The Best and Worst of Disney – Part XII: Live Action-Animation Hybrids

 

Live Action Animation HybridsThese films span 65 years, and have vastly differing styles, moods, target audiences, etc, so the Live Action-Animation hybrid films are grouped together merely because of this one trait they have in common. Ever the experimenter with technology, Uncle Walt was merging live action and animated footage together since the 1920s with his Alice Comedies, which had a live-action child actress superimposed onto an animated background. As time went on and technology improved, Disney used this film technique occasionally over the years – Mary Poppins being by FAR the most well-known of these films, and Song of the South being the most infamous. Although I have grouped these films together because of their medium(s), each one really stands alone.

JUMP TO: 

| The Reluctant Dragon | Victory Through Air Power | Song of the South | So Dear To My Heart | Mary Poppins | Bedknobs and Broomsticks | Pete’s Dragon | Who Framed Roger Rabbit | Enchanted


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The Reluctant Dragon (1941)

This film is a direct precursor to the films of the Wartime Era, as it’s basically a collection of shorts tied together by a live action storyline. Like the wartime films, it’s also very much a product of its era, and hasn’t aged well. Its lead character is a radio star/journalist/humorist named Robert Benchley who is playing himself, and yup, I had to Wiki him to find out who he was. 70 years later, he’s just some guy to me. The bulk of the film is giving a tour as to how the animation production process works, primarily giving the audience previews for Dumbo (which would come out a few months later) and Bambi (which would come out the following year). Unfortunately for Uncle Walt, critics weren’t happy that they were given a package film instead of a full-length feature, and the infamous staff strike was occurring during the time that the film was made and released (clashing very profoundly with the film’s rosy depiction of the Burbank studio). As a result, the film was a bomb financially.

THE BEST:

  • I’m a big ol’ animation nerd (who can’t draw) so I naturally enjoyed the live action Burbank studios tour far more than the rest of the picture. I’d seen a few clips from the tour segments when I was little, and that was my only exposure to this film (which, because it was a critical/financial bomb, is D-tier Disney). I had a tape of a TV special that was (I’m guessing) intended for the 60th anniversary. I can date it to ’90-91 because promoting Beauty and the Beast was a major component of the special. Can’t find any internet evidence of the thing though! Anyway. It had the “sound effects for Casey Jr.” bit and the “Donald explains how animation works” bit. And I thought they were really cool, so it was equally cool to see the sound recording, painting, multi-plane camera, cel photography, storyboarding and pencil sketch animating explained and demonstrated. The painting section is my favourite just cause it was a trippy explosion of colour. Also: It was really cool to see models of characters from Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp this early in the studio’s history. The war halted production on those films for 10+ years, which must have been so frustrating.

THE WORST:

  • The titular Reluctant Dragon is very obviously coded gay. He’s got long fluttering eyelashes, a foppish voice complete with lisping, and effeminate gestures and interests. I’m not surprised the animators of 1941 would have this kind of mentality, but the decision to equate the dragon’s disinterest in violence with him being subtextually gay is really awful. The only way they can depict a pacifist dragon is to make him a stereotypical “sissy”? Really? This is the kind of message you want to teach kids, Uncle Walt? His character design is very funny – tiny little head with gigantic ass. That’s about the only good thing I can say about the Dragon.

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Victory Through Air Power (1943)

You know what to expect with a title like this. It was produced in wartime, it’s propaganda, it’s educational, it’s intended for politicians and soldiers to watch, etc etc. During the war, Disney mostly focused on educational/propaganda films, as many members of their staff had been drafted and Uncle Walt was low on cash. The entire film focuses on the tactical advantages that an air force has in war, and basically hammers that point home (almost literally) for the full hour. According to Leonard Maltin, this film did change FDR’s mind about using the air force as a weapon of war (or at least convinced him to step up production), so it’s historically significant just for that.

THE BEST:

  • Even with a bare-bones staff, the animation in this film is still quite lovely. It has a wonderful use of colour and shadow to provide contrast and mood. The visual metaphors used throughout the film to illustrate the tactical concepts were easy to understand and very clever. Generally speaking, the animation added a tremendous amount of clarity to the film’s rather complex (if repetitive) manifesto.

THE WORST:

  • Oh my god so boring boring boring boring boring. I really, really tried to pay attention, but my mind wandered constantly. I’ve never been into WWII at all (partly for personal reasons), so I can’t even appreciate this as a historical document. The repetitiveness I mentioned before really began to annoy me after a while – every time I tried to snap back to attention, there’s the Russian guy talking about how important planes are again. The film was most definitely not intended for an audience 70 years later; it’s severely dated and does not hold up. But that’s the nature of propaganda, right? But really, I prefer my propaganda to feature Nazi Goats.

