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Oliver and Company Review

 

Oliver & Company (1988) Review

 

What do I know about the film?

 

Ah 1988. What a year. With a USA Presidential election, terrorist attacks sending panic throughout the world and the Olympics games taking place…What a time to be alive.

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And then of course I was born. Yes. Cokie Blume entered the world (and yes I know I have disclosed my real name on here and most of you know me personally anyway but let’s just pretend neither of those are facts and humour me) in early 1988 and with them was born an insatiable appetite for popstars masquerading as cartoon dogs. And lo, did Disney deliver.

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This is Billy Joel. As a dog. Billy Joel Dog.

But first, as with our previous 2 reviews, let us discuss what was happening over at Don Bluth Headquarters. Don Bluth’s posse was undeniably strong at this point. His new feature, The Land Before Time, had two of the biggest players in Hollywood history behind it with George ‘Star Wars’ Lucas and Steven ‘every film ever’ Spielberg as producers. With this kind of backing the dinosaur adventure Bluth created was epic in every sense and with a huge hit already under his belt he must have been feeling pretty cocky. Cocky enough to go up against Disney on the same opening weekend.

But Disney had a plan…Prolific voice actor Dom DeLuise appeared in very nearly every Bluth film, particularly in the 80’s…But Disney pilfered him from Land Before Time to appear in Oliver & Company. So let’s recap: Bluth had Spielberg and Lucas and Disney had DeLuise…

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Too close to call…

 

Critically The Land Before Time obliterated Oliver & Company with the overall consensus being that The Land Before Time was beautiful and thought provoking while Oliver & Company was a low effort merchandise generator. Ouch.

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What? Dogs just like McDonalds…You shut up…

Money wise it was a bit closer: Land Before Time won the battle of the opening weekends going straight to number 1 with Oliver languishing at number 4 but Oliver made more money in total domestically when all was said and done. That is if we don’t include the seemingly never ending sequels the Land Before Time generated.

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Does the Ice Age never arrive in this timeline? And they accused Oliver of being the money vacuum…

Disney even went as far as to rerelease Oliver in direct competition with a new Bluth film further down the line with the aim of once again outdoing him in the bank department. It was an out and out war and I fucking love it. Sure, it is less Hitler and Mussolini vs Churchill and Roosevelt, more the Sharks vs the Jetts in West Side Story. If Jeffrey Katzenberg and Don Bluth ever met in the street I am sure they just danced at each other. With Deluise sobbing in the middle…

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Can’t we all just love each other?

Overall I would give yet another point to Bluth, making it 3-0 at our latest count. But it’s not over yet folks. Disney were boosted by the domestic box office results and announced plans to release an annual animated feature for the foreseeable future therefore doing away with the long gaps in between films that had dragged 80’s Disney down. Good news then yes? Although you might suspect there will be a drop in quality with that kind of time pressure on them…

Right?

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I’m so fucking stoked…

It feels odd to be talking about the best of animated Disney, Spielberg produced movies and 1988 without mentioning the critical darling that is Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The cinematic masterpiece that arguably began the period known as-But let’s save all that for next time. Because this is about films produced by the Walt Disney Animation Studios only and not about the time I was four years old and I realised what sex appeal looks like without really understanding what that meant or why I felt funny:

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Literally impossible standards of beauty-Away with you!

So forget the small waisted animated women with amazing hair for a moment: We have a half baked Dickensian adaptation to watch!

 

Did I see it as a child?

 

Oh hell yes. I was obsessed with one of the songs in it and performed it constantly for a period of time. I remember I loved the way the dogs jumped from car to car and I used to act out the song in question at my local park jumping from different parts of the climbing frame while singing loudly doing my best to be cool. It kind of worked until the inevitable clang of me tumbling from the monkey bars.

I often acted out films and stories with other people in my class and it was suggested by someone on one occasion that we do Oliver & Company. By the way this wasn’t a recess thing: Our teacher would let us leave the classroom to rehearse and we would take up class time with the actual performances too. And they were not short. It is a wonder I learnted anything. Alas, alack, our production of Oliver & Company was not meant to be as Olivia Cameron and I got into a fierce argument over who would play Georgette and some things were said that couldn’t be taken back (Well she might have been prettier than me but she didn’t have my acting chops and everyone knew it…) and so we settled on a performance of Hocus Pocus instead and the idea was lost forever. Which was a damn shame. Although my work as Ice/Thackery Binx in what I am pretty sure was a 4 hour performance of Hocus Pocus (the kid playing Max didn’t know her lines) was superb.

 

Synopsis:

 

We open on a scratchy looking New York and a box of kittens that are being sold despite the fact nobody appears to be around to do the whole exchange of goods for cash thing but no matter, that’s the Big Apple innit? There are loads of taxis, tall buildings and boxes of cats as far as the eye can see. So all the kittens are camping it up in the hope of being chosen but naturally the passers by by pass the ginger cat Oliver in favour of the blue cats of the litter because holy shit it’s a blue cat:

 

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But the night grows cold and dark and soon Oliver is left alone with nothing but the waterlogged remains of the box and the disembodied voice of Huey Lewis for company-Huey Lewis assures him everything will be fine but Oliver is not convinced.

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After meeting Billy Joel Dog (His name is Dodger in the actual real life film but I will continue to call him Billy Joel Dog because I can) Oliver helps him with a sausage stealing caper that is deemed successful in spite of the fact the sausages are dragged through wet concrete and all over the sidewalks during a boisterous musical number.

 

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You know what? I’ll pass. Wasn’t hungry anyway.

But When Billy Joel Dog lives up to his actual name and dodges out of sharing, Oliver follows him back to his house and meets the gang of dogs he lives with and their owner Fagin who sends his pets out everyday to steal enough good stuff to pay off his extensive debts with a loan shark…

Ok…This is the part where adapting a story about humans into a story about dogs throws up some questions…This seems like a flawed business model to me. How does owning and caring for 5 dogs who are willing to roam the streets during the day = profit? Well apparently it doesn’t because the mafia boss in question Bill Sykes, here represented by a big jawed bald dude who smokes comically large cigars, makes it clear that Fagin only has 3 days to come through with the dough or else…

 

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And all that implies…

So Oliver, keen to fit in, agrees to turn to a life of crime but about 8 minutes into his first day he messes up and ends up stuck in a car with a small girl named Jenny who takes an instant liking to him and he to her.

So now he faces an agonising choice…Which family will he choose? The gang of dogs he has known for about 14 hours or the lovely little girl he has known for about 26 minutes?

Oh and will Fagin get his kneecaps broken by Sykes in the slightly more adult plot next door?

 

What Works:

 

They say you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. Seriously. Everybody says that. I think it is a human rule that you have to say it at least once a decade in some wistful context or you get evicted from Earth. But in this case the longing in my heart wasn’t awakened until what was taken from me was returned. While others may argue an alternative case, my feeling is that this is the first Disney musical since Robin Hood. That was a lot of films ago. And while every film since has had merit (And Black Cauldron was also there) and even a few songs, it wasn’t until I sat down to Oliver & Company that I truly appreciated how much I fucking love a Disney musical.

The soundtrack is impressively rangy in style too. Late 80’s pop, rock, blues, a big Broadway number, simple sweet piano, and, of course, the symphony of wonder that is the city of New York itself. Normally this would feel a bit forced but each song works with the artist it is given to and adds to the story successfully or, if not, pads it out in a suitably entertaining way. They brought in some heavy duty song writers to get the mix right ranging from the eternal Barry Manilow to piano man Billy Joel (did I mention Billy Joel is in this?) to the legendary lyrist Howard Ashman who will be back before this project is over. And the voices they were writing for? We are talking Ruth Pointer, Bette Fucking Midler, Huey Lewis and, of course, Billy Joel.

It was a joy to see the care that went into creating the soundtrack even if not all the songs are equally appreciated by me. ‘Once Upon a Time in New York City’ is a bit corny and ‘Streets of Gold’ is cut short just as it is getting going which is a shame. ‘Perfect Isn’t Easy’ is a great showcase for Bette Midler’s creation Georgette and ‘Good Company’ is one of the most effective relationship building songs Disney has ever done…But before we get to talking about those scenes we have to talk about Billy Joel Dog.

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The film doesn’t really exist until Billy Joel Dog shows up. He talks like every late 80’s/early 90’s cool guy (‘You’re not being fair! ‘Fares are for tourists kid!’ Ooh burn!) and struts all over New York like he owns it, jumping from car to car, being mean to a small cat, sexually harassing girl dogs, singing while his mouth is closed in one shot, conjuring previous Disney dogs through the power of cool alone, stopping traffic for a dog parade, and playing a moving piano and…This is all in a 3 minute song. It is ridiculously awesome.

And the song? I love it. Always have, always will. When I first got a portable music playing device it was the 3rd or 4th song that went on it. True story. Full disclosure: I’m an adult. But God save me, I love pretending to be a strutting dog in New York with a pair of stolen glasses, a string of ruined sausages and a dudetastic attitude that would make Sonic the Hedgehog, the Ninja Turtles and the Fonz all go ‘No. That’s too much sass now’ When I hear ‘Why Should I Worry?’ I forget that I hate everything. It is so cheesy. But I can’t not.

I am not sure if I even care much for the character of Dodger in the grand scheme of things. He is fairly clichéd (he is a bad boy who is actually caring and good, quelle surprise!) and not as interesting to me as the out for himself kid in the Carol Reed adaptation of Dickens’s classic tale. But Billy Joel is gung ho in his reading of the awful quips and ‘Why Should I Worry?’ is enjoyable enough that I don’t care what happens after it in all honesty.

But, in time honoured tradition, I will review the rest of the movie. Let’s take a break from the music and talk animation. It is a largely good looking film and, as with Great Mouse Detective, it gently hints to the more sophisticate visual story telling Disney would very soon be moving to if you know what to look for. Director, animator and artist George Scribner showcases some seriously cool camera shots that make what is a fairly basic story (cat moves house a few times, some shenanigans ensue) seem considerably more action packed.

I love the way New York is depicted in the opening and closing shots:

 

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The setting is used well as a background character. It isn’t all tall buildings and bright lights, it is kind of dirty and noisy with cabs as far as the eye can see and Oliver & Company portray this with pride.

 

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Some of my favourite scenes/shots? Ok! When Oliver falls off the piano during ‘Why Should I Worry?’ I always gasp. Everytime. Don’t worry, some tomatoes break his fall and he is fine and dandy. The perils of gravity are inconsistent in the Disney universe.

Ditto electricity in this film but we will get to that later…

When Jenny is performing ‘Good Company’ at the piano, Oliver is leaping all over and the camera spins round them in a way that just feels very natural and not at all showy but is still kind of impressive. It really feels like it paved the way for the dancing scene in Beauty and the Beast. I have never looked this up and just choose to believe it did. It is a lovely sequence anyway and I especially like that bit. Good Company has a pretty melody and the bonding of the two characters is very simply played in a way I find kind of moving. I didn’t go as far to cry or anything but I felt warm and fuzzy and temporarily thought I might want a cat.

Then there is Georgette, Jenny’s poodle, making her spotlit descent down the stairs at the end of her musical number, a moment that was so unexpectedly sophisticated visually speaking that my viewing partner announced: ‘It’s like something out of The West Wing…But with slutty dogs’ This remains one of my favourite soundbites of all time, not that I advocate shaming dogs for their promiscuity of course.

 

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Bitches be like…

Georgette, is played by the hammy Bette Midler to great effect. I can’t think of an equivalent character in the story of Oliver Twist but she isn’t totally without a purpose. Her role is to be a secondary antagonist and move the plot along by returning Oliver to Billy Joel Dog and friends because she hates having to share her stage/owner with him. She then transitions with fairly little fuss into being a goody but it doesn’t bother me that much because the film is better for having her in it, character inconsistencies be damned.

People like to give Aladdin credit for starting the boom of celebrities bringing their chops to animated movies but Midler turns in a solid comedy turn here. The material is somewhat weak at times but she sells it. I especially like the way she says the word ‘bark’ rather than actually barking.

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Disney are not exactly shy when it comes to including dead parents in their films but rather than offing Jenny’s parents so she can partake in animal antics without their inconvenient protection, Disney opt instead to make them neglectful as fuck which makes her instant bonding with Oliver and her devastation over his disappearance genuinely effective.

The Parents are not in the film and leave Jenny in the care of Winston who appears to be a butler of some sort. He assures Jenny in her first scene that he is confident her Parents will return from their trip in time for her birthday…but his face tells another story…He knows they will continue to let her down and Jenny is pretty despondent about the whole thing. In most kids films the parents would make it home in time for the third act but in this film? Nope. They don’t get back for her birthday despite saying on the phone to Winston that they were on their way after a quick stop off in Rome. Which is all well and good but they have still missed their young daughter’s birthday and not only that…Either Winston and Jenny don’t bother to mention the whole kidnapping ordeal Jenny goes through or her parents don’t consider this a good enough reason to come home as fast as humanly possible…Either way…Jesus.

Jenny’s enthusiasm for Oliver (The ‘Good Company’ montage suggests she is still singing the song about what great pals they are 3 days in to his arrival which speaks to her commitment if nothing else) is quite endearing and I think the actress Natalie Gregory and the animators did a great job making her vulnerable during the scenes where she is roaming the street with her piggy bank trying to get her cat back.

Interestingly the original plan was to bring back Penny from The Rescuers in this movie which…nope. I am so glad they didn’t make this Penny’s ending as that would have been too dark-She finally gets adopted after years of being overlooked/forced into child slavery and then they dump her with their butler while they go on the road leaving her to long for the days when all she had was vermin for company? Too mean Disney! I am not sure why they changed their mind…Was it that it would be too brutal to have Penny be kidnapped a second time? Also what happened to her pet cat from that movie? Were we to understand that he had died and that is why she is so keen to have a new one? And why can’t she hear animals talking in this film but she could in the Rescuers? Wouldn’t that mess with a kids head if one day you could chat away to mice and cats and then suddenly radio silence? Whatever the reason they redesigned the kid to give her a more hip look (are those stick on earrings? I hope they are stick on earrings.) and changed the name from Penny to Jenny (inspired) and I think she was better for it.

Speaking of the human characters, one thing that has changed for me over the years is my view on Fagin. As a kid I viewed him as an antagonist. I am not sure if it was the design or his initial plan when Oliver comes back to hold him for ransom but I sure as Hell found him creepy as a scrappy youngster. I don’t think I went as so far to boo when he came on screen but I had limited time for his bullshit. These days I find him a lot more sympathetic if a bit baffling. Sure he is kind of cowardly around Sykes and whines a lot about his circumstances but there is a fundamental decency that isn’t present in the source material (the anti semantic message from the book is thankfully absent unless there is some subtext I am missing) that create some great character moments. While I make fun of the whole getting your dogs to steal for you thing he does treat them as loving pets more than employees. After his unfortunate meeting with Sykes where he learns he only has 3 days to pay him back he is touched when his dogs show concern and he immediately softens and they all settle in while he reads aloud what appears to be some kind of dog porn they all enjoy.

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Fagin’s attempt to solve his problem via a pretty amusing ransom note (‘Dear very rich cat owner person…’) leads to a couple of moments of humanity that stood out to me on viewing the film as an adult. He might not stand up to Sykes but his practice speech before he stutters and panics through the real thing feels realistic because it is a familiar problem. His silent but angry response when Billy Joel Dog is attacked by Sykes’s own dogs suggests a back bone forming and it is pretty heart warming to watch his conscious get the better of him when his own life is on the line. As soon as he realises that Jenny is just a kid with shitty parents and there is no big pay off coming he reunites her with Oliver. Sure he fails to confess his part in her misery and is unable to keep her from being abducted by Sykes but he in many ways is just as vulnerable as her only he doesn’t have a butler looking after him. You get a sense he formed his ‘gang’ via street dogs because he doesn’t know how to interact with humans and while this is not the main focus of the story and might be me reading too much into it, I thought this was a nice touch.

Fagin is a guy with no education, money or prospects who eats dog biscuits and got in way over his head. It is hard not to feel sorry for him and Dom DeLuise does a good job of selling the different shades to such a sad character without making it too depressing.

I like that they made an effort to make the human characters more than background players. The A plot might be Oliver finding his way in the world but Jenny and Fagin are heavily involved in that narrative and interact with the animals in a way that you don’t often see in a film like this. They don’t get tossed to the side like the humans in 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp when the ‘real’ adventure begins…It is their story too and so they are rounded characters that are well animated and well performed.

I think it is telling that the scenes without the talking animals still work and still engaged me as a viewer. While logically a lot of what the humans do don’t make much sense, in the context of a cartoon where a dog can leap from the top of moving car to another moving car without getting splatted it is a nice touch to go beyond the cute factor of the animals and have the poor but warm and rich but lonely characters have personality.

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So Oliver gets sent packing by Georgette who facilitates his “rescue” by the gang but, unlike my synopsis suggested, there is no dilemma for Oliver and he insists he wants to be with Jenny leaving Dodger believably hurt. Fagin sees Oliver’s fancy collar and drops off a ransom note and meeting spot at the address on the tag leading to Jenny setting out in the dark to set the finale in motion. Sykes snatches the kid when he sees Fagin’s heart has grown three sizes and, even though I was hoping Winston was about to go all ‘Man on Fire’ on Sykes, the gang band together to get her back instead leading to possibly the most well regarded scene in the film.

While the actual rescue is pretty routine (there is even the classic fake pizza delivery bit, but God save me I love that) the subsequent chase scene through the graffiti coated subway system leading to the Brooklyn Bridge is pretty great. The film disposes of the villains in a solidly brutal fashion with Syke’s dogs getting electrocuted and Sykes himself getting struck by a train just as the others manage to inexplicably escape. It is over pretty quickly but it is a satisfying sequence if only for the classic ‘villain loses his cool’ moment as Sykes stops being a man and becomes a monster: Driving his fancy Cadillac scraping and screeching through the underground, destroying the gear stick, smashing through the window with his bare hand to grasp at the terrified kid on the hood of his car…I love it when previously slick villains start to lose their shit.

The film knows what its strongest asset is though: It ends on a reprise of Why Should I Worry? as Billy Joel Dog and the gang zip in and out the New York traffic singing loudly about how ace it is to be poor. This scene is the manifesto of the movie. A largely non threatening, family friendly version of New York inhabited by a rag tag gang of animals delivering an upbeat melody that stays in your head long after the credits stop rolling. And yes. Whether you like it or not, and I LOVE it, that song will stay in your head.

I wish the same could be said for every aspect of this film…However…

 

 

What Doesn’t Work:

 

This is one of the those films where the strong moments (clever shots, good tunes, cool chase scene) seem to be balanced out with elements that are hardly worth commenting on. Nothing bad exactly. But when there are moments in a film which hint that there is interesting talent working on it who want to make something good and worthwhile but then ¾ of the film is made up of lazy/safe/forgettable/filler it is all the more frustrating. It is like you can hear the producers looking at their watch and going: ‘I have dinner reservations at 7…can we not just have Cheech Marin’s character get electrocuted in a comedy way even though electricity will be dangerous later and do a funny line before passing out?’

Let’s start with the doggy gang. So, by my memory, we have Einstein who is stupid. I see what they did there. Francis who is like Frasier Crane but a dog. Rita who…is a girl. She has a couple of lines and a bit of a song. She appears to have a history with the baddy dogs, Roscoe and DeSoto, which is kind of cool…She is nearly interesting but doesn’t get enough screen time. And then there is Cheech Marin Dog aka Tito. Just…No. Not funny.

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The success of comic relief characters comes down to personal taste but Cheech Marin Dog didn’t really do it for me. He is not even as annoying as Black Cauldron’s Gurgi (in fairness I have been in traffic accidents funnier than Gurgi so that point barley counts) he just thoroughly failed to amuse me. I thought Bette Midler’s attempts to inject worth into lines like ‘I broke a nail!’ were fair and Billy Joel Dog had his moments almost entirley due to how ridiculous he was a concept: A cool dog with a neckerchief, bad puns and the voice and piano skills of Bily Joel will always be joyful. Sorry.

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But the film relies too much on Cheech’s fast talking wise cracks being funny and they just aren’t. A half hearted attempt at flirtatious banter between him and Georgette was especially grating as it is one of my least favourite tropes-You know, when the female character (usually female anyway) claims she can’t stand the male but he persists in the foolhardy belief that she will admit her true feeling soon and he is usually right because the same person who writes his arrogant, creepy behaviour also gets to write how the other character responds to it. At one point Cheech Marin Dog literally says: ‘I think she likes me!’ just after being slapped for kissing her. And I groaned so loudly that you probably heard me.

Do you get what I mean? If you are going to do the same stuff that every other film does, people are going to struggle to remember your movie but if you don’t bother to come up with something better then either A) You don’t care about the quality of your work or B) You assume your audience wants something familiar and unchallenging so you swap creativity for stuff they can’t distinguish from a billion other films they have seen or C) You don’t have the time or budget to correct what isn’t working. Make your choice A, B or C. The end result is the same either way though.

Anyway, the gang as a whole don’t get developed enough or spend enough time with Oliver to justify their claim that he is family to them. He is with them for less than a whole day so any attempt to make this convincing involves quite the shortcut. Oliver being brought back is necessary to the plot but his reaction to it is a weaksauce attempt at conflict that doesn’t really lead to anything except Dodger sulking for a few seconds. After all, the film ends with Oliver getting to stay with Jenny and he and Dodger say a brief and pretty heartless goodbye (‘You’re ok for a cat’) and off he goes, his life the same as before Oliver was in it. It would seem Jenny’s generosity only stretches to the cat and not the clearly ill probably homeless man who just gave her a single shoe for her birthday but anyways, it’s fiiiine because why should we worry etc.

