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The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
As a kid, I owned both the original The Rescuers and its less financially successful sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, on VHS. Although the original film was the more acclaimed of the two, I found myself putting in the second film more. I preferred the sequel...and still do.
It fits roughly in the Great Mouse Detective area of Disney's output, not ranking among its best while still providing some solid action/adventure entertainment. Co-director Hendel Butoy, inspired by Hayao Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle in the Sky, set out to create his own adventure movie, and draws copious inspiration when it comes to the flight scenes and the liberal use of creative mechanical devices. Unfortunately, Butoy didn't incorporate the things that made Laputa a great film, such as its compelling relationships and themes of Nietzschian tyranny, and The Rescuers Down Under remains hindered by its superficiality. As pure adventure, however, it's great eyecandy and quite thrilling.
Plotwise, this outing opts to focus more on the subject rather than the rescuers themselves. God knows Cody's not a complex protagonist, and can best be described as the young version of the lost Australian Planeteer (even though he doesn't have an Australian accent...nor for that matter does the villain...weird). His naive boyscoutness is kind of charming, but it's a bit ironic that the sequel that did what the original film should have has less compelling material to do it with. Once more, though, the villain comes to save the day. George C. Scott plays one of the most sadistic and manic of all Disney's villains, sometimes being played up for laughs but mostly letting us now just how credible it is that he could murder this kid for the sheer fun of it. He's a bit like what Captain Hook should've been. Bernard and Miss Bianca mostly pull off the same old schtick, but they're side characters this time out, and I'd be hard pressed to name why Bernard's troubles with proposing are relevant to the story. It's as if the filmmakers wanted to just make an adventure movie in the outback and had to tack them on and make this a sequel to get the film made.
Really, that's all there is to it, and one's tolerance for the story depends on how much one is willing to set aside the weaknesses of the whole product in favor of the small bits, which are quite wonderful. The real asset of this film is its setting. Right from the opening scene in the deep underbrush and its sweeping long take across the outback, the filmmakers fetishize the hell out of their setting. Little animals and insects all over the place (some of them look a bit like Stitch...no surprise since Chris Sanders was a character designer here), detailed background work, and survival gadgets and machinations galore (which they use for set pieces whenever they can), the passion that went into the craftsmanship is apparent. It's a major leap forward from The Little Mermaid in terms of animation.
Character animation is very solid all around, but the showstopper is probably the early flight sequence with Marahute, handled by Glen Keane, which still impresses mightily on a technical level and remains visually beautiful and inventive (probably the best of the film's "bits"). The other standout is Kathy Zielinsky's work on McLeach. An early lead role for her, she pulls off some very Bill Tytla-ish animation and gives a unique sense of shape and presence to the character. Her inexperience shows through a bit, but it's still very good work from one of the most underrated character animators around. Again, major improvement from the last Disney film, but not quite golden age quality.
I can't really fault people for overlooking this one, since it isn't really great storytelling, but there's enough good character and ambient stuff here for me to recommend animation buffs at least check it out if they haven't already. It certainly didn't deserve to bomb like it did, and it's very important in Disney's evolution (as their next film would be arguably the best of the whole renaissance). I loved it as a kid and it hasn't quite worn off.
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Here's your Childhood, 20-somethings.
Often considered the birth of the animation "renaissance," The Little Mermaid is less the initiator than the point at which the renaissance model was perfected (seeing as films like An American Tale and Who Framed Roger Rabbit already showed the public was hungry for classical animation). Seeing as this was the first commercial and aesthetic success for Disney in years, it makes sense that Disney would take this movie's tropes and recycle them (for reasons other than the themes they explored). With its logically arranged songs and archetypes, it became something like the purest example of Disney's approach.
Beyond this, though, it's quite a solid and entertaining piece of animation. By keeping the narrative simple and digestible, and letting the animators finally have some leeway where the characters were concerned, the studio took a huge risk that paid off. It's the most lavishly and cleanly animated Disney picture since the sixties, and finally marked a return to the animator driven environment of the golden age of Disney. That period's experimentation was dead and buried, unfortunately, and The Little Mermaid is too safe and inoffensive to be another Pinocchio, but by the standards of American studio animation it remains quite satisfying.