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Song of the South (1946)

This film is known for three things: Its signature song Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, the Disney theme park ride Splash Mountain, and for being nearly impossible to obtain in the North American market due to its…rather rosy depiction of Reconstruction-era Georgia. I hadn’t watched this film or any of the B’rer Rabbit sequences since I was very, very little, and I was expecting some jaw-dropping racism here. The craziest thing is…it’s not that bad. Compared to Peter Pan, which is an A-rank Disney film that is easily available, it’s kind of astounding that Song of the South is considered the untouchable unreleasable Disney film, when Peter Pan‘s What Makes The Red Man Red sequence is virulently racist by comparison. Really, the film’s biggest problem is that it’s…boring.

THE BEST:

  • James Baskett absolutely deserved the honorary Academy Award that Uncle Walt rigged for him. After Bob Hoskins’ death, I saw some footage of him acting and reacting to a tennis ball on a stick that would eventually be replaced by Roger Rabbit. I got a new understanding of just how goddamn difficult it is to act against something that doesn’t exist yet. Baskett is completely natural interacting with the animated characters. He’s a great singer, he has a great way of emoting in such a way that you instantly empathize with whatever Uncle Remus is feeling, and he actually made this Magical Negro archetype seem like something more than just a cliched role that black actors have to be slotted in. His other role as B’rer Fox is fantastic too – it takes a lot of voice acting talent to do that kind of rapid fire delivery. Baskett was a real find, and I wish I knew what else he performed in!

THE WORST:

  • I would qualify two things as the “worst” because they are cyclical problems: The overly rosy depiction of the era makes the film boring. The main reason this film has been all but completely censored is because it has a ridiculously idealistic depiction of Reconstruction-era Georgia. All of the former slaves are happy, they’re wholly devoted to their white employers, they face no real hardship, Johnny’s black friend Toby apparently doesn’t mind not being invited to the birthday party, and Uncle Remus seems to be solely occupied as a mentor to Johnny. As a result, this turbulent era of history has been, er, whitewashed, and it’s dull as dishwater. It’s a really terrible introduction of that period of history for children, so while I don’t want to play all moral guardian here, I wouldn’t recommend kids watch it until they have a relatively strong understanding of Civil War history. This is not to say that Song of the South is malicious in its depiction of the former slaves, but its viewpoints are absolutely whitewashed and outdated. But I can definitely see how other people would find the film offensive. Considering how social justice-y I am about my media analysis, I’m actually surprised I wasn’t offended by this film.

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So Dear To My Heart (1948)

This is probably the least known and least remembered of the hybrid movies, and I suspect it’s partly because this film has the least amount of animation in it. (Don’t quote me on that though, it’s just my own perception) Set in 1903 Indiana, it’s a very typical idyllic and moralistic coming-of-age story. It reminded me a lot of Meet Me In St. Louis and State Fair. It’s charming, but there really isn’t that much to say about it. To my shock, the Wiki article for the film is sparse, and there isn’t even a TVTropes article for it. Starring Burl Ives and Poor Doomed Bobby Driscoll, it’s nice enough. (I don’t want to write a milquetoast review, but that’s pretty much all I feel about it!)

THE BEST:

  • One of the few history/culture tidbits I discovered about this film was that Burl Ives’ version of Lavender’s Blue was nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar. (It lost to Baby, It’s Cold Outside if you’re wondering) I was rather confused because I was certain that the Lavender’s Blue poem was a heck of a lot older than 1948. Well…it is. It dates from the 17 Century, and the version in this film is a variation. So why was it nominated?? Anyway, Burl Ives was really charming and fun in this movie. The songs he sings help to illustrate the passage of time, and he has such a happy, folksy voice that it fits the setting and tone of the film really well. And yeah, his performance of Lavender’s Blue was pretty good. But not Best Original Song material…because it is not an original song. What the hell. What the hell.

THE WORST:

  • I’m glad I was not born a farmer, because Danny the Sheep drove me bonkers. It seemed that he spent the entire film being a pain in the ass. He’s constantly running away, biting things, attacking people, and destroying property. He’s a literal Black Sheep, but Danny’s behaviour takes the cake for “Difficult family member.” It also got really painful near the end of the movie when it became apparent that Jeremiah was absolutely obsessed with going to the county fair & showing off Danny, because he was being reckless & neglectful of his actual family members. It is quite a problem when I find the crux of the film’s storyline to be kind of annoying and cringeworthy. (Still, the worst I feel about this movie is “meh” rather than “mgrgrgr”!)

