Tuesday, August 2, 2011

3 on 3: Disney Animated Films

Each week this month, the Cafe will present a "3 on 3 panel" in which three experts will answer three questions on a single classic film topic. This week, the Cafe poses three questions on Disney animated films to:  Brandie from True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film; Alex from The Disney Films; and Toto, our resident Disney authority at the Cafe.

1. What is your favorite Disney animated feature-length film and why?

Alice in Wonderland.
Brandie: Alice in Wonderland (1951). I'm well aware that this is not a popular choice, but it has been one of my favorites since childhood. Even though many literary purists would likely disagree with me, I think Disney's Alice is faithful to the anarchic, satirical spirit at the heart of Carroll's work. Everything about the movie, from the gorgeous animation to the numerous musical snippets to the seemingly random organization of the film's segments, speaks to the innate playfulness embedded in Carroll's original stories. It's a surrealistic piece of pop culture candy, and I enjoy every "mad" minute of it.

Alex: While my answer is partially sentimental, my favorite Disney animated film is Peter Pan. The artistic influence of Mary Blaire is very apparent in the color scheme of Neverland, the characters are memorable and the animation is top notch. It also breaks with convention from other Disney animated films. For starters, Captain Hook is a comical villain. When compared to more sinister antagonists, such as Lady Tremaine from Cinderella or Scar from The Lion King, the obstacles in this film somehow never feel as high, but this adds to its charm. And the fact that the comical villain has a goofball sidekick adds to his appeal. Romance is nowhere to be found in this film. Wendy obviously has a crush on Peter, but the feelings are not reciprocated and his fairy companion Tinker Bell displays her disdain for having another girl around since she too has feelings for the boy who will never grow up. It may not have the emotional weight of some of the other classics, but the ending certainly leaves the viewer with chills when stern Mr. Darling, who wants nothing more than for his children to grow up fast, sees clouds in the form of a pirate ship over the moon and reflects “I have a strange feeling I’ve seen that ship before… when I was a small boy.” It is never established if Neverland was real or a dream, similar to Wonderland, which adds to its appeal.

Beauty and the Beast.
Toto: From its bookend storybook stained-glass window frames where we are introduced to the selfish prince and the curse placed upon him, Beauty and the Beast captured a place in my heart. Belle is a lovely girl who adores her father, reading, and singing. Gaston is a puffed up muscular bore. And we meet a host of charming personalities in the enchanted castle where Belle chooses to live with the Beast to save her father (including dear Mrs. Potts the tea pot, Chip the young cracked cup, Lumiere the charming candlestick, Cogsworth the proper clock, and the dog-like footstool). The music and lyrics by the profoundly gifted team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are perfection, especially the Busby Berkeley-like “Be Our Guest,” “Something There,” and the title song numbers. I was surprised at how well I liked Robby Benson as the prince/Beast and was delighted that Broadway performer Paige O’Hara was cast as Belle. Animation studios typically seem to think it is imperative to cast movie stars as their lead vocal talent. I was a little apprehensive about viewing Beauty and the Beast because I love Jean Cocteau’s exquisitely atmospheric La Belle et La Bete. But I learned a very important lesson a few years earlier with Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I adore Hans Christian Andersen’s story and avoided that Disney film because I was afraid it would ruin the classic work. When I finally saw The Little Mermaid and really enjoyed it, I learned how important it is to regard each work separately. Every book or film should stand on its own merits. Disney’s movie ends very differently than Andersen’s and really should.

2. TIME magazine movie critic Richard Corliss recently listed his top 25 best animated films. Most of the list was dominated by recent films. How do you believe the digitally animated films of today compare with the traditional classics of the past?

Brandie: I think Pixar proved back in 1995 with the first Toy Story film that digital animation has the potential to have as much heart and artistic value as the traditionally-animated films that preceded such technological innovation. That being said, not every studio that jumps on the digital animation bandwagon can produce the same level of films as such stalwarts of animation history as Pinocchio, Bambi, Cinderella, etc. As beautiful and thrilling as digital animation can be, if the story is not strong (Alpha and Omega, Igor) and the characters are uninteresting (Space Chimps, Planet 51) or too broadly comedic (Open Season, Over the Hedge, Madagascar), all the technical "razzle dazzle" in the world is not going to make such movies stand the test of time like their predecessors. But movies like Up, WALL-E, The Incredibles and Ratatouille (both of which Corliss ridiculously left off his list), Finding Nemo, the first two Shrek films, and the three Toy Story movies--all of which combine great characterization and storytelling with wit and sheer joy--will, I believe, be among those that will be considered undisputed classics in the future.