Now in defence of the film (I can feel the hardcore O&C fans sharpening their…what do losers use as weapons? Never mind…) the events of Oliver Twist happen pretty fast too-I am pretty sure Oliver ends up getting caught the first day he goes out on the job in the book so perhaps it was less about lazy story telling and more about being true to the source material…But in the book when Oliver is forced back to the gang it is certainly not because he is considered family. The Oliver in the book is only ever a tool for other, more intelligent characters to take advantage of whereas here we have to buy that they care about him and we have to care about that…It is a stretch is all I am saying. They don’t do a bad job of fleshing out some of the characters but we don’t spend enough time with Fagin’s gang to feel emotionally wounded by Oliver’s decision to stay where the money is.

Oliver is pitched as the lead character although you could make a viable claim for Billy Joel Dog being the one you are invested in. But Oliver’s name is on the poster so let’s just all admit he is kind of boring. The film can’t decide if he capable or not and it just means he has qualities that all screenwriters give characters they don’t know what to do with: He is feisty but easily startled, naive but won’t be pushed around, he can hold his own but needs to be looked after…Oh my God guys just pick a lane! His story is rushed as Hell and goes by so quickly that it undermines the suffering he endures in the first song. If the film committed to the fear and uncertainty in that opening number, he would have learned a lot more but actually…what does he learn? How does he grow? What is the point to any of this? He got lucky, then luckier still. That’s it. He appears to be about to go on a crazy adventures to earn his happy ending but really he just gets passed around until it is time for the film to be over.

I wasn’t sure where to place Sykes in this review. I like his death (What? The fear in his eyes was good and he went BOOM when the train hit him… Please don’t analyse me too closely…) and I guess he is believably intimating. However I think he comes under the heading of one of the least interesting Disney villains for me and as with the Horned King I am baffled as to how many fans he has online. Sure it is kind of cool to have a character just doing his job and not being evil by birth or through magic or anything like that but he isn’t fleshed out past having a couple of hobbies (he builds models apparently) and, again, none of his lines go beyond clichés and his motivation can be summed up thusly:

 

While Disney have always adapted very, very loosely from their source material I do feel the characters in this film are not as memorable as other versions of Oliver I have seen in part because they are a lot softer in nature despite the harshness of their surroundings. I would be willing to bet a lot of people who watched this film as a child don’t remember much about the individual characterisations as adults and there is a reason for that. There are a lot of clichéd tropes, predictable punch lines and obvious character trajectories that are pretty rushed and mean the emotional beats don’t land as well as they might if the pacing/script came out a little better.

For example, Sykes getting hit by a train is a great moment of ‘holy shit-did they just go there???’ that is instantly undermined by the seriously overdone: ‘Oh no-Is the main character dead? Sure looks dead…Better not check let’s just cry-Oh wait he’s fine’ trope. It seriously does my head in: When they write it in do they imagine any person in the audience is on the edge of their seat waiting to see if Oliver died or not? Or is it just another thing to tick off from their checklist of stuff that must be included in the final act of an animated movie when the running time is a bit short?

Oliver’s happy ending doesn’t come from any major sacrifice. There is no Nancy character as far as I can make out. Ok, maybe I should stop comparing the film to the book/other Oliver movies but there is a reason I keep returning to that well: They use a lot of the same names and story beats as the Dickens novel but have abandoned so much of what made that story compelling which leaves me with the question: Why bother?

The idea of a doggy gang of criminals makes no fucking sense. I can understand a group of innocent kids being good cover for a crime gang but who isn’t noticing a Great Dane taking their wallet? No wonder Fagin was failing so hard at life.

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I just don’t get why they didn’t either make this an all talking animal story or a human only story or just abandon the whole Oliver Twist in New York with a Cat stuff all together. Perhaps if there had been less restrictions due to elements that had to be included to justify the adaptation they could have allowed themselves more freedom to be creative with how they told the story.

Dickens meets Disney could have been great. New York animals turning to crime meets Disney could have been great. What we got was entertaining enough and writing it off as a cash grab is certainly unfair. But there is a reason it has flown under the radar and is not considered part of the revitalisation of the brand: It takes more than a couple of tight songs to make a classic. Oliver may end the film with more friends than he started but he was never destined to be one of the popular kids.

That’s all still to come…

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‘You can’t sit with us!’

 

 

Conclusion:

 

 

It is a shame the final product is so middle of the road because some of the scenes (the subway chase, the Good Company segment) suggests there is a heartfelt and exciting story buried under the Cheech Marin shtick and the rush to get to the end. Overall it is demonstrably not one of the more memorable Disney films no matter what the rabid fan base shriek at you but it holds a special place for me due to the soundtrack alone.

 

 

Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 4

Angry dogs chasing Oliver, Sad Billy Joel Dog noise, Dogs getting electrocuted and Sykes getting hit by a train…

Holy shit Sykes getting hit by a train is dark…Let’s take another look…

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Best Song:

 

While I actually think Good Company might be more deserving I have to give it to Why Should I Worry? I still think this might be one of my favourite Disney songs as it never fails to brighten my day.

 

Thanks Billy Joel Dog.

 

 

 

 

Next Time: Look at this film…Isn’t it neat? No Disney collection could be complete without The Little Mermaid (1989)

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The Great Mouse Detective Review

Ok…2 weeks and about 2 years behind schedule here it is. This one was not easy and I am not delighted with it. I wrote it, my computer died and it went away, I started working on it again, my computer died again, I cried a bir, it occurred to me around the stage the computer wouldn’t even switch on that I should buy a new computer but by this point I was sick of trying to remember what I had written and what I wanted to say about the sodding film…But it is done. It might not be good, but it exists and so I can move on with my life. Thanks for your patience. And my hope is that the Disney reviews will now pick up steam again.

 

The Great Mouse Detective (1986) Review

 

What do I know about the film?

After the total unmitigated disaster that was ‘Black Cauldron’ Disney was yet again in the position of needing a win. Enter Basil of Baker Street. No case too difficult, even the case of the box office poison. ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ was well received by audiences and critics alike and as such its legacy is partial redemption for the Walt Disney animation department thus leading to work commencing on the films that would trigger that most marvellous of things: A renascence.

But not yet. Yeah, at the time ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ was released it was unfortunately overshadowed by Bluth’s second big mouse film: The far more financially successful and Steven Spielberg produced ‘An American Tail’ Of the two films, it is more likely you have heard of that one. Hell, if you were a child in the 80’s or 90’s chances are you just burst into a sentimental chorus of ‘Somewhere Out There’ against your will.

 

While not all critics appreciated ‘Tail’ it was…big. Bombastic. Epic. In short, it out-disneyned Disney by a long shot especially where it counts-money. So if you are keeping track at home, the tally is Don Bluth 2, Disney 0. For now.

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She’s coming…Don’t worry…Any minute now…

 
Did I see it as a child?

 

Yes and I liked it very much. Although I was a bit baffled to learn that there have been a lot of different titles. It started of being called ‘Basil of Baker Street’ but apparently the name tested badly or something and was changed to ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ much to the irritation of a lot of the people working on the film. In fact, animator Ed Gombert sent around a memo claiming it was from a studio executive alerting the staff to the fact that all the films had to have generic titles lest the audience get confused such as ‘Seven Little Men help a Girl’ and ‘The Wooden Boy who becomes Real’

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Oddly enough, the version I had as a child had a third title:

 

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So I don’t know why they couldn’t make up their mind about it. I am still slightly confused but then I guess it is not the first time a film has changed titles depending on where it is distributed so I think I will just post a picture of Vincent Price looking disdainfully at a parrot and move on:

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So you may have spotted by now that the ‘Mouse Detective’ design seems to have a lot in common with another famous detective. That’s right. Poirot.

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Uncanny.

Honestly? I had always assumed Disney couldn’t get the rights to Sherlock Holmes or something seeing as he clearly appears in the film a couple of times but is never named. It felt like a singularly weird copyright dispute. However thanks to the internet I have learned that ‘Basil of Baker Street’ was a series of children’s novels by Eve Titus. There were 5 books where Basil, a detective, and Dr Dawson, his biographer, solved the crimes of the mouse world while living downstairs from Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street. An odd concept, certainly. What’s next? The going on’s of the woodlice who roam the rotten floor boards in Room 101? How about the raccoon who lives in Rochester’s attic? Comics from the perspective of Superman’s head lice? A series of best selling films about the bed bugs at Hogwarts?

No JK Rowling-stop! You have enough money…Well ok. But I want a cut.

 
Synopsis:

 

Olivia is a young mouse and is having a nice birthday with her nice Father who is a toy maker and a single parent which is just charming and he gives her a wind up ballerina doll he presumably made himself and she has just declared it her very best birthday ever and he the very best Father ever in the whole world and she has just finished announcing that her favourite thing about him is how present he is…when a one legged bat breaks into their home, fucks their shit up, and kidnaps her Father.

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That escalated quickly

And so it is that Dr Dawson, a portly English gent recently returned from action Afghanistan, (ok, I know mice have their own anthropomorphised universe here but…how the fuck did they start a war with some Afghani mice?) finds Olivia sitting on a box of liver pills sobbing about needing to find the greatest detective ever to locate the missing Father. So they head to Baker Street together and thus begins a crazy adventure…

Can Basil not Sherlock and Dawson not Watson save Olivia’s Father from the clutches of the evil Professor Ratigan not Moriarty while eating crumpets made from Mrs Judson not Hudson?

Judson? Really? Smooth.
 

What Works:

Basil enters the story as a fully formed character who doesn’t need an arc. Unlike most Disney protagonists, this is more a day in the life of the lead character than it is the story of how he came to grow and change as a result of his adventure. While the lack of growth might be a point of contention in another film I appreciate it here because Basil is already awesome. Unlike the parade of Princes and Princesses that have traipsed through the halls of the Mouse over the years, this particular protagonist is charismatic from the off and excluding learning a small amount of humility and softening up a bit he doesn’t need to learn any lessons or find love or become King stupidly easily…He is a detective, he solves the mystery, appears to die, doesn’t and then it is on to the next adventure.

He is played brilliantly by Barrie Ingham whose vocal performance is truly perfect and animated enjoyably too. From the first scene there is a lot to appreciate: I like his disdain for Olivia (mainly because I share it), his dramatics when things go wrong followed by self pitying violin playing, his guilty look when Mrs Judson gets upset about her pillows and his frantic excitement when he realises Olivia’s case may link him to his nemesis. It is all good stuff. Except his perpetuation of ‘elementary’ as a catchphrase for this kind of stock character, that I could do without.

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You know what you did…

It might sound like I am saying it is hard to care about him because he doesn’t grow and change much but shut up and let me finish: the film does a good job of making you root for him via showing him being flawed from the start. He is prideful and easily brought down if he feels vulnerable and criticised, traits that are present from his entrance. The sequence where Basil believes he has finally found the villain only to discover they all knew he was coming and it was a trap is pretty excruciating as his puffed up chest falls in defeat. Dawson sees right away they are in trouble because Basil has been humiliated and it is easy to empathise with his pain as he declares himself beaten. It is quite dark because he initially fails to make any attempt to escape even knowing it will cost him and his friend their lives. Indirectly he is telling Dawson that his life is worth less than his ego. It is understandable that Dawson freaks out when his mate’s eyes go crazy and he declares that they should trigger the trap that will kill them asap. It does feel a bit like he has just lost it so it is a relief when it turns out Basil has got his groove back.

In the end, he has learned to appreciate his mates a bit more but he still gets Olivia’s name wrong during their goodbye and is quick to move on after she leaves. It is nice to have a Disney character whose passion is his work free from sentimentality and this not being shown as a thoroughly bad thing. He is self involved and very pleased with himself but he is still likeable and enjoyable to watch.

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But if you like Basil, get ready for his rival.

 

Ratigan is introduced with a thunder clap and a portrait that changes smirk as needed.

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‘I keep the portrait of my arch enemy over the fireplace for reasons unknown…’

Before we cut to him holding a little meeting with his gang.

Now, here is what elevates this film beyond standard cartoon fare: This whole introduction scene is mostly made up of exposition. We learn that Ratigan is plotting something and he is indeed behind the kidnapping of Olivia’s Father. We learn that he hates (ahem loves) Basil as much as Basil despises (cough wantstosex him) we learn he is the movie baddie because he has a sex doll, I mean voodoo doll, of Basil and he crushes Olivia’s birthday present…which presumably Fidget the Bat brought with him for some reason?

 

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But none of that matters as much as the knowledge that amongst the silliness and the monologuing and the evil laughing, Vincent Price is having the time of his life in the role and as such it is pretty hard not to be won over. It leads to his big villain song: ‘The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind’ It is fair to say it is not as epic as some Disney songs but it is a great number that introduces how Ratigan is both a dangerous narcissist and a triple threat at singing, dancing and harp playing. If every film could do an exposition scene this entertaining we’d be laughing.

The tonal shift DURING the song as the unfortunate Bartholomew is polished off in a deeply unpleasant way is not especially comedic, the moment Ratigan forces everyone to cheer up after he has just murdered one of their friends is genuinely unsettling, but the way the song starts up again is kind of funny and that is quite an impressive tight rope walk for Disney.

 

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There is nothing clunky about it…except…after Ratigan’s song it cuts back to Basil, Dawson and Olivia who I can only assume sat quietly waiting for the musical number to end before resuming their conversation exactly where they left off?

Anyway…back to Ratigan.

Immediately you can hear how much fun Vincent Price is having giggling in delight as everyone sings about scary he is. It is nice to be appreciated after all. And his reading of lines like: ‘How delightfully wicked’ and ‘I love it, I really love it’ and even the more dry lines like when he feeds someone to his cat as they protest and he snarls ‘you’re not coming through’ are just brilliant. Apparently Price was desperate to do a Disney film and his delight brings the film to life making him a clear highlight of the whole picture.

 

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Oh God, I even forgive Ratigan the cliché of ‘I am going to set up an elaborate trap for my enemy and then leave and just assume it worked out’ because the performance is so damn funny-the scene is literally scored with the villain’s gloating tones wafting from a vinyl he made himself for the occasion. Effing genius. I love picturing Ratigan in the recording studio all: ‘Have we got this? Check the levels. I’m going to do another take…I really hope he will get to hear this one day.’

 
Ratigan manages to be both scoffing scenery like a professional ham master and genuinely threatening and a huge part of that is Price truly commits to the Shakespearian levels of unhinged malice that the character demands. One minute Ratigan is having a heart attack because part of the plan has been messed up, tries to have his assistant calmly murdered for this before realising he can turn it to his advantage and laughing delightedly. He enjoys being bad and I always love that in a villain when it is executed with such skill.

But he is not just a one note antagonist either. Sure his deal is that evil is fun but there is something deeper going on It is sad really. You see Ratigan is a rat but claims to just be a big mouse. There is obvious comparisons to be made to “passing” which is a practice where someone of one ethnic groups is accepted as being part of another because it might not be immediately obvious what race they are. This of course wasn’t just for fun: Especially back when minorities were at a legal and social disadvantage it was often crucial that the person passing as a different race was not discovered. I say ‘back when’ like it doesn’t still happen…Sigh. But this is a cartoon about mice so I am not going to vanish too far up my own ass lamenting how slow our progress for equality is.

The point is, Ratigan obviously feels he has to indulge in “passing” in order to be accepted by wider society despite his natural brilliance. Who knows what his tragic backstory is? But it must be bad for him to literally MURDER anyone who calls him the R word, for him to want to be a far right ruler despite being a persecuted minority and when Basil uses the dreaded word in front of a crowd of people he literally howls in anguish. Jesus, Ratigan…what happened?

 

So both characters are great apart, but what about when their paths cross and we see their rivalry up close?

 
It is easy to get invested in the competition between Basil and Ratigan because they have the best chemistry of the Disney protagonist vs antagonist dynamic. This is the first time, that I can think of, that Disney implied that the ‘good’ character and the ‘bad’ character are cut from the same cloth. Usually the protagonist is virtuous and the antagonist is comparatively like another species. In Great Mouse Detective, Basil is as nuts as Ratigan and his obsession with him is clearly borne from recognising that they are well matched intellectually and…in other ways…

 

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Ok, Ok…I know. But ship happens. And of course it happens here.

 
Now it is fairly typical for fans of a film/TV series to create subtext where very little exists so it didn’t surprise me in the slightest to learn that there exists quite a bit of fanfiction where Ratigan and Basil are…well…you know…They are obsessed with each other after all. While you might think it is all a bit silly and far-fetched it is testament to how successful their paring in the film is. Who needs a love interest when the will they/won’t they is the two enemies? People are always quite rightly asking when Disney are going to write a gay love story into their work and I think they already did. And not that quietly either.

 

 

Despite their lack of shared screen time, the work that went into making their relationship feel like it existed before this film as well as during it leads to a fantastic climax. Keep it clean.

 

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Or don’t. I don’t really care.

A lot of Disney cartoons (and indeed films in general) choose to build to a third act spectacular designed to be an exciting and memorable conclusion to the picture, the idea presumably being that even if what came before was slow and uninteresting what you take away as an audience member is the bit where it all came together. Of course, this has varying degrees of success depending on budget, the quality of the set piece and how invested we are in the fate of the characters. Often, what is set up as the third act extravaganza falls flat because of one of these things not being in place. But sometimes the stars align and you get the Big Ben scene from The Great Mouse Detective.

So Ratigan’s plan has fallen apart like post 2011 Charlie Sheen but, like post 2011 Charlie Sheen, Ratigan is not willing to admit he has lost. So sensing it is time for the aforementioned big climax he grabs Olivia and tries to escape and as Basil tries to stop him the three of them end up crashing right into Big Ben (Yes I know Big Ben is the bell not the whole tower just take your QI knowledge and call someone who cares) Dawson and Olivia’s Pa look on concerned and it cuts to inside the clock.

There is a cool effect where Basil regains consciousness and the camera is all woozy like the dude operating it was also knocked out. The animation is striking (like a clock! No, sit down…) in its quality and the sound effects of the clock ticking works as an ominous reminder that the threat is really close.

 

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What is so cool about the sequence is how violent it gets. In a film where the two leads are engaging in a battle of who is the slicker, cleverer, wittier Gent it is quite shocking to watch as it dissolves into fisticuffs. Ratigan becomes more and more rat like as his rage grows…He drop kicks Olivia (for reals-I cheered) and proceeds to seriously beat the crap out of Basil. And like Robin Hood when he tries to escape at the end of his film it is quite intense watching Basil grow more and more afraid as he realises he is physically outmatched by what it turns out is one ripped rat. He knows being clever can’t help him now and he just needs a way out leading to the vulnerability from earlier returning in another way. He is desperate to escape and his relief when he spots his friends returning for him is beautifully illustrated and possibly my favourite shot of the film. He doesn’t need to do a rambling speech about the importance of friendship (looking at you Black Cauldron, you piece of shit) to communicate to the audience that he appreciates their loyalty, it is all delivered in that one look.

There are a lot of great animation choices here actually. The close up of Ratigan’s crazy eyes, the way he scurries after Basil shedding his clothes to reveal the form of what lies beneath and each time Ratigan strikes Basil you REALLY feel his pain…I was right there with him praying he could get away, it is properly exciting and a finale that will be hard to top in the films to come.

 

 

But it is not just the leading pair that is worth sticking around for. There is ample support from their respective sidekicks Dawson and Fidget. Dawson gets a bit of a raw deal and if I was ranking the best “Watson” incarnations he wouldn’t break the top 5 but he gets points for his go with the flow approach to the whole adventure as the story doesn’t open with him assisting Basil or anything, he meets him when Olivia does. There is no conversation about them teaming up. Basil begins chase, calls for him and Dawson is all ‘Right behind you Basil!’ I like the instant commitment to his post and how easily he fits into Basil’s world. He is a more successful audience surrogate than the alternative (more on her later…) and his reactions often matched mine so overall I would consider him a tick in the plus column.

Fidget is a pretty good comic foil for Ratigan mainly because of his odd vocal stylings and line readings. I love his delivery especially with little moments like when he is going down his check list correcting his confident assertion that he has completed his task ‘Got girl…No didn’t get girl’ and ‘My foot! My only foot!’ just sounds funny in that gruff little voice. I was quite sad when he got killed off by being hurled into the air amid panicked cries that he can’t fly…wait what? I can’t believe I never noticed that until now. He didn’t fly throughout the film…Huh.

The songs come from Moon River composer Henry Mancini and while there are not that many of them, they are pretty great. The score makes you want to go have an adventure and I especially love the main theme which is reappropriated throughout the film as a little sting for Basil:

 

 

There are some cool Sherlock references littered throughout the film-even the name Basil is a nod to the great Basil Rathbone who was one of the best known Sherlock Holmes actors. Basil’s disguise as a sailor is a hat tip to the one Rathbone wore as Sherlock in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and one of Basil’s speeches where he rattles off all the clues he can deduce from finding Fidget’s note is taken nearly word for word from The Man with the Twisted Lip. As I mentioned above Sherlock is on a case running parallel with the mice story and the exerts we hear are actually Rathbone from a recording he did of The Adventure of the Red Headed League. Now all this is plainly just trivia I looked up but I still appreciate little nuances like this. It is this kind of attention to detail that makes this a fun film to introduce yourself to the Sherlock Holmes world.

