The Band Concert
Really at the summit of Disney’s prodigious art. The orchestral gags are all as successful as can be, Donald Duck’s legerdemain is at its most pertinacious, if not varied, and the storm is as great as anything, one should think, in Fantasia or anywhere else. It shows that 3-D animation means a lot more than airbrushing.
The famous opening scene is an overture or Silly Symphony in itself, with fantastically detailed animation and transitional rotoscoping. It seems precisely calculated to set off the ferocious satire that follows, in which Pinocchio becomes an oblivious actor, a jackass, and Geppetto’s deliverer.
The impulsive reaction against leading comic actors after a point has its corollary in the distressing inability of most critics to formulate anything like a responsible position, and also the gawking acceptance of gewgaws like CGI realism as the foundation of very minor films, which are trumpeted by press organizations either owned by or owning the studios, all part of a conglomerate. Pinocchio’s first section seems to predict this state of affairs.
The middle section grants a small amount of liberty in order to efface liberty altogether. This is just shocking, but uncommonly accurate.
When Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It was released, a Los Angeles critic praised the sung line, “Yes, we have Nosferatu,” but faulted it at the same time as belonging to a world of references beyond the culture of young spectators. Yuppies have it all their way, but they don’t know “it’s a cookbook.”
The question raised and burked by Theodore Strauss in his suburbane review for the New York Times is whether or not there is stylistic unity. The work sustains itself as a cycle of seasons culled over the years of its production, there is a Japanese something somewhere in this, but the main thrust is precisely to establish a unity of natural vision that will serve as a basis for future activity.
The wrenching problems of such an effort are awesome to contemplate, and partly account for the length of composition. The main dramatic principle is a division between the natural world and unspiritualized “Man” perceived as a destructive power. This gives scope to the individual set-pieces, which are realized in the fullest possible degree, and points up the essential dilemma noted more or less by Strauss. The major effort of animation is in the complicated problem of the deer, and principally their legs in movement. This is dazzlingly successful, and may be seen to have diminished the cartooning (in the sense of caricatural drawing) to some degree (compare the owl here with the one in The Old Mill). One imagines that Disney would have liked to spend more time on the production, but after 5 or 6 years it was enough, and Bambi is more than satisfactory.
Far from the stylistic unity of later works, there is an almost bewildering variety of treatments, which is to say the key of the film is not to be found in the brushwork. There is Disney positing a natural, spiritual order, beset by evils now and again, and perpetuating itself. This alone is a justification of the whole venture, but there is still the question of Disney’s treatment (as with Hans Christian Andersen) of a classic with which Strauss had the advantage of being familiar, and which anyone who cares to do so may read. Disney has made the material his own, and made an animated film of it. This is not done by transcription.
In another sense, the one most characteristic of Disney throughout his film career, Bambi is a work of acquirement, which though it repays all its labors instantly, is drawn upon in many later films, making it one of the keystones of Disney’s work.
There is mainly an accommodation, large-scale and arduous, of the Disney style of cartooning to the demands of Salten’s parable, what Strauss could not see as a fruitful combination. McLaglen saw in the Great Prince an inimitable gesture, which he had in his mind doubtless when he directed John Wayne in Chisum.
How they put him in charge of things around the farmyard, and everything ended up in the purview of Foxy Loxy (cp. Confirm or Deny, dir. Archie Mayo).
The woodsy color harmonies of this Donald Duck cartoon are a great accomplishment. He’s a Forest Ranger reseeding a bare patch just when Chip an’ Dale find themselves understocked for winter. As Donald plants an acorn and walks on, Chip lifts it out of its hole, tosses it back to Dale, and moves to the next. Dale watches Donald and replants each seed. Chip finally notices and confronts him sternly. Dale bows grandly toward the newly-planted acorns behind him, offering his fluffy hindquarters for a swift kick.
The ending has them all playing ad hoc hockey with the acorns. Donald defends their tree, but Chip an’ Dale wrangle an overwhelming stampede of acorns in his direction.
Alice in Wonderland
A work for admirers of birds, flowers, and babbling brooks, which is to say, a work for connoisseurs. Preston Sturges was right about Walt Disney: he is a great American artist, despite the objections of Dreyer (the rotoscoping in Snow White may have repulsed him) and Oldenburg (a filmmaker of ideal perfection), who is answered here.
The opening abandons respect for love, as Stravinsky said of Pulcinella, and takes possession of the work as Disney had done with The Ugly Duckling, for example. Tweedledum and Tweedledee show the Walrus and the Carpenter (whose number is “We’re cabbages and kings”) as cousins to Twain’s King and Duke, and their turn concludes with a throwaway of “Father William.” The sequence in the White Rabbit’s House is bold, and the Flowers number gave birth to at least part of Giulietta degli Spiriti, which (like Candy and La Cittą delle Donne and much of Stealing Beauty) is indebted to the work as a whole. The Caterpillar exhales Rimbaldien vowels, and the Cheshire Cat is beyond description. Jerry Colonna as the March Hare and Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter advance the beautiful query, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”, preparing the scene in the dark wood that raises the surrealism of it all to the most direct level. The Queen of Hearts finale (she is a termagant who plays croquet by forcibly straightening out the necks of flamingos, to hit hedgehogs with) is as modest and wonderful as everything else in this sage, profound, brilliant poem of femininity.
