Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Bambi

Original theatrical release poster

Whatever else one might say about Walt Disney, nobody could accuse him of making the same movie twice during his first half-decade or so of feature production. Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo are all very different films in style, in tone, in story and in characters. Disney had pushed the envelope of animation farther than anyone before him and he still wasn’t done. With Bambi, he wanted to hit a new level of realism in animation. It would be his last truly great film of the 1940s and arguably one of his last bold experiments with animation.

Bambi was based on a novel by the Austrian writer Felix Salten (we’ll see his name in this column again, as Disney would go on to produce two more movies based on his work). Significantly, Bambi was not considered a children’s book. It had been a major international bestseller and was even banned as a subversive political allegory by the Nazis. Any movie version of Bambi would have been seen as an A-list prestige picture.

Originally, that movie was to have been made by Sidney Franklin, a producer and director at MGM who apparently had a thing for deer. In 1946, he’d produce the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling starring Gregory Peck. But in 1937, Franklin decided that making a live-action version of Bambi would be next to impossible. So he sold the rights to Walt Disney, who planned on making it his follow-up to Snow White. This turned out to be a seriously optimistic goal, as both the story and the animation took a long time to get right.

Today, the story beats of Disney’s Bambi are so familiar that they seem inevitable. But Disney and the story team led by Perce Pearce and Larry Morey would make some big changes to Salten’s book before it made it to the screen. Disney’s movie certainly has some intense moments but the book is an even darker affair.

In the book, Faline has a brother, Gobo, who goes missing following the hunt that (spoiler alert, I guess, although I can’t imagine why you’re reading this if you’ve never seen Bambi) kills Bambi’s mom. Later on, Gobo returns. Turns out that a man found Gobo, took him home and nursed him back to health. Strong and overconfident in his belief that he knows more about the ways of man than the other deer, Gobo is eventually shot and killed in a particularly horrifying scene that would have scarred young psyches waaaaaaay worse than Bambi’s mom’s off-screen demise.

The death of Bambi’s mother is a stunning sequence and a testament to the genius of Walt Disney. For generations of kids, this scene was probably their first experience with death. Did Walt realize that would be the case when he was making the film? It honestly feels as if he might have. Everything about the sequence, the pacing, the colors, the music and sound design and the sudden absence of sound when the Great Prince appears, has been carefully thought out and perfectly executed. The impact of that loss has real weight. It hits audiences harder than most fictional deaths.

A newer generation may have had a similar experience with The Lion King, a movie this column will get to eventually (a couple times, as a matter of fact). The Lion King owes more than a little bit to Bambi but I’d argue that the movies treat their respective parental deaths very differently. Mufasa is killed by an act of treachery. It’s a plot point in a story arc that most of us will never live through. Bambi’s mom is killed by a hunter with a gun. It’s a threat that these animals have to deal with every day of their lives. It could happen at any time. Mufasa reappears in cloud form to give Simba some fatherly advice. When Bambi’s mother is gone, she’s just gone. It’s no wonder Bambi continues to leave an indelible impression on young audiences.

While Disney may have been striving for realism with Bambi, it’s a mistake to describe this as realistic animation. The animals may not be as heavily anthropomorphized as they are in other cartoons insofar as they’re not wearing people clothes. But you’re still not going to find a rabbit who looks and acts like Thumper or a skunk who behaves like Flower in nature. Nature itself doesn’t look the way it looks in Bambi. The backgrounds by Tyrus Wong are stunningly gorgeous and thoroughly impressionistic.

Somehow, all of these non-realistic elements blend together perfectly to create a world that feels very real. There are shots of deer leaping through the forest and Bambi’s mother entering the meadow that look absolutely lifelike. That doesn’t mean they look like a photograph. That’s something Disney seems to have forgotten in their wave of CGI remakes like The Jungle Book and The Lion King. It simply means they have the illusion of life.