 

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Speaking of this film as a world: The phrase that often gets pulled up when you research this movie is underrated and I am inclined to agree. While I have criticisms of the film (they will follow naturally) I am bitterly disappointed that Disney seems to have deemed Basil and co unworthy of a follow up adventure and felt we needed hours and hours of Cinderella’s Step Sister falling in love instead.

 

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Nobody cares!

I just feel there is so much potential to expand the universe, continue the story or even reboot it. I would pay out of my own pocket to see Steampunk Basil and I bet you would too if you thought about it:

 

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Yes to this!

Seriously, if Timon and Pumbaa can get their own TV series, why not this??? I am really asking here! There were other books to adapt plus the whole catalogue of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to pilfer just-Come on Disney! I’m not coming out of my room until you sort it out.

Part of the reason I want this is because not all the potential of the characters is fully realised in the way The Great Mouse Detective story is told. While some films are unfairly mistreated by history and subsequently forgotten sometimes there are good reasons films slip your mind after you’ve seen them…

 
What Doesn’t Work:

 

Olivia is part of what was soon to be a frickin’ epidemic come the 90’s: The kid character who is there to be a representative for the target audience who doesn’t do a damn thing she is told and gets in the way. I find this utterly charmless nine times out of ten. This is one of those times.

Olivia really doesn’t participate massively in the story. She needs to be there to tell Basil about her Father going missing so he can take the case and then she does nothing but get in the way and ignore simple instructions until, right on schedule, she gets kidnapped too and that is kind of it for her. It occurs roughly 30 minutes in and while the voice actors playing Basil and Dawson do a good job of making an unearned sad scene work it really is a bit…empty. She is not the character you care about.

 

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Sorry mate.

In fairness, she is not the worst little kid character in a film by any stretch but it is a trope I don’t appreciate followed by another I am not a fan of: The character who is basically just bait. Hell there is a creepy moment where Basil and Dawson think they have found her and it turns out it is just Fidget in her clothes. So…did they have to strip her for that to work? That’s…uncomfortable. Then seconds after she is properly reunited with her enslaved Parent she is once again snatched by Ratigan.

 

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OhnoIwonderifshewillsurvive etc.

Speaking of clichés I am not fond of, and I will because I am in the ‘what doesn’t work’ section of the review, there are a few hoary jokes I could do without. I hate the ‘This thing isn’t happening and that is final!’ followed by a smash cut to that thing happening. It always makes me groan. I also can’t stand the running gag about Basil being unable to remember Olivia’s name because the whole ‘wrong name’ ‘right name’ ‘whatever’ shtick is something lazy writers do as a shortcut to let us know one character doesn’t respect another and I always feel there are better ways to do that. There are so many glorious ways to be rude using language so why do writers return to THAT particular well so often? And since I am proper ranting about clichés featured in this film, when oh when oh when will films stop using the narrator at the beginning and the end of the film only? Either use the narrator the whole way through to enhance the story in some way or go back to school you fucking hacks.

All of the above are small problems, ones I tolerate in a lot of films so it doesn’t massively distract from my enjoyment. However it does prevent it being as memorable as it could have been. It doesn’t feel like a huge amount of effort was put in to every aspect of the story and the resulting shortcomings are quite apparent especially when you compare them to what the film does do well.

There is a scene early on where they sneak quietly into a creepy toy shop and it is such a great set that it feels like it is leading somewhere good…then it just sort of fizzles out.

The set up of Fidget’s attack isn’t bad but after he nabs Olivia the ensuing chase is a little underwhelming. It happens, sure it does, but it is not delivered very convincingly. He scampers up a convenient pile of miscellaneous toys and makes an easy getaway and frankly it could have been a lot better. But perhaps they were saving their ‘chase’ budget for the clock tower scene and if getting that means a slightly underwhelming trip to a hellish toy store then I say: carry on Disney.

But then there is the Let me be Good to You scene… It is not getting away so lightly. Basically, Basil and Dawson go a rough pub to stave out Ratigan and end up staying for some drinks that are drugged despite a complete lack of pay off to this. The acts performing at this bar keep getting booed and attacked until a young mouse comes on and performs a sexy striptease. A now slightly drugged Dawson has a bit of dance and then…that’s it. She sings a frankly inappropriate song, Dawson dances and then the plot resumes.

It is actually quite a good song that is well performed by Melissa Manchester who I am reliably informed by her IMDB page won the 1982 Best Female Vocalist of the Year Award…It doesn’t specify who awarded it to her mind you so for all we know her mates had a whip round for her. I remember I liked the song and the design of the sexy mouse a lot as a kid but it is really rather pointless. I considered putting it in the ‘What Works’ section because, in fairness, I do like the old timey feel of the speakeasy band with the ragamuffins in the criminal seedy underbelly and it does feel like the kind of scene that would play in a live action movie of this kind. Perhaps the scene is a reference to that bit in every detective story ever where they visit a strip club? But…that justification feels weak in a film this short. The performer doesn’t join the story in any capacity and nothing would be lost from dropping the whole number.

It feels like they are delaying the Basil and Ratigan meet cute for the sake of filling time rather than trying to create an entertaining non sequitur. I feel like at least the random sexy track in a family film was justified in Lady and the Tramp because Lady is subsequently humiliated and it leads to her argument with the Tramp later. Cause and effect. This? Why is a sexy mouse needed here? Why is a sexy mouse needed anywhere? Did you need a sexy mouse? I resent that I actually enjoy this scene because it really has no need to exist and is an unfortunate reminder that the filmmakers don’t trust the plot to hold our attention for 90 odd minutes without throwing some sexy mice at us.

 

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‘There’s nothing I won’t do just for you…’ Wow. Ok, Disney animators…Not seen your wives for a while then?

Because that is the biggest problem: The story is too generic. Mysteries are difficult to get right and this one falls a bit flat. The writers may have included a few nods to Sherlock Holmes here and there but the spirit of intrigue and a love of clever yarns is largely absent from The Great Mouse Detective. Basically, Ratigan took Olivia’s Dad so he could build a replica of the Mouse Queen and then Ratigan kidnaps the Mouse Queen (there is a lot of kidnapping in this film isn’t there?) and has the replica pronounce him in charge. The whole plan is foiled painfully easily about 8 seconds after Ratigan takes control.

And Basil doesn’t really get to do a lot of detective work. He has a big dog called Toby sniff around to follow trails and then when he gets to the toy shop where Fidget is gathering items for Ratigan, he makes a quick deduction saying to Dawson: ‘Isn’t it painfully obvious?’ about something which, yes, is obvious. He is staring at some toys that have had their outfits stripped. He notices right away that this is what has happened. It is not that impressive because he is standing next to a box with the answer written on it.

 

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‘I am…not sure how to work this thing to be honest’

My point is…Basil is an impressive character because he is enjoyably camp, slightly unhinged and fun to watch but he is not as demonstrably brilliant as the film tries to make out.

You might be wondering how he and Dawson escape Ratigan’s death trap later in the film. Will…good for you, because it is never really explained. Basil works it out by muttering random clever sounding shit about isosceles triangles and it…It just isn’t very convincing. I love how in the latest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes on TV, the character speaks at the speed of thought and the script sparkles with creativity. I know Basil isn’t Sherlock but he is supposed to be exceptional. And there just aren’t a lot examples of this. Almost as if the writers are perhaps not willing to go away and come up with the kind of puzzles worthy of a great detective because it is too hard so they just have him piss around with chemistry sets and mutter about complicated sounding things under his breath in the hope we won’t notice he isn’t really saying anything.

While the characterisation of Basil doesn’t really suffer from this and I suppose Disney don’t want to alienate the easily confused crotch dumplings who make them that sweet sweet dollar, the lack of compelling mystery is the reason this film is not well remembered. I am pretty sure of that. I have seen it quite a few times and I never really retain the stuff about the Mouse Queen, the Toy Maker and the toy soldiers outfits being repurposed and…nope. I’ve already forgotten what else the plan was or how it is resolved.

Basil deserves better and so do we.

 

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Conclusion:

 

A cleaner tribute to Sherlock Holmes with more mystery and less child could have promoted this film to classic status. However I am not here to look a gift horse in the mouth: the lead hero and villain are fantastic with some of the best chemistry in any Disney film, the clock scene is one of my favourite moments in cartoon history and it is a jolly, understated romp that deserves to be seen. All in all, the only mystery still needing solved is why they have never revisited this world in TV/film since.

 

 
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 4
Opening scene attack, Bart’s death, creepy toy shop and the truly ace clock tower fight.

 

Best Song:

I have to give it to ‘The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind’ if only to honour just how much Ratigan enjoys being sung to. About himself.

 

 

 

 

Next Time: Billy Joel. As a dog. Billy Joel. As a dog.

Billy Joel Dog.

It’s Oliver and Company 1988

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The Black Cauldron Review

Note: What do you mean I haven’t written anything in ages? Prove it! Oh right. Yeah fair enough. Sorry about that, to anyone who cares. What can I say? Life is hard. Sometimes you get distracted by real life, hypnotic knitting patterns and sorbet. But I’m back now so I hope we (and by we I mean the 8 or 9 people who sometimes read this) can move on in our relationship. 

Anyway…

The Black Cauldron (1985) Review

What do I know about the film?

This film is one of the main reasons I wanted to do this project. As a pop culture junkie, I was aware of its reputation as the movie that nearly sunk Disney. But not all that long ago, with the help from its quiet but nonetheless present fan base, ‘Black Cauldron’ was reinstated into the canon and is now purchasable.  So let me get this straight: A film that did so badly that Disney tried to bury it but apparently interesting enough that is has earned a group of fans who helped elevate it to cult movie status? It is like a cinefile’s wet dream. And I couldn’t wait to see it.

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And now I have.

But before we get to the review, just what the Hell happened with this one? Well remember in my last post (which I assume you read cause you wouldn’t want to hurt my feelings) I talked about how animator Don Bluth had departed Disney in a huff, determined to show them how to make movies with proper integrity? Well he made a pretty good start in 1982 with his debut full length feature ‘The Secret of NIMH’ which while wasn’t a massive blockbuster, did receive the kind of critical praise Disney had not had in a while. Bluth was off and running, and it is pretty undeniable that the tone of his confident debut would impact Disney’s direction with ‘Black Cauldron’

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That isn’t that surprising when you know that Bluth was still at Disney whilst work on the film was being done: ‘Black Cauldron’ was a work in progress that took a loooonnnng time. A lot of effort went into making it…something.

It was a film of firsts for The Walt Disney Company, many of which suggested that this was meant to be a big deal of a project. I can’t even begin to note ALL the ground breaking/tense behind the scene details so I have picked my favourites:

-This was the first time a Disney film had used computer technology.

-Remember when ‘101 Dalmatians’ started using what was essentially a Xerox machine to make the animators job easier but how it made the drawings look less good? Well TBC (The Black Cauldron, not To Be Confirmed, FYI) introduced a breakthrough in animation technology that would replace it: Animation Photo Transfer. Essentially, the drawings are photographed and then these negatives are processed onto subsequent animation cels. This technology won creator Dave Spencer an Oscar.

-This was the first Disney movie not to have THE END to mark the THE END of the film and only the second not to have an opening credit sequence.

-For the first time, there are no musical numbers at all.

And here comes the fact that made me salivate prior to sitting down and watching the thing…

‘The Black Cauldron’ was the first Disney film to get smacked with a PG rating. Fucking…Wow. That means this:

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And this:

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And even this:

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Were all considered universally acceptable for children of all ages. Admittedly the rating system chopped and changed a lot over the years, and wasn’t even introduced until the 60’s but still: think about it. TBC was nearly given a PG13 rating, meaning several people had seen A DISNEY FILM and decided it wasn’t really suitable for anyone under 13.

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This is fine though. Kids love this crap.

Understandably, the threat of having their target audience forcibly removed from the cinemas made the Studio Chairman lose his shit. Even after the producer refused to resculpt his vision at the 11th hour, the Chair PERSONALLY went into the editing bay and started to take chunks out of the movie to secure the PG rating.

Again, think about the implications of this. Editing an animated film is not like editing a live action movie. Animated films are painstakingly storyboarded so when it comes time to animate for proper reals, everything is in place and no time is wasted. Nearly all cut scenes from animated films don’t get past the hand drawn stage. Think how spooked The Chair must have been to get his own hands this dirty? In total they cut 12 minutes of footage. That is several years of work: Gone. Oh and bonus foreshadowing: The disgruntled Studio Chair was none other than Jeffrey Katzenberg. We will be coming back to him in the future. He will go on to other things…

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Only shooting stars break the mo-uld…

Despite Katzenberg’s efforts, test screenings did not bode well with many Parents expressing disapproval at how dark the picture was. And so my Black Cauldron Review drinking game begins: You have to take a shot everytime I use the word ‘dark’ Ok?

So let’s review shall we? (Oh and yes, the actual review too, I am getting to it…) The film took over 12 years to make, with 5 years of actual production, and cost over $25 million dollars. Over 1,165 different hues and colors were used and 34 miles of film stock was utilized. It was the most expensive animated film of all time and the third most expensive film ever at that point, with the total cost being about $44 million. So is this the part where Disney’s hard work and perseverance pay off yet again? Well watch the video below for the answer:

Did you watch it?

I am sure you recognise that as first full length cinematic outing of The Care Bears. The cinematic equivalent of pissing yourself to keep warm. Solely existing to sell toys and keep 4 year olds quiet for 75 minutes. Even the voiceover guy in the trailer sounds half asleep. So why do I bring it up? Well…It was released at the same time as TBC. And…it did better.

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This. Did. NOT. COST. $44 million. To. Make.

This was an outright disaster for Disney. The company that made Care Bears was not even considered competition from the perspective of the Mouse House. It is no wonder really that TBC was sent to its room without any supper, not even being released on VHS until a decade after it died such a brutal death in the cinema.

So what the fuck happened? Was it just too dark for family audiences after all?
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DRINK!

Did I see it as a child? 

No I did not. I did once stumble across a book with lots of pictures from the film in it (not the book the film was based on mind you) during a rainy recess at school and I remember wanting to seek out the movie as a result. It looked good in that there was a girl character who was wearing a dress that had some purple in it…That’s it. That’s all I needed to know. But because I grew up in the Great Long Ago when films were not a click away, I eventually forgot about it. All in all, it would seem I was not terribly committed to my mission. So what is up with TBC? Is it all about a girl in a purple frock having adventures?

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Nope.

Synopsis: 

Weeeeel…
So Taran is a boy. He complains that he would like to be a warrior instead of a Pig Keeper. Which is what he is. Actually, just for an added kick in the balls, he is an assistant Pig-Keeper. Is there a more humiliating job title? Taran doesn’t seem to think so…As he goes on and on and on and on and…on about how he would like to do something else. Namely be recognised as a great warrior. Did I mention he wants to be a warrior? Cause he does. A lot.

His employee/friend/enslaver/grandfather (If their relationship was explained, I wasn’t paying attention) named Dallben tells Taran that the Pig they care for…Hold up. One pig? And he needs an assistant??? Well I suppose he does give the Pig inappropriately intimate baths…Anyway, he tells Taran that the Pig in question, Hen Wen, is super special and maybe one day he will be able to explain why…Oh scrap that she needs to use her powers now. Right now. Well, that was convenient.

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So it turns out the Pig can…can…Ok just stay with me: They head down to the The Secret Pig Power Basement and the Pig basically does that thing Gladrial does in Fellowship where she makes the water show stuff that is happening and then it is explained that Hen Wen is a super duper important and while they have managed to keep her on the side of good via the power of sensual baths, the time has come for her to…to…Ok I don’t know what the Pig’s job is, but it would seem the awakening of her secret long dormant until today powers has coincided (or been triggered by? I don’t know) the rise of the Horned King. And now he knows where the Pig is…I suppose? Taran is told he needs to take the Pig somewhere safe because the Horned King is after the Pig because the Pig can show him where the Black Cauldron is kept and the Black Cauldron will awaken the Horned King’s army of the dead. Which would be bad. We wouldn’t want that.

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So less than 10 minutes into the film and Taran’s generic desire for adventures has come true…But with the help of some loyal companions will he protect the Pig and stop the Horned King and his undead army and prove himself to be one of the greats?

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Spoiler Alert: Absolutely not.

What Works:

Weeeeelll…

Hey look! A distraction!

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Ok, ok, it is not like NOTHING works. First of all, the money that went into to the art was…calling it well spent is going a bit far (the Care Bears did better!) but it is one of the most visually pleasing movies they have done in a good long while. The scary castle looks great, the green smoke during the cauldron scene looks fabulous, There is a largely pointless but very pretty scene involving fairies, the aforementioned scary castle collapsing grooves along nicely, fiery smoke skull shapes, dragons flying right at the screen, atmospheric colours/shade: All in all, I really like the look of the film and that does count for something.

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I respect that there was a conscious effort to set a tone that was different from films that had come before and push a few boundaries and a lot of the more ‘mature’ or dark (drink) elements work very nicely. For example in the opening moments of a Disney film, I never expected to hear the phrase: ‘An army of undead warriors’ let alone see a room of long dead men all piled on top of each other.

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My absolute favourite of the dark (drink) moments comes close to the end and involves Creeper. Now Creeper is not an especially original character. He is the Igor, the Smee, the sidekick who takes a lot of crap from the main antagonist, a sad little Gargoyle with a dash of the Peter Lorres about him. Even in the 80’s it was a cliché. But he is pretty brutally maltreated by his employer and I empathise: I have had some terrible bosses. Only my worst story involves getting humiliated in a shop by my boss in front a baffled window cleaner while this poor guy has to bring The Horned King dead bodies on a regular basis not to mention getting verbally and physically abused constantly. So…Yeah It is not surprising he is traumatised.

That is why I kind of love that little Creeper exits the story having recreated his dead bosses horns on his head while laughing hysterically. It is gloriously, hauntingly, batshit insane and I really, really like it. I love the implication that he might be heading off to become a super villain in his only right having now completely snapped. It is not enough that his abuser is dead: Kid has a lot of work to do on himself. I feel you man, I feel you.

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Another great moment which feels unique to this movie is the chase scene when Hen Wen is kidnapped (only let down by Taran’s cries of ‘Look out!’ when Hen Wen is already being chased by a massive fucking dragon…I think she’s seen it dude.) and Taran falls down and when he sits up he is bleeding…It is quite a culture shock to see a character bleed in a Disney film. As the lightening bolt of fail strikes and Taran realises what a numpty he has been, it feels like the film is being set up as a story where characters are going to learn lessons the hard way and it is a cool scene.

In fact, the only interesting thing about Taran as a character is his backwards journey: He starts off going on and on and on and on and ON about what a terrific hero he is going to be-

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Then through sheer luck he acquires a magic sword and immediately starts swinging the phallic symbol around like he is in one of Freud’s wet dreams. Brilliantly, his new pal Princess Eilonwy calls him out on his bullshit by pointing out that having a big dick-sword that does all the work for you no more makes you a talented fighter than being a Princess makes you a character people will remember. She hits a nerve and he goes off on her telling her she is an ugly teasing bitch who he never wanted to fuck anyway or the PG 13 equivalent and while I resent that the middle man in the scene tries to make out they are both being unreasonable I am impressed that the film certainly seems to value her point.

Because even after a quick pep talk about how great he is, Taran eventually comes to another conclusion…a truth that was evident from the start: He is not an exceptional person. He can’t fight, he isn’t especially clever, hell even the Pig who unexpectedly departs the story half way through the film is more important than him.

Normally, the main character starts off ordinary and then learns to believe in himself and becomes a leader. But Taran doesn’t have a destiny or any special ability. It is kind of cool that the big lesson here is that having a magic weapon helps but ultimately it doesn’t MAKE you a hero. Behaving like a reasonable human being who doesn’t always put themselves first without making a big deal out of it is what makes you a person worth respecting. And they don’t back pedal either: The film ends moments after he declares that he doesn’t deserve a magic dick-sword because he fucking sucks and the movie seems to agree.

So I love it when Princess Eilonwy called him on his bullshit and I also quite liked her. She doesn’t get a huge amount to do and a lot of her story goes unexplained: Why does the villain refer to her as a scullery maid when she is a Princess? Did he kidnap her so long ago that he forgot where he got her from or did he just never spot her royal face on the side of the milk cartons? Where is her kingdom? Is nobody looking for her? What’s with the glowing ball that follows her around? And why does it disappear around the time they meet some witches never to be seen again? Why she is always giggling when nobody has told ANY jokes? And, my personal favourite, WHAT THE FUCK KIND OF DUNGEON IS THIS WHERE YOUR PRISONER CAN WANDER AROUND LETTING OTHER PRISONERS GO WITH NO EFFORT WHATSOEVER???

Despite being an eternal giggling mystery, I love that she seems to view Taran as an amusing distraction rather than the love of her life: There are some great line readings from ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ legend Susan Sheridan such as this properly brilliant exchange:

Taran: (worst chat up line ever) My pig can tell the future!
Eilonwy: (hardly listening) How interesting…

When they have all escaped the castle, Elionwy doesn’t make for home but instead decides to help Taran find his pig, half heartedly claiming: ‘I’m sure it’s important…’ It doesn’t sound like she is taking Taran’s word for it and she would rather see for herself. I like that whenever Taran tells her to run for safety she leaves but she always comes back to check he is doing ok. She gives him his moment, but never abandons him.

