strictly correct. (Even to the extent that Disney was trying to make something scientifically accurate, they weren’t going to let the scientific consensus get in the way of making something cool.)

Like this.

Another thing is that Fantasia feels like it’s representing different worldviews with its different shorts just as it represents different composers without really committing to any particular one. This segment portrays an atheistic view of the world. The Pastoral Symphony, which is coming up, portrays a pagan worldview and Ave Maria a Roman Catholic one. The Rite of Spring’s worldview is also a very bleak, dog-eat-dog one, with a lot of emphasis put on predation and the survival of the fittest.

And then of course, there’s the ending with the dinosaurs wandering around hopelessly before all going extinct, leaving only their bones, if that.[6]Apparently, at one point they wanted to end with early man finding fire, but this was deemed too controversial. I wonder if such an ending would have made the segment come across as more optimistic … Continue reading It’s not the happy ending we expect from Disney animation and it’s not alone among Fantasia’s segments in that.[7]The Sorcerer’s Apprentice ends with Mickey getting his butt swatted and The Dance of the Hours ends with what appears to be a symbolic representation of mass rape. Seriously. This is part of what makes Fantasia so fascinating for fans of Disney animation. It represents a time when Disney animation was less strictly family friendly and much of its subject matter is not what you’d expect from the studio. (Have I mentioned that there are topless women in this thing?) Even if you compare it to the two Disney animated features that came before it, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, it’s strikingly different from either of them. One wonders what kind of movies Disney would have made if Fantasia’s initial theatrical run had been more financially successful. Might they have eventually produced accurate adaptations of The Fox and the Hound, The Little Mermaid and The Hunchback of Notre Dame? The imagination boggles.

Meet the Soundtrack

After an intermission, we get an unusual, even for this movie, segment where Deems Taylor introduces the audience to a visual representation of Fantasia’s soundtrack, which changes shape based on the sound it makes.

It’s interesting but so similar in concept to the Toccata in Fugue segment that one wonders if it was really necessary. Maybe it should have actually replaced it since it’s the less slow of the two.

Beethoven’s The Pastoral Symphony

This segment shows a day in the life of classical mythic creatures living in the countryside. (It’s a rather inaccurate version of classical mythology that features plural cupids and pegasi, and centaurs as a two-sex race. I say that as an observation, not necessarily a criticism.) The visuals are much more recognizably Disney-esque than those of The Rite of Spring or even The Nutcracker Suite. Practically all the characters have round, squishy looking features, typical of Disney shorts, with an emphasis on cuddliness. Part of me wishes this short could have gone for something more epic and awe-inspiring in keeping with the grandeur of classical mythology.

More like this
Less like this

But just because I enjoy things like The Rite of Spring for their departures from a typical Disney aesthetic doesn’t mean I think the typical Disney aesthetic is bad. If that were my opinion, I probably wouldn’t have started this series in the first place. I actually find this to be one of the most charming sections of the movie. It’s filled with sweet little details.

While it’s not one of the plotty segments, there’s always something happening and moreover the characters always convey a specific emotion, unlike, say, the ballerinas in The Nutcracker Suite. This means it risks being boring far less than either that segment or Toccata in Fugue, even if I find those more interesting in the technical sense of the term. And hey, being deliberately cute doesn’t mean something can’t be emotionally powerful. This image of a mother unicorn desperately trying to shield her foals from a thunderstorm gets to me every time.

Speaking of images which raise strong emotions, this segment is mildly infamous for featuring a racist caricature which has since been edited out. I’m not normally in favor of editing out racist parts of old books and movies. But the image is both so ugly and so irrelevant to the scene’s main business that I’m grateful to Disney for removing it and allowing people to enjoy this part of the movie without cringing.[8]Two black characters, who couldn’t be edited out, remain. While their puffy lips are stereotypical, they’re not as bad as the cut caricatures and while they’re also subservient to a … Continue reading

What might still make some viewers cringe are this segment’s overly bright colors. Out of context, I find them too garish. But coming after the dark and gloomy visuals of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and The Rite of Spring, not to mention the shadowy concert hall of Fantasia’s interstitials, I find them rather refreshing.

Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours

I have to give credit to Deems Taylor’s introduction to this short for explaining exactly what it is-a ballet with different dancers representing the different hours of the day-without giving away that the dancers are goofy animals, making the following comedy even funnier.[9]Of course, I’ve just given it away, ruining the reveal, but I couldn’t find a way around it. I hesitate to describe this one much because to do so would give away the great visual gags. I’ll just say it’s really fun to watch. I particularly love the design of the hippo ballerina.

Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain/ Schubert’s Ave Maria

After two lighthearted and stereotypically Disney-esque segments, we get something dark and dramatic for the finale. It’s actually two segments combined in one. Night on Bald Mountain features Chernabog, the Slavic god of darkness, who lives in the titular mountain and awakens one night of the year to summon lost souls and demons to dance for him torturously.

The grotesque imagery is masterfully horrifying. I’m not knowledgeable enough about animation techniques to know what effect they used to give the ghosts that chalky, not-quite-there look [10]The same thing is used in The Rite of Spring for foam and volcanic fumes. but I love it.

And the facial expressions of Chernabog are magnificently ugly, both completely mirthful and palpably evil and unappealing.

Eventually, the forces of evil are rendered impotent and sent back to sleep by the ringing of a church bell. As the sun rises and Ave Maria plays, a group of candle carrying pilgrims makes their way through a wood. It’s a very pleasant segment but it feels kind of anticlimactic. I’d have preferred something bigger and more eye catching to balance out the horrific bombast of Night on Bald Mountain. Then again, the very peacefulness of the scene makes for a good contrast to what just preceded it. No one would call Night on Bald Mountain soothing after all. And while Ave Maria’s visuals may not be as arresting, they have a definite beauty too them. I love the way the backgrounds subtly and not so subtly suggest a gothic cathedral.

Part of me still wishes the movie could have ended on a more awesome note (no musical pun intended) but maybe I’m just ridiculously demanding considering that it ends with an image of the rising sun.[11]Apparently, at one point the Madonna and Child were going to appear but, again, this was decided to be too potentially controversial.

With that, Fantasia rather abruptly ends. I know this sounds crazy considering what I wrote earlier about Deems Taylor, but the movie spends so much time with him and with the orchestra that I feel they should have gotten a proper goodbye. Not only do we see the orchestra getting ready at the beginning, but we see them exiting the concert hall for the intermission, returning afterwards and having a fun little jam session. It seems like we should see them pack up at the end to complete the full concert experience.

Conclusion

So is Fantasia a masterpiece? Well, as I wrote about Les Misérables (2012), if a masterpiece is defined as a flawless work of art, perhaps not. (And if you read a lot of positive reviews of this movie, you’ll notice that its fans are willing and capable of criticizing parts of it.) But if a masterpiece is work of art the flaws of which are rendered inconsequential by its strengths, then I say yes! It’s not a movie for everyone but for its fans, it delights in ways little else does. Neither Disney nor American animation would ever make anything quite like this again.

Or would they?

To Be Continued

Bibliography

Culhane, John. (1983) Walt Disney’s Fantasia. New York: H. N. Abrams.