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Mary Poppins (1964)

This film made Uncle Walt (in the remaining years of his life, at least) very, very rich. A tremendously enormous hit (the biggest hit of 1965, in fact) that, after Julie Andrews followed this film with The Sound of Music, she became a household name. This was another adaptation of British children’s literature. As depicted in Saving Mr. Banks, author P.L. Travers didn’t make it easy for Disney, as she wanted to veto every possible change/Disneyfication. This was also one of the first soundtracks that the Sherman Brothers wrote for Disney, and Mary Poppins is widely considered their best work. Julie Andrews would also win the Best Actress Oscar for this role, which was seen as a bit of a sweet revenge for her, as she’d been passed over the Eliza Doolittle part in My Fair Lady (which she’d originated) in favour of the also-nominated Audrey Hepburn (whose singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon).

THE BEST:

  • The entire soundtrack of Mary Poppins is iconic, catchy and fun. But the film is never better than during the Feed The Birds (Tuppence A Bag) sequence. On the surface, the lyrics give a sweet message – show kindness, be generous, consider the poor and the hungry, listen to the people you would otherwise ignore. The melody of the song served as a poignant leitmotif for Mr. Banks, and the lyrics are also a lovely metaphor for how Banks would ignore the important things (the hungry pigeons of St. Paul’s representing his lonely children, of course). It’s just a lovely, sad, emotional song. When the leitmotif reaches a crescendo when Mr. Banks finally realizes what he’s been missing, it brings a tear to my eye. Uncle Walt considered it one of his favourite songs – it would be played at his funeral.

THE WORST:

  • There’s nothing wrong with the melody, but I find the Jolly Holiday sequence and lyrics utterly bizarre. It seemed to just be a time-waster used for teasing at a relationship between Mary Poppins and Bert. It also seems to solely exist so that Uncle Walt can have his silly dancing penguins and to segue into the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (yes, I had to look up the spelling) sequence. The lyrics are what I find the most baffling though. They go to the Dancing Penguin Cafe, order some tea and pastries and raspberry ice, which…they never receive or eat. I guess Bert’s antics were too distracting? But before that, Mary Poppins starts praising Bert for…not pressing his advantage. Are standards this low that we have to commend people for not being creepy rapists? Surely they could have come up with other virtues of Bert’s besides “Doesn’t try to rape Mary Poppins.”

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Bedknobs & Broomsticks (1971)

I knew/remembered very little about this movie, but I find it fascinating. Let’s start with some good ol’ fashioned English Major analysis: First, this film is an excellent example of how children’s stories must all start with the kids being separated from their parents somehow, either physically or emotionally (or both!). Usually the children are orphans, and in some cases, such as the Chronicles of Narnia series, the children are evacuated during WWII because of the German air raids. This film/book combines both scenariosSecond, this film is an obvious parallel/spiritual successor to Mary Poppins, right down to having the same director, same visual effects team, same screenwriters, same composers, and casting David Tomlinson as the male lead. I can only think that this was a Dark Age attempt at continuing what Uncle Walt started by doing “more of the same” (not that this was a bad thing), though I wonder why they didn’t/couldn’t keep that up. Okay, lastly, as far as the film itself goes, it’s had a bumpy history. The original cut of the movie was 139 minutes, but Disney cut 20 minutes because its premiere at Radio City Music Hall had to accommodate a Rockettes performance. (Seriously?) That 20 minutes of footage, which included several songs, are considered lost to history. Some of the cut footage was reconstructed for the DVD release, with Angela Lansbury and Roddy McDowall redubbing their parts because the original audio was lost. The version I watched for this review was the 117 minute cut, so there is a pretty sizeable chunk of the movie that I missed out on. (For one thing, I have no idea what Roddy McDowall’s role in the film was.)

THE BEST:

  • The Beautiful Briny Sea sequence was the only thing I remembered about having watched this movie when I was a kid, and for good reason. It’s a great little song, with a good balance of whimsy and catchiness. It’s part of the extended animated sequence for when the characters travel to The Isle of Naboombu. The animated sequences were supervised by Ward Kimball, one of the Nine Old Men who inspires a lot of fanboying/girling amongst animation enthusiasts, and for good reason. I’m not an expert on analyzing the notable key animators’ styles (yet?) but the animation directed by Kimball is so imaginative, and has such fluid, rapid motion and a great deal of almost frantic action. There was so much going on in this sequence, and so much to look at. And topping it all off is the sheer amount of effort it takes to combine live action with animation effectively – both mediums have to work together perfectly. The whole visual experience of The Beautiful Briny Sea reminded me of The Little Mermaid‘s Under The Sea sequence, another visual overload song about how cool the ocean is. I wouldn’t be surprised if this scene was an influence.

