The Best & Worst of Disney – Part IV: The Dark Age

The Dark Age

Uncle Walt’s dead. Everyone at Walt Disney Studios goes, “Oh shit, now what do we do?!” Most of the Nine Old Men will retire in this era, and usher in a new generation of animators from their CalArts Animation School – including Don Bluth, Tim Burton, John Lasseter, Glen Keane and Andreas Deja, Ron Clements, John Musker (let’s just say a whole lot of white guys). Unfortunately, for almost 20 years, Walt Disney Studios released crap. Utter, utter crap. The management was a mess too, leading to Don Bluth saying “Smell you later!” and establishing his own animation studio with a few other poached Disney animators. I’m gonna say right here and now that the only film in this era that I love is The Great Mouse Detective, and I hate many of these films. They clearly had no idea what they were doing, all of these features were done on the cheap (and compared to the Wartime Films they don’t even look good!), and I will forever hate the Xerox Photography process that allowed utter laziness and gave their films a really hideous scratchy look. God, what would have happened if we didn’t get The Little Mermaid?

JUMP TO:

The Aristocats | Robin Hood | The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh | The Rescuers | The Fox and the Hound | The Black Cauldron | The Great Mouse Detective | Oliver & Company


the_aristocats_us1shThe Aristocats (1970)

This was the last film that Uncle Walt greenlighted/greenlit (society has not yet decided on a way to conjugate that verb), but he died before production began on it. It’s very much a “more of the same” film as far as Disney is concerned – same director as all the films released during the 60s (Wolfgang Reitherman, Champion of Nepotism), same voice actors (Hello again, Phil Harris and Sterling Holloway. Ugh.), wacky talking animals, and so forth. What is different this time is that instead of being antagonists, the cats are protagonists, and this story is entirely original, not based on a children’s book or anything. I wish to briefly discuss something here as it doesn’t qualify as either a “Best” or “Worst,” but I wish the film had explained what happened to the kittens’ fathers. Yeah, fathers. There’s no way a male orange cat and a male black cat can come from the same father (so there has to have been at least two sires), and on top of that, female cats are able to conceive several kittens at once from different males. So a mother cat that has kittens of several different colours has really gotten around. Fun for the whole family!

THE BEST:

  • The opening sequence, with the simple lineart animation and the song by Maurice Chevalier, is very well done. It sets the tone and setting of the film very well, and (in a good way) reminds me of Gigi. It’s also probably one of the most visually appealing segments of the entire film, which is saying something, as the animation quality of The Aristocats drives me crazy (watch Madame’s hair and you can see the pencil sketches flying all over the place). I also liked that they picked short animation sequences to go along with the lyrics of the song. Also, I am happy that I can still speak a little French, because it was pretty funny hearing Chevalier suddenly discussing garbage cans at the end of the song.

 THE WORST:

I actually have two things to complain about here, but one is textual and the other is metatextual, so I get to discuss both (my rules, right?).

  • Scat Cat’s Ethnic Stereotypes Jazz Band makes me cringe. The Siamese cat (which is credited as “Oriental Cat” on the poster, augh) manages to be worse than the ones in Lady and the Tramp since his character is basically just a bunch of semi-Asian stereotypes, complete with a racist character design. He actually sings “Shanghai, Hong Kong, Egg Foo Young!” at one point. (Psst. Disney. Siam/Thailand and China are two different countries.) China should make a film in revenge where an American cat sings “Boston, Detroit, Cheeseburger!” The other cats are pretty cringeworthy stereotypes too (Especially the British Hippie cat. Uh, 1910 setting, hello?) but their depiction isn’t nearly as racist – mostly because they’re stereotypes of “white” ethnicities like Russian.
  • Now, on a metatextual level, I really have to call Disney out on being copycats (pun intended) here. There are a LOT of similarities between this film and UPA’s Gay Purr-ee, which came out nearly a decade earlier (and is far, far superior). Both films are set in turn-of-the-century Paris, both have a (nearly) all-feline cast, the female leads are classy white cats, the male leads are rough-around-the-edges ginger cats, both are animated musicals, both involve the cats being kidnapped, both involve the cats being trapped in a trunk and nearly mailed off to a faraway location, both films even have the cats walking along railroad tracks! Jesus, Disney, if you admire Chuck Jones’ work this much, why didn’t you just hire him?

