The Best & Worst of Disney – Part III: The Silver Age

The Silver Age

The war’s over, Walt Disney Studios has built up some income from the long streak of package films, and now it’s time to release films that Uncle Walt would be proud of. The films’ plots were all taken from children’s books and fairy tales. Some even supplanted their source material in popularity to the point that a lot of people know nothing about the books (Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians being the most notable – I’m going to tentatively assume most people know that Disney didn’t invent the Arthurian legends).

JUMP TO: 

Cinderella | Alice in Wonderland | Peter Pan | Lady and the Tramp | Sleeping Beauty | One Hundred and One Dalmatians | The Sword in the Stone | The Jungle Book


cinderellaCinderella (1950)

A new decade, a new style and future for Disney. This was one of the biggest hit movies that Disney had ever had in their history. And it’s easy to see why – the animation quality was significantly improved from the near-decade of package films, the music was catchy and fun to sing along to, the characters were some of the best Disney had written up to this point. Cinderella is one of the cornerstones of Disney history – it’s one of the films people think of first when they think of Disney animation.

THE BEST:

  • The character design. One of the things I have always liked best about this film is how the characters looked – their hair, eyes, clothing, facial expressions, etc. That big poofy silver (NOT BLUE, DISNEY, THANK YOU VERY MUCH) dress that Cinderella wears is iconic, but I want to highlight a few other things. Cinderella’s doomed pink dress is a very pretty (and rather 50s) design, and the gigantic bustles that her stepsisters wear with their dresses are a riot. Most of all, though, I want to emphasize Lady Tremaine’s look. Her meticulously neat grey hair is a subtle signifier that this woman is a control freak, and her cold green eyes are piercing, and show the jealousy and malice lurking underneath her faux affability. [I might as well admit it right now – a lot of the “Best” things will be me gushing about Disney villains.]

THE WORST:

  • The mice. I. Hate. Mice. I have always hated them, I will always hate them. [Note to people who own pet mice/rats: I mean wild ones.] I really disliked that the mice hijacked so much of Cinderella‘s narrative, to the point that, once again, the fairy tale Prince has no name and very little personality. (I think they actually did name this one Prince Charming, though) I have never bought that Lucifer is apparently a totally evil cat for, you know, hunting pests that destroy houses, make messes, steal food, and leave literally toxic droppings. Their squeaky voices annoy me, that outdated “Leave the sewing to the women!” lyric makes me cringe a bit, and there really could have been a better use of the movie’s run time than to devote almost half of it to the talking mice.

See Also: Cinderella II: Dreams Come True, Cinderella III: A Twist In Time, Cinderella (2015)


alice-in-wonderland-movie-poster-1951-1020198120 Alice In Wonderland (1951)

Waaay back in the 1920s when Uncle Walt was a (mostly) independent animator, he made several short subject films called the Alice Comedies which combined a live action actress & surrealistic animation. He read Lewis Carroll’s book as a child and had wanted to adapt Alice In Wonderland since the very beginning of his career. Unfortunately, despite Uncle Walt’s enthusiasm for the source material, Alice In Wonderland got mixed critical reviews and was not financially successful. Uncle Walt mused that the reason why this film was a failure was because their version of Alice “lacked heart.” I disagree on that point – the film is very flawed, but Alice is not the problem.

THE BEST:

  • The animation in this film is some of the best in the entire Canon. I can only speculate, but the Nine Old Men probably relished the opportunity to be creative, much like the opportunities they had while animating Fantasia. The film fails in many ways, but not in its visuals. Every scene is dynamic – to the point where it seems like the animation directors are trying to outdo each other. My favourite sequence is the Golden Afternoon song. It’s absolutely stunningly beautiful, and the song is fun and catchy. I wish I knew more about flowers. I like them a lot, but I can only recognize the common ones. I also have to comment on the soloist representing the white rose – she has the voice of a goddess.

