Wednesday 23 February 2011

The Disney 50: The First Five

If you've produced small, noisy versions of yourself who need constant entertainment, why not use them as an excuse to see every animated Disney feature during 2011 at London's BFI? Hey, you can even let them deface the lobby with abstract renderings of their favourite Disney characters - one such interpretation is hidden in this very post. Can you spot it?

Disney films never really tickled my pickle as a kid; I was more interested in the anarchic fun of Warner's Looney Tunes than a load of fairytale schmaltz and cute woodland creatures. Now that I'm old and boring though, I can appreciate the undeniable skillz that went into the animation and storytelling of Uncle Walt's greatest works. Also I thought I should see them just because I never have, and it might stop people laughing and pointing at me in the street.

Here's what I thought of the first five, before Disney went broke and mad and started making cartoons about how America should really try and get on with Venezuela or some such cabbage.

Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Disney's first animated feature is technically astonishing given its age, but at 83 minutes it's about 70 minutes too long. I understand the desire to show off a lengthy dwarf-washing sequence or hearty dance-off, but when the flimsy plot keeps stopping to boast more of this new-fangled technology it's easy to lose interest. Over 80 years later, Disney still haven't learned their lesson. Have they, Tron Legacy?

Also, I don't want to spoil the ending, but Snow White: what a selfish, shallow bitch.

Pinocchio (1940)
Disney did some serious game-uppage in the three years between Snow White and Pinocchio. The latter is a non-stop torrent of set-pieces with all the classic tunes and breathtaking animation for which the studio deservedly became famous. Each of Pinocchio's incarnations - marionette, wooden boy and real boy - is rendered differently and completely convincingly, foreshadowing the genius of the Toy Story films (especially the 'Woody's Roundup' TV show sequence) some 60 years later.

I'm concerned there's still an island populated entirely by donkey-boys somewhere though, and I'd also like to know if the US Postal Service still deals in whale-mail.

Fantasia (1940)
A series of unconnected, animated videos for classical music's greatest hits, Fantasia tests the patience of all but the hardiest Disney fans. Don't be fooled by the abundance of Mickey Mouse imagery in the marketing: the massive-eared rodent doesn't appear until half an hour of abstract, avant-garde claptrap has passed, and then it's only for ten minutes of vaguely entertaining broom-related mayhem.

The most fun is to be had in the 'Night On Bald Mountain' sequence, which features a giant demon summoning all manner of devilry for no apparent reason except that that's what giant demons do. This section's influence on The Lord Of The Rings' Balrog and Raiders Of The Lost Ark's climactic ghostfest is undeniably obvious.

Dumbo (1941)
The animators of Dumbo show off considerably less than in Disney's previous features, but what's there - not least the almost illegally lovable title character - is carefully designed to yank your heartstrings out of your body till you cry. Which you will. And the sequence in which the pissed-up pachyderm hallucinates like he's done enough acid to kill, well, an elephant, is utterly amazing.

The story is so tight that just when you're getting ready for some final-act excitement the film abruptly finishes, which is slightly disappointing given that it's been so good up to then. Better to leave the audience wanting more than outstaying your welcome though, eh Snow White?

Bambi (1942)
Again, Bambi's animation feels less ostentatious than previous Disney films (due in no small part to the economic restrictions of a country at war), although Bambers himself is a wonder, not least his uncoordinated and uncooperative excuses for legs. Apparently the animators strapped stilts to the arms and legs of a child, fed him four bottles of bourbon and shoved him onto an ice rink for their inspiration and amusement. That's a cast iron fact that I certainly didn't just make up.

With its universal but somewhat tedious "circle of life" theme, Bambi feels like a dry run for The Lion King, with all its key scenes and characters repeated to more impressive effect in the later film. Even (spoiler) Mrs Bambi's notoriously kiddie-damaging death scene is less dramatic than (spoiler) Mufasa's, and way less traumatic than I expected: there weren't nearly enough children in the audience having their realities brought into sharp and painful relief for my liking.

On the plus side, Thumper is brilliant. I want one.

It's also worth mentioning the shorts that precede each feature shown at the BFI: most (though not all) are little slices of genius, and it's easy to see where Pixar got the inspiration for their award-winningly fantastic mini-movies. Here's Flowers And Trees, which played before Bambi. Enjoy it, it's aces.


  1. Roy Rogers but Walt Disney is my 50 year old lame Glaswegian joke for the day.

    I agree about Snow White being a shallow bitch. Well, she was only in 2D which is very shallow and she spent all her time feeling Grumpy.

    Oh, I bet you looked in the mirror to check your nose after seeing Pinocchio. You don't need to see someone's nose growing long to know when they are lying. It is when they say "To tell you the truth..." that you are about to hear porkies.

    Fantasia was boring. I saw a special showing of a digitaly restored print and sound track and wished I had done something else instead.

    I never saw Bambi or Dumbo in the cinema as a child so missed out on the magic.

    Any adult venturing into the BFI must be accompanied by at least one small child or risk more than a night on a bare mountain.

    Oh, thanks for including the spelling checker.

    I have a spelling checker
    It came with my PC
    It highlights for my review
    Mistakes I cannot sea.

    I ran this poem thru it
    I'm sure your pleased to no
    Its letter perfect in it's weigh
    My checker told me sew.

  2. Ah, the Dumbo hallucination sequence. Source of many a nightmare in my early childhood, though the Big Bad of my slumber was Jafar from Aladdin (with crazy-eyes Cruella from the end of 101 Dalmations and Ursula from Little Mermaid not far behind).

    Happy memories.

  3. The digital world has already dealt a death blow to traditional film and cinema, but like the Pai Mei five point palm-exploding heart technique in Kill Bill Vol 2 the victim will take five more steps before dying of heart failure. Cinema is in that five step period now. Who in their right mind is going to go to a cinema if the holographic true 3D experience is popping out of their phone or home cinema. Like the music hall the cinema is gone but does not know it yet.