Robin-Hood-posters-robin-hood-disneyversion-978344_420_597Robin Hood (1973)

A lot of Gen-Xers and Millennials have fond nostalgic memories of this film, but as it was one of the Disney titles I did not have on VHS/DVD, I did not grow up with this film, and thus do not have the Nostalgia Goggles on. When I see this film, all I keep doing is mentally comparing it to the masterpiece Errol Flynn version and noting how it fails to live up to it in every possible way. Other than BambiDumbo, and The Great Mouse Detective, I don’t like the Disney talking animals movies (no, not even The Lion King). I strongly dislike how sloppy and lazy this film is, from the recycled animation to the cliched animal stereotypes. I honestly have to struggle to think of something I like about this film – it’s that bad.

THE BEST:

  • I admit I genuinely like the character of Lady Kluck. Her thick Scottish accent is charming, and I love her kindness, enthusiasm and joie de vivre. I also like that she’s a big woman who is unashamed of her size, and she proves that there’s nothing wrong with her health by taking down an entire army of rhinos. She is also a very good companion to Maid Marian. I disliked the film less whenever she had a major part in a scene. But I admit I would like an explanation as to why she’s wearing funny print underwear under her…feathers.

THE WORST:

  • As I mentioned, there are a lot of things I dislike about Robin Hood, but I think I’ll sum it up as the sheer laziness of this film. The recycled animation (pretty much all of Maid Marian’s dancing in the party scene was taken from Snow White and The Aristocats) and sound effects (the wedding bells in the final scene were ripped off straight from Cinderella!) are distracting and take me straight out of the picture. Most of all, though, I hated the voice actors who were using American accents. The setting is stated as Medieval England, and I don’t care if modern Southern accents are supposedly close to how Medieval English would have sounded, it just comes across as a lazy anachronism. I dislike Phil Harris intensely, and I wasn’t thrilled to see that he was used in a film yet again to play a version of Little John who might as well just be called Little Baloo. The Sheriff of Nottingham’s southern drawl certainly made him annoying as a character, but not the least bit intimidating as a villain. And as for Roger Miller as the narrator Alan-a-Dale, congrats on choosing a singer who automatically makes me think of poor Southern America and “Trailers for sale or rent, rooms to let 50 cents” every time he sings a note. (Then again, maybe I should have been mentally hearing “Eng-a-land swings like a pendulum doooo” – That would have been more appropriate.)

54648266f196316f8a524de893f91d4eThe Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)

I don’t really need to give an introduction here, Winnie the Pooh is a goddamn phenomenon. Can’t remember where I read it, but Winnie the Pooh is Disney’s 2nd most lucrative franchise, with only the core characters (Mickey, Minnie, Donald etc) outselling him in merchandise. There have been multiple TV series, there have been many sequels (both DTV and part of the Canon)…it’s a tough world if you’re not much into Pooh Bear. And I’m not. The whole thing is just too saccharine for me. As an adult, this film would be useful as a de-stresser, because there is basically no real conflict, no real danger, everything is nice and happy and resolves neatly and the ending is bittersweet in a good way. Oh, incidentally – this film’s inclusion in the Canon is cheating a little, as it is a compilation of 3 already existing theatrical shorts, with some new animation added to tie the shorts together. And as a result of it being a compilation film, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is Walt Disney’s true final project.

THE BEST:

  • I actually really love the Heffalumps and Woozles sequence. It was included in a Disney Channel special (alternatively called Disney’s Halloween Treat or A Disney Halloween) and that is where I learned to appreciate it. I am almost certain it’s meant as an homage to Pink Elephants on Parade from Dumbo – a psychedelic nightmare with sinister music and multicoloured elephants, anyone? Besides Mary Poppins, the music in this film is some of the best the Sherman Brothers ever composed. Holy hell, every single song is an earworm. I always get the instrumental break in Heffalumps and Woozles stuck in my head. But my favourite thing about this sequence is that although it’s sinister, it’s hilarious rather than scary. I mean, an elephant shaped hot air balloon that sucks up Honey (should I spell it “Hunny?”)? Comical, and it’s a neat little character piece in that it shows how selfish and silly Pooh can really be. I hope kids weren’t actually scared by this, but who knows with some kids?

