The Best & Worst Of Disney – Part I: The Golden Age

 

TheGoldenAge

These were the first five feature films released by Walt Disney Studios. The 5 films are collectively considered masterpieces (they are certainly fascinating in their ambitious artistic endeavours). They each have a certain artistry and care taken in their construction. They also have a wholesomeness that was lost after WWII. One question that will never be answered is, Would the Disney studios have continued to produce films of this caliber if not for WWII?

JUMP TO:

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs | Pinocchio | Fantasia | Dumbo | Bambi


MPW-21835 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

The Disney company has spent the better part of 75 years reminding us just what a game-changer this film was. However, just like how Disney tries to prop up Steamboat Willie with half-truths, Snow White was NOT the first animated feature film. That honour goes to 1926’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed. (At least, it’s the only one that survived.) However, we can say that Snow White did popularize the animated feature film as a legitimate art form & medium. It’s also responsible for so many of our expectations for what a Disney film based on a fairy tale would have – the sweet Princess, the handsome Prince, the hilarious Sidekick(s), the True Love’s Kiss, the Wicked Stepmother, etc etc.

THE BEST:

  • My favourite scenes are the ones with the Wicked Queen in them. (Her name is given as Queen Grimhilde in supplemental material.) I love the contrasting colours in her outfits against the backgrounds – the pitch black cape against the blood red curtains, for example. Her “lab” is a fascinating place too. I would love to go there and just pore through her books. The scene where she transforms into the Witch is just incredible in every way. The swirling colours, the special effects, the sound effects, the music. The scene where she manipulates Snow White into biting the apple is fantastic too, because it’s amazing watching how quickly the Queen’s mind works. She might be evil, but I bet she was a very clever ruler.

THE WORST:

  • Urgh. The Prince. He is just the most flat non-character. I really can’t cheer for him and Snow White to get together. She’s what, 14? And the second he meets her, he’s singing about his love for her. Creeeeepyyyy! She’s a lonely teenager, so of course she becomes attached to him. And she puts all her hopes and dreams into this man she doesn’t know, and he doesn’t even have a name! (Apparently, it’s Ferdinand.) I know the main reason his role in the story is so diminished is because the animators had trouble with him. I’m kind of incredulous about that – they can animate a woman, a teenage girl, seven dwarfs, woodland animals, magic spells, and so on, but they can’t animate a man? And, well, I don’t even really have to get into how problematic the “True Love’s Kiss” thing is. Necrophilia at worst, lack of consent at the least. Flat Ferdinand is a creepy dude.

Pinocchio-Poster-disney-18638816-1075-1596Pinocchio (1940)

I sometimes feel like I’m the only person in the world who dislikes this movie. A lot of other animation enthusiasts put it at the top of their favourites list. Yeah, it’s beautiful. But I hate the story and I hate the characters. I went full-on feminist in my early 20s, but even as a child I bristled against media that didn’t feature girls and women fairly. The Blue Fairy isn’t a character in her own right, she’s a deus ex machina. I really do wish I could see what other people see in this film, but if there is one constant in the universe (besides death and taxes) it’s that there’s no such thing as something, er, universally beloved. But nevertheless, let me see if I can find something good to say about Pinocchio

THE BEST:

  • When You Wish Upon A Star is a fantastic song, even disregarding its origin (and my confusion as to why Jiminy Cricket is used so often in Disney media). It expresses hopes, dreams and ambition much better than Someday My Prince Will Come (not that it’s a bad song, just…well, you read how I feel about the romance in Snow White). I have an album by Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops that has a finale medley that ends with When You Wish Upon A Star and it is just the most triumphant song. I don’t get Pinocchio and I never will, but I do love its signature song. I also like the newly orchestrated version that Disney uses for its Vanity Plate. (I do still kind of miss the simple blue Vanity Plate they used during the Renaissance)

THE WORST:

  • Whoo boy. The film kind of beats me with depressing situations over and over. I get that everything that happens to Pinocchio is a warning to children as to what will happen if they misbehave. But the Pleasure Island sequence where the disbehaving children turn into donkeys and are sold into slavery is just terrifying. That’s just the most extreme punishment. I also don’t like the implication that these little boys are responsible for their own misfortune. They’re kids, Pinocchio included, and kids do dumb things. Where are their parents? It’s kind of ridiculous that Geppetto trustingly let his day-old son go to school on his own. Maybe it’s a change in values, but whoooa this moral message is heavy-handed.

600full-fantasia-posterFantasia (1940)

My father loves classical music, so I grew up listening to it in the car. As a result, while other children found this film dreadfully boring (OMG, NO DIALOGUE!), I enjoyed it quite a lot. There was a theatrical re-release in 1990 which my parents took me to. I was just under 4 years old at the time, but I was apparently enthralled (I don’t remember seeing it, unfortunately). My mother told me with amusement that there was a prominent politician in the audience with his 10-year-old son, who complained bitterly about how bored he was. As far as feature films go, I can really confidently call Fantasia ART. I’m not going to argue about what “art” really means, but I love how the animators experimented with techniques, styles, and matching sound to image. It’s just a feast for the eyes and ears, and I feel so bad for Uncle Walt that his grand experiment failed so drastically.