As a Hans Christian Anderson adaptation, it's been well documented that this adaptation screws with the source material, but for all the sunshiny Barbie Doll-ness of Ariel and the dancing sea creatures there is an appealing naive sense of yearning to her character. She sees something she wants that reminds her of the world she ultimately yearns for, and she does anything to attain it. Hungry sharks or her very identity be damned. As cliché as the "I want" song has become, this particular rendition has a surprisingly haunting quality to it that's more melancholy than cheerful. It's easy to be a snark and point at the stupid things she does for a guy she doesn't know, but considering he simply exemplifies her desires it makes perfect sense that she would take such a route as to give up her voice and identity.
This is why I hate the ending. I don't demand that Disney use the same ending as the source material, but I would expect some sort of sacrifice to be made to at least preserve some literary integrity. By giving Ariel back everything she desired, it seems to deny that there are any consequences to her behavior.
Snobby nitpicking over a damn children's movie aside, The Little Mermaid is mostly very charming and fun to watch. Alan Menken's score and songs are iconic, catchy, and always have a character point to them (most of Menken's imitators seem to leave out the fact that songs have to actually communicate things relevant to the story). Not all of the side characters endear (I struggle to remember all of them) but a few are good fun, if recycled to the point of nausea since then.
It's clear that the animation here is a huge step up from the Saturday Morning quality of their last few films (perhaps owing partly to the influence of Richard Williams on the team during Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Their inexperience shows, but it's such a major advancement that certain nitpicks aren't a huge deal. Mark Henn's Ariel is a bit amorphous, but Glen Kean's has a strong sense of weight and emotion. Andreas Deja tends to show off his ability to draw a nose in perspective a bit too much on King Trident, but this is testament to his skill in sculpting his masses to project a strong sense of presence. Once more, however, the spotlight is stolen by the villain, as Ruben Aquino handles Ursula's many writhing slimy tentacles and sheer evil glee with the adeptness of a Milt Kahl or a Bill Tytla. Disney's animators improved in strides over the next few films, but for once it's a joy to see a Disney product that prides character animation over cost cutting.
I have issues with the fact that The Little Mermaid set a precedent that the entire industry would adhere blindly to out of fear. I can't fault this on the original movie however, and I enjoy it for what it is. Unlike, say, Princess and the Frog or (God forbid) Quest for Camelot it's not insulting, and it's completely satisfying. It's not my favorite Disney movie by any means, but if I ever have daughters I won't mind picking this up for them to experience themselves (along with superior female coming of age stories like Kiki's Delivery Service). For once, this mermaid's earned herself a soul.
Also, the fact that Ariel's in a clamshell bra and we see her pantsless is testament to the fact that children's animators are all perverts. Pubescent children all over the world thank them for it.
The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Holy cripes, I like this one.
By no means does it rank among the greatest Disney films. Its animation is mostly Saturday Morning level and its plot is as simplistic as a Sherlock Holmes knockoff story can get, complete with plotty, expository script and pretty typical archetypes throughout. Yet, it has something that has been missing in Disney movies for years: likability. It's lightweight, well crafted fun, like all the best Saturday morning cartoons, with inventive set pieces and terrific voice acting that helps make up for the fact that the losses incurred on The Black Cauldron show quite clearly. Unfortunately, it was shoveled under the hype over Don Bluth's An American Tail, a film that I have a bit of a soft spot for but which I'm not sure was that much better despite more involved animation. Of course it's no masterpiece, but it does deserve some appreciation for its virtues.
The plot's rather simple, and a bit too dialogue driven. Basically, you can figure out what happens before you even see it. What makes it work are the personalities. True, Olivia's a bit cloying, but Basil himself is as manic and fun to watch as any good Holmes knockoff, due in no small part to Barrie Ingham's performance. However, the show stealer, like with many Disney films, is the villain, Professor Ratigan as brilliantly voiced by the great Vincent Price. What I love about his character is that he comes off a narcissistic buffoon most of the time, but when pushed he shows himself to be a ruthless maniac able to wring whatever he wants from people by sheer force. In many ways, he's the villain that Captain Hook should have been. He even gets one of the only song numbers in this movie, one of the finest villain numbers in its jaunty bombast and how it shifts to a dead stop when a henchman double crosses him then shifts back after a rather grim moment in the film.