Overall, she comes across as as exactly the kind of curious, chatty and amusing travel companion we could all use in a pinch: Ok, she doesn’t actually DO much in the story but she doesn’t just stand around making moon eyes at Taran and that is good enough for me.

To round up the gang there is an older sad sack song writer called Fflewddur Fflam (Are there no dyslexic people in Wales then??? After 4 attempts I had to copy and paste it. Jesus, guy…) who is actually tied up in the dungeon when they find him even though the kids are allowed to run around free because fuck singers I suppose. There is a running gag that whenever the nervous musician tells a lie his harp looses a string. And he proceeds to argue with it and tell it off for giving him a hard time. I am not explaining it that well am I? Well, It made me laugh. So much so that during one scene when he offers to give it away in exchange for access to the black cauldron I felt a genuine stab of emotion that pretty much the only compelling character in the film was about to leave. That being the harp. Cause that harp be sassy. Because judgemental harp judges you. Fear the judgemental harp. Fear it I say!!!!

OK.

I have warmed up enough now.

What Doesn’t Work:

Well Hot Dog have I been waiting for this:

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The only problem is where oh where to begin? Why not begin at the beginning? We agree? Groovy. So…

Dallben (The old guy at the start in case you had forgotten. I did. Multiple times.) mutters to himself that bad shit is happening, then tells Taran the war is over and he won’t need to be brave cause there is nothing to worry about and then adds that the Pig they look after is super special: ‘And one day my boy you may learn why’ This line occurs 2 minutes and 56 seconds into the film. Less than 4 minutes later, it is pig power time.

There is a scene in an episode of the Simpsons where Abe Simpsons is remembering when his Father used to tell him that one day they would go and live in America: ‘Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon…And later that day we set out for America!’ it always made me laugh. And yet this film is asking me to take the whole: ‘One day I am going to get a chance to be brave!-Oh cool a chance to be brave!’ shtick seriously. Could they not have spread out the time a little bit? Or just skipped the confused ramblings of an old man and the teeth grindingly irritating whining of Taran and just introduced them as they watched the vision of the black cauldron and the Horned King?

Oh and Taran’s monologuing. Don’t believe me about how badly it is scripted? Behold! The fucking script!:
‘Dallben wouldn’t understand. I’m not a little boy anymore. I should be doing heroic deeds for Prydain! Not waiting hand and foot on a spoiled pig. Is this to be my life? Pampering a pig! I’m a warrior, not an Pig-Keeper. Dallben thinks I’d be afraid, but I wouldn’t. All I need is, is, is a chance! And I could be a famous warrior!’

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This. This is the worst. You know the old adage show don’t tell? This film does the opposite. It tells and tells and tells. In the next scene with Taran alone with his Pig, he is at it again:

‘Gosh Hen Wen! I never knew you could create visions and things like that! I thought you were just an ordinary pig. I had no idea you so.. SPECIAL. Dallben’s going to be glad he put his trust in me! Just you wait and see! Now, don’t go wandering about! And don’t you worry! Keep close to me and no one will do you any harm. Not while I’m around. And I won’t let the Horned King get close to you Hen. I’ll protect you! Taran of Caer Dallben, the greatest warrior in all Prydain! A true hero!’

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Just…what? What kind of writing is this? I can’t even-Just making your character state all his surface, baseline thoughts out loud is not enough to tell a story. The thing is, I am sure there are plenty of others films, Disney and otherwise, who have characters declaring what is happening and what they want out loud all the time without it bothering me but Taran’s bullshit was like nails down a blackboard. I can only assume it was a combination of bad voice acting, bad script and the plot was confusing enough that I was counting on Taran to drive the story and man did he crash it into the bushes instead.

I mentioned in the synopsis it is really not clear what the fuck is happening in the story. 3 minutes in Dallben says: ‘One day you will learn the truth…’ then at 7 minutes in we get Pig Power then 8 and a half minutes in he is all ‘you must leave at once’ Really? Why? At this point, one of my friends turned to be and asked: ‘How did the Horned King find out about the magic Pig?’ and I had to pause the film to put my head in my hands. If you ever find yourself having to ask a question like that, you have taken a wrong turn in your life.

At 9 minutes in to the film Taran confidently announces ‘I won’t fail you!’ and then 3 minutes of monologuing later he is all ‘Where are you? Oh no!’ because he has lost the Pig he has been seemingly looking after his whole life. He is an Assistant Sodding Pig Keeper and even this task is too hard. He is just made of total fail. After we see Hen Wen get kidnapped by the Dragon I kind of wanted Taran to return to Dallben right away:

Taran: I won’t fail you!
* 5 minutes of quiet later*
Dallben: You’re back early!
Taran: Yeah, about that…

As you have probably spotted, I have a problem with how this film is paced. It drags like hell, but as you can see things happen stupidly close together, it has no room to breathe but very little of consequence seems to be happening most of the time. There is a lot of toing and froing and hand wringing and looking for things and then ditching those things for something else and then they are caught and escape and are caught and escape and then that plot point, then that plot point then that comes back and that is over and…

But back to Taran. Our hero. As I mentioned I appreciate that he goes from believing he is great to realising that he definitely isn’t. It is a cool reverse of the hero’s journey. But man, is getting him there insufferable. After the Pig gets kidnapped he has an argument with a character he just met like the creature let him down as a friend (we will get to him) and then proceeds to make the journey to the castle, which looked quite far away initially, in about a 4 second time cut. God damn it movie.

While imprisoned in said scary castle he finds a magic sword by stealing it from a random corpse he stumbles across. While he and Elionwy are running away he drops it and rather than sticking with his new friend he goes back to get his new toy. Nice. He battles a jump scare Furrie in a fierce outfit and immediately realises that it a special sword and then…he starts to laugh. It is so effing creepy. Our brave hero begins to rattle like an overused drain, fucking delighted that he now has a tool that will make them ALL PAY. Even Elionwy, who renters the scene, seems a bit unnerved by Taran’s ‘I can’t wait to kill things with this powerful object I didn’t earn’ dance.

Then when they are getting attacked by incompetent guards (they throw their sharp weapons at the goodies when they could just stride three feet and stab them at close range) Elionwy has to REMIND TARAN TO USE THE SWORD. That is how useful this little wank stain is. He FORGOT about the magic sword he JUST got.

Afterwards Taran is ready for Elionwy to be all ‘my hero’ and doesn’t acknowledge his own dumb luck stating: ‘It takes a great worrier to wield a sword’ and of course using the word Girl as an insult twice. Oh cool. I certainly hope he doesn’t accidentally impale himself through his scrotum or anything. Elionwy throws back ‘You’re so boring!’ and I could have cheered. Yes. Yes he is. You NAILED it. He is soooo very, very boring.

Later, when they visit some Witches (we will get to them too) Taran’s sword gets their attention as it starts cutting up their shit without Taran even touching it (but sure you’re the impressive one, kid) the head Witch tells him she will have his sword in exchange for the cauldron they are looking for. Taran acts like it is this big sacrifice even declaring it ‘my dearest possession’ Need I remind you he stole it from a corpse about an hour earlier and he has only used it a couple of times and only then by accident. But sure, how noble of him? I guess…I have not seen such a sacrifice since earlier today when I saw someone throw their chewing gum on the street for some other passer by to chew. Beautiful.

So you might have realised, I am not a fan of Taran. He learns a good lesson in the end but that doesn’t absolve him of being a snotty little prick monster from the beginning right to nearly the very end.

But he is not the biggest disappointment in the film. After all, heroes are often bland and/or irritating and can only be removed via copious amounts of cranberry juice. No. The biggest disappointment was the Horned King.

Disney villains have personality. Sure, they are not often complex (though some are) but they are memorable because they are likeable or entertaining or both. They stick out because they love being bad or because they have a sympathetic weakness or a passion for fashion. The Horned King is built up a lot. The film really tries to make him a thing. The voice of John Hurt, the loud music, the moments when his face fills the frame-they want me to fear him. I know they do. When he shows up for the big ‘force the Pig to reveal the Cauldron’ ceremony his minions stop having a good time with their mead, Wenches and racism against Creeper and immediately take on the look of ‘Oh shit, the boss has turned up at the work night out…’

But…the music seems to be saying he is Darth Vader when he is actually just…an old man shuffling around his castle mumbling about pigs and cauldrons who is dispatched so easily that I actually shouted: ‘Oh come on!’ at the screen. How could anyone be remotely impacted by what is essentially an OAP with a half baked plan and weak old bones who is killed off by his own arthritis?

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Ok…so apparently a lot of people dig the Horned King and I guess he is one of the reasons this film has a cult fan base. Personally…I don’t see it. There is nothing original about him at all. He is generic movie villain 101 from costume, voice (I like John Hurt but he doesn’t sound all that invested in his lines), design -The design just made me think of He Man’s Skeletor, and who is afraid of him???

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1983. Count it suckers.

Despite a couple of good moments (stroking a corpse in his first scene, creepy eyes) he is just an old, frail, slow talking bore who just plain sucks.

Even his plan is just…first of all, until he forces Hen Wen to show him the Cauldron he wasn’t even sure it existed. Wait, what? You have been collecting corpses for God knows how long in the hope that you could wield a big pot that reanimates the dead. What if the Pig showed it was all bupkis? What were you going to do with all those corpses???

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And then when he finally gets his big moment and his undead army stand shakily to their feet…he is all ‘We are moments from victory’ What? It would seem the only difference between the undead army and the regular army he already has is the undead army move soooo slowlllly…Off they go…yep…Wait? Victory soon? How? Where are they going??? Who are your opponents? There is nobody waiting to fight the slowest moving army in the world, so what is your plan? Who has this all been for? Who is your competition? What has been the point of any of this????

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But it his death that really gets me. Finally he is going to attack someone himself rather than sending everyone around him to do it. He goes for Taran and now it is time for the final battle where Taran most prove his worth without his magic dick-sword and Horny the King must show why he is so scary-But no. Taran’s advantage is opposable thumbs as he grips hold of something and the 227 year old bag of bones King is sucked effortlessly into the Black Cauldron causing it to go nuts and destroy the castle. It is terrible

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So many moments in this story end up being without a point. At all. And this is a common complaint in films with lots of filler but this film TRIES to make some characters seem important. Like the Pig. Protecting her secret (that apparently the Horned King knows about so why did Dallben say it had to be secret?) proves pointless and the Pig shows him the cauldron and then is taken back home by some fairies. Seriously. After all that, the Pig is just sent home again. She went for a walk, got kidnapped, showed everyone her power, went home. So why did they try and make out that keeping her from the Horned King is important? He still doesn’t know where the Cauldron is after the vision. The Cauldron only shows up after Taran and his crew bargain for it with some Witches. So the whole Pig plot…is it like it is abandoned when they can’t think what else to do with it.

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Then there are the fairies that are all cutesy cause they are voiced by children. Because whimsy. Ugh. Pointless. They briefly gain a new member of their gang with a Grumpy from ‘Snow White’ type Fairy whose name I can’t be bothered writing and he doesn’t stick around long. The King Fairy asks if there are still burnings and killings going on up above the ground. God I wish.

Then the Witches. Who we learn via Grumpy Fairy live in Morva. Not Mordor. Nope. Morva. Don’t go thinking it is Mordor. Cause it isn’t. This story so isn’t trying to be Lord of the Rings so stop saying that.

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So the Witches: Ok, they are not pointless exactly but when the little group enter their home one of them spends a good few minutes sexually assaulting FF the musician and showing off her massive tits. There are a lot of cleavage shots for a family picture something I can only assume is there as something for the Dads.

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While FF is assaulted, turned into a frog, stuck in some boobs and turned back the other characters are all just standing around awkwardly when finally after a long ass time Taran goes ‘Enough!’ You think?

Everytime they try and introduce some comic relief into this dark (drink) film it falls so flat that it is kind of painful. Grumpy fairies? Not funny. Scared musician? Not that annoying and I do like his harp but not funny. Big titted giggling witches where I guess the joke is that fat women are desperate for love? Not funny. And then there is…

Gurgi.

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Gurgi.

My God.

If Jar Jar Binx from the Star Wars prequels, Dobby from Harry Potter, Snarf from Thundercats, Scrappy Doo from Scooby Doo and Gollum from Lord of the Rings had a blood orgy Gurgi would be their spawn. The voice, the mannerisms, the personality, the little sayings-All of it seems to have been specifically and carefully constructed to piss me off. Gurgi is to me what lotus holes are to people with trypophobia: he makes my skin crawl.

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Observe as he enters the already unimpressive mess that in the film and then goes out of his way to ruin all our lives:

(hairy little…thief. Yes. That is the word I was looking for.)

Out of all the characters I mentioned above, most of whom came after Gurgi anyway, he most resembles Gollum. Gollum is actually a character I like for the record but, like a lot of the elements in this film, they seem to be aiming for a cut price straight to DVD adaptation of the Lord of the Rings. So they keep the third person chat and the distinctive vocal ticks (I swear Gollum actually says the phrase munchies and crunchies at some point…) but leave out the vulnerability, the wit, the strength, the juxtaposition between his junkie self and his true self-This is what is wrong with executives who don’t actually pay attention to what people like about movies: ‘Give him a funny voice-kids will love him’ No. No they fucking won’t.

It isn’t just the voice. He steals, he whines, he keeps leaving the film and then coming back which was frankly cruel because I kept hoping against hope that he wasn’t coming back-At one point Elionwy calls him charming. Seriously Black Cauldron? The whole Show don’t Tell thing? You really need to look it up. Like, right now.

But it was nearly all worth it. Our band of heroes idiots find out that the only way to halt the Black Cauldron is to willingly sacrifice yourself by climbing inside it. Wow. Ok. Fair play that is pretty dark (drink). So as the army of the undead start shuffling meaninglessly forward, Taran decides he better do just that, only for Gurgi to show up and declare that Taran can’t do it because he has friends who would miss him while Gurgi doesn’t have any friends.

It is a wonderful, wonderful moment of self realisation which frankly nearly promoted his arc from this section to the ‘What works’ section. To have such a worthless character argue with another worthless character about who is the most worthless out of the two of them only to conclude he edges him out due to how unpopular he clearly is and will continue to be and to then follow up his declaration of uselessness with committing suicide…it is the sort of thing an old cynic like me usually could only dream of and it actually happens. He kills himself because he suddenly and without warning realises that he is lame. Fair play, The Black Cauldron. Fair play.

But then, of course, the Witches show up and agree to return Gurgi to them. I had a brief hope that in the sprint of the classic deal with the Devil scenario, since Taran didn’t specify Gurgi had to be alive, the Witches would leave him with the body and they would be left with no option but to drop kick his corpse into the sea but of course he is reanimated and his first act is to try and rob Taran. Yeah. All the characters keep crying out: ‘ He’s alive!’ Ok, ok, no need to rub it in.

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Then he forces these two children to kiss each other. He is a menace to to decency! 

But then thankfully the film ends. But Jar Jar Smeagol remains. Seriously I will be surprised if Disney manage to come up with another character I like less in the remainder of the canon.

So that was ‘The Black Cauldron’ Huh?

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Given that I know how heavily edited it was, there is every chance that a cool story is trying desperately to be born from the uneven mess that is ‘The Black Cauldron’ as a whole. Perhaps in the book the baddie isn’t dispersed by a strong gust of wind, perhaps the protagonist doesn’t monologue about how great he is going to be and perhaps Gollum Scrappy Snarf Doo is fucking mute. Perhaps in the original script there was no frog in the cleavage, no mandatory cutesy scene, perhaps Jar Jar Dobby Binx not only stayed dead but was shown dying painfully while weeping the snot that only comes out of your body when it is being pushed beyond its limit. Who knows? But all I can do is judge the film they gave me and the film they gave me was…

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I wanted it to be steam punk Disney. Grunge Disney. Two fingers up at conventional story telling Disney. Bootleg Disney. Black market Disney. What I got was how many crackers can I fit in my mouth Disney. A pointless exercise that left me choking on the dust of my own disappointment.

Conclusion: 

All that build up. All the months. It is no camp classic nor is it a misunderstood dark (drink) gem. It is like eating dried shredded wheat without milk: Completely dry and flavourless with enough nutrients involved that you suspect the act hasn’t been a TOTAL waste of time but only something you would eat again if literally every other food on the planet was wiped out.

Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 9

As I say, plenty of people find this film nightmare inducing. The only nightmare I endured was watching it more than once. But, for the sake of universal inclusivity, let me count the ways in which this film COULD induce nightmares. To be fair, these generally make up my favourite moments in the film so for all my grumpiness I am happy to highlight them:

The room of corpses, the horned king close up, pig is nearly executed, all the eyes in the Witch house especially a pair of eyes in one skull eye socket, Horned King cradling a long dead corpse, smoke skull, corpse army, the feeble villian getting the remained of his flesh ripped off and Creeper flying off with faux horns on his head.

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Well dark. (drink)

Best Song: Well, this is the first film where I have nothing to say on this matter. Not because the music is bad but because it is non existent. That’s right, this is the first Disney film sans ANY musical numbers. Which must make this a damn short record:

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Huh?

Ok, so there is a score but none of it stands out enough to earn my coveted ‘best song’ award. So rather than cut this bit, I thought I would select the introduction of early 80’s kid sitcom ‘Square Pegs’ as my favourite song from TBC. Because why the fuck not?

Next Time: Disney tackle Sherlock Holmes…Kind of…The Great Mouse Detective (1987)

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Filed under Disney Princesses, Disney Reviews

The Fox and the Hound Review

The Fox and the Hound (1981) Review

What do I know about the film?

‘The Fox and the Hound’ is an interesting one. Those who have seen it, tend to remember and subsequently have an emotional connection with it, but it passed a lot of people by going by this conversation I have had several times in the last month or so:

Person: I love your Disney Reviews! What is the next one?
Me: ‘Fox and the Hound’
Person: …?
Me: Yeah, it came out in the early…
Person: When do you get to Lion King???

It has a reputation for being one of the darker Disney flicks but it had nothing on the source material, a prize winning novel by Daniel P Mannix, praised for his psychological understanding of animal dynamics.

His story is about a Fox named Tod who is raised by a Human. Just like Disney! And a Hound named Copper who wants to please his Hunter owner. Just like Disney! The Hound is is in direct competition with another Dog named Chief. Just like Disney! The Fox leaves his Human owner when he reaches sexual maturity and finds a Mate. Just like Disney! However after Tod indirectly murders Chief a ferocious hunt begins, where the Hunter and Copper brutally murders both Tod’s Mates and Children and Tod eventually drops dead from exhaustion after Copper refuses to stop chasing him, only the Hunter then decides to kill Copper as Hunter is an alcohol dependent loner who wants to be cared for in a Nursing Home but they won’t allow dogs thus the book ends with Copper being shot in the head…Also a child dies after consuming poison meant for the foxes. Yep. Not so like Disney! In fact, the main thrust of the Disney adaptation is Tod and Copper start off as the very best of buddies which is not in any way part of the plot in the original source material

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Pictured: Going off book.

But the fact that Disney failed to animate several adorable animals being ripped to pieces using their very best red ink doesn’t speak badly of the movie, right? Adaptations from books to films need to be different especially if you are targeting a family audience. But not everyone was impressed with the direction the film went in…

Back in my ‘Rescuers’ review, I briefly noted that the head animator was Don Bluth. ‘So what?’ I hear you cry. ‘This what!’ I respond nonsensically:

In 1979, during production on ‘Fox and the Hound’ and on his 42nd Birthday because apparently he was a theatrical sort, Don Bluth walked out of his job at Disney to start a competing animation company. He was not alone. Fellow animators Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy went with him. The three of them had been secretly working on ideas in a ‘garage’ round the back of the Studio away from prying eyes. Other animators knew though. Some were interested in where their mutiny was going, some were not. The day after the walk out, 11 other animators also departed to work for Bluth. I suspect they were the ones that were interested.

The press, who you will know if you have been following my reviews, had been patiently waiting for the Disney power house to fall apart had a banner few months reporting this as a disaster for Disney. Which it…kind of was. They lost 17% of their lead animation department and the release of ‘Fox and the Hound’ had to be pushed back as a result. Also, Bluth had some pretty damning and more importantly public criticisms to make of his former employers, a game he continued to play as time marched on. Here are some of the many, many available diatribes that Bluth has spewed over the years:

‘It became intolerable to work under the current administration. They don’t understand the creative side. Walt did, but they didn’t…Their thinking is more toward marketing than product -more business than art’

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Disney more interested in Marketing than Art? What??? No…No...

On the fact that all the female animators went with him, Bluth said they left: ‘Out of a certain loyalty to me and because the atmosphere at Disney is sometimes oppressive to women. For years, women have been assistant animators there, but they’ve rarely let them get higher.’

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Disney don’t respect women? What??? No…No…

‘We felt like we were animating the same picture over and over again with just the faces changed a little.’

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Wh-Ok fuck it this joke is getting old…

But one more: ‘they’ve gutted all of the meaning from THE FOX AND THE HOUND. It’s become a cute story instead of a meaningful one’

So at this point you might be thinking…What impact did Bluth’s departure and subsequent barrage of abuse actually have on one of the most powerful and successful film studios of all time? Well we have to leave that until my next review for now…

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The time approaches…Oh yes…

Because first, I need to look at ‘Fox and the Hound’ and tell you if I think Bluth was right or wrong: Did Disney bastardise the story and make it too cutesy? Or was Bluth full of self righteous bullshit and it is actually a well told slice of darkness pie? Why does my opinion matter? Err…Because…Y’know. Look over there! A shot from the film that looks rude out of context!