THE WORST:

  • For a children’s movie, the kids don’t really get that much characterization. Oldest child Charlie is a cynical, bullying snotrag who doesn’t seem to have any redeeming features. Then again, he’s a tween, which is such an infamous age for kids being terrible that this movie has an entire song about it! Middle child Carrie is motherly and…I can’t think of another character trait for her. Of the three, youngest child Paul gets the most characterization, and that’s because he’s the one who controls the bed teleportation spell. His primary character trait seems to be that he’s always right and even knows things that can save the characters time, but because he’s small, he gets ignored. I can’t help but be annoyed at Miss Price and Mr. Brown on Paul’s behalf (since they should theoretically know better than to ignore a kid who repeatedly proves himself to be right) but I guess they are completely inexperienced at dealing with children. Paul has some more development in that he’s much kinder than his older brother is, and much more willing to believe in the magic that Miss Price brings into their lives. At any rate, I had to wonder if perhaps we would have learned more about the children in the sequences that got cut out of the movie. I’ll have to track them down.

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Pete’s Dragon (1977)

First off, full disclosure here, the version I watched seemed to have been severely edited down – it was 1 hour and 45 minutes and apparently the full version is well over 2 hours long? What jumped out at me that something was up was that Candle on the Water was only present in the title sequence, it didn’t have a scene in the movie itself. What is it with Disney chopping their hybrid films to bits? Anyway, in terms of historical significance, this was the last major project that Don Bluth did for Disney before founding his own animation studio. Elliot is very distinctly animated in his style, and, for the most part, the few sequences in the film that Elliot appears in are more interesting than the rest of the movie. The film was also badly timed – a corny throwback family musical trying to compete with Star Wars didn’t work out too well for Disney, and as a result, they didn’t make any more live action musicals for decades.

THE BEST:

  • Just about the only thing people know about Pete’s Dragon (other than the animated dragon) is the Candle on the Water song, which is indeed a standout amongst this very musical-number-heavy film. It’s very sweet and pretty. I went to look up the sequence on YouTube since the version I watched had it cut out. Oddly enough, I didn’t really need to watch it in context, since the song makes sense out of context (and I figured out from the rest of the movie that it was a lighthouse metaphor for the fiance Helen Reddy’s character lost at sea). Because the rest of the songs are very vaudevillian with their hamminess and comedic lyrics, Candle on the Water almost feels like it comes from another movie. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.

THE WORST:

  • The acting is SO BAD. Yes, it’s very difficult to pretend you’re seeing a dragon that isn’t really there, but that’s not really my issue. Almost everyone in the movie, especially that hillbilly family Pete is trying to run away from, overacts to the point of being distracting. The mother hillbilly shrieks every word she says, her husband and sons put on these ridiculous fake accents…it’s just cringeworthy. The other two villains are painful to watch as well, though they’re hammy in a completely different way. The kid playing Pete was okay, but his hairstyle was anachronistic – pretty sure children in the 1900s did not have that long shaggy distinctly 1970s hairstyle. Mickey Rooney had long since settled into the “overemoting everything” phase of his career, so he didn’t really make an impact. Helen Reddy, on the other hand, underacted, which doesn’t surprise me as she’s really a pop singer, not so much an actress.

See Also: Pete’s Dragon (2016)


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Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

This was Robert Zemeckis’ followup to Back to the Future (my favourite film), an incredibly ambitious project bringing together all of the classic cartoon characters from the Golden Age of Hollywood. An adaptation (in name only) of Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, this film was both a technological triumph and a total love letter to animation. This film is also a parody of the Film Noir genre – the hardboiled detective, the femme fatale, the not-so-innocent victim, the conspiracy, the monstrous villain, etc are all present here. Disney, Warner Bros., MGM and Fleischer Studios were all represented – this film would feature Mae Questel’s final performance as Betty Boop. As part of the licensing agreements, Disney and Warner Bros. characters had to share the exact amount of screentime, which is why Mickey/Bugs and Daffy/Donald share scenes together. Other than its technological & crossover achievements, this film is known for one other major thing – the sheer number of boners Jessica Rabbit inspired.