Unfortunately, one wishes the animation was better than Toon Disney on a production level. There's lots of conservative pose-to-pose stuff and very little in the ways of spontaneous character stuff. The angles are all very flat and straightforward. It especially shows in the dog character, who is much larger than the others but has too lightweight a feel to him. It's still a better looking film than The Black Cauldron, however less lavish it may be, and it has a few highlights. Ratigan, again, is superbly animated by Glen Keane, who gives him much more nuance and presence than the other characters. There's also a steep improvement toward the end, where Disney really ratchets up on some terrific set-piece direction. The CGI may show its age, but it's incorporated quite well. One also suspects that Disney first started to look at Hayao Miyazaki's work around this time, since there are more than a few similarities to the climax of Castle of Cagliostro.
All in all, these elements, along with a great Henry Mancini score, add up to another overlooked gem of a Disney movie, if not an essential work. It's light nature makes it understandable that some people tend not to care for it, but I enjoy it like I do any decent childhood cartoon. For me, it's the best Disney picture between the end of the golden age in the 60s and the renaissance at the end of the 80s, despite not being especially ambitious or innovative. It's just good fun, and what more can one ask for?
The Black Cauldron (1985)
It didn't work...
Of all Disney's failures, none are quite so infamous as The Black Cauldron. Based off material that was in the talks for decades, it was a property that was whispered about around the Disney studios for quite a few years before its conception (Ollie Johnston was an especially great fan of The Chonicles of Prydain). When Disney finally put the rights to use, they pumped oodles of cash into what they hoped would be the harbinger of a new age of Disney animation, one of darker, more mature storytelling. Not a single Nine Old Men put an ounce of work into this (okay...so Milt Kahl did some preliminary character designs...) and it seemed to be the consumation of the arrival of the new guard of Disney animators.
What went wrong? Well the studio made the disastrous choice of handing off sections of the film to individual teams without giving them any interaction between each other, leading to some odd continuity and a total lack of a compelling throughline. Secondly, ambitions for a darker film were rather bipolar, leading to some odd inclusions like graphic gore and partial nudity and unfortunate omissions like a number of fascinating Tim Burton designs which were jettisoned for being too twisted. It doesn't help that the animation looks floaty and bland, some of the weakest in any Disney film up to then, and that heavy cuts under Michael Eisner removed said gore and nudity, only adding to the disconnected nature of this film. They made a few interesting choices, like reviving multi-planing (a very good idea) and using widescreen for the first time since Sleeping Beauty, but these don't make up for all the other blunders made by this film.
The story is quite typical of Tolkien-inspired fantasy. An evil Sauron figure has returned to seek a magical item that will restore his power and send his armies across the land to conquer everything in existence. That item is a pig. I know, John Huston says he's seeking a cauldron, but he's actually trying to steal a magic pig from this film's Frodo Baggins, Taran, in order to find it. The one pig to rule them all. I'm not sure if that was in the book, and it's probably handled better in the book, but that's just a goofy sounding concept. Of course, our hero Taran, who's such a wimp that he's easily dispatched by the local goat (I know, that's what character development's for, right? right) loses the pig and has to go rescue him from the Horned King (who looks suspiciously like a demon from Night on Bald Mountain). Taran rescues the pig, but gets himself captured. With the help of a few fellow prisoners and a magic sword, he escapes, and it then becomes a quest to seek the Cauldron before the Horned King finds it.
As animation, this is even more of a dark pit than The Fox and the Hound, which had a few real standout moments. There are no moments of excellence here, just floaty, weightless motion and an over-reliance on reaction shots that just looks awkward. Characters are thrown off-model in strange ways, and very little of the performances ring true. The backgrounds do have a nice atmosphere to them, but are also pretty smudgy. Design wise, very little stands out here, and I can't help but wish they'd incorporated things like Tim Burton's idea for flying hand monsters (not ripping off J.R. Tolkien enough?). The color design looks hollow and lacks any sort of warmth or emotion, as if drab colors were what was hip in the eighties (not that I blame them for thinking such). Lamentably, the best animation is Hendel Butoy and Andreas Deja's for Gurgie, a hapless character that they nevertheless lend some much needed life to. Otherwise, I can only point to The Secret of NIMH, made for less than half the money, and sigh at how the biggest animation studio in the world could have made a film that looked one-tenth as good. Not that Bluth hasn't made the mistake of failing to smell a bad concept, but even he must have gotten bad vibes from what Disney was about to do.