THE BEST:

  • I am a huge, huge, huge Tchaikovsky fan. As a result, I can watch the animation sequence of The Nutcracker Suite hundreds of times and never get bored. There is a small part of me that wishes they’d animated Swan Lake instead of The Nutcracker Suite, but I’m not going to complain. What I love is that this film popularized the ballet again – it’s an amusing anachronism that Deems Taylor says that the Nutcracker ballet is hardly performed anymore. Now it’s a Christmas tradition! As far as the animation sequence goes, I just love that they went with fairies enchanting a forest to pass through the seasons from late summer to winter. The giant falling snowflakes at the end are just mindblowingly beautiful – they look real, they look touchable.

THE WORST:

  • I lied about not finding this film boring. The Rite of Spring sequence bores the shit out of me. It’s way, way, way too long. I loathe the musical style (not a fan of Modernism!). And, well…I’m not that into dinosaurs. I mean, some aspects of them are cool, and I love that birds are evolved from them, but I just don’t have the fascination for them that a lot of other people do. And related to how the dark tone of Pinocchio depresses me, watching the dinosaurs die in agony is not really my idea of entertainment. So, confession time: I skip (or fast-forward, because I somehow still have the VHS) through this sequence every time I watch Fantasia.

See Also: Fantasia 2000, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice


dumbo_ver2_xlgDumbo (1941)

This film is so unusual compared to the other films in the Disney Animated Canon. Its protagonist never says a word! It’s one of the shortest films in the Canon, and has a comparatively simple story too – no magic involved, just…defying of physics. I’m not gonna lie, the dated depictions of black caricatures make me uncomfortable. It’s a good thing that the Crows are good people, because yikes, those stereotypes. It’s also pretty obvious that the workers putting up the circus are meant to be black. That said, it’s important to contextualize films for their era. There’s no such thing as a film without problematic elements, and if you try to boycott things because they’re problematic, you’re going to end up with nothing. Dumbo is still a fun film in spite of its unfortunate racism. (God, what the hell am I going to say when I discuss Song of the South?)

THE BEST:

  • Rather than picking a specific scene or character, I’m going to go with the musical sequences in general. I still can’t quite believe that Pink Elephants On Parade exists in a Disney movie. It is the trippiest goddamn thing and an absolute blast to watch. I have a personal connection to Baby Mine, which still makes me cry every time I hear it. It is the most aching, horrific feeling to love a child, but to be unable to be with him/her. The song is so emotional and heart-tugging. When I See An Elephant Fly has those unfortunate stereotypes of how black people supposedly talked, but damn if it isn’t catchy as hell. So…yeah. Good job on the music, Dumbo.

THE WORST:

  • Those effing clowns. Oh, how I hate clowns. Common phobia/dislike, but man, I can’t even stand looking at fictional depictions of them. And I really hated them for physically abusing Dumbo. For Christ’s sake, he’s literally a baby! Actually, in general I hate the adults who work at the circus. The ringmaster is a crazy tyrant, the adult elephants are horrible judgemental people, everyone treats the animals cruelly, and the other workers seem to just be negligent assholes. Poor baby Dumbo. Honestly, I hate circuses. (Zoos and SeaWorld/MarineLand too. FREE THE ANIMALS! Wait, when did I turn into an animal rights activist?)

bambiR25osBambi (1942)

This film has a funny effect on people. I suggested we watch it one time I was in my elementary school’s after-school program. This kid who wanted to appear like a tough guy whined about how Bambi was icky and for babies and blah blah blah. The supervisor put on the tape anyway. And he shut up and watched. So did everyone else. They couldn’t turn their eyes away once it had gotten to the third act with the forest fire. Bambi is really known for two things – cutesy depictions of baby forest animals, and his mother dying. I will have a different complaint once I get to “THE WORST,” but I do have to comment on the lack of agency for the female characters. Bambi’s mother exists to give birth to him, and then to die so he can mature off-screen. Faline exists to be fought over, and to be Bambi’s mate and the future mother of his children. Would it have been so much to ask to give them something to be besides mate/mother? (A friend considers Bambi to be her least favourite Disney film because the female characters are so flat/stereotypical)

THE BEST:

  • The opening sequence. Full stop. I would say that Bambi and Fantasia used the multi-plane camera in the most fantastic, beautiful ways. But just seeing these different layers of perfectly painted trees passing by, hearing the soft sounds of the birds and water, and just loving every second of it. The rest of the film is pretty decent too, but I could watch that opening sequence forever. And I get to be all animation geek and talk about the multi-plane camera and the non-animation geek people are gonna be all “What’s that?” and I’m gonna be all “GOOGLE IT” because I am a bitch sometimes.

THE WORST:

  • Let’s Sing A Gay Little Spring Song is already pretty damn icky (and dated, since it used “gay” in its original definition), but its placement directly after the death of Bambi’s mother is the textbook definition of mood whiplash. We just saw a major character die, and the protagonist sadly walks off with his distant father. TIME FOR BIRDIES TO SING ABOUT SCREWING! Like…this was the most ridiculous editorial decision. I’m guessing it was meant to lessen the blow of the infamous death, but holy shit, Uncle Walt! That was a bit much! The jarring switch between these two scenes is pretty much the reason why Bambi II exists – there really should have been a transition between loss and renewal.

See Also: Bambi II


I sure hope you like Silly Symphonies cause we’re on to 

Part II: The Wartime Films!

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