Bambi re-release poster

By this point, Disney movies were routinely nominated for Academy Awards. They had been particularly dominant in the music categories, a trend that continues to the present day. Bambi was no exception, earning nominations for the score by Frank Churchill and Edward Plumb and for the song “Love Is A Song”. The music in Bambi is particularly interesting. On the one hand, it probably has more music than any other Disney film. The movie is practically wall-to-wall music and the two moments that have no music at all are very noticeable.

But Bambi isn’t really a musical, at least not in the sense that Disney’s previous films had been. There are only three or four songs in the entire movie and none of them are sung by characters. “Love Is A Song”, the sublime “Little April Shower”, and the rest are all non-diegetic songs that comment on the movie rather than help move the story along. Dumbo had done a little of that with sequences like the Stork song but it still left room for more traditional musical numbers. Back then, the Oscars split the Original Score categories into musical and non-musical divisions. The year before, Dumbo had won the award for Scoring of a Musical Picture. Bambi was treated like a drama and nominated in the category’s non-musical equivalent.

(“Love Is A Song” didn’t win, by the way, but I doubt anyone expected it to. It was up against a little number by Irving Berlin called “White Christmas” from the movie Holiday Inn. It’s pretty hard to argue that the Academy made the wrong call in this case.)

Walt may have been more excited by Bambi‘s third Oscar nomination: Best Sound Recording. That may not sound worth getting fired up over but it was the first time that an animated film had been nominated in the category. Although Bambi didn’t win (it lost to Yankee Doodle Dandy), it was further validation that the Hollywood establishment was taking the art of animation seriously.

Bambi was released in August of 1942, already a much different world than the one that had greeted Dumbo less than a year earlier. America had officially entered World War II, so it probably wasn’t the best time for Walt to turn his back on fantasy and embrace realism. Like many of his other films of the period, Bambi would take years to turn a profit.

But the legacy of Bambi is undeniable. Walt Disney proved that animation was capable of tackling mature, serious themes just as well as it could handle fantastic and comedic stories. It places the audience deep into the heart of the forest, making us truly empathize with these animals more deeply and fully than any live-action film ever could. I imagine Bambi has provoked more deep, meaningful conversations between parents and their kids about life, death, the environment, even vegetarianism, than most other movies, animated or live-action.

In some ways, Bambi represents the pinnacle of Walt Disney’s animated art. Thanks to World War II and the financial disappointments of his recent films, Walt would now be forced to cut back. It would be years before he could make another animated feature as ambitious as his first five had been. But even if the studio had gone bankrupt and Walt had never made another feature film, he’d be remembered today for these early classics. Bambi remains a high-water mark in animation, the culmination of a remarkable run of unbridled creativity.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Dumbo

Original 1941 poster for Walt Disney's Dumbo.

Any retrospective project like this one runs the risk of viewing history as a straight line subject to cause-and-effect. First this happened, then this happened and so on and so forth. But history itself is rarely that neat and the nature of animation production emphasizes that fact.

After Snow White, many of Disney’s next films were all in various stages of production at the same time. Movies like Pinocchio and Bambi took years to make. Some of the films Disney was actively developing around this time, including Peter Pan and Alice In Wonderland, wouldn’t come out for another decade or more.

Dumbo was a bit of an exception to the rule. The original story by Helen Aberson-Mayer and Harold Pearl was published in 1939 as a book/toy hybrid called a “Roll-A-Book”. Disney bought the rights almost immediately and story artists Dick Huemer and Joe Grant began developing it into a film in January of 1940. By the time it was ready to go into production, the studio was already losing money on Pinocchio and Fantasia.

Because of those losses, Disney badly needed a hit. If Dumbo was going to be made at all, it would have to be done quickly and economically. The film went into production in late 1940 or early 1941. And even with work interrupted by an animators’ strike in May, the movie was finished and released to theaters in October of 1941. Even by today’s standards, that’s a quick turnaround for an animated feature.