One question is, if Alice in Wonderland may be considered a work of acquisition, born of Disney’s long patience in these matters. A compte rendu might very profitably be made of all the gags (and a comparison to an earlier Mickey Mouse cartoon which treats Through the Looking Glass as a parody of L’Enfant et les Sortilčges and Busby Berkeley), which could further clarify what might be described as an appeal from ęstheticism to the understanding within the strict bounds of the cartoon, if it is not a sine qua non of this particular stylistic approach, or typical of much of Disney’s work generally, or faulty criticism. An unusually large number of writers contributed to the story, and the animation follows their work to the letter. The querulous beauty of The Old Mill (I’m thinking of that owl) is not seen so much as it is articulated in visual inventions, where another, less careful line might have risked exiting the work at once for a tautology which failed to isolate the mystery in abstraction, whereas here you have discoveries made by postulating simply, which is the basis of Hamlet, for example, if artistic proofs were wanting.
The pivotal scene of Alice’s tears in the dark wood shows how far Disney is willing to take this; it’s where the nature of the experiment and the formal reading define one of the fulcrums along which the whole thing finds articulation. There is Alice surrounded by the forest creatures of Wonderland, as voluminous a study of priapism as could be imagined, and they simply vanish as she bemoans her solitude, they fade away, these buzzards with umbrella bodies, shovel-headed birds, a bespectacled beak on two legs reflected in a mirror-headed fellow, a whiskbroom-snouted dog who sweeps the path clear everywhere but under Alice’s feet...
Out of Scale
Donald Duck and his creator have one thing in common, they love live steam scale model trains. Donald’s you can sit on and ride and feed coal to the boiler with a wee shovel. He’s planting scale model trees along the tracks when he bumps into Chip an’ Dale’s home, which he declares “out of scale.” He uproots it and places it on a flatcar for removal. Chip an’ Dale give chase and wind up hiding out in one of the scale model homes in the town beside the railroad.
Donald makes a discovery. Chip an’ Dale are “in scale,” as measured by rule. He places miniature milk bottles on their doorstep, having donned a milkman’s uniform for this purpose. Chip an’ Dale have lunch and fall asleep.
Now Donald treats the house to an artificial snowstorm. One of the chipmunks bundles up to close the gate slamming in the wind, and as he leaves the house Donald shines a sun lamp on him. That’s it, they revolt, there is a chase and the tree on the flatcar lands upright in the ground blocking the rails. But with a suitable opening in it, and a sign provided by Chip an’ Dale which reads GIANT REDWOOD, Donald has a scenic addition to his railroad, and in scale.
It might be formulated as a dynamic machine that flies apart to express a genuine Walt Disney production, the abstract state of mind in childhood.
Lady and the Tramp
The citation of Josh Billings to the effect that a dog’s wagging tail can’t be bought with money is followed by a dedication to the dogs of the world. This is prairie Baudelaire, an absolute position.
Bosley Crowther and the ęsthetes were put off by the sugary sweetness of the opening, which is what it was designed to do. The artistic potential of the material is not squared up in color harmonies and drafting, as Crowther dimly noted, though careful studies are made of dogs in various attitudes, walking and the like.
The comedy of the screenplay is keen and refined throughout, while the animation keeps pace here and there on the purely technical side, until a superb double take makes its presence felt.
The grand “Bella Notte” sequence by moonlight is kept below luminosity, except for some distant sparkles on the river. Luminosity is the whole point of two images only, the stained-glass window on the landing, and the pearlescent muddy street. The position of the work is clearly expressed.
The rest is a surreal reflection of the perfect household in our great-grandparents’ day. “Jim Dear” and “Darling” meet over a hat box at Christmas (“Does the surreal ever reside in hats,” Dali is asked, and he replies, “It always resides in hats”). The feminine home is balanced by the independent Tramp, whose idea of amusement is chasing chickens, those “lazy biddies”.
He takes Lady on a tour of the German, Irish and Italian establishments where he feeds from day to day. She is caught by the dogcatcher and sent to the pound, an ugly prison where various nationalities of dog bewail their fate or make merry over it while a dachshund digs a tunnel. A dark fate is at the end of the corridor, which Lady escapes by virtue of her dog license, a valuable commodity putting the cartoon at this point in the realm of Casablanca.
The Tramp proves his mettle by killing a rat in the baby’s room, but this is misunderstood as mischief. Jock the Scotch terrier and Trusty the bloodhound rescue the Tramp from the dogcatcher’s wagon, though Trusty is injured. All ends happily.
The genius of Walt Disney has confounded many a wit, notably Dreyer, who appears to have been answered here in his objection to the artistry of Snow White, which he felt was somewhat lacking.
Characters are often covered in soot for no particular reason. The action takes place on the wrecked steamboat where Jim found Huck’s father. A poor orphan has been kidnapped to fish up a diamond called The Devil’s Eye from a “black hole” in Devil’s Bayou. The Rescue Aid Society sends Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor), and she brings the Society’s porter (Bob Newhart) with her.
The work is chock-a-block with gags, owing to the three directors. One gag, twice repeated, involves rotoscoping an albatross (or other large seabird) in lumbering takeoff. The theme is closely related to Mary Poppins.