Alex: The Walt Disney Animation Studio throughout the years seemed to have their finger on the pulse of what moviegoers wanted to see until about the mid-late 1990’s. Many cite The Lion King as the end of the second golden age. I personally love all of the films from the 1990’s and feel the decline really started in the early 2000’s. I wouldn’t say that any of those films are truly bad (yes, I even enjoy aspects of Home on the Range), but the quality of these films certainly doesn’t match up to most of their predecessors. Even though Pixar is owned by Disney, Walt Disney Animation Studio seemed to be competing with mediocre pictures like Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons. Now the John Lasseter oversees both studios, this seems to have stopped and Disney is getting back to making films that people want to see. I think a few of the more recent films could go on to become classics, particularly Lilo & Stitch and Tangled. Bolt and The Princess and the Frog were good, but left something to be desired. They could, however, grow in popularity over the years and become true classics. After all, Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty were both box office bombs when first released. Only time will truly tell.

Toto: Story and direction will win out over flawless look for me any time. Sometimes the pristine quality of digital films can be marred by old or damaged theatre screens.

3. If you could spend a day with one Disney animated character, who (or what) would it be?

Brandie: Genie from Aladdin (1992). I want those three wishes, man!

Alex: I’ve always been intrigued by characters from Fantasia since they never speak (except when Mickey Mouse approaches Deems Taylor). In particular, Yensid, the sorcerer whose name is Disney spelled backwards. I’d love to know his story and how Mickey came to be his apprentice. His face is so stern that he could almost be a villain. While he may not be as fun as some of the more loveable characters in Disney’s cannon, I expect he would be interesting (and hopefully I could try on his really cool hat!).

Toto: I would love to spend a day with the beautiful horse, Maximus, from Tangled. He is brave, intelligent, and faithful. Unlike other Disney animals, Maximus doesn’t speak, yet he is a very good listener and excellent judge of character. He also has a most endearing personality. I think I would have a wonderful day with him and would have to share my time with my sisters Jane and Shelley and nieces Nina and Kara, who all love horses.


  1. This was a great way to start the "3 on 3 panels" for August! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about why you chose the selected Disney animated films as your faves. My top choice would be 101 DALMATIANS, which is not only beautifully drawn, but features a slew of memorable characters. I find myself especially drawn to Rollie, the chubby pup ("I'm hungry, Mother. I really am."). Personally, I found the number of recent pics in Corliss's list to be appalling. I still probably prefer hand-drawn animation to the computer-designed variety, but that's really just a preference of one art style over another. My issue is that I'm not sure one can dub a movie an all-time great until it has withstood the test of time. I enjoyed FANTASTIC MR. FOX, but it just came out in 2009. In 20-30 years, will it be as fondly remembered? Only time will tell. AS for spending an afternoon with a Disney animated character, I'd like some wishes, a cool wizard hat, and an endearing horse--could I go with all three?

  2. Wonderful debate, you three! Loved your thoughtful reflections on these films.
    #1 Your Disney favorites are all so good -- mine is Fantasia.
    #2 Difficult question. All have good points, but I do believe hand-drawn art to be more personable, more individualistic. My main case in point would be the new Fantasia compared to the original. The new was just too slick and rather boring tome - they should never have put the original Sorceror's Apprentice in the middle - to me that just showed up it's superiority. That said, newer CGI has improved. I adore Shrek and Toy Story. The one thing Disney produced recently that I think is just an abomination is the Hunchback of Notre Dame. A great tragedy of literature reduced to dancing gargoyles; whole generations of children who think Quasimodo is CUTE. Ack!
    #3 Your choices are all great! I'd spend the day with any one of them. But I'd rather spend the evening with the drunken little Bacchus in Fantasia's mythological take on the Pastoral Symphony! LOL!

  3. I agree with ClassicBecky about the quality of the discussion. I like this format for discussion. I adore BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and PETER PAN has actually improved over time for me. I haven't seen ALICE in ages. As an aside, I was quite pleased with Disney's THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.