Of course, it helps that Dumbo barely qualifies as a feature. Clocking in at a brisk 64 minutes, it’s easily Disney’s shortest film. At the time, movies of that length weren’t exactly uncommon but they were usually B-pictures or cheapies turned out by such Poverty Row studios as Monogram or Republic. RKO, Disney’s distributor and a studio that knew a thing or two about B-movies, actually asked Walt to add about 10 minutes or so. Either out of artistic integrity or economic necessity, Walt declined.

This was absolutely the right choice. Part of what makes Dumbo so charming is that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It fits squarely into the misfit underdog story template that resonates with everyone, regardless of age, gender or cultural background. But when we think about Dumbo, we don’t think about the plot. We think about individual moments and sequences. Dumbo isn’t really much more than a short sequence of vignettes. What’s magical about it is that any one of those vignettes would be another movie’s highlight. Dumbo is nothing but highlights.

Dumbo announces it’s different from its predecessors right from the get-go. This isn’t the fairy-tale world of Snow White or the cobblestone European streets of Pinocchio. This is America. Florida, to be exact. And it isn’t once upon a time. It’s 1941. The opening song, “Look Out For Mr. Stork”, makes a pop culture reference to the Dionne Quintuplets, who had fascinated the world since their birth in 1934. The tone, the style, the music, everything suggests that this is going to be a much looser, more casual movie.

But in spite of all that, Dumbo also has a reputation as one of Disney’s most emotional movies. If you watch Dumbo with a group of people and somebody doesn’t cry at least once, watch out because you’re hanging out with some cold-hearted sociopaths. The heart of the film is the relationship between mother and child, encapsulated beautifully in the “Baby Mine” sequence. It’s a testament to both the animators and to the Oscar-nominated song by Frank Churchill and Ned Washington that this sequence lands as powerfully as it does. This is character animation at its finest and the song is simple, lovely and perfect.

The animation has to be perfect in a sequence like this. It’s shouldering the entire storytelling burden. Dumbo has no dialogue throughout the film and Mrs. Jumbo’s only line comes when she christens her son Jumbo Jr. The lack of dialogue is another brilliant choice. It allows every single member of the audience to project their own identity and their own relationship with their mom onto Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo. When Dumbo is mercilessly teased because of his big ears, we empathize because we’ve all been picked on for one thing or another. When Mrs. Jumbo cradles Dumbo in her trunk, we all know that feeling. Dialogue would only get in the way.

Dumbo has a number of sequences built entirely on the interplay between music and animation. The movie starts with back-to-back songs, the aforementioned stork tune and “Casey Junior”. It’s little wonder that it won the Oscar for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. But apart from “Baby Mine”, the most memorable song and sequence in the film is undoubtedly “Pink Elephants On Parade”.

Over 75 years later, this sequence remains one of the most startling and exciting animated sequences in Disney’s history. Walt’s interest in surrealism and abstract art had already been on display in Fantasia but “Pink Elephants” took it to a new level. The sequence is a hallucinatory masterpiece. A few years later, Walt would strike up a friendship with Salvador Dalí. One imagines the subject of Dumbo must have come up in conversation once or twice.

A surreal image from Pink Elephants On Parade.

Even though so much of Dumbo is unencumbered by dialogue, the characters who do speak manage to leave a big impression. Sterling Holloway makes his Disney debut as Mr. Stork. He, of course, would have a long association with the studio in everything from The Jungle Book to Winnie The Pooh, eventually becoming the first voice actor honored as a Disney Legend.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Edward Brophy as Dumbo’s friend and protector, Timothy Q. Mouse. Brophy had a lengthy career as a character actor, usually playing sidekicks and comic relief tough guys. He worked frequently in radio but this was his one and only foray into animation. It’s a standout character that could have been just a Jiminy Cricket knockoff. Brophy’s attitude and delivery gives Timothy a more contemporary edge.

Cliff Edwards, the voice of the actual Jiminy Cricket, also turns up as Dandy Crow (or, as he was originally called…ahem…Jim Crow). All right, let’s talk about the crows. These characters were in the news again recently after Disney+ felt the need to slap a disclaimer on Dumbo and its “outdated cultural depictions”. And sure, they are exaggerated African-American caricatures and their leader is voiced by a white guy (not that anybody would have known that at the time, since none of the voice actors were credited).