One has to wonder how a studio with so much riding on this film could have gotten it so wrong. The failure very nearly drove Disney into folding its animation company, and so many potentially lucrative animators were driven into better careers elsewhere. It's a shame, but, thankfully, Disney did hold on to make a few more films. What's more, their very next project would be honest-to-god decent. It's a shame we didn't see a solid genre picture from this studio, though. We can only look at the disastrous final product and wonder what could have been.
The Fox and the Hound (1981)
They didn't call this the dark age for nothing.
The ruins of an interesting film can be seen here. I don't know much about the creation of this film, nor about its source material, but I don't feel especially compelled to. The Fox and the Hound features moments that try to attain the kind of drama of Disney's very earliest work, but by the end comes off as little more than a retread of past Disney films with much weaker animation and less compelling characters, despite some psychological content that might have held potential for more mature storytelling.
Structurally, this thing is a straight lift of Bambi. The first half details Tod the Fox and his days as a child learning the ways of the world. Interestingly, the film kicks off with a surprisingly dark tone, killing off the mother in the first scene and leaving an orphaned cub to be taken in by Tweed the widow. Already, some interesting themes are introduced as we see Tod make friends with the hound pup Copper, a friendship that's clearly doomed to tragedy. Aside from the obvious forbidden friendship, there are themes of man's relationship to nature in the widow becoming a mother figure to Tod. Clearly, this was the most character driven Disney feature in a long time for Disney. Does it pay off? Nope. Mostly, the first half of The Fox and the Hound prefers to waste time with a bunch of asinine comic set-pieces in which the twosome play tricks on Chief the hound and get the Hunter all riled up for some wacky redneck gags. In between this is a lot of cloying nothing that isn't half as cute as watching Bambi stumble his way through early life. It meanders and meanders without really making much of a point other than these guys enjoy each others company. There's also some side plot about a pair of woodpeckers trying to get a worm, but it adds up to absolutely nothing and mostly serves as annoying padding.
Then, like Bambi, we get the second half where Tod simultaneously discovers his sexuality and the horrors of life. This half works a bit better, with some moments of real power, but makes a fatal flaw with the relationship between Tod and Copper. Tod sends Copper on a vengeance fueled rampage against his former friend when he...gets Chief's leg broken. Now, had Chief been shown as a faithful friend and father figure to Copper, and had Tod gotten him killed (as, I believe, it was originally meant to be) this shift would have real gravitas to it. Instead, it comes off as unearned and random, totally against what we've come to know about his character. The rest of the film simply doesn't have the weight it needs because of this one fatal script flaw.
Which isn't to say there aren't those moments that truly work wonders toward the end. The bear scene in particular, though rather abrupt, is fantastically animated and legitimately thrilling, a triumph for greenhorn lead animator Glen Keane. The climax, in which the Hunter compromises his pride, is legitimately powerful as an ending, and in a better context would have been truly moving. Alas...whatever moments work here, they're constantly hindered by what comes before and after.
As animation, The Fox and the Hound is a real step down for the studio. Disney's newfound star, Don Bluth, stayed aboard for a time before packing his bags and walking out to start work on the vastly superior Secret of NIMH. His team's animation here reminds of their work on The Rescuers; very well done technical wizardry for pretty vapid scenes. A few of the Nine Old Men do scant work here and there, but none of it stands out. The best work is done by future star animator Glen Keane, whose bear scene has a remarkable weight and power to it, and whose Badger character is kind of fun too. Otherwise, the animation on this film is competent at best and mechanically dictated by adherence to animation principals at worst. It's a shame seeing technical elements so by-the book here. What's even more distressing is that it's still far better animated than the next Disney project, which will barely pass "Saturday Morning Cartoon with more in-betweening" levels.
One can see the process Disney was going through. Take an old framework like the plot to Bambi and update it to fit the trend of edgier animation that was going on at the time. It's too bound by convention to be anything but a pale retread, unfortunately, and it's unsurprising that the Disney exodus took place during the making of this and The Black Cauldron. Bluth moved to his new studio to make The Secret of NIMH, a great, dark fantasy feature that accomplished everything Disney was trying to, and various others left either with him or to start their own projects.
It's really a precursor to The Black Cauldron, a film that aims for the same goals to a much more prevalent and upfront manner while failing even more miserably as a film. They didn't call this the dark age for nothing.