References

References
1 Well, of course, you don’t if you just stumbled on this blog today and aren’t a regular reader.
2 The Many Adventures of Winnie-The-Pooh is sometimes counted as one of these, but not by me since it’s a compilation of shorts that had already been made. None of them were originally intended to be part of the same film. It is an adaptation though and an interesting one, so I might actually like to do a blog post about it one day.
3 Just get a Star Wars enthusiastic started on the flaws of the prequels and sequels.
4 A much later and more crowd-pleasing Disney animated movie would do something similar with a pair of floating lanterns.
5 Others would argue they aren’t in conflict and that the parts of the Bible describing the creation of the world should be interpreted figuratively. I’d argue they don’t really line up with the scientific consensus whether you interpret them that way or not. Symbols have to mean something after all. Suffice to say that there are counterarguments to those arguments and more counterarguments to those…I don’t have space to do justice to everyone’s worldview and it’s not what I want to write about in this post.
6 Apparently, at one point they wanted to end with early man finding fire, but this was deemed too controversial. I wonder if such an ending would have made the segment come across as more optimistic or if it would have left viewers thinking that just as the dinosaurs were once on top, now mankind is and there’s no reason to believe it’ll last any longer.
7 The Sorcerer’s Apprentice ends with Mickey getting his butt swatted and The Dance of the Hours ends with what appears to be a symbolic representation of mass rape. Seriously.
8 Two black characters, who couldn’t be edited out, remain. While their puffy lips are stereotypical, they’re not as bad as the cut caricatures and while they’re also subservient to a Caucasian character, that character is Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry, not some random white person.
9 Of course, I’ve just given it away, ruining the reveal, but I couldn’t find a way around it.
10 The same thing is used in The Rite of Spring for foam and volcanic fumes.
11 Apparently, at one point the Madonna and Child were going to appear but, again, this was decided to be too potentially controversial.
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As You Like It (2006) Merits Some More Love

For Valentine’s Day this year, I’m going to look at a cinematic production of one of Shakespeare’s most romantic comedies, As You Like It. The ironic and impressive thing about the play is that basically all of its most memorable quotes about romance and marriage take a cynical view yet it makes the audience cheer without a second thought as the leads get married in the end. In a way, it’s the most daring and triumphant demonstration of the power of love in all of Shakespeare.

Of course, in many ways As You Like It is not a great play. On paper, it’s rather a sloppy one. It begins with a very dramatic situation. A noble duke has been overthrown by his younger brother and banished along with his loyal followers. His daughter, Rosalind, has been allowed to remain at court but as her uncle descends into paranoia, he banishes her too and her cousin, Celia, flees with her in solidarity, along with the court Jester, Touchstone. Rosalind’s crush, Orlando de Boys also must leave his home due to the jealousy of his older brother. But once all the characters establish themselves in the idyllic forest of Arden, the play pretty much becomes nothing but schtick and the occasional soliloquy. The only complications with the romance between the disguised Rosalind and Orlando are how long it will take for her get tired of trolling him and reveal herself and how they’re going to find a priest to marry them. One of the villains is improbably redeemed offstage. Another character is randomly mentioned in the play’s first moments and then forgotten only to show up at the last second and announce that the other villain has been redeemed too, resolving the story. It’s like Shakespeare was making the thing up as he went along.

But there are reasons this is considered a great play, mainly its fun cast of characters and its many great quotes. It tends to fall flat in retellings, but in performance, with charismatic actors and beautiful scenery, music and costumes, it’s a delight.[1]In this way, it can be seen as the comedic equivalent of Hamlet, which sounds like a ridiculous story in retellings and needs to be performed to be compelling. As You Like It is more about creating an atmosphere than about storytelling and creating an atmosphere is something at which director Kenneth Branagh’s 2006 movie version excels. It may not be the masterpiece that is his Much Ado About Nothing, but it’s far better than his Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Branagh reimagines the story as being about English merchants in Japan during the latter part of the nineteenth century. This is rather random as the original play took place in neither England nor Japan but in France, but, as I wrote above, As You Like It was always rather a random play. It looks pretty and that was doubtless the point. It also sounds pretty too thanks to Patrick Doyle’s musical score. It’s a rather soporific soundtrack but I consider that appropriate for this unusually laid-back Shakespearean comedy. All of the casting is wonderful and, as is the norm with Branagh productions of Shakespeare, everyone delivers their artificial and iconic lines as if they were things that just popped into their head. Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind is especially great at this. I’ve heard some critics opine that Rosalind doesn’t feel like as major a character in this movie as she should be, but I don’t see that at all. True, there’s no way anyone would be fooled by her male disguise in real life, but it’d be unreasonable to expect an actress to be luminously beautiful, entertainingly cheeky, have great chemistry with her costars, speak Shakespeare like it’s her native tongue and be a convincing boy.