But animation, especially this particular cartoony style of animation, is built on caricature. What is the herd of gossiping elephants if not an exaggerated caricature of matronly women? Now, it would be disingenuous to claim that those two things are exactly the same. Jim Crow is too loaded to simply wave it away like that (and, to be fair, they did have the good sense to not actually refer to Edwards’ character as “Jim Crow” in the movie itself). But it would be equally wrong to ascribe any malicious intent to the characters and not acknowledge that this is simply what cartoonists and animators have done since the invention of the form.

Besides, the crows are by far the most fun characters in the movie. You empathize with Dumbo and his mom. You appreciate Timothy’s friendship and positive outlook. But you want to hang out with the crows. They get the catchiest song, the terrific “When I See An Elephant Fly”. And they’re not exactly making fun of Dumbo and Timothy in the same way that the movie’s other characters did. Finding a baby elephant and a mouse passed out in a tree gives them a pretty good reason to be incredulous at first. It doesn’t take long for them to change their tune and help Dumbo and Timothy out by providing the “Magic Feather”. They’re smart, they’re free, they’re funny. The crows are awesome and I find it hard to believe that anyone could be genuinely offended by them.

Dumbo went on to become a huge hit for Disney, almost single-handedly bringing the studio back from the brink of bankruptcy. Appropriately enough, the studio has continued to use it as a cash cow ever since. For years, Disney has floated Dumbo as a sort of test balloon for new technologies and formats. In 1955, Walt allowed it to be shown on television for the first time. At the dawn of the home video era, Disney was reluctant to embrace the VCR. But in 1981, Dumbo and Alice In Wonderland became the first Disney animated classics to be released on VHS and Betamax.

Dumbo VHS Clamshell release from 1981.

Since then, it’s become one of the studio’s most frequently re-released titles on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray. Disney has worked hard to cultivate a mystique around certain titles, locking them away in the notorious Disney Vault for years at a time. But Dumbo is one of the few that you can grab a copy of pretty much any time you please. You can order it from Amazon right now for about 10 bucks, a bargain compared to most of the other movies we’ve looked at so far.

Perhaps because it’s so ubiquitous or perhaps because it’s so deceptively simple, even devoted Disney fans tend to overlook Dumbo. It’s definitely an unusual film. We all know it as a movie about a flying elephant but the movie ends moments after Dumbo masters the skill. It’s an abrupt but somehow still satisfying conclusion. After being bullied, ridiculed and traumatically separated from his mom, Dumbo’s been through enough. He’s earned his happy ending.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Reluctant Dragon

All was not well in the Magic Kingdom in 1941. Just a few years earlier, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs had been a worldwide phenomenon. Its success had enabled Walt Disney to break ground on a new multi-acre studio in Burbank, a big step up from his old Hyperion Avenue studio in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood. The Burbank lot officially opened in February of 1940, right around the same time that Disney’s second animated feature, Pinocchio, premiered.

Unfortunately, Pinocchio underperformed at the box office, leading to a million dollar loss for the studio. Its follow-up, Fantasia, premiered in November. By spring of 1941, it was on track to do even worse business than Pinocchio.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, Walt was also facing dissent among his animators who were demanding that the studio be unionized. Disney was having none of that. In a speech to his employees in February of 1941, he essentially dismissed the pro-union faction as a bunch of grumbling whiners. Needless to say, this did not go over well. The next thing Walt knew, he had a full-fledged strike on his hands.

This could not have come at a worse time. The studio was hemorrhaging money and the strike effectively shut down production of Disney’s next planned feature, Dumbo. If the studio was going to survive, Walt needed to get something into theaters. So he made a movie showcasing the biggest asset he had on hand: his shiny new studio in Burbank.