The Rescuers (1977)
Underwhelming, but Interesting
Widely considered the best of Disney's seventies output, The Rescuers has dated rather terribly but more flatteringly than Robin Hood or The Aristocats. Unlike those films, there is an actual weight to the drama here and some of the ingenuity of classic Disney, owing perhaps to the presence of younger and more driven animators making their debuts as animation directors. Such drive can't quite undo the mixed quality of the animation and the kind of pussying out that keeps it from quite working, but one can understand why it's considered a minor classic from Disney's work.
I don't much care for it myself, but I do have to commend Disney for actually taking some risks on this one. Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor show some real chemistry as voice actors and make a likable pair, but it's the Penny story that lifts this. There's real Dickensian gravitas to her conflict with Madame Medusa, and a melancholy that even older Disney may not have attempted to accomplish. If Penny can be cloying at times, she's still fairly convincing as a character. Madame Medusa, though a retread of Cruella de Vil, still works thanks to Geraldine Page's performance and Milt Kahl's masterfully bombastic animation (an attempt to one-up his friend Marc Davis, who handled Cruella). There are some tools here for a very entertaining adventure story.
Where it falls flat is in the execution. The narrative meanders to an irritating degree, hurling itself at red herrings too much and taking a much longer time than it needs to progress. Very few of the side characters are all that memorable, aside from Ollie Johnston's self caricature as Rufus the Cat. This is probably the slowest Disney film since Fantasia as a result, and not nearly as hypnotic. It also doesn't help that, for all its moody atmospherics, it insists on lightening the mood at the times when it could potentially be at its most ballsy. Medusa pointing a gun at a small child is pretty damn risky for a Disney picture, but thrills turn to insults as she's subsequently besieged by a group of cartoon critters. It's a real shame, as none of these problems are appalling on their own but pile up too much.
In terms of animation, this one is a major step up from Robin Hood, but still suffers from the studio's cost-cutting tendencies of the time. The dark bayou backgrounds have a lovely Gothic quality to them, but in general the color design here is dull and never rises above your typical Scooby Doo episode. The mice have jarring flesh colored eyes which echo far too much of latter day Hanna-Barbera dreck. As for key animation, this was a landmark for Disney in that it marked the debut of a non-9 Old Men animator in a directing role. This artist was none other than the infamous Don Bluth, whose influence can be felt throughout the project. He's often credited with doing away with such irritating practices as dividing the different departments with no collaboration amongst them, and I wouldn't be surprised if he had a lot to do with the darker tone of this film. As for his animation, he shows a talent for hyperactive set pieces, such as the Zoo scene (which is a superfluous and stupid sequence otherwise) but also holds responsibility for the airport scene, with some of the most awkward rotoscoping outside of a Ralph Bakshi movie. The star of this piece is Milt Kahl, whose Medusa is a model example of animated performance. Overall, this is a mixed-bag technically, but one that shows some potentiality for an edgier new direction that might have revitalized Disney (it never happened, of course).
Perhaps its not a great film, or even a very good one, but you have to hand it to the new crowd of eager Disney animators for trying to advance to a new kind of film for Disney. Alas, the whole product comes off as mediocre to me, despite moments of greatness here and there. Similar effort seems to have been made in the next couple of Disney features, but they were even less successful. as a whole. I don't violently hate it the way I do Robin Hood, but it leaves me cold and disappointed. Intrigued, but underwhelmed.
Robin Hood (1973)
Oh boy oh boy....
I don't like this movie.
I'm not alone in my distaste for Robin Hood. During its making, whispers spread among the staff (Ward Kimball and director Wolfgang Reitherman at least are recorded as complaining to each other). This, to me, is the absolute nadir of finance driven animated trash, akin to a Shrek sequel in artistry. To its credit, though, it is handled by master animators and designers, but this is hindered by the fact that every good piece of animation has to be reused once more to save time.