Branagh does a great job restructuring As You Like It to work as a movie. He begins with a gripping wordless scene of Duke Frederick (Brian Blessed) attacking his brother (also Brian Blessed)’s court, which establishes nearly all of the characters and their relationships to each other. You could argue this scene is a bad choice for setting the tone of this non-action movie, but I’d argue that was always a problem with As You Like It. It’s not like there was never any action in it, such as the wrestling match between Orlando de Boys (David Oyelowo) and the mighty Charles (Nobuyuki Takano.) The movie also shows another action scene that was only described in Shakespeare as it would have been difficult to stage.

This As You Like It deals with the dramatic problems of the text about as well can done, short of rewriting the whole story. The offstage “old religious man”[2]Sadly, I can’t find who plays him. who plays such a pivotal role in the resolution is wordlessly introduced here in early scenes. Branagh and the actors lay the groundwork for the redemptions of Frederick and Orlando’s brother, Oliver (Adrian Lester), making them sympathetic whenever they can, though they do miss a trick. In Frederick’s first scene from the play, Shakespeare wrote him as being initially friendly toward Orlando, only becoming hostile upon learning that he’s the son of an old enemy of his. Blessed however comes across as brooding and menacing from the start. Still, when the villains do show vulnerability, they do so compellingly. And the final scene has a touching moment between Celia (Romola Garai) and her father, original to this version.

Jacques (Kevin Kline), the Eeyore of Arden, is portrayed more sympathetically here than in the original play. Not that he was ever a really negative character, but the movie takes his philosophizing more seriously. His accusation that the banished duke by hunting deer is as much a usurper as his brother, which in Shakespeare was laughed off as pretentiousness, is given some weight here. Rosalind and Orlando still run verbal rings around him in their conversations though.

The dysfunctional romance between Touchstone the jester (Alfred Molina) and Audrey the goatherd (Janet McTeer) is made less potentially unpleasant here by the addition of slapstick humor.[3]In Shakespeare’s culture, bearbaiting was the norm, so it should be no surprise that his comedy was occasionally meanspirited. Audrey may not be able to retaliate verbally when Touchstone insults her, but rather than simply not understand him, she responds with physical force-an area where she easily bests him.[4]The slapstick also arguably serves to distract from a curious quirk of Shakespeare’s comedies: the malapropisms and “chop logic” of their clowns are less funny than the banter of … Continue reading I don’t understand why this adaptation makes Audrey another refugee from the court rather than an Arden native when the whole point of her relationship with Touchstone is that they’re from incompatible worlds, but oh well.

Another thing I don’t understand is the new implied backstory for Corin the old shepherd (Jimmy Yuill), giving him the power to perform marriage ceremonies. This allows to him take on the roles of Sir Oliver Mar-Text, the priest of questionable credentials, and Hymen the classical god of marriage. It’s a combination of characters that makes no thematic sense considering that the whole point of Sir Oliver is that no wedding ceremony he performs would be binding and Hymen is the one who ultimately marries all the couples. The motivation behind the change seems to be that Corin is an admirable character and Yuill an admirable actor and the more of them, the better. I can understand that.

If there are any characters whom the adaptation really lets down, they’re the dysfunctional shepherd couple, Silvius (Alex Wyndham) and Phebe (Jade Jefferies.) (I’d like to stress I’m talking about the script here, not the actors. It’s a pity this is Jefferies only IMDB credit.) Because most of Phebe’s arrogant and disdainful lines have been cut, Rosalind’s criticism of her comes across as overblown. And the device by which their plotline is ultimately resolved is harder to follow because of some other cut lines. I can sympathize with the pacing reasons behind those cuts though.

One of my favorite touches of this As You Like It is how it sets nearly all the scenes at the dangerous court at night and nearly all the scenes in the idyllic forest during the day. The exceptions to this are a scene in Arden where a reference to Diana, “thrice-crowned queen of night,” demands it and the final scene where all the all exiles are allowed to return home.[5]Sorry for giving that away, but you knew a play like this would have a happy ending, didn’t you? Seeing the hitherto dark and gloomy halls be flooded with bright sunshine makes for an especially joyous end to this most joyous of Shakespeare movies.

