Walt Disney will never be one of my favorite filmmakers. I will gladly marvel at the Disney empire that he started and appreciate his influence on animation, but to me, his films–with the exception of Bambi–have never resonated with me on a deeper, more personal level. But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s talk things out by reviewing his most revered films from the Disney vault.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Original Score: 10/10
Character Design: 7/10
Artistic Direction: 10/10
Emotional Appeal: 7/10
Walt Disney not only started animation with a bang with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937; Disney’s second film would also be of critical acclaim. In fact, it is the only Disney animated feature to have been awarded Rotten Tomatoes’ 100% tomatometer, indicating 39 “fresh” reviews from registered critics. Roger Ebert of Chicago’s Sun-Times had this to say:
“The beauty of Pinocchio is that what happens to Pinocchio seems plausible to the average kid – unlike what happens, say, to the Little Mermaid. Kids may not understand falling in love with a prince, but they understand not listening to your father, and being a bad boy, and running away and getting into real trouble. The movie is genuinely exciting and romantic, great to look at, and timeless.”
While I do agree, to an extent, what Ebert is saying, I have three major problems with this film. Pinocchio needs to prove himself “brave, truthful, and unselfish” before he turns into a real boy, and yet, he never undergoes any metaphysical transformation at any point of this film. While the beast from Beauty and the Beast demonstrates his ability to love by giving up his dreams of becoming human again, something he would have never done prior to Belle arriving at his castle, Pinocchio does not demonstrate any learned lessons from his experiences. Pinocchio always loved his father, so it is not surprising that he would act courageously when it came time to rescue him from the whale. Pinocchio should have learned the virtue of honesty from his fairy godmother, and yet, when his father is shocked at his donkey ears, Pinocchio casually responds by saying, “Oh, these! Huh, that’s nothing. I got a tail, too!” Why didn’t his nose grow long again? This is a blatant lie! Did the movie just forget that we watched a boy drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes?!? In what should have been a really big, or at least touching, moment in the film, Pinocchio does not concede that he did bad things, which may be considered a selfish act on the part of his reputation.
Moreover, Pinocchio never disobeys his father, never runs away, and never was a bad boy. If anything, he was a naïve boy who was captured, which made his father worried. Had the movie been able to recognize their own character and his actions, they may have been able to save this movie from disaster.
The last and most important problem I have with this film is that it is not a kid’s movie. Would you expect a kid’s movie to have someone take kids off the streets in the same fashion a pimp or rapist would? Would you expect a kid’s movie to use the word “jackass” on multiple occasions? Would you expect a kid’s movie to have kids doing drugs? It’s one way to get their point across, but the manner in which they try to tell kids: don’t let strangers abuse you, don’t lie, don’t do drugs, is oftentimes very scary. It is fifteen minutes of pure entertainment until Pinocchio turns alive and makes you wish he stayed a puppet.
Walt Disney gets back on track after what I consider a slip-up in Pinocchio. However, he doesn’t accomplish this by having an emotional story or appealing to the kids. In fact, any resemblance of a coherent plot is nowhere to be found in this one. Rather, Walt Disney decides to demonstrate the glimpses of talent we saw from the animators in Snow White and Pinocchio in a full two hour marathon of endlessly imaginative animation. While Disney usually hires an orchestra to play an original score composed by their staff, this time, they animate to the music of Bach, Tchaikovsky, and Schubert. This only raises the stakes since the phrasing and melodic lines of these classical music legends could easily overshadow any lacking animation.
The film opens with an orchestra walking in, and you already know that this movie is going to be different. Even the scenes that aren’t animated, such as this one, is artistic. The way the lighting is set up to produce humongous shadows on the back wall; the way the different hues of colors give a sense of ease; the way the orchestra warms up as they would in a real concert makes you extremely optimistic of what is to follow. There is a narrator who informs us of what piece the orchestra will be playing, and the sort of imagery we are to expect. This makes it so that every piece has a little break in between, which was good, but at the same time, I wish he was cut in the editing room. I mean, it wasn’t that important to me what song they were playing, and in a real orchestra concert, the program would inform its audiences of what songs were coming up. Nonetheless, he only takes up a small portion of the screen time, so I didn’t find him overly distracting.