As a Robin Hood adaptation, this one is quite far from its source material. Rather than the legendary folk hero, we get a pussified interpretation who dresses up in drag rather than resort to heroics and trots about carelessly so that he and Phil Harris are easily ambushed by a troop of run cycles. Did I mention cycles? Anyway, Peter Ustinov at least lends some comic voice acting to Prince John, but he doesn't exactly make for much of a villain. Phil Harris plays Baloo as Little John, and three films with Baloo is a bit much for me. Sir Hiss is Kaa...and that's all anyone can say. Maid Marion and her faithful steward Bess...I mean "Clucky"...are basically useless and oblivious to what's going on around them. Pat Buttram's kind of enjoyable as the Sheriff, but, again, it's hard to take any of these villains seriously on any level when they're all played for cheap laughs. None of the characters endear much, and at least half are basically reused characters from past Disney projects.
As for the plot...there is no plot.
Instead, we get an aimless series of episodes that advance nothing and provide nothing but cheap, largely unfunny gags. One finds it hard to thrill over Robin Hood garbed in drag when we want to see him doing something masculine and likable. The party sequence in the middle is a masterpiece of suck, tethering together reused animation from The Aristocats, Snow White, and The Jungle Book while basically wasting the audience's time with a lousy song that I can't even recall at the moment. Wrapping it all up is a bit of exposition that essentially skips over the climax of the story, like a final insult to its stupid, stupid audience that will buy into anything with the Disney name.
Moving on to animation, this film features all the masters of the last few films, who normally elevate even mediocre material like The Aristocats, and they do contribute a few impressive pieces to this. Milt Kahl does a fun and technically tricky bit with the Sheriff where he bounces down the street in perspective in a very characterized way. The problem is that it proceeds to be reused TWICE. Unfortunately, the rest of the animation is so occupied by walk cycles and reused animation and COPIED animation from films past that whatever virtues are contained wear out their welcome and good pieces are harder to come by.
To be fair, the design values aside from the budget cheating are solid, and even with the appalling number of shortcuts the animation is never any less than well crafted otherwise. But what's the takeway? No breakthroughs are made on a technological or artistic level, no characters stand out, no scenes make an impression, and I swear the only bits I can remember are the thumb sucking and the fact that Robin Hood's anthropomorphized character design kind of looks like the primary inspiration for "furries" (do NOT look that term up).
I've heard from a few folks who worked on this, and have never, in my entire life, heard any of them say they were proud of it. The thing's a cynical sucker punch to anyone who enjoys Disney films, a cesspool of mediocrity and disrespect that doesn't even think its supporters are worth giving competent production values. Yogi Bear and The Flintstones are more exciting to me. Heavy Traffic from the same year also took shortcuts, but out of necessity rather than greed, and actually managed to be an excellent film where its rough animation worked for its themes. I'm not against cheap animation, and think such limitations can actually lead to some of the most interesting animation around when the people involved are putting their all into wrangling descent expressiveness and motion out of their material.
But Robin Hood is just half-assed. Usually, The Black Cauldron is brought up when discussing bad Disney movies, but that film had something called originality to some extent in the context of Disney's work. Robin Hood is, for lack of a better term, animated inbreeding.
The AristoCats (1970)
Disney's Death Knell
Following Walt Disney's death, the studio was left rather lost as to how to proceed. Though Disney relied on many deeply talented story artists, concept artists, animators, and the like, his input had been so tightly woven into the storytelling in Disney's work that merely his shifting focus to other projects had caused the films to suffer. Following his death, all the producers and director Wolfgang Reitherman could think to do was imitate what had worked in the past. Thus, we have The Aristocats, a straight lift of story elements from 101 Dalmations and The Lady and the Tramp that forgot to steal any of the heart or innovation from either. The story, detailing the exploits of a bunch of cats who just want to laze about and inherit a lot of money for doing nothing, is unique for one reason alone. Though there are many Disney movies in which the villain is more likable than the protagonist, The Aristocats is the only one that made actively root for the villain for purely moral reasons. See, Edgar, our "villainous" Butler, tries to do away with the cats some old hag is going to leave all her money to so that he, the man who worked under the crazy witch his entire life, can get some goddamn compensation. A slapstick-triggered hitch in his plan causes the cats to be left by a river bank instead, whereupon they jump into action and immediately whine and cloy for a while until Phil Harris comes by and gets them to actually do something. And then there's lots of lame episodes with forgettable side characters that I barely remember that