Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Upon re-watching Sleeping Beauty recently I was fascinated to realise that the three fairies are pretty much the main characters 🙂

Obviously they’re not the only characters, but they probably have the most screentime for one and they also take many of the important risks. Flora, Fauna and Merryweather also devise all the plans, in addition to providing the only good comic relief while at the same time being responsible for saving everyone around them!

Of course Auroa and Phillpip have nice singing voices but I think for a lot of people Maleficent stands out most in terms of character – she’s a pretty superb villain, capable of true cruelty, and her colour scheme of green, purple and black is unnerving too.

Visually, I was enthralled.

It wasn’t just the tremendous dragon/forest of thorns scene, but elsewhere too, the art and backgrounds for Sleeping Beauty are amazing – the detail on the bark upon the trees alone is just so great!

The whole forest, really – especially with those distinctive shapes and textures, but many of the castle scenes stood out too. I really liked the illusion of depth there, via that amazing multi-plane camera set up Disney was known for.

However, I was interested to hear something quite dull from director Geronimi – who I believe was unhappy with the art direction and backgrounds by Eyvind Earle, feeling that no-one would even look backgrounds. What a fool, huh? 😀

Sure, I doubt kids of the day would have cared that much but I would like to think that surely, one part of why Sleeping Beauty has endured over other Disney films has to be the art, because I don’t think the film stands above several other Disney titles around due to its storytelling, which I thought was pretty uneven.

On that claim, there’s a bit too much time spent on what I’d call filler, I guess – my favourite example being the two kings in that endless scene where they discuss and agree to things which have already been agreed to.

Even so, I’m really glad I watched this again because if I hadn’t, I would have missed out on some amazing stuff, especially the work of Eyvind Earle.

4 Stars (one of which is probably for the art alone)

By the power of Grayskull!

Hercules

Hercules (1997)

Disney have obviously been at the forefront of adapting, sanitising and/or pillaging myth and fairytales* for many moons now. And it seems, especially commercially-speaking, that when they keep the stories happy, and ensure that it’s very easy to understand who is ‘good’ and who is ‘evil’, people are pleased.

However, I feel as though audiences aren’t too willing to let the company stray very far from that formula.

And part of me thinks Hercules might have been an early step toward less binary representations of good and evil, and maybe pointed toward an attempted change. It’s a change that I think comes to at least one end point with Atlantis. (Especially if I include Treasure Planet in that progression).

Hercules is probably closer to Aladdin in some ways, and watching it again much later, I can see why it did the usual big numbers. This time around, I probably focused on different things, especially the artwork and character design, though the story is a fun adventure and I think the liberties it takes with the family of Gods works quite well to make things a little more kid-friendly.

You also get plenty of exaggeration in character movement and faces, to keep that slapstick front and centre. As you might expect with Disney, there are also plenty of ‘modern’ pop culture references, with the Air Jordan stuff working best for me.

I want to come back to where I see a reasonably non-typical Disney character moving the needle toward morally grey, but for now I’m sticking with the visuals. I loved the sense of scale in the film – there’s a whole heap of extreme wide shots and towering structures, stunning locations and colours, typically beautiful Disney stuff.

But there’s definitely a Mediterranean look to the countryside and the character designs, which were based on work by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe. I remember him most from Pink Floyd’s The Wall and you can definitely see his touch even in the finished, more rounded/tidier Disney designs. I’m pretty sure this is a sketch he did for Hades:

To switch to the cast for a moment, Danny Devito stood out and so did James Woods as Hades. Not sure what the actor was like back in the late 1990s but he seems to get attention for different things nowadays. Susan Egan (who I usually associate with Lin from Spirited Away), is also great as Meg; and that’s who I wanted to mention earlier.

Meg is a character with motivations that are not so clear cut at first. I’m not sure how younger viewers would have responded to her, but in a way she becomes the most interesting character in the film and it feels like she’s one example of cautious steps by Disney directors to shift away from the ‘kids’ category, for at least some of the time.

In any event, I enjoyed Hercules and one of my only concerns was the Muses… On one hand, the designs and animation upon the clay pots were great but the gospel didn’t work for me because it seemed somehow borderline tokenism? I dunno, can’t figure it out yet. Maybe I’m off-base, and I’d like to be wrong there.

4 Stars

* And other stories, of course.

Aladdin (1992)

Aladdin (1992)

Disney has seemingly always lumbered along plundering fairy and folk tales, sometimes egregiously and other times in a more transformative, artistic manner, and they’ve been a giant in the animation world for probably more than 70 years* now.

Ups and downs coloured that dominance of course and Aladdin landed during one of those ‘ups’ – during a mighty resurgence in popularity after the hit-and-miss period that was most of the 1980s.

Aladdin is noteworthy in Disney history for several reasons that I’m sure everyone is pretty much aware of – featuring Disney’s first non-European Princess, home to some killer songs and the knock-out performance of Robin Williams too, and also good enough in the eyes of the bean counters to get a remake this year.

Aside from those things, it’s a great story that seems equal parts One Thousand and One Nights and Roman Holiday.There’s memorable characters (not in the least being Jafar), a fantastic fictional desert setting, top notch use of vivid colour, animation and fascinating early CGI in some parts. (I know Pixar’s Toy Story gets a lot of attention as early innovators with CGI and obviously the technology pre-dates both films but that carpet ride was a big thrill in the cinema as a kid – looking back now I can almost see the theme-park ride tie-in :D).