THE WORST:

  • God, Rabbit is a miserable piece of shit. He seems to only reluctantly show kindness to his friends, only to immediately, publicly and bitterly regret it when his silly friends act, well, silly. I’m really not sure what he expects from Pooh, who has a mental process similar to the Dopefish (Swim Swim Hungry!). I had some sympathy for how Rabbit’s front door was plugged up for who knows how long, but there really doesn’t seem to be an explanation as to why he continued to let Pooh eat that much honey. Ultimately though, it’s his attempt to screw over Tigger that really bothered me. And I don’t even like Tigger! He planned to go into some misty woods, deliberately separate from Tigger to make him get lost in the woods, and then somehow that would make Tigger stop bouncing or something? Well, the inevitable happened that everyone except Tigger got lost. When Tigger gets into a pinch later on, he vows never to bounce again, and Rabbit angrily tries to force him to keep that vow. And Tigger is basically a broken shell of a…plushie without his bouncing, but all Rabbit cares about is himself. Sheesh, just move out of the goddamn Hundred Acre Wood and sow your crops in solitude or something! Asshole.

See Also: Winnie the Pooh


rescuers_ver1_xlgThe Rescuers (1977)

Last night was the first time since very early childhood that I’d seen this film, and while I can say that I liked it more than I remembered I did (which is the first time I think that’s ever happened), it’s still not nearly as good as its underrated sequel. While I was reading up about this film, I was sincerely surprised to learn that The Rescuers was Disney’s biggest hit since Cinderella – to the point that it broke box office records. Really? This film was the Dark Age’s enormous hit? And The Rescuers Down Under was a bomb? Does anyone really talk about this film that much? Disney themselves treat it like it’s C-Tier, so…what in the hell? Like, this film is quite decent by Dark Age standards, but still…I am having the damndest time trying to figure out why it was a box office smash.

THE BEST:

  • The characterization in this film is superb. I have great affection for Bernard and Miss Bianca, who are heroes with realistic, well-rounded virtues and flaws, work perfectly together, and are complete equals. Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor are cast perfectly here – one of the celebrity voice actor stunts that really worked. And as I mentioned in my musings on The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective, I love it when Disney gets great actors with fantastic voices to do their villains – in this case, Geraldine Page, who played Madame Medusa with some wonderful hamminess. Although the animation quality isn’t as good as it would be with Down Under, there’s a significant improvement here in that the scratchy effect with the xerographic animation process has been eliminated. I also particularly enjoy Madame Medusa’s mannerisms and expressions – she was almost exclusively animated by Milt Kahl (one of the Nine Old Men) and he reportedly based her on his ex-wife’s likeness. (Way to work out your issues in a constructive manner, Mr. Kahl.)

THE WORST:

  • Penny. I don’t dislike her. I like children, honestly. But the way she was written and animated was just trying way too hard to make her cute and empathetic, and when your character’s backstory is that she was an unloved orphan kidnapped by a manic woman and forced to search in flooded swamp caves for pirate treasure, less is more. She didn’t need the gaps in her teeth, her maturity level didn’t need to swing massively from “Her beloved teddy is her imaginary friend” to “Isn’t afraid of a massive pair of alligators,” etc. That said, this is a mild “worst.” I really did feel for the little thing when Madame Medusa casually said to her that no one would want to adopt her because she is homely. I have a very low tolerance for forced attempts at cuteness, but I’m actually a sucker for sentimentality (don’t tell anyone).

See Also: The Rescuers Down Under


The-Fox-and-the-Hound-poster-1020434498 The Fox and the Hound (1981)

How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. Out of all of the Disney films I have seen (and I’ve seen a lot) I hate this one more than all of the others. Yes, I hate it more than The Black Cauldron. There is practically nothing redeemable about this thing, and after I looked up the plot of the original novel this was “adapted” from, I’m confused as to why Disney thought this was a good subject for adaptation. Seriously, the death count in that book is staggering. So I guess the only really notable thing about this film is that it was a transition from the old guard to the new guard – only two of the Nine Old Men worked on this film, and they mostly passed the torch to the new generation of animators (which included Glen Keane). Great way to start off your careers, guys. The other notable thing, I suppose, is that this film was meant as an allegory for racism. Considering that the ending can be interpreted to mean that segregation is ultimately better for everyone…I think it kinda failed at conveying that message. Have I mentioned I hate this movie?