THE WORST:

  • When I’m not watching this film, I feel ambivalent about it. I don’t like it, but I don’t hate it either. But when I am watching it, Alice In Wonderland makes me feel agitated and angry. Disney’s Wonderland is not so much absurdist nonsense as it is a world of crazy people/things out to hurt a little girl. I can understand having the Queen of Hearts be needlessly hostile (speaking of which, she’s a Disney Villain I intensely dislike, and not in a good way), but everyone is! I feel genuine fear for her. I suppose that’s a sign that Alice is an empathetic character – I’d lose my temper a lot sooner than she would. One other thing I should note is that while Alice In Wonderland has been adapted many times (gotta love those public domain properties), none of them really work, because the humour in that book is A: Dependent on Carroll’s prose and B: A Satire on Victorian society (and Carroll assumes you know what he’s poking fun at). I notice Disney didn’t even try to fully adapt the Caucus Race chapter. I liken Alice In Wonderland adaptations to ones of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Both funny books that really only could work in an adaptation if the prose is directly recited. Film doesn’t lend itself too well to that.

See Also: Alice In Wonderland (2010), Alice Through The Looking Glass


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPeter Pan (1953)

I’ll talk about the film in a second, I’m just kind of baffled at how off model Peter looks in that poster. And I thought the modern “Make everything shiny as all hell” Disney poster artists were bad. Anyway. Peter Pan is an adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s turn-of-the-century children’s book/play/musical. It strips out a lot of the British-ness of the narrative (Peter has an American accent for some reason, not that Bobby Driscoll’s voice doesn’t suit the character) and condenses a lot of the plot, but generally this is a fun film with some really good pacing, and a clever nod to the play/musical’s tradition of having Captain Hook and Mr. Darling played by the same actor. (More on that in a second)

THE BEST:

  • Bow down to Captain James T. Hook, codfish! Easily the funniest, most nuanced, best animated, best voiced character in this film. A lot of credit goes to veteran voice actor Hans Conried for his dual roles as Captain Hook and Mr. Darling, as he gives a lot of humanity and comedy to both characters. He’s definitely hammy, but you buy Captain Hook’s emotional reactions in his every scene – “I’M A COOOODFIIIIISH!” The slyness in his voice illustrates how effectively he cons Tinker Bell into revealing the location of the Lost Boys’ hideout, and the massive mood swings from terror to fury to calculating malice are just fantastic.

THE WORST:

  • Gonna be predictable here and say that it’s the film’s racist depiction of the “Indians.” It’s a mish-mash of stereotypes (most of them negative), total disrespect for the various Native cultures, and it’s just embarrassing that there is an entire song answering the basic question of “Why aren’t they white?” I expressed my dislike of how Aboriginals were depicted in this film on Twitter, and got countered with a “It’s a fun kid’s film” dismissal. Yeah, no. The fact that this film is for children makes the racism worse. This is quite different from the crows in Dumbo – the “Indians” are presented as an inferior, unintelligent, savage culture, who actually sing positively about dumb stereotypes that whites came up with. (At least it’s a little better than the musical version – there they had a blonde, blue-eyed Tiger Lily. Yeah.) Peter Pan IS a fun kid’s film and I like it every bit as much as I did as a child, but this aspect of the film has aged very, very badly.

See Also: Disney Fairies Series, Return to Never Land


lady_and_the_tramp_ver2_xxlgLady and the Tramp (1955)

Glorious Technicolor, breathtaking Cinemascope and Stereophonic Soooound! So yeah, first Disney film in widescreen Cinemascope, and it looks damned good. That said…it’s another Talking Animal movie. And I just cannot make myself feel anything other than “Meh” about Lady and the Tramp. It has a few memorable scenes, but the rest really bores me. It’s probably because I’m a Cat Person. I did not grow up with this film, and you can blame the Disney Vault for that. During my childhood it was released in 1987 and in 1998 – so I was either much too young or getting too old. (At 12 you don’t want to admit you’re still into Disney movies.)