  4. Rick, you kicked off your 3 On 3 series wonderfully, with smart, savvy responses from Brandie, Alex, and Toto! I'm not only surprised that Richard Corliss chose so many relatively recent animated films for his list (does he have a tween kid who helped him with his picks? :-)), but that he seems to have completely forgotten certain films somewhat off the beaten path, like, say, the Fleischers' GULLIVER'S TRAVELS or FANTASTIC PLANET. I'm glad Corliss included YELLOW SUBMARINE on the list, though, as it's one of our family's favorites.

    In addition, I must admit I honestly feel that at least a handful of Corliss's list are pretty darn close to being instant classics, such as THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE. Incidentally, there were two Disney animated films that I've always felt were better than they got credit for: HOME ON THE RANGE and THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE. To me, there's something Looney Tunes/Marx-Brothers-like in their gleefully anarchic zaniness. Great panel all around, you guys!

  5. Great panel and interesting discussion.

    If a tally is being kept, add me to the list of "Peter Pan" fans. The pace of the opening section (up to Neverland) is perfect and I admire the use of shadows.

    I thought I was a Disney geek until I had my special needs son. Repeated viewings of the classics (Walt's era) have given me an appreciation of the films that might have escaped me.

    I'd like to hang out with Lady Treymaine ("Cinderella") and learn the secret of her success as a parent. She says "jump" and those daughters say "how high?". Just once I'd like to know that power.

  6. Caftan Woman has a good point. My little grandson has a tendency to climb the walls (occasionally). When he needs to calm down, I put on Fantasia (his favorite), Snow White, Cinderella, Shrek, etc. He loves them, and we watch them together. (Then we play poker and I let him win.) I do love watching them again myself.

  7. What interesting Disney movies to choose. All three are delightful to watch but all of the older Disney films are just simply classics. I enjoyed reading all of the discussions. I will have to totally agree with Toto about her comment of spending a day talking to a horse. I am a horse lover. A day of brushing, riding a horse, talking to one, and rubbing one is an absolutely ideal day for me. Toto you have great relatives...4 who love horses. No one in my family cares for them at all...don't know what's wrong with them?? Great article and I truly enjoyed reading it.

  8. Such a grand topic to choose for your first panel. I love it when the animation I admired (and still admire) most is talked about by fans who really and truly appreciate it. When I first saw ALICE IN WONDERLAND as a kid, I went right home and began drawing the talking/singing flowers. The film had such an strong influence on me - drawing wise - for many years. Well, the whole Disney 'look' did.

    For that reason I would choose ALICE as my favorite of the Disney creations. Though I also loved PETER PAN (the gorgeous scene of the kids and Peter flying in the night sky over London is one I've never forgotten) PINOCHIO, DUMBO, 101 DALMATIONS (the midnight bark!), BAMBI (the scene when Bambi's father (I assumed) approaches Bambi to tell him that his mother is dead - the beauty of those drawings, especially the stag, is mesmerizing) and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. (I admit it, I cry when they dance.)

    I truly enjoyed this post. Thanks so much.

    P.S. Needless to say I'm not crazy about the 'new' animation at all. I much prefer the hand-drawn variety.

  9. Picking one favorite Disney animated film, is a tuff one. They are all so wonderful.. But I have to admit, I'm a great fan of "Fantasia", this film is a Disney masterpiece, maybe even a milestone in animation, with the classical music, set in sequences like in, "Night on Bald Mountain" featuring the awesome demon-creature Chernabog.

    Wonderful article, you guys did a great job...

  10. I agree that Walt Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" is one of his finest accomplishments. "Alice" and "Sleeping Beauty" are too often overlooked, but they are great examples of the classical period in Disney animation. I like "Peter Pan" which is visually arresting. I don't think its narrative is as strong as the others. It's too episodic which is likely due to the J.M. Barrie play. RLG

  11. I have thoroughly enjoyed this entire blog on Disney animated works. What I especially liked was that not one person commented about animation being intended only for children. It transcends age! It is always interesting to see the films that touch our hearts. Well done, all, and thanks for your comments!

  12. I didn't hate Alice in Wonderland but I didn't particularly enjoy it either.