THE BEST:

  • Eh…the forest scenes are pretty. They look like a real forest. Lots of different trees and leaves and rocks and stuff. I can’t complain too much about the animation quality, though something about the style turns me off. I do appreciate the attempt at realism, though. Kind of ridiculous when it’s a talking animals musical, but I’ll take what I can get. Sadly, though, the aesthetics of this film don’t even begin to compare to the suspiciously similar Bambi, which came out 35 years earlier! (Seriously, I hate this film so much I can’t compliment it without slamming it)

THE WORST:

  • Hoo boy. Where do I even begin? The contradiction of previous Disney films’ message promoting the power of love and friendship? The godawful songs? The failure at conveying the racism allegory in a way that children can understand and adults won’t side-eye? The stupid annoying birds chasing a caterpillar that apparently takes an entire year to grow into a butterfly? The reusing of the same old voice actors again using the same old voices? The ending that gives you a gut-punch just because it can? Copper seeking mortal revenge for Tod accidentally causing Chief’s injury? Vixey’s complete lack of characterization? WHERE DO I BEGIN
  • Just…all of it. The entire film is The Worst.

220px-The_Black_Cauldron_posterThe Black Cauldron (1985)

I recently saw this film for the first time, and utterly loathed it. It manages to fail on almost every single level, and even Disney themselves would prefer to forget the film even exists. I would really love to know what went wrong here. From what I’ve heard, The Chronicles of Prydain is a fantastic fantasy series, and they had something really cool going on with the Horned King villain. How did we get such a cliched, ugly, boring and unlikeable mess? How did so much money get blown on this thing with such terrible results?

THE BEST:

  • No contest, it’s John Hurt as The Horned King. Famed thespians with fantastic voices are my favourite kinds of celebrity voice actors, as they actually give a damn about presenting a performance instead of merely reading some lines and cashing in a paycheque. The Horned King is by far the most interesting and cleverly designed character, and I wanted much more of him and much less of the protagonists. He also deserved a better death – the final battle was the most anticlimactic damned thing. The animation of his death itself was scarily violent for Disney standards. [On a related note, if you want to see John Hurt in a fantasy setting that is actually good, track down Jim Henson’s The Storyteller.]

THE WORST:

  • I made this pretty clear in my extended review – I. Hate. The. Gurgi. I hadn’t even finished watching the film when I started writing about my loathing for that character, and by the time I actually did finish watching, I was even angrier, and hated the Gurgi even more. I hate its voice, I hate its design, I hate its character, I hate its pathetically ineffective Heroic Sacrifice, I hate that his death was reversed, I hate I hate I hate I hate kill the Gurgi

7114384_1The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

The sun has started to shine out of the rain. This film is often seen as setting the stage for the Disney Renaissance, as it is relatively comparable in quality and in technological/artistic influence. The film was originally titled Basil of Baker Street, but it got executive meddled by the darling Michael Eisner into the rather clunky title we have now. The directors weren’t thrilled with the title change, and passed around a sarcastic memo renaming some of the other Disney films with clunky obvious titles (such as Puppies Taken Away for 101 Dalmatians). Jeffrey Katzenberg was pretty disgusted by the critical and financial failure of The Black Cauldron, so this film was a sort of final test to see if the Disney Animated Studios could continue producing future films. Although it was not as big a hit as The Little Mermaid would be, it was financially successful enough to save the studio. Not bad for a smug misanthropic mouse detective.

THE BEST:

  • How can I name anything besides Vincent Price as Professor Ratigan, the mouse universe’s version of Professor Moriarty? (The world’s greatest criminal miiiiind!) The directors of this film were damned lucky to land Price, and they were smart enough to let Price do his thing – hamminess, rolling of the Rs, evil laughter and even a bit of singing. Ratigan is a very fun villain, and probably one of my favourites just based on Price’s performance. (I’m a bit of a junkie for Disney villains.) This was one of Price’s final roles, and one he considered a personal favourite, which is saying something considering what an incredible career he had. Ratigan is also one of those rare villains who is simultaneously menacing (we see him commit murder onscreen) and hilarious (He records a little goodbye ditty for his Rube-Goldberg-Meets-Bond-Villain Basil killing device!). I’m a little sorry they went for the cliched “Disney villain falls down from a great height and is presumed dead” thing – surely the rat version of Moriarty wouldn’t be defeated by such a plebeian demise.