All of the eight compositions were great selections. Any classical-music-savvy listener will surely enjoy the film just from an auditory standpoint—the orchestra sounds wonderful. The animation to go along with the eight pieces all had beautiful moments in them, but the one that impressed me the most starred Mickey Mouse and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas.
The imagery from this selection, and in fact, most of the entire movie, is unforgettable. At times, you forget that the animation was made for the music, and it feels like the music was made for the animation. That is how good the animation is, tricking you by perfectly capturing the large fortissimos to the little pianissimos, and the overall feel of the composition.
With all the compliments I have given the movie, it must be emphasized that this movie is not for everyone, and I fully acknowledge it. While someone like myself really enjoyed some big moments in the film, I did find myself bored in other spots. It’s one of those movies that you’ll fall asleep to if you don’t like attending orchestra concerts or exploring art museums, but I think everyone can agree that this is a beautifully-animated piece of artwork.
Dumbo would be the second to last film in the Disney golden age, which already saw two other films worthy of such classification. However, not every movie in the acclaimed golden era deserved its praise, as one can see through my quick review of Pinocchio. And with Dumbo, I’m going to have to say that this isn’t as much enjoyable as it is above average. Of course, other people are entitled to their own opinions, as Stephen Garrett from Time Out said it is “one of the best of Disney’s animated features.”
I can certainly understand why one might be inclined to direct such statements towards Dumbo. Like the other golden era films, it embraces this idea of emotional simplicity, or the idea that a complicated plot doesn’t have be the main driving force to evoke emotion. I mean, there is a scene when Dumbo and his mouse friend are drunk and the five minutes of animated pink elephants that ensue are nearly plot-less. And yet, these five minutes capture how Dumbo is feeling better than any internal stream of consciousness or actions of its character could ever hope to describe. That is ultimately the strongpoint of this movie: it really captures the emotion of a particular occurrence without the need of conventional cinematic elements. Like when the children make fun of Dumbo’s big ears and how his mother starts destroying the circus, or like when Dumbo makes a trip to his mother’s cage and she swings Dumbo on her trunk; these are, in isolation from any plot, heart-wrenching and beautiful moments in the film.
This brings me to what I consider the two biggest faults of the movie. The first fault is that this movie seems to have these scenes Disney really wanted to animate, such as the ones I’ve mentioned above, without thinking about how to masterfully weave them into the story. Everything builds up to these moments in a very sporadic way. There are more than a few transitions that are abrupt, opting to just black out the screen for a few seconds before introducing a completely different scene, which is more disorienting than anything else. Nonetheless, if this was the only problem I had with the film, then this film would surely be entitled to a grade worthy of a golden era.
My biggest problem of Dumbo is that I don’t know Dumbo. He is just a circumstance of the plot, which clashes with the emotional simplicity the rest of the film is based around. Dumbo, in isolation from the plot, does not deserve a happy ending simply because we don’t know if he deserves one. The only reason why we care about Dumbo is because he was born with big ears, which makes everybody but his mouse friend and his mother make fun of him. Had Dumbo been born with normal-sized ears, then all of a sudden I don’t care about Dumbo anymore because he has no personality. Dumbo needed heart, he needed character, he needed to be developed; instead, we get a character who weighs down the movie from ever soaring to greater heights.
Bambi closes what most consider Disney’s golden era, and man, does it finish with gorgeous animation. The birth of prince Bambi isn’t as epic as the birth of Simba, but it’s serene, it’s peaceful, and it’s just plain marvelous to look at it. Of course, one might worry that by comparing Bambi to Simba means the animation goes to waste in this one, but I’m delighted to say it doesn’t. This movie is not only my favorite from the golden age; it is also Disney’s first and of only three masterpieces.
Bambi is our first handicapped, disabled, or retarded Disney prince. He has to grow out of a speech impediment, and it takes a while for Bambi to learn how to stand on his feet properly. Nonetheless, Bambi as a child is very relatable. Of course, he makes his first friends, which includes a rabbit who thumps his foot, a skunk who could be mistaken for a girl, a grumpy owl who freely spins his head around, and another female deer who is everything Bambi is not. While Bambi is shy and oftentimes afraid, Faline is fun and overly energetic. Needless to say, this cast of distinct and likeable characters makes Bambi’s first adventures charming.