The Reluctant Dragon is, by any definition, a strange film. The movie opens on what is presumably a typical day for noted humorist and occasional actor Robert Benchley (appearing as himself). Mrs. Benchley (played by character actress Nana Bryant, not the actual Mrs. Benchley) reads aloud from Kenneth Grahame’s children’s book The Reluctant Dragon, while Robert lounges in the pool shooting darts at duck decoys. Mrs. Benchley is convinced that the story would make a great Walt Disney film. So she hectors her husband into dropping by the lot unannounced to somehow sell Walt the movie rights to this book (that, again, he did not write and presumably does not have any controlling interest in).

Once there, Robert is assigned a security guard escort named Humphrey (Buddy Pepper), an annoying little Poindexter who rattles off facts and data about the lot straight from the Disney Investors’ Prospectus. Robert understandably wants to shake Humphrey and, somewhat less understandably, avoid meeting Walt (perhaps to avoid being sued by the Kenneth Grahame estate), so he ducks into various rooms at random and ends up getting a lesson (more or less) in how cartoons get made.

As a documentary, The Reluctant Dragon is of dubious value. If you knew absolutely nothing about animation going into it, you would perhaps know slightly more than nothing coming out. Most of the Disney “employees” we meet are actors, including Alan Ladd as a story man who pitches Baby Weems to Benchley, Frank Faylen (who you’ll no doubt recognize as Ernie from It’s A Wonderful Life) as an orchestra leader, and Frances Gifford as Doris. We first meet Doris providing vocal effects for Casey Junior (soon to appear in Dumbo) and she ends up acting as a more attractive tour guide for Benchley but it’s never all that clear what her actual job is supposed to be.

Now as a Disney fan, some of these sequences are a lot of fun. We get to meet Clarence Nash and Florence Gill, the voices of Donald Duck and Clara Cluck. We get to see foley effects made, including the cool sonovox used by Doris. We get to see the massive multi-plane camera, the maquette department and a gorgeous Technicolor tour of the ink-and-paint department. And with the benefit of hindsight, we realize that 1941 audiences were treated to quite the preview of coming attractions. There are glimpses of Dumbo, Bambi and, if you’re really paying attention in the maquette department, models from such future films as Peter Pan and Lady And The Tramp.

But for anyone expecting a worthy successor to Disney’s first three films, this hodgepodge of animated scraps and live-action tour certainly wasn’t it. In 1941, the name Walt Disney was even more synonymous with animation than it is today and there is precious little animation to be found, including a few seconds of Donald Duck here and a few seconds of Bambi there. All told, there are four major animated sequences. The first is the black-and-white glimpse of Casey Junior, which is intercut with live-action looks at the sound effects team in action. The rest come one after the other at the tail end of the film and one of those isn’t even fully animated.

That would be the aforementioned Baby Weems sequence, told in the form of a stylized animatic. Even if this had been fleshed out, it isn’t much of a cartoon. It’s about a genius baby who becomes a worldwide sensation, gets sick, then reverts to being a normal baby after he recovers. As a means to recycle some rejected storyboards, it’s certainly cost-effective but that’s about the best you can say about it.

The next sequence, Goofy starring in How To Ride A Horse, is one of the film’s highlights. This was actually the first of Goofy’s long-running How-To shorts that would find our intrepid hero mastering everything from skiing (“pronounced shee-ing”) to hooking up a home theatre. These were some of the funniest cartoons Disney ever produced and the formula is established from the get-go here. And for Disney aficionados, it’s nice to see the animators in this sequence portrayed by actual animators Ward Kimball, Fred Moore and Norm Ferguson.

Finally, Benchley arrives at the Disney screening room where he comes face-to-face with Walt himself and watches his latest cartoon: The Reluctant Dragon. (I guess the fact that Walt has already made the movie Benchley wanted to sell him is meant to be a punchline of sorts but I couldn’t tell you what the joke’s supposed to be.) This is a pleasant little two-reeler about a boy who befriends a gentle, poetry-loving dragon. When the eccentric knight Sir Giles rides into town, the boy tries to arrange a battle between the two, only to discover that Sir Giles is a bit of a poet himself. So a mock battle is arranged, Sir Giles emerges triumphant and the dragon’s fearsome reputation is rehabilitated.