References

References
1 In this way, it can be seen as the comedic equivalent of Hamlet, which sounds like a ridiculous story in retellings and needs to be performed to be compelling.
2 Sadly, I can’t find who plays him.
3 In Shakespeare’s culture, bearbaiting was the norm, so it should be no surprise that his comedy was occasionally meanspirited.
4 The slapstick also arguably serves to distract from a curious quirk of Shakespeare’s comedies: the malapropisms and “chop logic” of their clowns are less funny than the banter of their semi-serious lovers. The exceptions that prove this rule are, of course, the “rude mechanicals” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
5 Sorry for giving that away, but you knew a play like this would have a happy ending, didn’t you?
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Ramona and Beezus: A Surprisingly Good Adaptation

This post is dedicated to the memory of my family’s cat, Winston, who sadly passed on this week. That may seem random, but watch the movie and you’ll see why it’s appropriate.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of children’s author Beverly Clearly growing up. She has accurately been described as a pioneer of realism in juvenile fiction and I had little or no use for realism. As you can probably discern from the stories about which I choose to blog, my taste runs toward the comedic, the fantastic and the melodramatic. I saw no point in reading books about modern day middle class American kids like me dealing with parents, teachers, siblings, peers, etc. Why read about what I could experience every day?

Yet for all that, I kept returning to Cleary’s series about young Ramona Quimby. I think even then, I was impressed by the psychological believability of fiery, gung-ho Ramona and her more practical older sister, Beezus (Beatrice.)[1]Though, of course, I wouldn’t have used the phrase “psychological believability” at the age I first read the books. And as an adult and a would-be author myself, I’ve developed a respect for realism, though it still isn’t my favorite thing to read. To write something that feels exactly like it could happen in real life is an awesome balancing act, one I could never do.

I was not impressed by the trailers for the 2010 movie, Ramona and Beezus, which looked like they turned the Ramona books into a lowbrow kids’ comedy. But intrigued by some positive, though not glowing, reviews, I gave it a watch and I’m happy to say that it’s an affectionate and honorable adaptation. Not an ideal adaptation, mind you, but hey, as the final book in the series, Ramona’s World, reminds us, nothing is perfect, but things can still be pretty great.

I won’t sugarcoat it. This movie does a lot of the things fans of the books might fear.[2]For non-fans these probably won’t register as faults and may even be attractions. The cast is more Hollywood-attractive than they should be. In particular, it’s rather ridiculous for Selena Gomez’s Beezus to be worried about her hair.[3]Incidentally, while Beezus is a major figure in the movie, there’s no reason why she should have get title billing, and I have to assume it was because of Gomez’s relative star power. I give Ginnifer Goodwin as the girls’ Aunt Bea a pass since she was specifically described as young and pretty in the book. Dialogue is quippier than in the books and less like regular people talking. Feel-good moments are sappier and also feel less real. And there’s a sprinkling-just a sprinkling-of slapstick. Perhaps most irritating for adult Beverly Cleary enthusiasts, Ramona’s believable maturity/immaturity level is compromised. This is partly an inevitable side effect of the movie taking various episodes from a series that begins with Ramona starting kindergarten and ends with her turning ten and fitting them all into one story where she’s nine.[4]Actually, the literary Ramona was technically introduced as a pesky preschooler and supporting character in an earlier series of books by Cleary before she got one to herself. For example, it’s unlikely that a nine-year-old would do such a poor job explaining to her teacher (Sandra Oh) and classmates about the new addition to her family’s house.[5]In the movie and in the book, Ramona the Brave, where she’s six, she unintentionally makes it sound like a bunch of workmen randomly came to her house and made a big hole in it. But not all of it can be chalked up to the compressed timeline. In the book, Ramona and her Father, Ramona briefly considered making a lemonade stand to help support her financially struggling family, but quickly dismissed the idea as unprofitable. In Ramona and Beezus, not only does she actually try to sell lemonade, but she uses her great-grandmother’s crystal. This makes Ramona less astute at nine years old than she was at seven in the books.