Bambi’s relationship with his parents is also perfect. His mother lets him wander off to have his own experiences, but is always there to take care of him and warn him about the dangers of mankind. Then there’s Bambi’s father, The Great Prince of the Forest, who strikes admiration in Bambi at every scene, although short-lived and few. His disconnect from the family works well to raise his status as this sort of distant protector and role-model of Bambi. As a result, every piece of dialogue from him resonates as deeply with us as it does Bambi.
What I love about this film is that it conveys life’s most elementary experiences, such as a lighting storm or the first snow of winter, with the imagery and sounds that re-evoke those emotions we may have felt in our childhood. The way the rain sounds dripping on leaves and flowing into streams, or how the thunder rattles our bodies and lights up the sky. The excitement of stepping on snow or ice for the first time, only to realize the bitter cold and harsh winds that associate it. This is all done delicately to show fear, to show joy, to show hunger, in a way that is never overbearing or abrupt. It describes life in the lens of a child: an emotional roller coaster that pays more attention to the little things, rather than, say, getting into college or a salary raise.
Now it is the film’s time to show sadness through death, and once again, it delivers in a style that does not demand your tears. It simply is a heart-breaking moment when Bambi’s mother dies. The way Bambi slowly comes to realize what has happened, and starts to feel the immediate repercussions of loneliness. One may be able to relate these feelings to when they first got lost or separated from their parents. I know that is what this reminded me of.
Then the film forwards in time quite a bit, and it’s interesting how they do it. Last time we saw Bambi, he was taken in by his father, and we don’t really know if he returns to the forest as this new, trained deer, or if this is simply another day in the forest for Bambi. In any case, Bambi is a more confident deer now; one who has definitely benefitted from someone worthy of the name, The Great Prince of the Forest.
It is spring now, and it’s mating season. The way each one of the three friends: first the skunk, then the rabbit, then Bambi falls in love is just hilarious. Of course, Bambi rekindles with his childhood past in Faline, but then the film takes a pleasant turn: it turns adult. I don’t mean that it’s not for kids anymore, but the lens of our narrator, Bambi, has changed. Whereas danger and violence always made Bambi hide behind his mother, he now has the courage to challenge another deer for Faline’s heart, just as a real deer would have to do in the real world. The imagery is incredible in this scene. The way both deer are turned into silhouettes, and yet, still distinguishable borders genius. And it’s not like this one scene here or there that impresses; there are so many instances where the animation turns Fantasia. Once you think you’ve seen the best animation this movie has to offer, it throws another scene that makes you reconsider. And another. And another. It’s like Bambi has an endless stock of animators to make this wonderful-looking film.
Bambi wins the duel, and thus, Faline. Then, mankind arrives to cause havoc in the animal community. What I love about the villain in this movie, us, is that we never see them. This only emphasizes what I realized this film is about at the end.
The film is about life. It isn’t about developing a protagonist, having him or her overcome obstacles, learn something new along the way, and teach the audience a moral lesson. It’s about life. It depicts it in its actuality, except in a completely different world where the animals are much cuter to keep its younger audiences entertained. Sometimes, an adventure doesn’t need someone to have a dream, or have a villain who tries to stop that dream from happening, because life is an adventure in itself. Maybe Bambi as a character isn’t too interesting; maybe the largely plot-less story bores. But the way in which Bambi’s life makes you recall moments in your own life is genius. And what is more intimate than one’s own personal experiences and journey?
The story decides to wrap the journey up by having a fire wipe out the forest. Then the film, once again, forwards in time to when the trees and flowers have mostly regrown. All the animals are excited, as they were at the beginning of the film, for a new prince—Faline has given birth to new deer, completing the circle of life. Bambi is everything The Lion King hoped it could be, and then some more. Bambi isn’t a pretentious prince, Bambi learns lessons from characters that deserve to be called teachers, and as a result, when the film ends with Bambi standing next to his father, it feels like an ending. This movie doesn’t teach children morals or provide adults with complicated characters, or even bring back typical Disney elements. However, there is something beautiful in the minimalistic style Bambi chooses to tell its audience that our life is adventure enough.