THE BEST:

  • What I find most surprising about this film is how frank it is about sexuality. For a Hays Code era film, that’s pretty edgy of Disney (even though it’s dogs rather than humans). Tramp is blatantly stated to have had multiple lovers, Lady spends the night with him, Jock and Trusty propose to her to protect her honour, and there’s even an implication that the reason why the stray dogs were chasing a muzzled Lady was because she was in heat. But my favourite scene is the He’s A Tramp sequence which takes place in the pound. Peggy Lee uses her own voice for a character that is older dog who has seen it all, is clearly not a virgin, and is not the least bit ashamed of who she is. It’s a fun song, and I really like how laid-back and honest Peg the Dog is.

THE WORST:

  • NOT the We Are Siamese song. Although the stereotypical depiction of Asians is cringeworthy and dated, the song is catchy enough and the sequence is dynamic enough to save it, unlike the What Makes The Red Man Red song from Peter Pan. [This is not an excuse for the racism in the film, mind you.] No, the thing that bugs me is that I just don’t get emotionally invested in the Lady/Tramp relationship, even though the entire film hinges on it. We’ve got the usual Disney problem where it is apparent that she’s in love with him (and is implied to have slept with him) after one night. And Tramp is just an awful…person? Although Lady repeatedly asserts that she’s perfectly happy with the life she has, he keeps trying to change her, and puts her in danger because of it. His fighting the rat to save the baby is something that any decent sentient being would do – it doesn’t necessarily tell me that Tramp is worthy of Lady. But I suppose his giving up of the other girlfriends and his vagabond lifestyle shows that she actually means something to him. She’s his Uptown Girl living in a white bread world.

See Also: Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure


Sleeping-Beauty-Poster-walt-disney-characters-19512369-1105-1500Sleeping Beauty (1959)

 I used Maleficent as a Twitter avatar for quite some time (before I discovered a Disney Queen named Elsa), so I don’t think people will be surprised to learn that this is, by far, my favourite film of the Silver Age, and one of my favourite Disney films period. This film is an almost perfect combination of gorgeous music (taken from Tchaikovsky’s ballet), absolutely stunning animation, incredible characters (Maleficent is such a popular character she’s getting her own film), etc. Unfortunately, Disney spent so much money producing this film (including using widescreen 70mm film) that even though it was a major hit for 1959, it didn’t make much of a profit until many subsequent re-releases.

THE BEST:

  • Maleficent.

…okay, fine, I’ll write more.

  • Maleficent is one of my favourite fictional characters, period. Her incredible voice actress, Eleanor Audley, added so much depth to her character. I love listening to the woman talk. I love the poetry in Maleficent’s words. I love how her design, loosely inspired by Chernabog from Fantasia, is so iconic – you just have to see a woman with horns and you know who it is. I love her colour balance – a lovely combination of black, dark purple, and acid green. I love how incredibly powerful she is – this is not a woman you want to mess with. I just love Maleficent. I talk a little more about her here.

THE WORST:

  • Although I am not much of a fan of the Three Fairies, I can’t help but be very disappointed about Aurora/Briar Rose’s characterization. It’s bad enough that she’s asleep for the last act of the film and an infant in the first act, but the second act wastes her. She’s just a combination of desirable traits – beauty, kindness, and an operatic singing voice (plus some less-desirable teenage lovesickness). Cinderella and Snow White had the same traits, but even they had more going on than Aurora does. She’s an incredibly flat character, and a waste of a stunning character design. I’ve heard that subsequent Disney Princess material paints her as a bubbleheaded ditz, which is so goddamn cringeworthy.