Kenneth Grahame’s original story works on a number of different levels but Disney seems content with just a surface reading. It’s silly, breezy fun but nothing more. Disney had proven himself capable of much more than this and not just in his features. He’d made Silly Symphonies and other short films with more ambition than is on display here. This feels exactly like the placeholder it was.

The Reluctant Dragon was hardly a blockbuster but it accomplished what it was designed to do: it turned a modest profit. Walt Disney did eventually (and begrudgingly) sign a union contract, ending the strike and getting the studio back to work. But the strike came at a heavy cost. Many of Disney’s best animators left the studio, some temporarily, others forever. Some went to MGM, others went to Warner Bros. A handful, including David Hilberman, Stephen Bosustow and John Hubley, struck out on their own, forming United Productions of America (UPA), a studio that would have a profound effect on animation in the 1940s and 50s.

This was also an important film in the burgeoning cult of personality that was beginning to surround Disney and persists to this day. Seriously, who else besides Walt Disney would even consider releasing a movie like this? The “peek-behind-the-curtain” premise is really just an excuse to show off the new Burbank digs. That’s a premise Walt would return to in the 1950s with the opening of Disneyland, both the theme park and the TV show of the same name.

More importantly, The Reluctant Dragon and its all-access tour of the Burbank studio sows the seeds that will eventually blossom into Disneyland’s moniker, “The Happiest Place on Earth”. Life on the Disney lot looks like a dream job. It’s unstructured, free-wheeling, and open to all. You don’t even need an appointment to get a meeting with Walt himself. Everyone who works on the lot is happy, smiling, and eager to stop whatever they’re doing and show off their work. It’s a magical place full of music and laughter where no one would ever even consider grabbing a picket sign and going on strike.

Of course, real life is a lot messier than a Disney movie, which is exactly why Walt went to such pains to ensure that his movies had as little to do with real life as possible. The Reluctant Dragon couldn’t make all of Disney’s problems go away. His real employees were still on strike and his studio still badly needed money. But it could hide them for a little while and make the rest of the world believe that Disney’s land was the happiest studio on Earth.

VERDICT: A split decision. For hardcore Disney buffs, it’s a Disney Plus. For the more casual fan, it’s a Disney Minus.

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Fantasia

In various interviews over the years, George Lucas, a filmmaker who will eventually have dealings with the studio under consideration in this column, has mentioned his apparently life-long desire to make experimental, avant-garde films. As recently as the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, Lucas told Stephen Colbert that he’d be focusing on experimental filmmaking now that the burden of running the Star Wars Cash Printing Machine® had been passed to the House of Mouse.

Assuming he’s actually making these movies (and that’s a pretty big “if”…he’s been talking about it for several decades now), don’t expect to see them any time soon. He claims he’ll only be showing them to his friends. Frankly, that kind of makes sense. After all, who would expect the creator of one of the most populist entertainments of all time to make an experimental, art-house film and release it to a wide audience?

And yet, in 1940, that is exactly what Walt Disney did when he released Fantasia, his most ambitious feature to date and arguably the riskiest project the studio has released to this day. Where Snow White and Pinocchio aimed to showcase animation’s potential as a storytelling medium, Fantasia wanted nothing less than to elevate the form to the realm of pure art. This wasn’t just another cartoon. This was an event. This was something new.

It didn’t start off that way. Disney’s original plan was simply to create a deluxe Silly Symphony to help boost the flagging popularity of his signature star, Mickey Mouse. He acquired the rights to Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and set to work adapting the story as a starring vehicle for Mickey. By chance, Walt happened to meet Leopold Stokowski, the famous conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, right around the same time and told him about the short. Stokowski liked both the music and Disney and agreed to conduct the piece.