Original Score: 8/10
Character Design: 7/10
Artistic Direction: 7/10
Emotional Appeal: 8/10
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Due to World War II, Walt Disney was forced to undertake projects that were really a collection of shorts rather than real, coherent feature-length films. These projects would later be grouped into Walt Disney’s “package era,” which were unpopular at the time and are still relatively unknown today. Package era films include Saludos Amigos (1942), The Three Caballeros (1944), and Make Mine Music (1946). After revisiting Alice in Wonderland, I don’t want to see these package films because that’s exactly what I see in this movie: a package of shorts rather than a real, coherent feature-length film. As Dave Kehr from Chicago Reader said:
“The Disney version lightens and sweetens Lewis Carroll’s tale, but what’s really disappointing is the undistinguished animation: the film looks and plays more like the Disney shorts than the Disney features.”
Alice’s wonderland was supposed to provide us, well… with a wonderland, but it’s unimpressive even from an animation standpoint. While Dumbo provided strange imagery that helped make its audience feel something, Alice’s imagination stops at being strange—there’s no heart in her dreams. And I’m not talking about the typical Disney dreams; Alice is literally dreaming all of this up. It would seem like this would be an opportune time for Disney to show off his creativity, but the animation is really lacking, barring the Queen’s castle.
Animation technique wouldn’t be the first thing I critique unless it was basically the only thing to critique. Once again, the film plays like Disney shorts, so no resemblance of a coherent plot exists. The film doesn’t aim to give us interesting or complex characters; Alice could literally be replaced by a cardboard box and I wouldn’t have noticed. The film simply aims at being strange, and while I guess it accomplishes its not-so-lofty goals, it does so in an unimpressive manner. Nobody listens to each other in this film. I mean, just take a look at the script:
Cheshire Cat: Oh, by the way, if you’d really like to know, he went that way.
Alice: Who did?
Cheshire Cat: The white rabbit.
Alice: He did?
Cheshire Cat: He did what?
Alice: Went that way?
Cheshire Cat: Who did?
Alice: The white rabbit!
Cheshire Cat: What rabbit?
Alice: But didn’t you just say… I mean… oh dear!
Cheshire Cat: Can you stand on your head?
I mean, this is strange all right, but why am I watching this? Why should anybody be watching this? The animation isn’t Disney, the protagonist’s dreams have been literalized for no apparent reason, the characters all blur together into one bizarre personality, and worst of all, this movie isn’t even fun. In the end, Alice realizes that maybe her dreams aren’t all she thought they would be, and cries on two instances. It’s painful to watch not because I was invested in her dreams, but because it’s a little girl crying who just wants to go back home. This film is no fun to watch, no fun to see, and does not ever merit its existence as an adaption of Lewis Carroll’s tale. Please, let Alice wake up!
Peter Pan (1953)
Much like the second film Pinocchio in Disney’s first golden era was a fluke, Alice in Wonderland in Disney’s second golden era, or silver era, started by Cinderella in 1950, was also a major disappointment. However, Walt Disney rebounded from Pinocchio with Fantasia, and I’m going to say Peter Pan fulfills a similar role. While Peter Pan is nothing close to the animation caliber of Fantasia, it is a satisfying adventure to Never Land, and an undeniably entertaining one at that.
With that said, this movie does have its fair share of problems. The two Never Land protagonists, Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, are mischaracterized, or at least underdeveloped. As Michelle Alexandria from Eclipse Magazine adequately phrased: “Pan and Tinkerbell…came across as selfish, cold and really unlikable bullies.” Bill Chambers from Film Freak Central said similarly: “who wants their son taking his cues from this mean-spirited ‘hero’?” While I personally think these criticisms are a little too harsh, Pan’s really only noble trait is that he is thankful to those who feed his ego and retell stories about him. That person is Wendy, our main protagonist, and the girl who is told by her father to grow up from such fairytales. So she has one last day to be a kid, and spends that last day with Peter Pan.