See Also: Maleficent


101DOne Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

This film is notable in animation history for being the introduction of the Xerographic animation copying process, which made it easier for the animators to handle all those spotted puppies. The problem with it is that it leaves the pencil sketches visible, which gives the film a “scratchy” look. It’s much less of an issue here (and less visible) than it is in the later Dark Age films, fortunately. This film is also notable as it’s the first full-narrative Disney film to be set in contemporary times – the characters, backgrounds, cars and music are distinctly early 60s. A lot of critics consider 101 Dalmatians to be Uncle Walt’s last great film, and as I am no fan of The Sword in the Stone or The Jungle Book, I have to agree here.

THE BEST:

  • If I say Cruella De Vil, that’ll be too predictable, won’t it? Okay, fine. I’ll leave my thoughts on her to this post. What I’ll talk about instead is the film’s realism. In addition to its contemporary setting, the plot doesn’t have any magic at all, just intelligent animals. Roger and Anita look distinctively British, and act just like how a newlywed couple would. There’s even some feminism sneaked into this plot. Anita is a spirited, intelligent woman who is very much Roger’s equal, and Perdita is every bit as helpful and necessary for her children’s rescue as Pongo is. Although Pongo and Perdita are much better behaved than real dalmatians apparently are (I’ve heard they’re high strung), they don’t do anything that real dogs can’t do. Jasper and Horace are slightly exaggerated as far as criminal lowlifes are, but their way of talking to each other is very distinctively “lower class” Cockney, which is a nice touch. (I kind of feel bad for people with Cockney accents though)

THE WORST:

  • I actually have to pause and think of something I disliked. That’s saying something, isn’t it? I guess the intro scene where Pongo dismisses the potential wives/mates is a little disconcerting. I particularly would like to know what “too short-coupled” means. To Google! “Short-coupled means the when the distance between the last rib and the beginning of the hindquarters (known as the loin) is relatively short.” Uh, well, not being a dog owner, I still don’t know what that means. I hope that’s enlightening for someone else. I also feel that Cruella De Vil became just a little too unhinged near the end. This might be who this woman really is, but she became so enraged she lost all of her smarts – how did she think that ramming into the truck and destroying her car was going to help, exactly?

See Also: 101 Dalmatians (1996), 101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure, 102 Dalmatians


sword_in_the_stone_ver2_xxlgThe Sword in the Stone (1963)

Based on T.S. White’s novel series The Once and Future King, here was Disney’s attempt at adapting a relatively modern retelling of the Arthurian legends (so an adaptation of an adaptation!). This was the last Canon film released before Uncle Walt’s death. The Arthurian legends include a tragic love triangle, a famous royal court, a group of legendary knights, an evil sorceress half-sister, an evil bastard son, a near-omnipotent wizard, and epic battles fought with a magical sword. What does Disney go with? Merlin turns tween orphan Arthur into animals so that he can learn how to avoid horny squirrels or something, and Merlin spouts wacky anachronisms. The magic sword doesn’t show up until the end, and isn’t even named Excalibur.

…*slow clap*

This is one of the Disney films I hated even as a child. I love epic medieval fantasy stories, and Disney really dropped the ball here. I suppose they thought by having the protagonist be Arthur as a child, the intended audience would relate to him, but I never did. From what I know of White’s series, this is a super loose adaptation, and one that severely neutered the more interesting aspects – the whole wacky anachronisms thing was based on Merlin appearing to live through time backwards. That is WAY more cool than “lol helicopters!”

THE BEST:

  • I have the opposite problem here that I do with 101 Dalmatians – I’m having trouble finding something good to say about The Sword in the Stone. This film suggests to me that the problems with the Dark Age did not immediately stem from Uncle Walt no longer being available to steer the ship. Upon consideration though, the characters are relatively well-written (even if I dislike most of them) and even the antagonists have some depths to them. My favourite character is Archimedes the Owl Familiar. Of all the characters, he’s the one who goes through the most definite evolution, turning from a cynical misanthropic smartass to a mentor who grows to really care about Wart, sticking with him even when it appears that Merlin has given up on him. And I have to agree with him that Wart’s education should have been much more practical – I think Merlin does real harm in using future inventions/concepts to teach Wart life skills. (If I didn’t make it clear, I really hate those anachronism “jokes.”)