What makes this forgivable for me is Joey King’s wonderful portrayal of the character, which captures the essence of Ramona at every age of her childhood. It’s hard for me to define that essence in words, but King does it with her performance. Maybe it’s that while her comedic timing is perfect, she never lets on that she thinks of her character as being funny. Ramona clearly sees herself as very dignified and is bewildered and offended when adults laugh at her. King even kind of looks like Ramona in this movie with her short brown hair!

I described the movie’s inclusion of so many episodes from different books as a problem but it’s also a strength. The sheer number of memorable incidents from the series that make their way into the movie really give the impression that the screenwriters, Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay, were fans. Occasionally, a major source of drama from the books, such as Grandma Kemp (Janet Wright) telling Ramona to be careful around young Willa Jean (Ruby Curtis) when Willa Jean is clearly the one who deserves a scolding or Ramona pulling the hair of her least favorite classmate, Susan (Sierra McCormick), pops up as an undeveloped bit of randomness in the movie. I suppose that’s technically a flaw, but for me it adds to the by-fans-for-fans vibe. My first viewing was actually something of an edge-of-my-seat experience as I could see Ramona about to walk into disasters I remembered from the books. And the script generally does a good job restructuring the material. Mr. and Mrs. Quimby (John Corbett and Bridget Moynahan) reading Beezus’s glowing report card and Ramona’s not so glowing one was originally part of the climax of Ramona the Brave, but it makes for an excellent early scene here to establish to family dynamic.

If you’re a longtime fan of the Ramona books, the Q on that mailbox should delight you.

The main parts of the movie that aren’t from the books are the romantic subplots. In Ramona Forever, Aunt Bea’s romance with Hobert Kemp (Josh Duhamel), uncle to Ramona’s friend, Howie (Jason Spevack), happened “offpage.”[6]Speaking of Howie, his personality in this movie is pretty much nothing like it was in the books. Here he has more in common with Yard Ape. (Yes, there was a character called Yard Ape in the books.) … Continue reading Here they have a checkered romantic past. An analytical adult viewer unfamiliar with the books, who really isn’t the movie’s target audience, could probably guess that this part of the film is an addition since the scenes between Bea and Hobart are the only ones shown entirely from the perspective of adults. Otherwise, the movie is true to Cleary in that we only see them from the kids’ point of view but can infer quite a bit about them from that. I don’t love this new subplot, but I do enjoy how it adds to the drama for Ramona as she is gratified that her beloved aunt is initially as annoyed as she is by Hobart’s teasing and then feels betrayed when Bea accepts his proposal.[7]Ramona being annoyed by Hobart and being saddened by Aunt Bea moving far away comes straight from the books, but it plays out far more dramatically here.

More eyebrow raising for longtime Cleary fans is the romantic tension between Beezus and her friend, Henry Huggins (Hutch Dano.) Henry was actually the lead in Cleary’s first series of books for young readers. He was a friend of Beezus, but they were not, I repeat, not an item.[8]Of course, they were also just kids. By the time, Cleary got around to writing about Beezus’s first boy-girl party in Ramona’s World, a party which ended up amusingly unsexy by the way, … Continue reading The movie’s Henry has almost nothing in common with the literary Henry Huggins.[9]At least I don’t think he does. I wasn’t as into the Henry books growing up as I was the Ramona books. I remember the Ramona-heavy Henry and the Clubhouse being the best of them. But on their own terms, he and his interactions with Beezus are appealingly awkward and non-heart throbby.

The movie indulges in some fantasy scenes showcasing Ramona’s vivid imagination. I think these would actually be funnier if they looked less goofy and I suspect that, like the romances, they were included partly for marketability purposes. But I appreciate the concept of conveying life as experienced by an imaginative nine-year-old. And at least one such scene, where an overheard comment about the possibility of the bank taking the house gives Ramona the mental image of a giant crane carrying away her home, leaving her family stranded, is pretty inspired.