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You are welcome.

Did I see it as a child? 

Yes. I got it on VHS for Christmas one year and I watched it quite a lot, although I have not seen it for many years so it wasn’t fresh in my head when I came to write this review. Which is a sweet spot I always enjoy. 1000x1000

I remember liking it, especially Corey Feldman as Young Copper whose earnest attempts at howling was remarkably endearing…

Had I known he would grow up to be this guy, I would have reached adulthood a lot faster…:

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Oh Teddy…What happened?

Synopsis: 

The opening credits are silent…Everything is super serious cause this is a super serious movie…and then…Wait. Hold up. PAUSE. WHO plays the lead characters?! Mickey Rooney and Kurt Russell??? Wow. About time those two were in a film together…

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At last!

So it is time for a bit of the ol’ classic Disney parenticide: A Mother Fox is fleeing from a Hunter and hunting dog/s. She has to abandon/save her tiny Babby Fox by a post before she gets a bullet to the face. While her death is off screen it is clear what has gone down…

Luckily one of the many, many Disney Owl’s was nearby and assures the teeny Baby: ‘It’s alright, Big Mama’s here..’ rarely a phrase that inspires confidence. But if you thought the film was headed that way then get your mind out of the gutter. Big Mama, with help from fellow birds Dinky and Boomer, set about finding Baby Fox a home with a slightly loopy woman who IMDB tells me goes by Widow Tweed. After rocking Tod in a chair like a baby and declaring: ‘I won’t be lonesome anymore!’ (What are you too good for bingo club?) Tweed names him Tod…

Meanwhile not so far away, a Hunter named Amos brings home an adorable new puppy he names Copper much to the disdain of his older dog Chief…

When the paths of Tod and Copper cross, a quick happy bond is established and they declare they are best friends. Awwww etc but can their friendship last when Copper is being trained to track and kill him? Nobody seems to think so, except a determined Tod…

What Works: 

I meant to post this review a week ago…But I was struggling with something. One of the things that is consistently a problem with 65 minute films is the pace. And, indeed, it is a problem here. We the audience see Tod and Copper play together a couple of times in an uninspired game of hide and seek, have a playful romp in the water and we are supposed to be invested in the survival of their unbreakable attachment to one another? We seriously only see them together 3 short times (not even a third of the run time I am guessing…) before they are separated…Why should we care? This bothered me a lot and I was going to put this under the heading of things that didn’t work. But the more I worked on this review and the more I reflected, I realised something that made me respect the film a lot more: This isn’t a story about undying friendship. It is about growing up and letting go of things that no longer fit in your life.

To understand how I got here, let’s start with the introduction of the two lead characters. We get the typical Disney ‘cute’ moments, as Tod causes chaos in Widow Tweed’s barn. Do I really have to call her that? Ok…Well he ‘cutes’ his way out of trouble and like many terrible parents before her, she lets him out off as a result. Awww cute etc! But the implication of the chaos is that Tod is restless. He is a fox being cared for by an old lady. He doesn’t have any peers, only some birds with too much time on their hands who only talk to him when they feel like it. Tod is vulnerable from the off, because he is an outsider in his environment.

Meanwhile, nearby we have Copper and Chief, who sleep in barrels, are fed well and, despite Chief’s irritation with his young cohort, are clearly very fond of each other. Copper is being trained to hunt and not long after his intro, his nose leads him to Tod…

I just want to pause and reiterate how much I enjoy Feldman’s Copper. Copper is almost painfully charming, aided considerably by the way he is animated. Sure, it is cutesy, but it doesn’t feel OTT: Copper is naturally enthusiastic, eager and sweet natured and his characterisation does serve a purpose other than the blatant manipulation of my senses…

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Just…Dawwww!

Some people might find it a bit on the nose that right after their crappy game of Hide and Seek (come on Copper, he’s right there!) they are declaring that they are best friends and will be forever…But that is how very young children talk to each other sometimes. I had a lot of ‘best friends’ at different times as a kid, and we would always talk about how we would be friends for the rest of our lives. And of course, you had to declare you were best friends. Otherwise someone else might come along and steal your Best Friend…which wasn’t ok…Cause they are your Best Friend…

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It is pretty complicated I admit…

But notice that it is Tod who instigates all this chat about being best friends. Copper happily agrees, as is his just-go-with-it nature, but Copper is also the character who ends both of their playdates because he needs to get home to his demanding family of Amos the Hunter and Chief. He has a job to do, and even though he enjoys hanging out with Tod, whenever he hears his Master calling, he gets distracted from their play and becomes anxious to get home…

This could be a sign that he is afraid of them, and while that is partly true it is not because he fears abuse. It is abundantly clear that while naturally brusque and harsh, both Amos and Chief love Copper. What it’s really a sign of is that Copper is more connected to his family than Tod is to his. Sure he wants to play, but he also likes coming home. Tod on the other hand is looking to make a connection and is willing to put himself at risk of getting attacked by Chief, to see Copper and spend more time with him, even when Copper makes it clear this is a mistake.

When Amos heads off on what appears to be a year long hunting trip with his dogs (Seriously? How long are they gone for? Does that happen?) Copper is super excited to get going. He doesn’t even think of Tod until he sees the Fox rushing towards the vehicle, too late to say a proper goodbye. Then he gives a (naturally adorable) howl of regret. But up until then, he had been cheerfully enjoying Chief’s life lessons about when exactly a dog can sit up front and is ready for the open road.

Tod on the other hand is crushed. Therefore a life lesson from Big Mama about how Copper will return a fully grown killer falls on deaf ears. Even after Tod is shown the Shed of Death:

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So…Which one do you think your Mom is?

Tod believes the bond he made with Copper will last the months apart…Even as his face betrays his anxiety, he declares that since they agreed they would be best friends forever, all this chat about them being enemies is ridiculous…

When we see Copper, he doesn’t seem to be mourning the loss of his friend at all…He is getting stuck in to tracking and as time goes on is successful. It is at this point in the film that his winning personality pays off: Because now Copper is pretty much an adult and is responsible for the death of some poor off screen animals whose carcasses we see being tied to the car for the journey to home. Yet, we still like him. Copper dives into his role as Hunter with the same happy-go-lucky attitude as he does everything so it is hard to begrudge him his triumph even when it comes at the cost of many, assumably equally anthropomorphic lives.

So then Copper and Chief are back home and a jealous Chief advises Copper that he needs to think ‘nasty’ if he is ever to have the stomach for hunting long term. While Copper humours him it is clear he thinks he is doing just fine. Then Tod shows up. And their reunion is…Awkward.

A lesser Disney film might have made them equally delighted to see the other, romanticising their bond to the extreme, making it seem like it is only fate that is keeping them apart, like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for bros. But in one of my favourite scenes in the film, Tod clearly expects their friendship to pick up where it left off, but Copper, while happy to see Tod, explains that they can’t really hang out anymore. When Tod asks if they are still friends Copper tells him ‘those days are over.’ Not ‘I’d love to, but I probably shouldn’t’ not ‘If only things were different’ See the difference between Tod and Copper is, Copper actually likes his life. He is satisfied to hunt, he likes his home, he likes making his owner happy. While it was nice to have someone he could mess around with when he was a Puppy he doesn’t need Tod bringing trouble to his door and clearly wants him to leave.

I am sure you see what I am getting at: This is a film where a kind of obnoxious character learns he can’t always get what he wants. His childhood friend (who he tellingly calls ‘Kid’ when they introduce themselves to each other) was easy to bend to his will, but now they are older and have nothing in common, recapturing their trouble free youth just isn’t an option partly because, as he has been told lots of times, dogs and foxes are natural enemies but also because Copper just isn’t as invested in their friendship and Tod doesn’t want to accept that.

This point is further emphasised in a gut wrenching sequence when Widow Tweed realises she can’t keep a fox as a pet any longer. So after shuffling through some memories, such as the time she made him a birthday cake…Wow. Really? For a fox? Did y’ah just eat it all yourself in the end? I didn’t even question that as a child…Anyway, she drives him into the forest and leaves him there, even though it breaks her heart to do it. Because ultimately, while she liked having him to keep her company, she is not doing him any favours forcing him to live in a house when he belongs in the wild. So she has to let her friend go…Remind you of anyone??? Themes! Themes I tell you!!!

The scene does work, although the inner monologue as she is driving him and the sad chorus are a bit sentimental, the moment when she hugs him and walks away is genuinely very moving.

So the trigger for Widow Tweed to send her pet fox back to the forest was a chase that ended in Chief getting hurt. Because of this, Copper, who had earlier shown mercy, declares Tod his enemy. This leads to a pretty intense series of moments where Copper and Amos track Tod and his Mate Vixey, who having seen ‘Bambi’ anticipates the attack when the forest gets ‘too quiet.’ The pursuit of Tod is pretty compelling complete with fire, traps, and a Tod VS Copper showdown. If the winner is decided by who has the best ‘It’s on!’ face, Tod wins:

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But then a Bear enters the scene and Tod and Copper team up to save Amos. Despite this, Amos goes to shoot an injured Tod, only for Copper to step between them. Now unlike the earlier scene with Widow Tweed saying goodbye to Tod, Disney nail this moment by leaving the power of the gesture to speak for itself. It is very effective.

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Copper might be a Hunter himself now but he is fair and he can’t let Tod die after he literally fought a motherfucking bear for him. So he silently stands up and waits. Amos relents and, wordlessly, the two opposing sides reach an uneasy conclusion: They will live their seperate lives with a begrudging respect for one another.

If you expected the film to end with the cycle continuing, Tod’s kids playing with Copper’s kids something like that, then you’ve been watching the wrong film. Copper sleeps happily in the sun, while Tod looks down on his friend for the last time from up in the hills…

And that is that. They both grow up and move on. Nobody dies, nothing truly terrible happens to anyone in the story we care about…And yet this film is dealing with some dark stuff. Without bashing you round the head with it, ‘The Fox and the Hound’ truly is about how difficult it is to let go of what was once really, really important: Even if you don’t need it anymore. It isn’t just asking: ‘What if you are constantly told you are supposed to hate your best friend?’ or ‘What happens if two characters who love each other are separated at a crucial time in their development?’ although, sure, both those dissertations are there to be written. What I took from the story is: Growing up is hard to do and things inevitably change even when you don’t want them to. And the story does a great job of exploring that. As do the stories of Don Bluth and Corey Feldman…

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There are some genuinely moving moments that don’t feel forced, and I respect how they make you empathise with just about everyone: Tod, Copper, Chief, Widow Tweed, even Amos. Now really think about that. This is Disney. One of their most famous moments comes from a deliberately off screen monster who actually KILLS animals. Yet this is the film when they give the Great Evil Hunter a face and you can’t really call him the villain. In part that is due to him being played so well by the great Jack Albertson but it is also because he is recognisably a real person not just an idea. Sure, he is by no means an easy person to care about as he is grumpy and unpleasant but he also clearly cares about his dogs and takes pride in their achievements. And crucially the movie does not condemn him. We empathise with him because he is a loving, flawed, lonely, defensive creature. We witness him behave badly not because he is evil but because most people are not good all of the time…Disney had rarely explored the idea of ‘grey’ in their universe up until this point (‘And the good, clean, pretty people lived happily ever after…’) and it lands successfully.

I am impressed that I never feel like I am being asked to take sides in the story. It might seem obvious to resent Copper changing and leaving Tod behind when actually I found Tod’s stubborn arrested development pissed me off a lot more, but this was a personal preference. I can fully believe other views prefer Tod. I wasn’t told who to like best and how to feel about each character which for a Disney film is quite a big shift. More than usual, the camera feels like it is witnessing a story unfold naturally rather than forcing morality from up on high.

While it is easy to criticise the way the movie leaves the source material so far behind that had they not cited it and used the same name you might not have recognised it as an adaptation at all, if you judge the film on its own merit there is a lot to like. From my perspective, and I know not everyone will share this, they find a successful balance between exploring some pretty dark themes and still making it a charming picture on the whole. While the quality of the animation isn’t brilliant, nor is it distractingly bad, the characters are notably complex and layered, I found the story compelling and there are some masterful scenes. So overall, is this an underrated success story? Well nothing is ever that simple I’m afraid…

What Doesn’t Work:

As I said above, I found Tod harder to like than Copper. And never was this more of a problem than his courtship of Vixey. So Big Mama sees that a recently abandoned and thoroughly miserable Tod needs cheering up so decides to pimp out Vixey (So THAT’s how she got the nickname Big Mama…) a perfectly pleasant but criminally dull female version of Tod. What follows is kind of like the scene in ‘Bambi’ where all the adolescence lead characters fall in love only with a rather unpleasant streak of nastiness thrown in.

So Vixey, all naïve and just off the bus, can’t even imagine how she might cheer up Tod but goes over anyway. After his rose tinted childhood rolling around with Copper I was surprised he was interested in her, but it turns out just the sight of the first Fox he has ever seen giving him ‘come to bed’ eyes sends Tod straight to Hornsville.

This is not a scene from the film BTW.

But after Vixey dares to laugh at his pathetic attempts to catch fish Tod’s attitude towards her turns, calling her ‘an empty headed female.’ Note: This is by my count one of 6 times a deviation of ‘woman’ is used as an insult in this film. Anyway, Vixey objects to being criticised by some arrogant cunt she just met so stomps off in a huff. Leaving Big Mama to do some damage control, I.e sing a song about appreciating ladies (doesn’t she have anything better to do?) Tod then gives Vixey a flower and apparently that is good enough and shortly after she excitedly talks about all the babies they are going to have…

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Seems healthy…

Seriously, you can’t imagine all the fucks I do not give about the bland Vixey and Tod’s genuinely abusive seductive technique…I would have had a lot more respect for the film if they had just had a time jump and shown that Tod had adapted to the forest and found a mate without even showing any of what passes for romance (he pretends he is better than her and when he is exposed as a liar insults her, they fuck…lovely) in this horrible little universe.

Speaking of lady appreciating, while the score works well a lot of the individual songs are pretty average. As I mentioned before, the big goodbye scene between Widow Tweed and Tod could have worked better without the sentimental warbling. And many of the songs just don’t commit like ‘Lack of Education’ which pretty much forgets to have a melody and goes nowhere.

There is a running background plot where birds Dinky and Boomer (complete with Tigger laugh…Come on Disney…There are a lot of actors out there…) pursue a caterpillar named Squeaks in order to…I guess eat him? I think…I mean, were they going to share him? Anyway, they are deffo trying to kill him. These sequences play a bit like a Road Runner/Wille E. Coyote cartoon, complete with characters getting funny hairstyles due to being electrocuted:

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I am honestly not sure if these scenes were supposed to be comic relief or a commentary on another theme of the movie that we are all hunters/killers at heart, even the side characters. Their endless pursuit of Squeaks and his evasion of capture seems personal, thus it is like a mini version of the main plot…Still, it is filler, filler, filler, filler Batman! And not nearly entertaining enough. If you cut all these scenes and replaced them with more work on Young Tod and Young Copper spending time together, it would be animation well spent.

Although in the direct to DVD midquel they apparently join a band so maybe not…

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And you thought I was kidding…

But I am sorry to say, that my biggest problem with ‘Fox and the Hound’ is that they didn’t kill Chief. That is right. I WANTED Chief to fall to his death. Yes. A character I like a lot.

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Sorry dude.

First of all: Even though it is a cartoon, some rules do apply. This isn’t like Tom and Jerry where the violence has no long lasting consequences. Animals get shot and killed in this film and they want us to take that seriously. So how exactly do you explain how a dog that gets hit by a fast moving train, gets struck from the track, knocking into boulders as he falls, and landing on some hard rocks below, comes away with only a broken leg???

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BULLSHIT!

It is frustrating because in many ways, the stakes are such that he may as well have died. After all, we see Copper is totally traumatised by finding the lifeless body of his mentor and immediately decides that Tod will pay for Chief’s death…Only then in the next scene Amos goes over to shout at Widow Tweed and we learn Chief didn’t actually die…but why not? Chief doesn’t even have a part to play in the finale…He doesn’t do anything else in the movie except whine for sympathy for his leg in a pretty funny scene played brilliantly by long time Disney voice actor Pat Buttram. But my point stands: Why is he still alive?

This is almost identical to the moment in ‘Lady and the Tramp’ when Trusty is seemingly crushed by the cart. He is mourned by his friend, and then…Nope! Just a broken leg! Gotcha! In both those films, the characters were scripted and, crucially, ANIMATED as being dead only for the Studio to change their minds. But if you are going to do that, then why not remove the bit where they are CLEARLY NOT ALIVE?! It is like…Telling your kid that their pet has been put down and then a day later revealing it was a hilarious prank. Sure, this hypothetical kid’s pleased their pet is still alive but what was the point of making them think otherwise?

Perhaps they just don’t believe kids can take it…Maybe they got a lot of mail about Mrs Bambi. I don’t know. But, as I said, the impact of Copper’s change of heart is completely undermined by the reveal that Chief is actually fine. His survival is not only unrealistic in a way that genuinely does take me out the film, but it undermines the tone they are going for. While I don’t think the fact they ignored most of the source material is a problem, this is one plot point that would have been worth sticking to. Narratively speaking, Chief surviving his fall but Copper still vowing revenge makes about as much sense as Hamlet’s Father really being alive the whole time and cropping up at the end of the play to offer everyone homemade tacos.

How you recieve a film is often impacted by who you see it with. I watched ‘Fox and the Hound’ for this review with 2 other people. When it finished,one of my buddies turned to me and said: ‘That was horrible!’ I was surprised, frankly. As I am sure has been clear by now, I kind of like ‘Fox and the Hound’ Despite the odd pace, the ignoring of gravity, the continuous use of ‘female’ as a swearword, I think it works as a whole. However, my viewing companion felt that while she could acknowledge it was a good film it just wasn’t fun to watch.

Now these reviews are about my personal views and are written for my own amusement. But since she was with me while I was watching it and came to such a different conclusion, I wanted to give her criticism some thought. Not everyone is going to like this film. I did. I do. But it is…It is kind of brutal. Sure, nobody actually dies, the ending is relatively happy. But the mood of the film is kind of dour, the pace is kind of sloppy and the message is that nothing lasts. Things that mean a lot to you, that at one time may have meant everything, end. Not everybody wants to watch films dealing with themes like that and it is not because those people are cowardly or philistines…It just doesn’t work for them. It is jarring. It bums them out.

What I am getting at is: If you are looking for an uplifting Disney film to tickle your inner child…Look elsewhere.

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Conclusion: 

While by no means perfect, I personally feel ‘The Fox and the Hound’ deserves credit for creating a surprisingly emotionally complex story about deterioration while keeping it kid friendly. There are cute puppies and chase scenes paired with convincingly awkward demonstrations that not all people who you love, love you back in the same way. In short, a kid’s film about the disappointed and wonder of growing up. Although I am glad that 90’s gravity grew less forgiving of Disney characters because seriously…How many times can you send a character reeling down a cliff only to see they are fine?

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Twice. They did it twice.

Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 5

Tod’s Mum gets shot, Shed of Death, Chief wakes up and starts barking at Tod violently, Tod’s game face and Scare Bear.

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Winnie?

Best Song:

While I am not a big fan of the songs in ‘Fox and the Hound’ I think ‘Best of Friends’ wins because it has the most memorable melody and I have fond recollections of making my Troll Doll and Gorilla sing it as a duet when I was a kid:

Next Time: The ultimate battle between an old man with crippling arthritis and a magic pig! With a bit of Jar Jar Smeagol thrown in for good measures! Oh yes it is time for one of the biggest, messiest accidents in Disney history…Hold on to your judgemental harp…It is The Black Cauldron (1985) 

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The Rescuers Review

The Rescuers (1977) Review

 

What do I know about the film?

I was mildly baffled very early on in my first viewing of ‘The Rescuers.’ I knew that the film was based off the books by Margery Sharp but in the opening credits Disney declared that the story was ‘Suggested by ‘The Rescuers’ and ‘Miss Bianca’ by Margery Sharp.’ What happened to based on or inspired by? What suggested by actually suggests is they begrudgingly acknowledge the base idea/characters but their version has very little in common with the text. Either way, it seems a little disrespectful. Still, I doubt she cared: As a result of the film, all 9 of her ‘Rescuers’ books ended up on various best seller lists.

Some people cite this as the very first film that Walter Disney had nothing at all to do with but believe or not that still isn’t the case. ‘The Rescuers’ went into preproduction in 1962 when Walt was very much still alive. The actual book that is called ‘The Rescuers’ is about a Norwegian poet trapped in a prison who is visited by some mice who are part of an organisation that send in rodents to cheer up incarcerated individuals. I read it once at school. It was pretty good. Walt felt it all sounded a bit gloomy and would work better if it was about a Polar Bear named Willie. Because…Y’know. Willie the Polar Bear. Who wouldn’t want to rescue that guy? ‘Suggested by’ indeed…

But then he died (Disney, not Willie the Polar Bear) and they quietly scrapped the polar bear shit and took the lead from the literary sequel to ‘The Rescuers’ ‘Miss Bianca’ to focus the story on a kidnapped child. Much more Disney’s speed.

It took 4 years and a lot of man power: After a couple of public missteps, and many whispers that the Studio was nothing without their leader, everyone involved wanted a mega hit and were not taking any chances. Leading the animation team was none other than Don Bluth. Does the name ring a bell? For some of you it will. Others maybe not. But for now let’s leave it at that…

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For now.