As Walt continued to get more excited by the possibilities of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the budget kept going up. Going over-budget seemed to be a recurring theme for Disney in these days. But unlike the feature-length Snow White or Pinocchio, it quickly became apparent that there was no way a short film like this would be able to recoup its costs at the box office. So it was decided to make The Sorcerer’s Apprentice one segment of a longer concert feature (imaginatively titled The Concert Feature at the time). Disney and Stokowski contacted music critic and radio personality Deems Taylor, who would end up providing on-screen commentary throughout the film, to help the Disney story department with the music selection.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice remains the one thing everyone remembers from Fantasia. Even if you haven’t seen the movie (and I’d wager that it’s probably the least-seen of the movies widely considered to be top-tier Disney Classics), you’ve probably seen this one segment. Disney wisely put Mickey front-and-center in most of the advertising materials and the Sorcerer Mickey look has been widely merchandized. And it is a terrific piece of animation. The music is wonderful, the animation is lovely and Mickey is his usual fun and friendly self. It’s also kind of scary, especially for little kids. The Sorcerer himself is an imposing figure and the sight of Mickey axe-murdering a sentient broomstick is pretty intense, even in shadow. But it’s just one small part of Fantasia and it takes some patience to get there.

The movie’s first segment, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, is either startlingly bold or mind-numbingly boring, depending on your perspective. As an animation fan, it’s a stunning display of abstract visuals and state-of-the-art effects work. But if you’re a kid or even a more casual movie fan, it’s a bit of a litmus test for how you’ll respond to the rest of the movie. If nothing else, Disney sequenced Fantasia brilliantly. You’ll know within the first ten minutes if this movie’s going to be your jam or not.

The next segment is slightly less abstract as Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite is brought to life with flittering fairies, dancing mushrooms and flowers, and cascading leaves. Again, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the artistry on display in this sequence. But you can admire the craft and still be left finding this all a little dull. It’s lovely to look at but not much more. The last time I saw Fantasia theatrically, one impatient little girl spent much of the sequence asking her mom, “When’s Mickey coming?”

Mickey does finally show up next, only to be followed by another lengthy, ambitiously abstract piece, this one set to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Again, this is a stunning piece of animation depicting nothing less than the dawn of life on Earth up to the extinction of the dinosaurs. But the rhythm of the sequence is very different from what most people expected from animation, especially at that time. Most animated shorts and features had a predictable gag structure: loosely connected vignettes with set-ups and punchlines. The Rite of Spring has none of that. It simply flows along at its own pace, making big leaps here and there before settling back into its languid groove.

Most of the highlights of Fantasia are found in its second act. Following an intermission and a fun “Meet the Soundtrack” vignette, we find ourselves in the mythological world of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. This is done in a more traditionally cartoonish style and it’s cute, if not particularly memorable.

(I should add that this is also one of our earliest examples of Disney’s long line of revisionist history. In the late 1960s, a few shots depicting stereotypical black female centaurs were removed. You can find images of them online if you’d like. I’m somewhat torn on the subject in this case. On the one hand, I think art should reflect the time in which it was made and shouldn’t be altered after the fact. But on the other, I think most modern audiences would be completely thrown out of the movie if these racially exaggerated characters suddenly popped up out of nowhere. So I do think the studio made the right call here. Disney’s complicated history with race will definitely come up again in this column.)

Fantasia saved its best segments for last, starting with Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours. If there’s a major criticism that can be leveled at Fantasia it’s that most of the segments feel exceedingly self-serious. Even Mickey Mouse feels like he’s straining for artistic credibility at times. Coming toward the program’s end, Dance of the Hours, directed by Disney veterans Norm Ferguson and T. Hee, feels almost like a parody of the rest of the film. A slapstick ballet performed by ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators, Dance of the Hours is genuinely inspired.

Finally, we come to the grand finale: a proto-mash-up of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Schubert’s Ave Maria. Night on Bald Mountain is a masterpiece of animation: intense, stark and unforgettable. In the late 1960s, a new generation discovered Fantasia for…let’s say, completely different reasons than Walt Disney had intended. What’s surprising is that the Disney studio made no effort to discourage that audience. Instead, they leaned into it with a new psychedelic ad campaign that emphasized Bald Mountain‘s demonic Chernabog over Mickey Mouse.