Wendy constantly asserts how wonderful Peter Pan is, which explains why she’s so invested in his stories. And now that I mention it, Peter Pan is also pursued by the surprisingly sexy Tinkerbell and the beautiful mermaids of Mermaids’ Lagoon. One critic interpreted this as such: “plays as less of a child fantasy of soaring adventure than it does as a retrograde narcissistic adult male fantasy of being desired and pursued by every female in the room.” However, I see it a little differently. Not only is Peter Pan marveled at by the girls, he is also marveled at by all the guys. So I think Peter Pan simply represents youth and how being youthful includes being “selfish, cold, mean-spirited,” fun, energetic, and silly. In short, Peter Pan doesn’t ruin the film for me.
Once again, Disney has simplified the plot so that it can focus on other things. In this case, it is set aside for the adventure itself. Sure, the outcome of the adventure isn’t all too important, but if the adventure isn’t everything Wendy and her siblings hoped it would be, then surely the ending wouldn’t be a happy one. And for what it’s worth, the adventure is everything they talked about! Pixie-dust flying, pirate sword-fighting, cannon-ball shooting, ticking-crocodile chasing, red Indians-dancing, flirtatious mermaid-splashing, and this teddy bear ❤
I said earlier that “if Disney is able to take me out of this ordinary world of mine and into an entirely fantastical one, then it will surely receive an equally fantastical grade.” While it accomplishes this task, it does not fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. The emotional value of this film isn’t too high, albeit charming and worth a few good laughs. But as long as you have your expectations set straight, you will definitely feel young again in a day in Never Land.
Lady and the Tramp (1955)
I liked this movie as a kid. The spaghetti meatball scene is classic, the romance is classic, and the movie is undoubtedly classic. But I’m really just misusing the term “classic” to mean that it’s well-known or popularized. Do I think this is a classic in the most distinguished sense of that word? No, I do not.
I have suspicion that maybe Beauty and the Beast has somehow deflated my experience of Lady and the Tramp. I mean, just look at the titles, and look at what each movie revolves around: romance. In a direct comparison, Beauty and the Beast is the far superior choice, but as a stand-alone, Lady and the Tramp holds its own. And especially for the people who grew up with this movie, I bet it was the closest thing to a real Disney hand-animated romance they could get their hands on. And you know what; the animation is pretty good. I would say it’s on par with Peter Pan, which had animation rich enough to back-up its ambitious depiction of Never Land. Of course, the colors are a little softer, which gave it a more mature feel like in Cinderella.
I liked this movie as a kid because I like dogs and dogs are cute. We all have our vices, and I guess that was one of mine growing up. Of course, this is no reason to automatically say this is a great kid’s movie, as kid’s movies have to be for the parents and adults too. I’m just bringing it up to show that I can discern my childhood nostalgia with my adult critiquing, and I hope you can do so too.
The romance isn’t all too interesting. There are some good moments, but most of it is rushed and contrived. I don’t know why the tramp likes the lady. Is it because she’s rich? Is it because she’s pretty? Is it because she’s boring? I mean, seriously, the tramp is always looking for adventure and the lady always resists. And considering how fun the adventure was, why do we want the tramp to settle down with this lady? The tramp never indicated he wanted love, or family, or settling down in a house, and as the most charismatic character of this picture, I couldn’t help but think that he could do better.
But the adventure is fun! I like how the tramp proves that he’s worthy of someone of higher class status through the simple act of tricking a beaver in a zoo; or by tricking human beings, for that matter. The characters, although a bit insensitive, are memorable. Whether they are the evil singing Siamese cats, a wrinkly dog who has lost his sense of smell, or the Italian chefs that cook and sing for the lady and the tramp, you will remember these different species of characters long after you watch the movie. The Disney charm of Bambi’s cast of animals makes a return in this one, and it’s simply delightful. As R. L. Shaffer from IGN DVD said on Rotten Tomatoes: “a somewhat dry, but very good Disney animated effort punctuated by a few Disney-defining classic moments.”
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Original Score: 7/10
Character Design: 10/10
Artistic Direction: 9/10
Emotional Appeal: 5/10
One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
This film is just ridiculous. They had a team of artists whose sole responsibility was to draw close to six and a half million total spots throughout the course of the animated feature. The 300 artists used 800 gallons of paint over the duration of 3 years! So did the painstaking labor pay off? Eh, sort of.