Now these reviews are for fun and not especially focused on the behind the scenes stuff that I am less interested in, but I feel it would be remiss of me not to talk a little about Disney’s 9 Old Men. And now is as good a time as any as I believe this was the final Disney feature that they all worked on. These guys were the core animators and subsequent directors at the studio from ‘Snow White’ onwards and I understand the name was coined by Walt himself. As individuals and as a gang they are responsible for some of the most lauded work in animation and, significantly, supported new up starts with their work at Disney and beyond. They are all deceased now but their legacy lives on in the incredible work they produced and it is fair to say that they left their mark on celluloid:

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Stand down men. You did it.

So did the hard work on ‘The Rescuers’ pay off? Some of the animators have publicly stated that this was the best work they did post-Walt and the critics agreed. Many people saw ‘The Rescuers’ as a sign that Disney was still in the movie game. However, it would be their last big success until 1989.

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When’s it my turn? Not yet…

Despite this being considered a glorious highlight of 70’s Disney, that is not a competitive field and generally speaking it is not usually cited as one of the best or most memorable films overall. One of the more famous stories comes from the recall of the VHS edition back in 1999. It turned out of one the animators was either A) not so happy at work or  B) had an interesting sense of humour and no sense of proportion because during one of the flying scenes it was possible to spot a naked woman in the background in one of the windows. Now, normally these kinds of Disney controversies are either debatable or hold no water whatsoever (there are a lot of those during the renaissance era) but this was…errr…unmistakable:

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Bernard’s face says it all really…

Pornography in a family film aside (I type that far too often…) what of the rescuing mice? Onwards!

 

Did I see it as a child? 

I did see it a few times at my first babysitter’s house, but I owned and was completely enamoured with the sequel and when I think of The Rescuers, that is the movie I think of. But we have some time before we get to that. I do remember having a cassette tape of Disney songs with a song from this film that used to make me cry and some of the images triggered some really nostalgic memories…

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Not this FYI.

I was quite obsessed with Miss Bianca as a very young child: Was it because she was an adventurous woman in a man’s world? Nope. It was the purple outfit. I LOVED it. In my defence I was 4. Very few people had attempted to explain the importance of having positive female role models to me.

On that subject though, I stumbled across this fantastic blog about Heroine’s in pop culture that I thoroughly recommend. This post is about the awesome Miss Bianca and while I will be talking about her in the body of the review I would encourage you to read this because it is great (It talks about her role in the forthcoming sequel though, so if you want to avoid the very smallest of spoilers for a 25 year old film, then hold off): http://swanpride.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/honoring-the-heroine-miss-bianca/

Going back to my childhood for a moment, I loved having both her and Bernard in model form:

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Look at them go!

One day, my friend Amanda and I were playing with them in the garden and invented a game which involved throwing them up in the air with a cry of: ‘Here goes Bianca!’ and ‘There goes Bernard!’ We were preschool age if that helps you understand why this was fun…Anyway I must have hurled Bernard with too much enthusiasm because he sailed into next door’s garden.

So I went and rang the doorbell, with some trepidation. You might be wondering why two 4 year olds were able to wander out of their house and into someone else’s unsupervised…The short and less criminal version is: It was a different time.

Anyway, my elderly neighbour answered the door, listened to my request and went through his house into the back garden to retrieve Bernard. Then he made a mistake. He made us laugh.

‘Am I going to have to leave out some mouse traps?’ he joshed in a good natured voice.

We didn’t just giggle. We roared. To our toddler minds, this man was a comedy God. So I assume you can guess what happened next.

Imagine you have worked hard your whole life, you have retired, you own a nice little property in a small village. You are trying to read your paper or whatever on a lovely Sunday afternoon and you hear, for the 15th time in the space of an hour, your doorbell ring. Surely it couldn’t be them again? You think. But it is. The Children of the Corn with their evil little smiles, innocently insisting they have accidentally hurled the toy mice into your garden. Again. And you know they want you to say your catchphrase. They want the classic material. The golden hits. And even though you think you might vomit if you say it one more time, you have to oblige or the creepy little freaks will never go away.

This went on all afternoon, until finally his slightly less patient wife answered the door. Our faces fell. We had no evidence whatsoever that she was a fellow scholar of comedy after all. But we gave her a chance:

‘Hi. We threw some mice into your-‘

‘You need to stop doing that now.’ She said gently but very, very firmly.

Her Husband was nowhere to be found. I can only assume he was lying on his living floor crying in the foetal position muttering: ‘I can’t say it again…’

We were not put off. Maybe she just needed prompting. So while my friend tried to see if her Husband was visible behind her by literally jumping as high as she could, I fed her the line.

‘Oh. You should maybe put out some mouse-‘

‘I’m sorry girls, but it is a no. Goodbye.’ And the door was closed on our tiny faces.

Crushed we returned to my garden. After a few minutes of stunned silence, Amanda asked: ‘What about Bianca and Bernard?’

I simply jumped the wall and got them myself. It was easy really and I could have done it in the first place.

 

Synopsis:

Penny the orphan and her excellent teddy bear have been kidnapped by a braless woman (we see she has packed one but she never wears it) and her pet crocodiles and is being held in an old ship at Devil’s Bayou for some nefarious purpose. It is up to the Rescue Aid Society, a kind of mouse UN, to sort this shit out. The cool as a cucumber Hungarian delegate Miss Bianca volunteers for the task and requests a superstitious but good hearted janitor named Bernard to accompany her…

 

What Works: 

This is the first Disney film to have a pre-credits sequence and I really enjoyed it as an introduction to the film. Everything is shrouded in shadow and gloom as a little girl creeps out to throw a message in a bottle into the water, while two smirking crocodiles (the internet debate if they are alligators, but I am plumping for crocs, may the spirit of Steve Irwin strike me down if I am wrong) watch. It sets us up with a couple of little mysteries. Who is the girl? Who is the message for? Who are the crocodiles? It is not instantly clear what is happening which makes a refreshing change of pace for Disney who usually like to spell out the story in the first couple of minutes.

Even the opening song, ‘Rescue Me’ is something really different. It is sang from the perspective of the bottle and the accompanying melody and especially the images are all melancholy and beautifully crafted.

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Greetings from Sad Island! Depression at the bottom of every coconut!

Ever since I was a child I remember being fascinated by the concept of a message in a bottle and on the frequent occasions I went to the beach I would always be on the look out for one so I really do love the way this film starts.

Remember how I mentioned the head animator was Don Bluth? Well, tonally this feels like one of his classic movies, in that it manages to balance considerable darkness with some understated hope in a way that can be accessible for children without talking down to them, which is a massive point in its favour. The opening moments are a good example of this.

The next scene is our introduction to the International Rescue Aid Society whose meeting takes place within the actual UN building. For the record, as a legitimate fully Scottish person I’d like to point out that kilts are formal wear reserved for distinct occasions such as weddings and are generally not worn to work meetings. Sorry America.

I love stories that are set in our world but have to show it from a different perspective. For example I always loved the concept of Mary Norton’s ‘The Borrowers’ because you have to think outside the box to make their world work within ours. The mice in this film are of a similar size to Borrowers and therefore there are some great bits of visual creativity to show how they get about, like using a comb as a ladder, and how they hold their meeting inside some forgotten luggage. I love things like this. See how many little details can be spotted in just one shot:

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During the song ‘Rescue Aid Society’ we are introduced to our main characters and again, we don’t get them just stating who they are and want they want out of life like so many Disney protagonists. We infer from what we are shown. Like Bernard the janitor singing along outside with such passion. We don’t need a monologue or even an ‘I want’ song to see that this guy desires to be part of what is going on inside.

Enter Miss B. And again, the entrance says it all. She is running late but she still stops to squirt her perfume and makes a hell of a first impression with her sassy, confident wiggle. That might sound somewhat sexualised but it really isn’t: She is sexy as cartoon mice go, sure. But that is not her sole reason to be admired. There is a confidence to her strut, a self assuredness that is rarely so well illustrated in female characters who so often can be reduced to one word tropes. In short, she works it:

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I suspect she was late on purpose so she could walk in like this.

So we establish the main flaw in sending important information via a body of water. The message is virtually unreadable. Oops. But there is enough information for Bianca to ask for the assignment. After a bit of ‘But you are a woman! Most unorthodox!’ hand wringing, it is deemed appropriate for her to pick a buddy and unsurprisingly she goes for the awkward janitor mouse. So one of them is a blue collar worker and the other has ovaries! How on Earth will they succeed at anything that doesn’t involve crying in a Mike Leigh film???

Well as Bianca enthusiastically predicts, they make a great team. Eva Gabor (Previously taking the lead in ‘The Aristocats’) is great as the dazzling and effervescent Miss Bianca and Bob Newhart’s distinctive stammering delivery is a nice counterbalance to her certainty that they will succeed. I am pretty sure they wouldn’t have recorded their dialogue together (standard practice dictates this rather knowledge) but their chemistry is great. Disney are quite restrained about their burgeoning romance: While it is clear Bernard likes Bianca and she is fond of him, the front and centre plot is not whether they will end up together.

There is quite a lot of peril thrown at our leads throughout the film, and in one scene when they are being pursued by crocodiles and Bianca is all ‘Bernard help!’ I found myself rolling my eyes and writing: ‘Come on B!’ in my notes. I wanted her to not be a damsel in distress so bad I could taste it…But then she saves him from danger a bit later later and I relaxed my guard a bit: They rely on each other. He is easily overwhelmed and a little stuck in his ways, while she is gung-ho about everything without being totally tone deaf to the needs of others. She brings as much to the mission as he does and this makes the pairing pleasing to me. They are a team of equal value more than most male/female pairings are in films.

One of their best shared qualities is the ability to inspire and motivate others, often simply from leading by example. They don’t go on and on about being brave, they just are. When they meet some other mice who live in Devil’s Bayou they gain their support quickly as it becomes apparent that the pair, Luke and Ellie May, knew about the kidnapped child. It makes you wonder why it took the arrival of Bernard and Bianca for them to rally round and make a plan to help the girl…It might have something to do with the fact that Luke is constantly drinking what can really only be petroleum. But maybe it is because they needed assurance that mice are capable of saving the day. The Rescuers also convince a desolate Penny that there is hope just as she had lost heart. They seem able to call people to action just by being themselves.

I can see why. Even when they consider giving up, Bianca hears the music of the ‘Rescue Aid Society’ in her head and reminds Bernard that they agreed to take on the mission and it really is as simple as that. I found this more moving than if they had had a cliché falling out and an extended period of separation only for them to realise much, much later that they had to do the right thing: Their attitude is consistent, they believe in their cause and the only thing in their way are some pretty intimidating obstacles, but they keep their chin up and get on with it. It is nice to see. You want them to triumph and, most importantly, you want them to triumph together:

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So I believe in the pairing, what else? Well the action sequences just get better and better as the film progresses. As I said, there is a lot of peril. While some of the moments are undercut by it being a tad predictable (Let the record show that films have taught me that if a plane I am on is crashing I can just open my umbrella at the last minute and I will not be smushed to death) but the pacing and the style of the scenes just kept improving. The crazy swamp chase? Good. The crocodiles trapping them in an organ while the humans try and shoot them? Great. The cave filling up with water? Fantastic.

I love that cave scene. Penny is being forced to look around for something called the Devil’s Eye because the villains, Medusa (subtle) and Snoops can’t fit down there themselves. Despite several escape attempts, Penny is always returned and forced to go into the caves again. On this occasion she is more motivated than usual because Medusa has stolen her beloved teddy bear. As someone who has a childhood toy who was my friend through rough times, I was stricken by this and wrote down: ‘If anything happens to that Bear I am going to flip.’ and when Medusa tries to hang on to him in order to store the diamond I added: ‘Bitch was going to keep teddy. Kill her’ I meant every word too. Not ok, Medusa. Not ok.

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I would cut the inside of her mouth with a rusty blade if she took my-What? What are you staring at me like that for?

So anyway that’s how they end up in the cave, and what a set. Water geysers, an abandoned pirate skeleton (what’s his story?) and of course the big fuck-off diamond. It is genuinely beautiful. The colour choices was great and I have to admit I would put a frightened child into serious danger to get it:

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I really like shiny things.

The atmospheric silence except for drips of the cave and the threat of the water always present, the vulnerability of two small mice and a little girl in that environment…It is kind of intense. I enjoyed it.

The supporting characters are a bit hit and miss for me, but there is enough of them that works that they deserve a mention. Evinrude the Dragonfly is that rare thing: Mild comedy relief in a kid’s film that doesn’t make me want to snap my own neck. His communication through buzzing alone and some great little reaction shots, plus the fact they don’t overuse him, makes him an enjoyable character to cheer on.

The other members of the gang that live in Devil’s Bayou are fun too, although what is with the proportions of the animals? How is a turtle, a rabbit, an owl and some mice all the same size? Rufus the cat, from the Morningside Orphanage, who fills our heroes in on the possible whereabouts of Penny, is a delight. I especially love the way he tolerates the various uncomfortable ways Penny holds him.

While I am not crazy about either Medusa or Penny (for further details scroll down) they share a scene which I actually think is quite brave for a film like this. The set up begins in an orphanage flashback when Penny is totally crushed following another Adoption Day going by without…Wait. Hold the rotatory phone. Adoption Day. At an Orphanage? Holy shit, what a concept! Is that a thing??? I know quite a bit about the Care system, in my own country anyway, and I am pretty sure they don’t put the kids on display for perspective parents like at a mall. Or a dog show. But that is exactly what the film implies as Penny tells Rufus that a nice set of parents showed up and seemed to be considering her but left with a lovely little red haired orphan (Annie?) and that she will never get picked because she isn’t pretty. Yikes.

But this isn’t a throw away line. Later in the film, Medusa is peeling off her face-

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And informs Penny that nobody would want to adopt ‘a homely little girl like you.’ Now throughout the film Penny tries to run away, talks back to the adults, isn’t intimated by the threat of being shot, and isn’t even afraid of big ass crocodiles. But when someone reinforces her belief that she is ugly she is totally inconsolable and everything from the way she closes the door, to her walking slowly to her room is done in a defeated way. It is pretty heartbreaking.

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‘It’s going to be another 25 odd years until Linda Perry writes ‘Beautiful.’ How am I supposed to know what to do until then?’

Initially I was annoyed by the inclusion of the ‘homely’ comment directed towards a child but then I thought about it for a few seconds and realised that clearly we are supposed to see how wrong it is that a brave, sweet, shade-throwing kid like Penny, who hasn’t even hit adolescence yet, has been made to feel less than due to looks. Disney often give the message that beauty is all (the goodies are hot, the baddies are not etc) and here they seem to be saying: ‘Isn’t that a terrible message? This little girl is great as she is’ Is it hypocritical? Kind of. But each film is a new story so leaving behind what Disney traditionally do, I think it was quite bold of them to show the impact criticising someone’s face can have on their self esteem here.

There are some odd little surreal moments in the film that really made me laugh, intentionally or not. When Bianca and Bernard get on an albatross to leave the city, Bernard is a nervous wreck. Like Newhart in real life, he doesn’t like flying. They are going really fast and Bianca assures him that it is fine and she runs red lights all the time. Wait what? How? Does she have a car? A motorbike? Is it a small mouse sized automobile or does she hitch rides? Did a Disney film just condone dangerous traffic behaviour? Add Bianca’s wild past to the list of never to be made Disney prequels I would kill to see.

In the scene where Penny runs away, all the villains are out looking for her. When Snoops gets her back, he sends a message to Medusa in fireworks that spells out: ‘GOT GIRL’ I had to pause the film just to process this. There MUST have been an easier way to tell her! She is just out on the water, couldn’t he have shouted the same message? And if he was worried about attracting attention, maybe don’t advertise your kidnapping skills in large exploding lights in the sky? And how expensive must that many fireworks have been? And how did he have time to set it up? How long would that take? Can you even get fireworks to spell out words? Honestly, I laughed for about 35 minutes.

If you think that is a stupid nit to pick wait till you get a load of this: For some reason, the fact that all the mice wear clothes and the people never comment on this just confuses the hell out of me. Medusa freaks out when she sees the mice and shouts for help but doesn’t comment on the fact that they are both wearing little hats. (she also tries to kill them with a shot gun…who does that?) And when the swamp gang attack her, why doesn’t she give up the diamond and pick up the tiny mouse with a piny and a rolling pin that can talk? I bet you that would be worth a hell of a lot more than even the Devil’s Eye. But no. We just have to accept there are mouse clothes shops and nobody who sees a mouse wearing clothes is surprised by that. Maybe Cinderella branched out with a boutique after her film ended.

When Penny finally gets her happy ending, Bernard and Bianca are watching it on the news. Incidentally, the other orphans sing: ‘For she’s a jolly good fellow’ to her only adding the verse: ‘She’s got a new Mom and Dad! Hooray for new Mom and Dad!’ A refrain which has been stuck in my head my whole life. I genuinely still sing it at baffled passers by sometimes. So Penny is asked about her adventure by a news reporter and Penny proceeds to give a shout out to her mice friends and the reporter’s reaction is priceless. She clearly thinks Penny has lost her damn mind. I loved it because it made me think of this:

So the rescuers successfully rescued Penny…But what couldn’t they rescue about this film?

 

What Doesn’t Work:

Well apart from the above examples, and I don’t know how funny all of those things were supposed to be, the film is pretty light on laughs. This seems like a mean critique when looking at how subtle a lot of the little character moments are and it is for sure a very sweet film. Not every film has to have me rolling around laughing. But coming off the back of some of Disney’s funnier films, I couldn’t help noticing that whenever the pace dragged, I flagged and some decent comedic writing may have helped that.

There is a scene right after the allocation of the mission where Bianca suggests they take a short cut through the zoo which just feels like a waste of time. I suppose it sets up their characters some more but it just goes nowhere…It could be cut and nobody would miss it.

Penny the Orphan is kind of annoying. Most of that is the pitch of the voice, and the fact that she is just a bit too cutesy for my liking, which is a shame because she has some good line readings and I actually think her acting is ok. It isn’t really her fault that her voice makes me vomit carrots and that children are always written as being so…Innocent, I guess. Like when the mice first actually see her she and her teddy bear are praying that everyone she cares about gets blessed. Awwwww. I guess the moment would have lost something if she had been picking her ass and smelling it when they first met her but still…I prefer a character to have traits that I can decide if I find charming or not instead of hitting me over the head with a mallet that says: ADORABLE RIGHT? on it.

Medusa has some good moments but within the first second I saw her I wrote: ‘That’ll be the villain then’ and it really is all a bit predictable and one dimensional. This wouldn’t be that bad except I quickly noticed something: Her design, her car, her line readings (courtesy of legend Geraldine Page, damn this is a good cast) all felt very, very familiar. Very familiar. Like, Disney have done this villain already…

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Oh there it is…

Yeah we already have one Cruella and we don’t need another. It turns out, and I found this out after I had watched the film, this was originally going to be another vehicle for ‘101 Dalmatians’ MVP Ms De Vil and it shows. It feels pretty lazy and I don’t think Page’s work is quite distinct enough to get past this and the ‘villain because evil’ limitations of the character.

Ultimately, I think wittier dialogue, better structure (in one scene they conduct a plan that they quickly abandon for reasons I am still not totally clear on) and some more surprising set pieces may have made it more memorable as it is one of those films that, while there are some good moments, it struggles to stand out when put up against the back catalogue. The animation is good but not fantastic: Again nothing that really stands out. I think it is a film that is easy to be fond of, hard to love.

 

Conclusion: 

I can see why they were pleased with it. ‘The Rescuers’ set a prescient that would go on to define a lot of animation in the 80’s: The style, atmosphere, tone, the likeable characters and one of the best pairings Disney ever did would all be emulated and expanded upon in future work by Bluth and his contemporaries. However as the years have gone by it has faded in importance because part of the problem of testing the waters with a new style is you don’t quite get everything right because you have nothing to refer to: It has very few stand out moments and some of the ideas and characters don’t quite work for me. However I think it deserves to be seen and would recommend it, if only for the fabulousness of Bianca and that weird bit with the fireworks.

 

Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 4

Crocs, scary bats, dead pirate and legit child abuse.

 

Best Song: 

I didn’t talk about the music much in the review…the soundtrack feels much more Bluth than Disney and I kind of missed the ‘Disney factor’ of the full on musical. The soft female vocals is all a bit namby-pamby and it was all the more disappointing when I found out it could have been The Carpenters…The Carpenters, man! But I didn’t want to declare it as a thing that didn’t work because the songs are largely effective in the context of the film. I have always had a soft spot for ‘Someone’s Waiting for You’ which actually used to make me cry as a very young kid. I was dead sensitive that way apparently…It is no ‘Baby Mine’ but it is still quite…tear making. If you are that way inclined:

 

 

 

Next Time: Two animals who are usually enemies become the very best of friends…What could possibly go wrong? The Fox and the Hound (1981)

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The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh Review

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) Review

What do I know about the film?

Queen without Freddie. The Jacksons without Michael. Spice without Ginger. Disney without Walt. What is the link? They fell apart when they lost their driving creative force. (Yes Ginger was the driving creative force behind The Spice Girls, more on that another day) Of course if you grew up in the Disney renaissance era as I did, the idea that Disney struggled without their leader seems like melodrama but if you want evidence that the studio had very little clue of where to go from his death, look no further than ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.’

Released in 1977 4 years after their last full length feature ‘Robin Hood,’ ‘Winnie the Pooh’ is made up 3 pre existing short films with a shoehorned in ending to make it a story. Yep. It took them 4 years to do what anyone with a basic editing app nowadays could do in about 40 minutes. They were lost with no hope of rescue. The great Walt Disney Studios had lost their bounce.