For me, this Disney film has a great balance between comical sidekicks, music, romance, actual heroics, sacrifice and villainy, though if you’ve never seen Aladdin you won’t find any curveballs re: the overall story nor the tone, but it just feels like every aspect hits spot on. And following the success of The Little Mermaid audiences were no doubt more than willing to give it a chance (the monster-performance at the Box Office played that out too).

But, to jump back to that magic carpet ride before I finish, I think it’s a really perfectly-executed escape scene, from the pacing to the direction, the dramatic lighting and even the little break in tension for a spot of humour when Abu is clinging to Aladdin’s face, everything works for me:

And a final note, Robin Williams reportedly improvised heaps of material, allowing the team to pick and choose the bits they liked best, but here’s a classic song from Genie instead 😀

5 Stars

*And a studio for longer, just with smaller beginnings when compared to say, the big hit that was Sleeping Beauty.

Anastasia (1997)

Anastasia (1997)

Anastasia could be called an animated musical or an alternate history, a fantasy perhaps, and any of those labels seem pretty fitting to me, but I’d argue it’s a drama before the others – though there is somewhat Disney-like magic here as well.

And while I definitely don’t have much knowledge of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, I do know that back in the late nineties there was still a hypothetical chance that she had survived the revolution, though more bodies found in 2007 likely squashed the rumours once and for all. (I think in Russia actually, the movie was received as a fantasy in terms of its distance from true events.)

But again, at the time of Anastasia’s release there was perhaps still some lingering romance associated with the myth – secret royalty, mistaken identities, lost family deserving of reunion – and so perhaps some of that fuelled the success of the film? Either way, it is undeniably beautifully made and can certainly stand alone when you set all the historical aspects aside.

The movie is the one of the last (so far) to be released by veteran director and animator Don Bluth. He’s know for his long association with Disney and then a string of hit films in the 1980s (like The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail or maybe Dragon’s Lair if you’re more into gaming) and I think by the late 1990s he must have had a great team, well-deserved confidence and also, a large budget to make a really impressive film – which he did.

Visually, it’s stunning, from background art to animation to the staging and the direction, to the use of lighting and highlights, it really makes for a fairy-tale like atmosphere at times. I especially like the snow scenes or Anya’s exploration of the abandoned palace and later, the nightlife in Paris. There, the animators step into a romanticised version of the city and create beautiful pointillism-style backdrops that I really enjoyed.

You can probably guess as to what’s coming next – the things that I didn’t enjoy as much; sometimes the character designs seemed a little ‘cheeky’ and by that I mean that I’m not used to see the shape of cheeks drawn in animated works, so that kinda threw me even though it shouldn’t have. And in terms of the magical element, I feel like the Rasputin storyline wasn’t precisely necessary for the film to be great. It would have been an engaging drama without that aspect, which distracted from the main conflict for me. Supposedly Bluth and team used that to sidestep the political nature of the source material but even the mistaken-identity-(kinda)-double-bluff love story would have been enough for me.

Elsewhere, the voice acting is great (though I don’t remember any of the songs precisely). Kelsey Grammar has a rich voice and Meg Ryan is as distinctive as ever too. And that might seem like a bit of a put down to the songs but it’s probably more that I was focused on the story and visuals, rather than the songs themselves.

So, while I think it’s a beautiful film I didn’t love it, but I reckon if you’re interested in American animation and work from one of the teams once able to go toe-to-toe with Disney in the (mostly) 2D world, then I think Anastasia is definitely worth a look.

3 Stars

The Pagemaster (1994)

The Pagemaster (1994)

This was a fascinating look back at something I was certain I’d seen as a kid but when I watched it recently, I realised I had very few memories of it whatsoever.

While The Pagemaster is definitely an animated film it does have some live-action bookending, and while there’s obviously a purpose to the scenes, I’m only gonna focus on the animation of course.

I feel like there would have been high hopes for this one, landing neatly in the middle of the ‘Disney Renaissance’ as it did. Some of the production team included ex-Disney folks and some big names from Hanna-Barbera, who had formed ‘Turner Feature Animation’ which as an entity, only lasted a few years after the release of The Pagemaster.

Now, that might sound like I’m pointing the finger at this movie as a reason for that failure but the film certainly wasn’t bad. I didn’t find it wonderful either, and it’s clearly pitched at a young audience but I think no matter your age, you can feel when certain elements are ‘off’ even if you cannot articulate them at the time. And so it seemed audiences weren’t blown away either, if I look at only the box office.

But there’s some stunning animation in certain parts of the movie, contrasted with some very lifeless HB-looking backgrounds in certain scenes too. The pacing felt uneven to me and despite a big-name voice cast (Macaulay Culkin, Christopher Lloyd, Patrick Stewart, Whoopi Goldberg, Frank Welker, Leonard Nimoy, Jim Cummings and Phil Hartman among others) I only really feel like Stewart and Cummings nailed it (Lloyd more features in the live action).

Again, it’s not a bad film but the adventure feels little disjointed and choppy in terms of pacing, and to some extent perhaps – the reliance on existing intellectual properties for plot and setting gave it a ‘tired’ feel to me watching it now. Maybe as a kid I liked it a lot more?

But the scenes at sea looked great and the motif of books themselves appearing often as both characters and part of the backdrops was a nice touch I rekcon. I also enjoyed the character design of the pirates as they were clearly by the same hand that made the Sultan’s guards in Aladdin.

The dragon was another stand out but the transformation of Hyde and the Moby Dick scenes were the two highlights with some truly dramatic lighting, easily the most interesting visuals in the movie – and probably worth watching alone, instead going for the whole film if you’re curious.

…and because of these scenes, I’m guess I’ve boosted the film up in the star rating, otherwise I’d be going with 2:

3 Stars