This brings me to something I really appreciate about this adaptation. Ironically, I feel like the best way to lead into it is to describe a scene from the books that it doesn’t adapt. At one point in Ramona and her Father, the Quimby family’s cat eats their jack-o-lantern. Beezus blames her parents for not buying the cat food he likes.

“Beezus, dear,” said Mrs. Quimby, “We simply cannot afford the brand of food Picky-picky used to eat. Now be reasonable.”

Beezus was in no mood to be reasonable. “Then how come Daddy can afford to smoke?” she demanded to know.

Ramona was astonished to hear her sister speak this way to her mother.

Mr. Quimby looked angry. “Young lady,” he said and when he called Beezus young lady, Ramona knew her sister had better watch out, “Young lady, I’ve heard enough about that old tom cat and his food. My cigarettes are none of your business.”

Ramona expected Beezus to say she was sorry or maybe burst into tears and run to her room. Instead, she pulled Picky-picky out from under the table and held him to her chest as if she were shielding him from danger. “They are too my business,” she informed her father. “Cigarettes can kill you. Your lungs will turn black, and you’ll die! We made posters about it at school. And besides, cigarettes pollute the air!”

Ramona was horrified by her sister’s daring and at the same time she was a tiny bit pleased. Beezus was usually well behaved while Ramona was the one who had tantrums. Then she was struck by the meaning of her sister’s angry words…

Ramona ends up being the one to cry over the unusual tension in her family and the new possibility of her father’s death. Her parents try to comfort her with assurance that they’ll get a new and better jack-o-lantern, leading her to wonder, “Didn’t grownups think children worried about anything but jack-o-lanterns? Didn’t they know children worried about grownups?”

While Ramona and Beezus seldom gets as dramatic as that, it understands that children do worry about grownups. It conveys the difficulties of growing up with adult problems that you don’t totally understand all around you as well as kid problems that the adults around you don’t necessarily understand. As sunny as the movie is, far too sunny to take place in Portland, Oregon, scenes of Ramona being humiliated in front of her class or some of the sharper arguments she has with her sister can really make you wince. But the movie is also true to the books by showing how a loving family, however imperfect, can help make this all bearable and how even clueless or otherwise annoying adults can have a kid’s back. And if this ends up feeling a bit more touchy-feely than the books do and a bit sillier, a bit more kid pandering and a bit more parent pandering, a bit too polished and tidy and Hollywood…well, like I said, I was never really a fan of realism.

References

References
1 Though, of course, I wouldn’t have used the phrase “psychological believability” at the age I first read the books.
2 For non-fans these probably won’t register as faults and may even be attractions.
3 Incidentally, while Beezus is a major figure in the movie, there’s no reason why she should have get title billing, and I have to assume it was because of Gomez’s relative star power.
4 Actually, the literary Ramona was technically introduced as a pesky preschooler and supporting character in an earlier series of books by Cleary before she got one to herself.
5 In the movie and in the book, Ramona the Brave, where she’s six, she unintentionally makes it sound like a bunch of workmen randomly came to her house and made a big hole in it.
6 Speaking of Howie, his personality in this movie is pretty much nothing like it was in the books. Here he has more in common with Yard Ape. (Yes, there was a character called Yard Ape in the books.) Since I was never a huge Howie fan, I’m fine with this.
7 Ramona being annoyed by Hobart and being saddened by Aunt Bea moving far away comes straight from the books, but it plays out far more dramatically here.
8 Of course, they were also just kids. By the time, Cleary got around to writing about Beezus’s first boy-girl party in Ramona’s World, a party which ended up amusingly unsexy by the way, Henry was already out of the picture.
9 At least I don’t think he does. I wasn’t as into the Henry books growing up as I was the Ramona books. I remember the Ramona-heavy Henry and the Clubhouse being the best of them.
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