mainly serve to pad out the thin plot to feature length. Such fun moments are fine when the character is actually entertaining, but, alas there's very little of that here (though Scatman Crothers is always fun to watch...er, hear). The songs by the normally exemplary Sherman Bros. are fine, but I struggle to recall even one lyric or melody as I type this out. Anyway, Edgar gets shipped off to Timbuktu, Phil Harris gets groomed into an aristocrat because there's no room for individuality in the upper classes, and we leave wanting to trample those annoying cats into the ground on our way out. Perhaps it isn't an AWFUL film, but it's so hard to care for the characters we're supposed to fret for that what transpires basically leaves us feeling like robotic husks that'll pump money into the Disney machine even if the actual auteur himself is long gone. Despite my indifference to the project as a whole, I was surprised to find a few points that worked. Edgar, for all his bumbling and lack of intimidating qualities, is great fun as a character, with some ingenious comic animation by Milt Kahl (those who consider him a cold, technical animator should look at this neglected piece that really shows off the man's sense of humor). I can't help wondering whether the story would have worked a lot better from his point of view. Kahl also animates the Lawyer character, who doesn't get much screen time but steals every scene he's in. Unfortunately, the other Disney animators don't impress as much. Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, for all their genius, really worked best when they had a good concept for a character they could sink their teeth into. Their work here is technically adept, but as empty as the prissy, vapid cats they're forced to work with. There's really not much else to say. It's a safe, commercial work from a studio trying to gather itself together after Disney's death. Producers with far less vision began to grab hold of the animators, cutting corners and cobbling together hackneyed concepts that would make a buck and nothing else. There's not the amount of rampant copied animation that there would be in the next Disney project, but the opening credits (in which animation from the body is reused for no reason other than cost cutting) is a grim sign of things to come. I think it's around this point that American animation essentially dies for years, and Disney's next project wouldn't help a bit.
Here is a Film Before its Time...
For some bizarre reason, marketers opted to make Clint Eastwood's latest work look like a rejected script to an M. Night Syamalon movie in its trailers. What with its catastrophic events and plot centric imagery, you'd think Eastwood had made a disaster movie rather than what the reality turns out to be. This is a much more thoughtful film about death that examines how living characters deal with the aftereffects. Matt Damon's character, Lonegan, is not a protagonist but one character in a larger ensemble piece. Naturally, it benefits marketing to try to isolate this certain aspect of the plot to make this look like a thriller, but it is a impressionist character piece by all means. Even the psychic aspect is played down, and never truly explained.
What that reality turns out to be is something akin to one of the time centric French minimalists like Chantal Akerman and Jacques Rivette. While it never of course becomes a four hour movie about household chores like Jeanne Dielman, it nevertheless is one of the most jarringly French art-house-like films to ever be released as a mainstream American film. Eastwood's decision to leave Peter Morgan's script as a rough first draft is likely part of what's drawing criticism, but this is arguably what makes it so effective as well. Narrative coherence is spurned in favor of genuine CINEMA, people behaving on-screen and showing the effects of great turmoil in every little nuance. Eastwood, known for stripping down rewrites to maintain a certain spontaneous quality in his films (and for shooting very few takes) saw something in this script that he knew wouldn't make it to the final draft. This is how it maintains such a minimal quality.
Of course, such methodology is in tune with French filmmakers like Bresson, a filmmaker who would likely be criticized today for his deadpan performances when what he's really doing is drawing attention to actions rather than performances. Eastwood puts a lot of stock in gesture: hands in particular. Hands are prominently shown whenever a character embraces, and they are also the method through which Lonegan is able to make contact with the afterlife. He tries to make connections through a cooking class, in which he must make use of his hands (and which inevitably leads him to touch the hands of others when he wants least to). There's also a generous use of exteriors, with the running theme of loneliness in crowded locations which anybody whose experienced such trauma (or even lesser traumas) can relate to. It sounds like Eastwood is employing the dreaded preference of "things" to "people," but in reality this is a perfect melding of characters to their environment.
None of this is the kind of post-Elia Kazan acting our country is used to, but each of the actors do a remarkable job in communicating in this way. Damon gives the finest performance of his career, and each of the supporting cast is remarkable as well in the way they REACT, rather than act. A jarring change for the star of Gran Torino, perhaps, but one which works for the material.