A few months later, their next film was ready to go so ‘Winnie the Pooh’ was basically a freebie but still…4 years. The three shorts that make up the film are ‘Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree,’ Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day’ and ‘Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too.’ all based on stories told by British writer/poet AA Milne. Milne’s books were a series of small adventures inspired by his Son, the real life Christopher Robin, and the menagerie of toys he carted around with him. It is difficult to overestimate the impact Milne’s stories have had on children, literature and culture as a whole (I am here to focus on the Disney interpretation after all) so I will say only this: They are really rather good.

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He looks…fun. I guess.

 

Most of the reviews of the film that I have managed to track down seem to have been written retrospectively, and are pretty positive with most sources citing ‘Winnie the Pooh’ as the most faithful and charming of the films Disney adapted from traditional British classics. One or two feel they destroyed the integrity of the original stories….

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Integ-integ-How do you say that word again?~Disney Executive

 

But largely, the Disney version of Milne’s tales seem to get a pass from everyone now. Is this deserved?

Well before we get to that let us talk about the real result of these adaptations: As with ‘Peter Pan’ before him ‘Winnie the Pooh’s’ biggest impact on the Disney legacy is marketing. If you think of a thing, chances are that thing exists with one of the Hundred Acre Wood gang on it. Whether you call it shameless, innovative or awww cute it is a fact that is undeniable. If you told me right now you can buy a pregnancy test where Eeyore’s gloomy face pops up to tell you the result and to passive aggressively criticise you for peeing on him, I wouldn’t even blink. It is one of the fundamental truths of our precarious existence: The sun will rise, the tide will flow, stuff has Winnie the Pooh and friends on it.

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The day I don’t laugh at this is the day you find my ice cold corpse.

 

Did I see it as a child?

‘Winnie the Pooh’ was not a massive part of my childhood, which is a bit like casually announcing I hate puppies, sunshine and strawberries (2 out of 3 of those are true…) but bear with me. I was aware of both the books and the Disney version of course, and naturally had a lot of the merchandise because it is literally impossible to get through life without it.

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Is it just me or is this proper creepy? It gives the impression that Pooh Bear’s face has been scraped off…

My favourite of the Winnie the Pooh merch I personally owned was this:

I got given him the morning of my birthday moments before I found out I would not have to attend school that day due to bad weather. It was excellent. Being off school on my birthday, not dangerous storms. Sadly, gosh this still hurts, I reluctantly left him behind on top of my chest of drawers when I had to do a bunk from my family home due to very dramatic reasons and he was very much lost in the shuffle. I still miss him a bit.

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I genuinely got quite sad remembering that, so here is this again.

 

Going into this review, I had a vague memory of some of the songs, mostly because I owned quite a few of the Disney sing along song video tapes. One of the songs I thought I knew was not in the film, because it turned out it was the theme tune to a TV show from the late 80’s early 90’s called ‘The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.’ It is tonally very different to the music in the 70’s film so how I thought the two were linked, I don’t know. I think it is just the way memories get all mixed up during the age you just consume everything that is put in front of you:

As you can see, this seems to be a very…American take on ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and the only thing that I recall about the show is the above theme song which is quite sweet. Some might say sickly sweet but, eh.

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Whatever Pooh does in his private life is none of our business…

One of the lines in it, brilliantly, I just straight up stole without consciously realising it for a song I ‘wrote’ when I was about 8 and had a pop band. So this song has been pretty nostalgia-tastic. Although largely irrelevant so moving on…

Despite being fairly certain I have not seen the 70’s version the whole way through and not exactly pouring over the text as a child, The characterisations of the characters are firmly ingrained in my brain, as they are in most people’s. The ‘Winnie the Pooh’ gang are marketable in part because there are a lot of them and they are all different. This and this alone is enough to make them fodder for some of the most over wrought and self indulgent philosophical and psychological analysis I have ever seen riddled throughout the veins of pop culture.

I bring this up here, because I predict somebody at some point down the line will ask me why I didn’t point out that each of the characters represents a mental health disorder/a substance abuse problem/ a kind of sexual deviance in the review. Perhaps you are that person and you will have assumed I didn’t ‘pick up on it.’ No. No I just…don’t want to ‘diagnose’ Tigger. Fuck off.

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Pooh Bear is sooo sick of your pop psychology he has thrown up Piglet. Is this what you wanted?!

If you are interested in this sort of chat (and why not?) then feel free to Google ‘Winnie the Pooh theories’ and fill your boots. I won’t be joining you. Unless you find one about the fact that nearly every character in the Disney adaptation has a different speech impediment of some kind because that is interesting…You see? Even I can’t help it. And Having just got comfortable on my high horse…I did chuckle at this…Pooh Bear has a problem:

Enough time wasting! Who is the Pooh Bear and what does he want with your children?

 

Synopsis: 

As previously highlighted, there are three distinct sections: Honey Tree, Blustery Day and Tigger Too. There are some perfunctory scenes to tie them together, and the narrative device of…a narrator. Fresh.

We begin in a nursery where some slightly unnerving versions of the characters are placed around the room:

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Good niiiight…

Leading us into a song that introduces us to the world of Christopher Robin, a boy who has a gang of animal buddies who reside in the Hundred Acre Wood. The crew is comprised thusly:

Christopher Robin: The Overlord.
Pooh Bear: CR’s favourite teddy bear.
Piglet: Pooh’s little nervous mate.
Tigger: A happy-go-lucky very bouncy fella.
Eeyore: A sad donkey.
Rabbit: A fuss budget who says things like ‘Heaven’s to Betsy!’
Owl: Who is kind of wise but also a bit nuts.
Kanga/Roo: They…are there. Yep.
Gopher: On loan from the Lady and the Tramp universe. Yeah I don’t get it either.

The first story is about Pooh’s quest for honey which leads to him eventually being stuck in Rabbit’s house where the only solution is the old goose in a bottle scenario where he has to fast in order to emerge. The second is about bad weather. The third is about Rabbit’s frankly appalling quest to break Tigger’s spirit.

 

What Works: 

Winnie the Pooh (seriously…What is with that name?) as a leading character charmed me from the moment he leapt happily over his own name in the rather lovely opening song. The name leaping, getting distracted by a butterfly during his song, and his excellent, very toddler like walk…That was already three things I enjoyed about him and the film had just begun, which is more than many Disney protagonists give me to work with in a full run time. He then goes on to do his stoutness exercises as he celebrates his curves…

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Screw ‘All About That Bass’ Pooh Bear can be ‘short and fat and proud of that’ without slagging off skinny people…

Oh my heart aches with love for him. Let me count the ways:

Firstly, his morning exercises. Done solely to prepare him for his meal. I can think of no other reason to work out, frankly. He is not even alarmed when his head does that Exorcist thing and his kidneys nearly fall out:

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That…shouldn’t happen.

The way he talks, his walk, my God that walk is the best. The little happy wiggle he does before he eats (Yes I do that too):

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I even love that tiny little T Shirt that doesn’t remotely fit him: Don’t we all have clothes we hang on to even though they don’t really fit anymore? Don’t make fun of me. I am short and fat and proud of that, bitches.

So yeah, I like him. Perhaps my favourite thing about Pooh Bear can be summed up in the following quote from early on in the film:

‘A bear of very little brain…So he thought in the most thoughtful way he could think’

Winnie the Pooh is cheerfully stupid. The poor bastard doesn’t even know what a mirror does. And yet there are many moments that show him trying his best to use his brain. Hell, in his spare time, he goes to his thinking spot to sit and do some quality musing. This to me is a most admirable quality.

When most people discover they are not good at something naturally, they will not endure it because people hate tolerating anything that makes them uncomfortable. I lump myself in with this: All it takes is a game of Trivial Pursuit to remind me that I am staggeringly ignorant on a number of topics that most people would consider basic or essential knowledge. Sure, I can name every David Bowie album in order of release but I can’t confidently point to Egypt on a map. But Pooh recognises his stupidity and makes an effort to improve. It is genuinely excellent: He may not be good at it, but he wants to learn. His affable enthusiasm for life is incredibly winning.

As is covered in that sketch I posted above, Pooh’s obsession with honey and his single minded drive to get it, (ok his addiction…there I said it!) kind of makes him, I may or may not be quoting A.A. Milne directly here, behave like a massive douche towards his friends. But I forgive him because here is the thing: It is made clear that he can’t handle more than one thought at once. So when he is hungry, he is consumed by that. The moments where his attention is diverted to his friends lead to some of the sweetest moments in the movie and support my belief that Pooh Bear stops just short of being unlikeable.

Especially with Piglet. There is a great moment where they are having a Hero party for Pooh Bear (Hip-hip Pooh-ray!) and Piglet gives up his house so Owl can live there. Pooh is quick to not only ask Piglet to live with him but quietly check with Christopher Robin if the party can be for both he and Piglet. Would a selfish character happily share his party and his house?

Maybe. But here is the thing: All the characters are kind of obnoxious. But also likeable. Often writers work hard to make their characters ‘every man’ types and in doing so remove any edge or layers as they don’t want to insult the every man by suggesting they might be, gasp, flawed in any significant way. And yet, nearly everyone in this universe has character traits that you will recognise as your own. They are more rounded than most Disney characters in this regard.

I feel like whoever you like best says a lot about the special kind of dickhead you are. For anyone interested, my personal ranking of the Hundred Acre Wood gang goes thusly: Eeyore, Pooh and Tigger make up the top three followed by Piglet, Rabbit and Christopher Robin together and then Owl and then, quite some distance away, Kanga and Roo. (I don’t count the Gopher. More on that later) Make of that what you will…

While one could argue that anything that does work about this adaptation can be credited to Milne’s writing, I honestly feel the highlight of the film is the superb job they did with the cast. Because, aside from Christopher Robin who falls foul of the curse of child acting syndrome, the voice work here is some of the best I have ever heard.

A trend I have noticed since I began this task is that Disney are sometimes quite hit/miss with their casting choices and seem to go with whomever was hanging around the studio at the time…And…well…It doesn’t look like they changed it up for ‘Winnie the Pooh’ Most of the people were working at Disney already in some capacity. Only this time they captured lightening in a bottle.

When I found out that Disney writer Ralph Wright’s sole acting credit in his whole life was voicing Eeyore, I was amazed. The dude’s got vocal chords that are as magical to me as Barry White or something: Just this sound that stops you in your tracks. To think he could have gone undiscovered…with that droll, dry, dark, deep rolling thunder of a voice…His delivery is so…I don’t even have the words. It is just perfect. When I passed the message on, he said:

The voice of Pooh (still finding it funny, FYI) Sterling Holloway, has already come up a bunch of times in these reviews but he deserves extra props here for what must be his finest hour, his tour de force, his magnum opus. That man was born to play a mentally challenged teddy bear. As with Wright, Holloway’s work is like that of a great musician: He makes it look easy but you know if you tried to deliver the same notes in the same way you would look sincerely foolish. Try saying lines like ‘Now would you aim me at the bees, please’ out loud and you will see what I mean:

Paul Winchell brings a huge amount of charisma to Tigger, right down to the laugh which was all his own work. He also ad-libbed the now infamous exit line ‘TTFN: Ta-ta for now!’ Yes. There is much to love about Tigger. But I think we all know what the most WONDERFUL thing about Tigger is:

As you can see, I am failing at telling so have resorted to showing. The work of these actors (And Wright) in this film is so funny, so adorable, so easy to love. While I understand die hard fans of the books not appreciating the Disney gang getting their hands on literary childhood favourites, only the very stodgiest of fogies could fail to offer a standing ovation to the cast of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ who so successfully solidified the characterisations that were on the page.

Christopher Robin may stand out as being arguably the blandest character (something of a contradiction, I admit) but to be honest with you, I love him too. What struck me while watching this film was that Christopher Robin is essentially at least their carer and at most their benevolent God. Every time there is a problem, he is called upon to solve it. He spends his whole life just running around trying to sort out these screw ups. Watching this little boy leap over a fence to get to his troubled friends for the second time it occurred to me that the poor little git is clearly shackled to these losers for life…I kid. I love them. But there is something so… enjoyably accurate about this.

When you are a kid, your views and ideas and your identity are all things you try out while you are still working out who you are going to be. As a result, most adults don’t take you seriously. So in your own universe, of course you are wise, loved and in charge of everybody. Watching Christopher Robin in this movie reminded me of my own childhood games…I was definitely super important. I believe the only person I answered to in my pretend Universe was Gandalf because, even when I was 9, I knew I didn’t have the authority to boss him about. Although I did tease him about his hat and beard. Behind his back. While stabbing Jabberwockies, shooting pink lasers from the safety of my great glass elevator, and occasionally animorphing as part of my ongoing mission to save the world with my friend Erika. I was a bad ass. And apparently incapable of creating my own characters…

A couple of things are becoming apparent here: Firstly, I am surprised I was never sued while at play, and secondly, the universe of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ plays deep into the nostalgia most of us feel for that small window where we are truly young. The final scene, that was added to tie the film together, is Christopher Robin and Pooh saying goodbye because CR is headed to school, to learn the geography that I should have been paying attention to. He and Pooh have a lovely conversation (and play Pooh Sticks!) and CR talks about how nice it is to do nothing and asks Pooh not to forget him as he moves on with his life. Pooh assures him he won’t. The film ends with a paraphrased quote that can be seen on Milne’s memorial stone about how somewhere a little bear is always waiting.

I found it worked really well as an ending, acknowledging the importance of saying goodbye and honouring the role friends play in each other’s lives. I got all choked up.

So many things get explained to children, so many things get taught. But how do we learn how to be an adult? We all have to grow up. While growing up doesn’t mean you have to let go of what you love it does mean facing the real world when you don’t feel ready to. I’ve yet to meet anyone who felt ready to be a grown up. All we can do is try and be brave. And that is why the ending, where CR and Pooh say a little goodbye, was touching. That is why it was beautiful. That is why I very nearly cried.

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But then this thing winked at me and I was fine again…

Because I am not overly familiar with the text, I don’t know exactly how much of the wit in the film to credit to Disney seeing as I believe most of the script comes direct from the book. However, I am reviewing the film so perhaps the important thing to say is that choosing what to take from a book you are adapting is a skill itself. And there are some very funny moments. I even appreciated silly little jokes like Pooh Bear living under the name Mr Sanderz (that is what the sign says) and Pooh Bear having a Pooh-Pooh clock rather than a Cuckoo clock…

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Excellent.

The interplay between the gang is great, helped by the delivery, and there are some great gags. I loved Winnie the Pooh’s attempt to get honey by pretending to be a rain cloud and asking CR to aid the deception by putting up his umbrella and saying ‘Tutt, tutt, it looks like rain’ It felt almost like a line from ‘Airplane!’ and I laughed out loud at how straight they were playing it. It is a kid’s film in how it flows but there is real wit, philosophical musings, (I love the exchange between Pooh and Piglet when the weather picks up: ‘Where are you going Piglet?’ ‘That’s what I am asking myself!’ ‘And what do you think you will answer yourself?’) as well as daft visual gags like Rabbit decorating Pooh’s arsehole when he is stuck in his house. Walt Disney’s favourite joke apparently. Who knew? I did.

Like the best art, it challenges you to think about it on different levels. So while I am leaving in that earlier paragraph about me not diagnosing the characters (You can’t imagine how much I don’t want to do that) I clearly couldn’t help but engage in the fun of looking at the whole thing and searching for meaning in the little moments. After all what else are reviews for? And it is deep. Kids can enjoy it on one level and adults on another. And there is a venn diagram of enjoyment with that, where everyone is getting something from it.

So it is a successful adaptation right? Right??? Errr…

 

What Doesn’t Work:

First of all…Let’s sweat the small stuff. The addition of The Gopher from ‘Lady and the Tramp’ as a character isn’t really necessary. The only cross over I was slightly rooting for was Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman during the scene where Rabbit is lost in the woods…It felt tonally right. Despite the fact that they hang a lampshade on the inclusion of Gopher, making a reference to him not being a character in the book, it just feels…pointless. Why bring him into such an established clique?

There are some crappy continuity errors, so far so 60’s/70’s Disney, like how there are some shots reused and the Piglet shown in the opening song is a completely different design to the one used in the actual film. Speaking of that song, it is odd that Tigger is the only main character who fails to get a shout out. This wrong will be righted again in the future…But at the pace I am moving at it will take about 2 years to get to that film.

Personally I find the third story the weakest simply because Rabbit crosses the line over to ‘actually horrible character’ as he plots to steal Tigger’s bounce rather than say ‘You know that time you wrecked my garden? It really hurt my feelings’ Even after he fails the first time and Tigger has to rescue him from harm he STILL continues to try and steal Tigger’s bounce, leading me to writing down the following note while watching: ‘I’ve gone off you Rabbit, you bounce stealing wanker.’

bounce stealing fuck

Hi Dickhead.

The ‘Heffalumps and Woozles’ sequence is transparently filler and is nearly a carbon copy of the equally pointless musical number ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ from ‘Dumbo’ Now the Heffalumps and Woozles may have been creations belonging to Milne but still why was Disney so determined that children should be shit scared of elephants? While some of the imagery and the song itself is pretty good, it feels more like a retread than an homage and the film gains very little for its inclusion.

Now…we come to the major problem.

Some books are crying out to be adapted into films. As you read, images are conjured in your head and, inevitably, some creative people might see the potential to take the images in their head and create movie magic. Some ideas come alive when correlated with the cinematic format.

But not every book NEEDS a film. If you are going to go to the trouble of making a book into a film it is very important that there is a good reason for you to do so: What will be gained from making the leap that cannot be gained from reading the story or having the story read to you?

The insurmountable issue I have with ‘Winnie the Pooh’ is that it is not a film. It doesn’t flow like a film. It has no stakes, no plot, no drive, no reason to be: And in a way this is right. If they had given ‘Pooh’ a plot (as I assume the TV series and other, future adaptations did) it may well have been unwatchable for me.

As with Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ the power, impact and joy of Milne’s work is the unique way he plays with language and words. But unlike ‘Alice’ Milne’s work is about the mundane and banal. When the narrator promises adventures what he really means is ‘a Teddy Bear is going to get stuck in a hole for a while, till he gets out again’ This is a story book story. Not a film story.

And they knew that. That is why the film, which is masquerading as a whole feature, is stitched together from three different shorts. While package films like ‘Make Mine Music’ are introduced as being made up of several parts, this is supposed to be a correlating contentious story and it clearly isn’t. The seams are visible. The strain on the studio is on display for all to see.

Even the constant references to being in a story book, much more so than any of the previous films, seems almost apologetic: They know these tales are generally reserved for that quiet little space between getting into bed and going to sleep. That is their role, in the great tapestry of children’s literature. Would you make a movie about Lucy and Tom? They don’t do anything! Postman Pat? Ok they did, and look how well that turned out…What about Dr Seuss? Have you SEEN the attempts to stretch those stories out for 2 hours?

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We let this happen. All of us. Nobody even tried to stop them…

The magic of the childhood safety that comes with bedtime stories doesn’t usually translate well to film and adding a plot where none is needed is worse, so I am glad they didn’t try: I can’t emphasise that enough. But the constant references to the story, (‘I nearly bounced right out of the book’) the fact that they lean on this concept throughout, suggest they know they are working in the wrong medium. Which leads me to believe that the respect they show the text in making such a literal translation to the big screen is actually a lack of original ideas. I will say it: ‘Winnie the Pooh’ was made into a movie because of the marketing potential alone.

Would I remove this film from the catalogue based on this assessment? No. I couldn’t deprive the world of this:

And it took me a long, long (checking last time I posted a Disney review) long time to work out what my problem was with ‘Winnie the Pooh.’ Despite the respect they gave the text in staying true to much of it, the end result made me squirm and sigh as I waited for the film to make the jump from children’s story book to full length feature. 70 minutes later, it was clear to me that graduation ceremony was never going to arrive. It doesn’t really work because books like Milne’s don’t belong in Hollywood. They are short and fat and proud of that.

 

Conclusion: 

Is the unquestionable magic of the Hundred Acre Wood destroyed because Disney wanted to make some money from it? No. The characters, the words and the ideas from the books are all there so it was never going to be a total mess. Despite my frustration at the futility of such a literal jump from book to film, ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’ is sweet, thought and nostalgia provoking, witty, charming and the cast are on the top of their game. While they work better coming at you from the pages of a story book, people should know these characters. And they always will. There will always be a boy and his bear.

 

Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 3

While ‘Heffalumps and Woozles’ was too close to ‘Pink Elephants’ for my liking, it still deserves the ‘Scary Tunnel in a Chocolate Factory’ award for needlessly nightmare inducing scene. So much so that while I have counted that scene as 1 Nightmare Inducer (I suppose it is only right the nightmare induces nightmares…) I had to highlight my personal Top 5 Scariest Moments in ‘Heffalumps and Woozles’

5) This arrogant fucker. What’s he so happy about?

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4) These eyes.

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3) The honey pot with legs. Let me repeat that…Honey Pot With Legs.

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2) These two who break character to glare at you…keep watching…there! You see it???

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1) And finally…This weird starey one genuinely freaks me out more than any of the Halloween films:

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Also, there is some really ‘Candyman’ level shit going on with Pooh and the bees. At one point he just starts regurgitating them. It’s not really on.

And finally the creepy Pooh Bear that winks at the end. He is not my friend.