THE BEST:

  • I *love* the Daffy vs. Donald sequence. Both ducks happen to be my favourite of their particular character “groups,” and watching them perform on duelling pianos while trying to destroy each other (out of a combination of craziness, rage and jealousy) is a hoot. I also like that there was attention to detail here in that they used Daffy’s earlier character design and characterization – this is the nutcase unpredictable Daffy (hence his name) that Bob Clampett and Frank Tashlin used in the cartoons of the 30s and 40s, not the scheming/jealous/narcissistic Daffy that Chuck Jones would refine for the 50s/60s. I also can’t help but snort with laughter at Daffy making fun of Donald’s speech impediment. It’s also a fantastically animated sequence, dynamic and full of action and movement, and some amazing technical effects such as including Daffy & Donald’s reflections on the (mostly) live action pianos. (A very close second best is the reveal of who/what Judge Doom really is – I can just type “When I killed your brother, I talked JUST LIKE THIIIIIIIS” and you will hear it in your head, guaranteed.)

THE WORST:

  • Roger Rabbit himself. I find him incredibly annoying, and a rather poor imitation of what a classic slapstick cartoon character is “supposed” to be like. As Steven Spielberg produced both this film and Animaniacs/Tiny Toons, I can’t help but compare them. I love both series, but Roger’s antics kind of remind me of the “anvils and hammers and bombs everywhere” schtick that the Animaniacs and Tiny Toons writers abused. The “sample” Roger Rabbit shorts where he’s desperately trying to save Baby Herman remind me of the Mindy and Buttons shorts in Animaniacs, which I *loathed* as I found it infuriating that the negligent mother would let a wacky slapstick animal take care of her toddler, and then blame said wacky animal for not being completely able to keep a Terrible Twos Tornado safe. Roger is very much a bundle of cartoon cliches, with very little nuance. His sole redeeming feature is in his relationship with Jessica Rabbit, because we see that they deeply care about each other, make each other happy, inspire each other, etc. Now, I will say that his characterization is an improvement over his counterpart in Who Censored Roger Rabbit (in which the ‘toons are in fact comic strip cartoons, rather than animated ones), but I hated that book and couldn’t believe how much better the movie was.

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Enchanted (2007)

A Disney film made for fans of Disney film. Enchanted is unlike any other Disney movie in that it is entirely self-referential, self-aware, and full of good natured self-deprecating humour. A combination of a parody of the Disney canon and a traditional rom-com, this is where Disney gets to say “Yeah, this fairy tale stuff is kinda silly. But you know you love it.” to their audience. Enchanted is just fun to watch, because it really does not take itself seriously at any point. There were plans to make Giselle an official Disney Princess, but Disney backed off on that once they realized they’d have to pay lifetime rights for Amy Adams’ likeness. Somehow that’s kind of appropriate – including the deliberate parody of the Disney Princess in the marketing line that has gone so far off the deep end into ridiculous would ensure that the joke would immediately die. They brought back Alan Menken to compose the songs, gave cameos to actresses who played Disney Princesses in the past, and stuffed the script full of tongue-in-cheek references both obvious and subtle. The result was utterly fantastic.

THE BEST:

  • The Happy Working Song sequence is so. freaking. funny. The idea of twisting the concept of the Princess being able to summon cute little woodland creatures to help her do her chores using New York City’s…unique…wildlife, is also a great satire on the drawbacks of New York City culture. The lyrics are so clever and subversive – the sweet (formerly) animated princess sings about toilets and crud! It’s also a great juxtaposition between the beautiful (Giselle is still in her wedding gown) and the hideous (Rock Pigeons, cockroaches and rats, ewww), but one that is presented in a humorous, light-hearted and positive way, rather than a scene with tension and danger (i.e. Snow White‘s scene where she meets the Queen in her Witch disguise). And, as a bonus, the song is very catchy. This film is easily Alan Menken’s greatest work since Howard Ashman’s passing.

THE WORST:

  • Oddly enough, Giselle’s “makeover” for the Kings and Queens Dance. She definitely looks beautiful (it’s hard to make Amy Adams look bad), but Giselle doesn’t look like herself anymore. Straightening her hair, putting on sultry makeup and wearing a slinky, modern dress quickly modernizes her “look,” but it visually stops her from being a Disney Princess. Whatever else this film parodies, Amy Adams’ performance as Giselle as genuine as humanly possible – Giselle really is all of the ideals of what we think of when we think of Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, etc. And as we see in the finale, even permanently living in New York doesn’t change her taste in fashion or her enthusiastic innocence. The Disney Princess isn’t modern – she’s an embodiment of the past and a representation of cultural innocence. The kind of beauty that Giselle had in that scene just didn’t work within the context of the film, her character, and our preconceptions of Disney culture. Also, she wasn’t dressed properly for the theme of the dance party. Tsk tsk.

 Cartoons get even more live action-y in

Part XI.V: Live Action Remakes/Retellings!

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3 Responses to The Best and Worst of Disney – Part XII: Live Action-Animation Hybrids

  1. The “Back to the Future” trilogy are my favorite films of all time!

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