And that, I think, is why such mixed reactions come out of those who view this film. Eastwood is not making a heightened film about death, but an understated (despite its moments of sensationalism, which serve as counterpoint) exploration of how people deal with death. What makes it even more difficult is that, despite an optimistic conclusion, no definite resolution is ever reached. We never learn the nature behind Lonegan's abilities, we only get hints at how it may have come about. No religious agenda is preached, nor is religion rejected. Such open ended filmmaking is vastly beyond even limited releases, and is usually the kind of stuff found on the Criterion Collection decades after its completion. To have a release like this is astounding, but has likely doomed the film financially.
That would be a shame. In a year that has produced solid work ranging from Sorkin and Fincher's The Social Network, Martin Scorsese's woefully underrated Shutter Island, and the hype-driven juggernaut that was Inception, I think Hereafter ranks among the very best of the year. I would even go so far as to call it the first bonafide masterpiece of the decade. I suspect this places me at odds with many people, some of whom have tried to logically argue with me why this was an incompetent film (to them, I would explain that film is not meant to be dictated by plot logic, the most superficial aspect of filmmaking at best) but as this film goes to show, some things just can't be easily explained away.
The Jungle Book (1967)
The Last Gasp
The Jungle Book is, for me, the last gasp of classic Disney. It's the last Disney movie until the latter half of the eighties that I would qualify as the least bit good, yet, it also suffers from many of the problems of the seventies films. This may also be the first case of mass celebrity voice casting, which works fine here but would set a horrible precedent for American animation that lasts to this day. Thankfully, while it's not quite the sum of those parts, many of its parts are highly entertaining...masterful even.
As Disney himself was now fully committed to other projects, and died before the film could be completed, this is easily the most episodic and scattershot of the Disney projects under his rule. It takes Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli stories, strips them of its issues on human nature, ignores all the later stuff, and instead uses them as a vague suggestion to set up a bunch of characters and fun situations. It particularly hurts the character of Bagheera, whose commitment to getting the child home doesn't make quite as much sense, and Shere Khan's delayed entrance, though well foreshadowed, doesn't have quite the weight or the mythic sort of relationship with Mowgli. Mowgli himself is the cute little scamp Disney requires by this point, which has its value but isn't' as interesting as if they'd made better use of his whole "raised by wolves" thing like in the book. Not Disney's forte, perhaps, but one reason why this isn't as good as Princess Mononoke to me (strange comparison, I know).
Animation wise, thoughts are liable to be mixed on this one. There's more shortcuts here than in any previous Disney movie. Reused animation aplenty, funky relationships with the cels and the backgrounds, lots of the kind of stuff director Wolfgang Reitherman would abuse in the seventies. There's one bit in particular that's a straight lift from Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.
What at least mostly makes up for this, however, is the fact that this is a tour-de-force of master animators doing some of the best work of their career. Ollie Johnston and Milt Kahl do a great bit with Bagheera trying to get Mowgli into a tree that has no real plot significance but which is a masterpiece of timing. Bear Necessities is an iconic number, but would it be so memorable without Ollie Johnston's fantastic work on Baloo? Johnston also does a remarkable job with Baloo's more emotional moments, such as the scene where he tells Mowgli that he has to leave the jungle. John Lounsbery gives a wonderful feeling of weight and caricature to the elephants, arguably his masterpiece. King Louie works mostly because of his animation by Frank Thomas and Kahl, which is so intricately composed and full of personality that it looks easy (even though it's a monstrous bitch to pull off something like that, especially with his hyperactive movement). However, my favorite bit is the restrained yet perfectly controlled, Picasso-influenced work on Shere Khan by Milt Kahl. It's not the most bombastic of these pieces, but his graceful movement combined with his sinister presence (George Sanders' voice work helps quite a bit). The exchange between him and Johnston's Kaa is brilliant animated acting between two of the greatest animators who ever lived.
Yet, while all these moments are wonderful to watch, there comes a point toward the end where things seem to just fall apart. Three Beatles-influenced Vultures sing a silly barbershop toon that doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the movie. This scene was finished after Disney's death, and hints at the kind of goofiness that would undo the next few Disney pictures.
Overall, The Jungle Book is problematic, but remains an enjoyable picture if one can get past its rough edges. It's the last gasp of the golden age. That's right, folks, my next few reviews are going to be pretty negative, but since very few Disney picture are completely bad and some great work does go into even some of the worst of them, I'll point those elements out too. The Jungle Book, to me, is the mildest example, since the good elements still make this movie work, but the practices of this film never really worked again.