 

Best Song: 

The Sherman Brothers work here is not their best but not their worst either (Cough cough Sword in the Stone coughie cough). There are some suitably pleasing moments though. I am torn between the opening song and the Tigger anthem simply because they were engrained in my brain long before I saw the completed piece and therefore were the ones I enjoyed most when they popped up.

I think it has to be the introduction song, ‘Winnie the Pooh,’ which is just such wholesome loveliness that I just want to make hot coco with two fair sized marshmallows in it and hunker down for a story:

 

 

Next Time: 

It took me a really long time to get to that so about this for an offer? Come back on Sunday and you may have another Disney review! Like with the Studio itself, I am releasing these two nice and close together…

A couple of well dressed mice go looking for an orphan in The Rescuers (1977)

 

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The Aristocats Review

The Aristocats (1970) Review

 

What do I know about the film?

‘The Aristocats’ began life with a man named Harry Tytle who was both a producer and a friend of Walt’s who worked at the Disney Company for about 40 years. There was also a dude named Tom McGowan, who was gaining a name for himself directing live action films about animals. In late 1961, Walt suggested the two of them stop mooching off the Disney name and start riffing on some ideas for films: Namely a live action animal flick along the same line as the newly created Mr Ed. Of course, of course. Walt liked the idea of a talking animal movie although he was insistent that the animals talk amongst themselves and not in front of humans.

Mickey says that is too unrealistic

Writer and painter Tom Rowe knocked up a script with Tytle and McGowan about some posh cats trying to survive on the streets of Paris. However the studio rejected it. As Tytle had an in with Walt he contacted him to find out what gives, only to discover The Boss (Walt not Springsteen) hadn’t been given the script by his underlings. It turned out Walt liked it but literally nobody else did so it was back to the drawing board, with Walt handing out ideas for changes to Tytle and Tytle reporting them back to Rowe.

This process created tension between Tytle and Rowe, culminating in Rowe writing to Walt to rant about how Tytle was just a ‘minion’ rather than a creative force who had been sent to ‘corrupt the work’. Walt’s response? He told Tytle what Rowe said and suggested he respond to the letter himself instead of Walt. Reports that Walt stood between them cackling: ‘Fight, Fight, Fight!’ cannot be confirmed. Or refuted.

The film was finally ready to shoot in 1963 only for it to be shelved, much to the dismay of the men who had been working on the story for nearly 2 years. McGowan tried to buy the rights of the film back so he could shop it around but was blocked by the studio. Cause Disney.

That could have been the end of it, only Disney was struggling to come up with new ideas for animated films. Tytle suggested bringing back ‘The Aristocats’ only abandoning the original concept and making it a cartoon. This seemed like a grand idea, especially for McGowan whose contract stipulated that he could have a cut of the merchandise royalties.

Hello Summer house!

So, of course, the work didn’t start until that was changed because dreams are for sharing, money is not.

It is hard to believe that the resurrection of the long abandoned ‘Aristocats’ wasn’t at least partially inspired by the development and subsequent release of an animated musical comedy about cats in Paris that was Judy Garland’s only animated voice role-Wait what? Yes. That’s right. This was a thing. The superiorly titled, ‘Gay Purr-ee’

Where has this been all my life?

Suddenly, French cats were all the rage again. Apparently. Well, McGowan, Rowe and Tytle had a solid idea and a script that had been rewritten countless times to satisfy the demands of the Studio and Walter had always liked it. And so they were finally off…

However something happened that all the people who had watched him chain smoke two packets a day for many years could never have anticipated. Walt died. And what happens to a crew when the Captain dies? They turn on each other. So after Walt’s death, The whole story got changed around again. Tytle was booted from the project and never received credit for his contribution, McGowan was screwed out of his contract, and an unhappy Rowe ended up suing the studio for rights to the characters. While he admitted he didn’t come up with the idea, he believed the cats were his. He cited French Law. Y’know. Cause the films is French.

Just ask this American cat how well that went

By the time ‘The Aristocats’ reached the screen it was pretty unrecognisable to the men who had worked on it. Tytle expressed regret at where the film ended up, feeling that the most interesting part of the story was removed: That being that due to their lives being at risk the cats each try and get adopted by a family that will appropriately support their individual artistic talents. He also felt the film lacked any kind of French charm and really hated the addition of a mouse:

‘I honestly think the original story that Walt bought was much better. We didn’t have a mouse in the original story; I, for one, felt it was a cliché and not vital to a cat story. For once, I wanted to do a cat story without a mouse.’

Tytle stayed away from cartoon production from then on out.

So none of the people who originally developed the idea were left delighted with the result, for various reasons. While it was a financial success, critics weren’t exactly blown away either, feeling the production house were playing it a bit safe. It would seem Disney’s earthly departure had left the Walt Disney Studios with a lack of direction. So was Tytle right?

Is The Aristocats a wasted idea?

 

Did I see it as a child?

Yes and I was very fond of this one. It was one of those films that always seemed to get wheeled out on the last day of school and I was always delighted. I especially liked scene near the start where the three kittens took part in recreational hobbies and the bits with the geese. The former because the idea of cats singing and painting just slayed me and the latter because the geese spoke in an amusing way. You could never call me a sophisticated child but I knew what I liked.

This. This is what I liked.

I also had a little mini Aristocats house so I could recreate the film. In miniature. At home. And I did.

Tiny Fun!

Despite watching it a lot as a kid, I put it on now without being able to recal much about what happens. A telling quality. Apart from the songs, my strongest memory of this film only really comes courtesy of a bonding moment with someone I used to work with. We found it endlessly amusing to bellow: ‘Abigail! AMELIA!’ at each other, and I know that comes from a scene in ‘Aristocats’ involving a drunk goose. For some reason…

 

Synopsis: 

A very rich woman lives in a massive house with her beloved pets: A Mother Cat named Duchess and her three kittens Marie, Berlioz and Toulouse. The kittens are presumably bastards, but their paternity is never addressed directly:

It’s not that your Dad didn’t want you…None of us did.

There is also a Butler named Edgar who is horrified to learn that Madame, aka the Old Rich Lady, plans to leave her fortune and estate to the aforementioned bastard cats. Only when they die will he inherit their monetary sloppy seconds. Edgar’s devastated as by his calculations he will die before they do. Huh. Really? You expect to die before some cats? What, does he begin each meal with a palate cleansing stick of lard?

My…Heart…

So Edgar decides the cats have to go. Thus begins the least well thought out and executed plan in the history of plans and I am including the Aurora/Briar Rose débâcle from ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in this. But we will get to that…Edgar ends up abandoning the cats in the middle of nowhere and the privileged pussys don’t know what to do when a ginger Tom named Thomas O’Malley stumbles across their paths…

 

What Works:

I am going to be straight with you: There is not much to this story. Some cats get lost, then they go home and the film ends with a senile old lady explaining to her clearly very worried lawyer that she plans to open her doors to all the stray cats in Paris.


They will play music for me!
Sure…
They like JAZZ!

With a plot this paper thin, you better give your audience a reason to give an Eiffel Tower about all this silliness and so it is lucky I enjoyed many of the characters in ‘Aristocats’ and found it easy to will them on their way to a happy ending.

Duchess is a pretty smooth operator. Not only is she patient, pleasant and polite she is a good Mother, committed to her owner and a sweet mover. But my favourite scene of hers, the one that subtly indicates that she was clearly a play-ah before she settled down, is in Thomas O’Malley’s introduction. As he tries to get her attention by singing a song about how awesome he is, Duchess settles into cleaning her paws and whiskers, totally chill, playing it cool. She is sexy and she knows it:

He is pulling out his best lines about her eyes being like sapphires and the two of them journeying to Paris on a magic carpet. But you don’t end up with three mongrel kits and fail to get a bullshit detector out of that deal. So when the kids excitedly appear, clamouring for the magic carpet (awkward…) Duchess has a few barbed comments for him and refuses to let him off the hook, innocently asking if what he had envisioned was: ‘Perhaps a magic carpet built for two? I understand perfectly Monsieur O’Malley.’ Damn. It would have gone over my head as a little kid but the meaning is clear: She comes with baggage and she is not willing to play silly games. She’s a woman.

Don’t believe me? Let’s skip ahead to the big musical moment of the film, which is a jazzy little number. Duchess gets down with the alley cats with ease, with shapes so sharp it would go on to inspire one of the most famous pas de deux’s in movie history:

And then Duchess breaks it down, demonstrating her skill on harp, enchanting the gang…Then she utters breathily: ‘If you want to turn me on…’

 

Sorry? What now?

 

I’m not going to lie, I choked on my apple juice.

Girl’s got game…

Duchess could have been written and played as a prim and proper type out of her comfort zone but they don’t go for the cliché fish out of water plot. She can let her hair down but still be a responsible parent. It is a successful balancing act, much of which I credit to the voice work of the great Eva Gabor who really sells lines like ‘Your music is so different… but so exciting’ Managing to make Duchess one of the most sexual Disney characters so far. She clearly has a past behind that shimmery collar and she comes across pretty damn cool as a result.

So I like Duchess, how about her bastard children? And no, I am not going to stop calling them that and no, I wouldn’t be so focused on it if it weren’t for ‘Game of Thrones.’ Well, they have moments of being quite annoying, especially Marie who is the Rolly of the film in that whenever there is a delay in the journey you can bet your whiny kitten she is behind it. But they appeal to kids and for every moment that Marie is messing up Toulouse is making adorable train noises or doing an awesome dance:

I still enjoyed them as an adult because I think the film makers do a good job of capturing an authentic sibling like quality between them. By that I mean, they all pretty much hate each other. There is a moment when Marie falls from a great height into the river below and has to be rescued. Her two brothers rush to her side after she has been placed on the riverbank. If you expected them to express concern or relief you clearly never grew up with brothers:

 

‘Gee Marie, why you’d have to fall off the bridge?’

 

Yep. That is pretty much how it would go down.

Dickhead!

I especially enjoy the dynamic during their ‘self improvement’ classes at the beginning of the film. Watching animated kittens singing about their ‘Scales and Arpeggios,’ while playing piano, and doing a bit of abstract painting is just effortlessly charming and I could do it all day. Although: Why are they not famous? Madame has a cat that can play excellent piano and another with a firm grasp of impressionist art! That’s rare right? Ok, so Marie’s vocal ability is pretty poor (Blow your nose and breathe from the diaphragm you amateur!) but she could help sell tickets or something. Perhaps we are supposed to believe rich pets just learn that kind of thing regularly. Maybe it is just something that poor peeps don’t get let in on. I imagine when you make your first million someone comes round to your new mansion and hands you your bassoon playing Short Haired Persian.

Although that doesn’t explain Scat Cat…

In a film overloaded with supporting characters (I am getting bored of saying it about Disney films at this point but it is particularly true in this one) Scat Cat and his gang are still a welcome sight. Well nearly all of them…It wouldn’t be Disney without some silly accents and while multiculturalism should be applauded the Chinese stereotype cat was deemed offensive enough that his vocal has been removed from all the official soundtrack material as of 1996. Although not the film itself. Leaving Shun Gon out of it, the ‘Everybody Wants to be a Cat’ scene is really just an excuse for a big musical number so it is a good thing that I really, really love it.

As with ‘I Wanna be Like You’ this is a swinging jazz track that successfully captures the fun of riffing it up with some friends. Phil Harris (in his second of three consecutive lead roles) as O’Malley is his usual charming self, and Robie Lester does a lovely job as the singing voice of Duchess. But the real star is Scatman Crothers, who my pop culture Bible suggests you may know best as the dude who got an axe to the chest in ‘The Shining’

This is what happens when you listen to Jazz kids!

The part of Scat Cat was actually written for Louis Armstrong and the design of the character is based off his appearance but due to illness he wasn’t able to record the song. So they got Scatman and directed him to ‘pretend you’re Satchmo’ which is a tad insulting, when you think about it. It is not like he wasn’t a talented actor and musician in his own right. So it is all the more impressive that he makes such a fleeting caricature so memorable both by doing a fairly spot on Armstrong impression and loading him with casual charm.

I would also like to give a shout out to the Russian cat Billy Boss who is voiced by the phenomenal Thurl ‘Paddy’ Ravenscroft. Ravenscroft was the voice of Tony the Tiger (They’re grrrrreat) and sang the brilliant ‘You’re a Mean One Mr Grinch’ and I am sure you know that wonderful rolling deep voice of his. So with a lineup like that, the song better be good.

Well I really like it. My only nitpick is it is not quite up to the standard of ‘I Wanna be Like You’ but it is a lot of fun. I especially love the lyric ‘A square with a horn, makes you wish you weren’t born, every time he plays…’ How can you not dig that? Plus I can’t get enough of the bit where the piano starts crashing through the house as the song reaches its crescendo, accompanied by the cry of ‘Hallelujah!’ Hallelujah indeed.

In fact, all the music is pleasantly spot on and nicely varied. The opening song is classic Sherman Brothers, performed to toe wiggling perfection by Maurice Chevalier, who was coaxed out of retirement to perform ‘The Aristocats’ and does a great job. ‘Thomas O’Malley’ is a fantastic bragging song performed well by the peerless Harris and I have already made my feelings about ‘Scales and Arpeggios’ and ‘Everybody Wants to be a Cat’ clear. So 10/10 soundtrack! Good work!

Ok 9/10…

There are some funny lines and moments like when Roquefort the mouse says without irony: ‘The butler did it!’ the demented Georges (ta ra ra boom de ay!) and then the posh geese show up. Ah yes the geese. They are not as funny as when I was a kid but the score gives them a lovely sting as they waddle about and it is pretty hard not to like them. Plus watching Abigail and Amelia attempt to teach a furious O’Malley to swim and the idea of a restaurant giving up on killing the wasted Uncle Waldo who decided to drink the wine instead of cook in it is pretty funny. Right? I don’t know. To be honest these moments made me laugh a lot as a kid and therefore nostalgia may well have been clouding my judgement. My companions did not seem terribly amused. Or entranced. This provoked some anxiety during the viewing and subsequently forced me to face up to the terrible truth about The Aristocats…

 

What Doesn’t Work:

It hurts me to say this: ‘The Aristocats’ is pretty vapid. The plot is a watered down version (a copy cat if you will) of ‘101 Dalmatians’ only with added fat. There is more filler than any of the films so far (and that is really saying something) and despite the efforts of the filmmakers the stakes never feel that high. In ‘101 Dalmatians’ the peril at least felt consistent but here…The return journey home for the cats is largely straightforward, quick and alarmingly easy. And rather than Cruella De Vil they have Edgar the Butler.

Fuck me, Edgar is a useless villain. Just useless. I feel bad now for going after Shere Khan in my Jungle Book review because compared to Edgar, Shere Khan is a compulsive perfectionist who not only killed Mowgli, Baloo and the rest but filed a tax return afterwards. Let me take you on the journey of Edgar, Disney’s worst villain to date:

So he eavesdrops on Madame to hear if he is in the money and is gutted to learn that he will be expected to care for the felines who will inherit her fortune and immediately starts planning their demise…

Ok, OK. STOP.

Part of this agreement is that Edgar will care for the cats until their death. Right? Madame does not believe he can’t be trusted, on the contrary, she appreciates his commitment to his gig and wants to reward him. Eventually. But…Am I the only one seeing the massive, gaping plot hole here? Allow me to paint you a word picture:

Edgar: Hey Cats! I want to buy a new house, solely for my top hat collection! Any objections to me spending your money?

Cats: Meow?

Edgar: Thought not…

I can’t believe I nearly went to all the trouble of having a wacky adventure…

If Edgar is expected to care for the cats as they grow old and jaded, who exactly is going to enforce that he only spends the money on what the cats want? I know there is a Luxury Cat Food section at the supermarket now, but even considering that I suspect he is going to have a lot of leeway to piss away the cash.

Also, why the hurry? Why did he want to kill the cats then and there? There is no hint that Madame is dying or anything. What if he killed the cats and then she had lived another, say, 9 years and in that time purchased 4 more cats and grown equally fond of them? Or was he counting on Madame passing away instantly of a broken heart? Why not wait till she is dead before bopping them off? When this is the premise for your film you better give me a reason why this is necessary or else I am going to go ahead and declare shenanigans.

And then he farts about drugging them with enough sleeping tablets that they ought to have been instantly killed, takes them out and…gets accosted by two dogs determined to murder him leading to him bailing, leaving the cats alive in a basket under a random bridge. And yet in the next Edgar scene the disappearance of the cats has made front page news in Le Journal de Paris and he is bragging to his horse (feel the room mate, the horse is scandalised) that the Police are saying it is the work of a genius before realising there is a really, really easy trail back to him. Front page news? One can only assume he publishes the paper himself. The man needs help.

So let’s recap: He steals some cats that he doesn’t need to steal, fails to kill them, celebrates his success at his failure to kill them, realises he has left rather a lot of evidence at the scene of the non crime, including his own clothes and part of his vehicle, i.e. everything he left the house with except the cats who he has no reason to believe are dead and it is well known that cats are pretty good at finding their way home especially when you have ditched them 10 minutes up the road…Oh Jesus Edgar, tell me you are at least a good butler?

‘Not really…’

When the cats come home, Edgar is astonished. I mean, he didn’t kill them or anything but still, how could this be? So he quickly bundles them into a box and makes plan for the box to be sent to Timbuktu…Son of a Bitch…Edgar….Just. Kill. Them. Seriously. Just do it. You have a weapon. I have seen it. You flail it about feebly in the big finale. Just murder the small helpless animals. Leave Timbuktu out of it and just KILL THEM!

Or don’t. It doesn’t really matter

In the end, Edgar is kicked by his angry horse, lands in the empty trunk and his unconscious body is carted off to Timbuktu. Wow. So he’s dead. And even Madame doesn’t give a fuck. All the animal characters watch without comment as his corpse is taken away to Africa never to be recovered. Until he is identified and suddenly the Crazy Cat Lady has a shit ton of explaining to do.

‘These are my CATS…They can paint and sing you knoooooow…’

So long Edgar. You were absolutely fucking futile from start to finish.

Oh but he is not the only one. I was wrong when I called Marie out as the Rolly of this film. Roquefort the mouse is even more Rolly like. His attempts at helping are pathetic. He tries to find the cats: Fails. He tries to follow Edgar: Fails. He tries to warn the cats Edgar is evil: Fails. He is then given ONE JOB which is to find Scat Cat and tell them O’Malley has sent him but instead instantly forgets the right name and sits sounding off vaguely Irish sounding names as the cats prepare to eat him. Just crap.

At this point in the review you might be feeling a bit irritated with my whining about the characters but there are SO many that don’t serve any kind of purpose except to fill out the running time. The two dogs, who love causing road accident and take trophies from all of their casualties, are supposed to be funny but have nothing whatsoever to do with the story. Nothing at all. The scenes with them and Edgar have no other purpose except to make the film go on longer. The aforementioned geese are similarly irrelevant. They depart the story having effected nothing at all. I would actually like to see what happens when you cut out all the scenes that add nothing to the plot: The film would be about 13 minutes long. This is what happens when you fail to put any real obstacles between our characters and their goal. They want to go home. They do. So what is the point?

Well I suppose what they gain is some life experience and the kids get a new Dad and Duchess gets a new squeeze in the form of O’Malley. But even this arc has been done to death by Disney: The bachelor settling down. We have seen it with the Tramp. Note for note. Next.

Are you keeping count with how many superfluous characters there are? Answer: a lot. Comedy lawyer, comedy dogs x 2, comedy geese x 3, useless mouse, massive gang of cats that don’t do much, creepy horse (She tells Roquefort that ‘Madame didn’t sleep a wink last night’ How the hell does she know? She is a horse! She lives in the stable! I love the idea of Madame sitting by the fire crying as the melancholy horse appears at the window: ‘I miss them too.’) This all in addition to the 5 main animal characters and the two main human characters. Even Roland Emmerich would look at that cast list and say: ‘In 75 minutes? Scheiße!’

If you wish to refer back to my ‘What Works’ section you can see that not all of them annoy me equally (I like scatting, what can I say?) but the biggest problem with this film is the choice to ignore any attempt at depth and just flounder in the shallow end. Talk about throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks.

And finally, the backdrop is wasted. The fact that the film is set in France is inconsequential and easily forgotten. I found it quite sad after learning that the location was more important in the original story and the resolution to the threat of Edgar was a lot more interesting. Tytle was right to be worried about what happened to his idea. ‘The Aristocats’ may never have had what it took to be a great film but it could have been a better one.

 

Conclusion: 

Apart from a thoroughly enjoyable soundtrack, some good performances and the warm glow of nostalgia, there isn’t really anything that stands out about ‘The Aristocats’ and it smacks of the Disney Studios trying to regain confidence after the death of big man Walt by playing it super safe. There is plenty for children to enjoy and while it is not a disagreeable way to spend 75 minutes it is a largely pointless endeavour. Which, given some of the original ideas and the hints of a better film struggling to emerge SCAT-tered throughout, is a crying shame.

 

Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: Now this is a first…0. Although I would like to hear from any readers who had sleepless nights from this movie but, at the moment, I am drawing a blank. First time ever. This might give me nightmares now…It is so disappointing that I am going to crank up the horror by posting another picture of Scatman Crothers in The Shining:

 

Best Song:

I feel warm and fuzzy about ‘Scales and Arpeggios’ and it will be in my head forever but it doesn’t quite top ‘Everybody Wants to be a Cat’ for pure enjoyability:

 

 

Next Time: Oodelally oodelally golly what a day! Robin Hood (1973)

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