THE WORST:

  • Oh my god, Wart’s voice acting. It is possibly the sloppiest thing I have ever seen in a Disney film. He had THREE voice actors, two of which were the director’s sons (thanks for the nepotism that actively hurt your film, Pops). Wart’s voice noticeably goes up and down, sometimes within the same scene! And on top of that, there is a sound clip they use, if I counted correctly, seven times – it’s the one where Wart falls over and says “Whoa, what, whoa!” Once you notice it and how often they used it, it will drive you insane. None of the actors can sing worth a damn, and it is absolutely unforgivable that they cast American children to play King Goddamn Arthur. Seriously, I don’t think it’s a lot to ask of Disney that A: They cast a child who is slightly younger than Arthur’s stated age so that they don’t have issues with his voice breaking during the recording sessions. B: They cast an English child actor to play a character who legendarily founded England. C: They cast a child who can act and sing. D: They cast a child who can do more than just a single take of a “falling over” reaction. E: They cast a child who isn’t the director’s friggin’ kid.

jungle_book_xlgThe Jungle Book (1967)

This was the last film that Uncle Walt did producer work on before he died in 1966. The Aristocats was in pre-production stages before he died, but this was the last film where production had actually started before his death. Based on the short stories by Rudyard Kipling, who, amongst other things, is known for the poem The White Man’s Burden, which means I don’t really care for his work very much! Not that this is a faithful adaptation – Uncle Walt reportedly told the scriptwriter not to read the source material. For reasons I am never, ever going to understand, this film was an absolutely enormous hit (adjusted for inflation, it’s the 26th biggest hit film of all time) and is incredibly beloved. I find The Jungle Book to be so boring it was literally sleep-inducing trying to rewatch this thing. Is it just me?

THE BEST:

  • I’m going to have to fall back on my usual enthusiasm for when Disney casts thespians with great voices for their villains – in this case, George Sanders, a.k.a. All About Eve‘s Addison DeWitt, who plays Shere Khan in this film. (In TailSpin and The Jungle Book 2, Tony Jay replaces Sanders, which is perfect) Sanders delivers a great performance here – sly, intelligent, affable, sneering and cunning. Of course, the Orson Welles effect might be influencing me here – Welles joked that the reason why his role in The Third Man was so acclaimed was because the cast talked constantly about his character (Harry Lime) for the first two acts, so by the time he shows up in the third act, he’s going to seem more impressive. Shere Khan is whispered about with fear and apprehension throughout the film, and is the main reason why the animals want to send Mowgli back to his people. So when Shere Khan finally shows up in the third act, I’m…actually paying attention and hoping something interesting is going to happen. *sad trombone*

THE WORST:

  • I get very easily irritated when Disney jerk themselves off about their own artistry. In this case, while they don’t exalt themselves over The Jungle Book‘s story or influence, within the film itself they are trying really goddamn hard to push The Bare Necessities at the audience. The song is played three times during the film’s runtime, and as I loathe Phil Harris’ voice I didn’t particularly enjoy the song the first time it was played. Okay, congrats, Disney. You have a song with a pun in the title. Brilliant. Incidentally, director Wolfgang Reitherman repeated his nepotism thing that he pulled with The Sword in the Stone and cast another one of his sons as Mowgli. It worked better this time – the kid’s voice didn’t break, and he was able to carry a tune. But I have to comment on how irritating I find Reitherman’s artistic choices. I feel that casting your children in your own film is already ethically dubious (since you’re not giving possibly more talented child actors a chance, and it sure as hell didn’t work with The Sword in the Stone) and artistically masturbatory. He also recycled his own animation just because he wanted to, not to save money or anything. Self-indulgent AND lazy!

See Also: The Jungle Book (2016)


Bring a flashlight, cause we’re heading into

Part IV: The Dark Age.

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