THE WORST:

  • What in the living hell was going on with the bar scene where the Melissa Manchester-voiced sexy mouse does a burlesque striptease and sings a song (Let Me Be Good To You) laden with innuendo? Like…hi? Disney movie? Remember? No wonder there are so many furries amongst Disney fanatics. This was full on fanservice! It also pretty much drags the narrative to a halt, and serves no other purpose than to show that Dawson isn’t as straight-laced and humourless as he seems, which is hardly a lesson that wasn’t demonstrated in every other scene. I guess the animators just wanted some Mousy T&A or something…

 oliver_and_company_ver1Oliver and Company (1988)

The last film released before The Little Mermaid would revitalize Walt Disney Studios. VERY loosely based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, this is one of the few films in the Disney canon specifically set in a contemporary era (this being the New York City of the late 80s). And BOY does it look its age. The music and aesthetic date the film rather severely – which is notable since Disney films are known for being timeless. I was too young to have seen this film when it initially came out, and as it is definitively C-tier as far as Disney films go, I actually never got around to seeing it in full until the day I wrote this review. All I’d ever seen was a trailer heavily using the Why Should I Worry? song on the Bambi VHS I owned as a child. It’s…bleh. But yes, definitely C-tier Disney.

THE BEST:

  • Well, the trailer had it right, Why Should I Worry? is by far the catchiest song, and the sequence is probably the most dynamically animated. This isn’t saying much (see the “Worst” section) but watching Dodger jump around New York City with teeny tiny Oliver following close behind was entertaining enough. I also detected a distinct Chuck Jones flavour from this sequence – the animals getting caught in the construction tools and the whole animals vs. machines thing. This song does quite well at introducing Dodger’s character – though I wonder how many kids will understand what “savoir faire” means. (At least it isn’t “laissez faire!”) Throughout the film I was trying to pick out which celebrity was voicing which character. I picked out Bette Midler as Georgette (and Cheech Marin as Tito was painfully obvious), but I’m a little ashamed that I didn’t recognize Billy Joel as Dodger. My goodness what a strong New York City accent he has.

THE WORST:

  • The animation. This film does NOT look like it’s part of the Disney Animated Canon. It looks cheap. It looks like television quality animation. Its budget wasn’t much larger than The Great Mouse Detective, and yet that film looks so much better than this one does. It made heavy use of CGI, which was not only conspicuous, it actually clashes with the simple animation style of the rest of the film. Also, Jenny’s character design is really terrible. She looks painfully average, not like a kid who literally lives on 5th Avenue. [EDIT: I did a little research, and Jenny was originally supposed to be Penny from The Rescuers, which explains a lot. Also, good job on the renaming, Disney. Very creative. *cough*] Oddly enough, even though I’m no fan of the Talking Animal Disney movies, this film would have been better without the human characters. Looking at the credits, I was kind of shocked at how many names I recognized – fortunately, they would make much better art later on.

Things finally get better down where it’s wetter in

Part V: The Disney Renaissance!

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5 Responses to The Best & Worst of Disney – Part IV: The Dark Age

  1. I’m one of those people who love “Robin Hood”.

  2. My summary of all of these movies-
    Aristocats brings many good nostalgic memories.
    I hate Robin hood way more than the writer of this page does. It is the only Disney movie I ever watched that made me think Just be over. I consider it to be the worst Disney movie ever.
    Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is actually my favorite Disney movie (not counting the Pixars). I get more enjoyment out of watching than any other Disney film, and I was shocked I loved it so much when I thought it would just be nostalgic memories. I loved everything about it, especially the songs.
    Rescuers was a meh film, which is high for this list. I liked it, but that is it.
    Fox and the Hound is many good memories. I think it is better than Rescuers, and overall a good film.
    In Black Cauldron I agree with the writer. funny story-I found it at a thrift store and myself and my three siblings were so excited at seeing what made Disney hate this movie so much. Then my sister’s puppy started barking at the TV when it was playing.
    I just watched GMD for the second time today. The two villain songs, Rattigan, and Basil are great. I didn’t like the animation for some reason, but it was good fun, and I was certainly interested in the plot and characters.
    I haven’t seen Oliver and Company for years. I remember that I did not pay much attention.

    • I will probably not have very good things to say about The Aristocats, but most of the movies during this era rub me the wrong way. I am curious as to how I’ll react to the Winnie the Pooh compilation movie – I have rather vivid memories of people thinking I was weird for not liking Winnie the Pooh…at least, not to the level that other little girls did. That said, I do enjoy it when media plays with narrative conventions, and if I recall correctly, all of the Pooh characters are aware they’re in a book and interact directly with the narrator.

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