Rotten Tomatoes gives 101 Dalmatians a prestigious 97% on its tomatometer, which places the movie only behind Disney’s Pinocchio and Snow White. One critic from TIME Magazine goes as far as to say: “it is the wittiest, most charming, least pretentious cartoon feature Walt Disney has ever made.” And you know what, based on these comments, I have no idea if we watched the same movie. Call me a cruel devil, but this is honestly a pretty average kid’s movie.
Disney’s first film directed towards dog-lovers and owners was Lady and the Tramp in 1955, and I can’t help but to feel like 101 Dalmatians came too soon afterwards. In fact, Lady and the Tramp characters make a quick cameo in this one, and while that was funny, it only reminded me of the charm 101 Dalmatians seems to have borrowed. I mean, it is 99 little puppies put to screen; of course it is going to be cute! The gimmick of putting dogs to animation was wearing out its welcome on me.
But disregarding its place in cinema history, it is a cute, friendly, and welcoming film to any child. There’s a cat that actually helps the puppies escape, and so there’s even room for cat-loving children in this one! While the villains are evil, they are never overly menacing and come off as idiotically humorous. I like how the human protagonist, Roger Radcliffe, is made a musician so to provide the movie with its classic Cruella De Vil song. With that said, this movie will likely bore adults. Some of the visuals in the beginning were really jazzy, but this distinct animation-feel dissipates as the film progresses. Instead, London becomes looking a lot like Peter Pan, which makes the animation seem lazy considering its four million dollar production cost.
But the film is ambitious with its spots! I mean, you really feel like there are 99 puppies escaping Cruella De Vil. Of course I never had time to count them all, and the number of spots on the screen is ridiculous. I appreciate the effort, but that’s not what makes a good movie. This movie lacks purpose. It is nothing more than an entertaining story that’s made to entertain. It doesn’t teach moral lessons, make us think about any ideologies, or recall moments in our lives; it’s just another story. However, I like how the story doesn’t rely on Disney love, like in Lady and the Tramp, to provide a happy ending. The emotional authenticity of its ending comes from the love of family, and for that, I’ll say the story is satisfactory.
The Jungle Book (1967)
The worst thing about this movie is also the best thing about it: The Jungle Book doesn’t take itself seriously. In Walt Disney’s last production, he shows no sign of old age as he lets it rip with never-ending adventure. It features a talking bear who eats a surprising number of bananas, elephants who think they are part of an army, a snake who has mastered the art of hypnosis, a monkey king who wants to harness elemental fire, and four British vultures who sing like the Beatles. In the plethora of come-and-go, yet memorable characters are ridiculously upbeat musical numbers, including Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You. So… what’s not to like about this film? Well, for as fun as the adventure is, it really is pointless. Mowgli, the boy raised in the jungle, doesn’t want to go back to the humans. That’s really all anyone can say without spoiling the ending. It’s literally Mowgli just stalling time in the jungle before he… well, I’ll get to that later.
The reason why I’m completely okay with The Jungle Book being a pointless movie is that it never pretends it’s not a pointless movie. And you know what, not every movie needs to try to hit a home-run and be Beauty and the Beast. There’s a place for movies that acknowledges its own silliness and embraces it with never-serious-jokes, never-serious-characters, never-serious-songs, never-serious-plot, and never-serious-tone. Do the objectives of these sorts of movies compare to those of more serious movies? No, usually not. Do these sorts of movies deserve critical praise and attention? No, of course not. But for knowing what sort of a movie it was going to be is at least respectable.
The Jungle Book could not further demonstrate its silliness through its ending. In fact, for me, I think it pushed the boundaries a little too far. Mowgli, after asserting for the entire movie that he doesn’t want to live in the human village, falls in love with a human. How does he fall in love you say? He sees a ten-year-old girl sing and fetch a pail of water. I’m serious. Disney makes two kids fall in love as a means for Mowgli to join human society. While some may find this funny, I was more disgusted than anything else. But then I think about how consistent this moment in the film is compared to the rest of it, and while I wish they did take themselves a little bit more seriously here, I have no hard feelings towards this mindless piece of Disney entertainment. As one critic from Time Out summarized perfectly: “The animation has only the bare necessities, and the storyline is weak, but it doesn’t seem to matter much.”