Fantasia debuted in November of 1940 and played around the country roadshow-style utilizing an early stereophonic sound system called Fantasound. Critically, it was a resounding success. Film critics hailed it as a significant milestone, not just in animation but in cinema in general. The Academy couldn’t figure out how to squeeze it into one of their usual categories, so they gave it two Honorary Oscars.

Audiences packed houses for months but even with the more expensive roadshow admission prices, Fantasia didn’t turn a profit. Part of the problem was the expense of installing the new Fantasound system into theatres. As World War II broke out, plans for a European release were cancelled and the Fantasound equipment was given over to the war effort.

Not everyone was impressed by Fantasia. Classical music critics took issue with everything from the music selection to Stokowski’s arrangements to the very idea of the film itself. The only living composer whose work was represented in the film was Igor Stravinsky and he absolutely hated it.

Despite these setbacks, Walt remained proud of what he’d accomplished. He envisioned Fantasia as an evolving program that could be refreshed every few years with new segments added and old ones taken out. He kept the story department busy developing potential new segments for months. But when the US formally entered World War II, Walt was forced to drop his ambitious plans for future Fantasias. More than 50 years later, a new Fantasia program would finally arrive in theatres. But we’ll get to that later.

In the end, Fantasia is a movie that you can’t help but admire even if it remains a difficult movie to truly love. It’s an audacious experiment and a dazzling showcase for some of the finest animation the medium would ever produce. But it’s also an anthology film, which means that as a movie, it’s only as strong as its weakest segment. Sure, Fantasia can be a little boring, a little saccharine, even a little cornball. But in this case, it’s the effort and intent behind the film that matters more than the movie itself. I may not love Fantasia. But I do love that Fantasia exists.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Pinocchio

After the phenomenal success of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, a dream project that had taken years to bring to the screen, Walt Disney wasn’t entirely sure what to do for an encore. Snow White had been a meticulous demonstration of the capabilities of feature-length animation. For his next trick, Walt knew he had to push the envelope even further.

In spring of 1937, about 8 months before the premiere of Snow White, Walt bought the rights to Felix Salten’s novel Bambi, A Life In The Woods, intending it to be the studio’s second animated feature. A few months later, animator Norm Ferguson brought in a copy of the Italian children’s book The Adventures Of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. Walt immediately saw its possibilities and put Pinocchio in line to become Movie #3.

But by 1938, the team had run into trouble with Bambi. The challenge of animating realistic deer had proven to be more difficult than anticipated. So Walt switched things up and moved Pinocchio to the head of the line.

In many ways, Disney simply stuck with what worked about Snow White. Both are based on classic works of children’s literature. Indeed, both films start with the literal opening of a book, a bit of cinematic shorthand for “based on a classic story” that the studio and countless other filmmakers still use to this day.

But there are some key differences in the source material. Snow White was based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Their version dated back about a century or so and different variations of the Snow White story had been around before the Grimms codified it. Pinocchio was based on an Italian novel that had originally been serialized in a children’s magazine beginning in 1881. Those stories were collected in 1883 and first translated into English in 1892. With astounding speed, it became one of the most translated and beloved children’s books of all time. So even though Pinocchio may have seemed like a tale as old as time (to borrow a phrase from a much later Disney fairy tale), it had really only been around for about 50 years.

The episodic nature of Collodi’s book leant itself to Disney’s gag-focused style of storytelling. But some of the darker elements of the book would need to be cut or changed to suit Walt’s taste.

Over the years, I’ve heard people say that Pinocchio is their favorite Disney movie. I’ve also known people who absolutely hated it as a child. More often than not, both of these groups cite the exact same reason for either loving or hating it: it’s too scary. Well, it’s nothing compared to Collodi’s book. In the original, Pinocchio is a horrible little brat and compulsive liar who immediately starts kicking Geppetto the second the old woodcarver finishes giving him feet. The book does have a talking cricket who tries to give Pinocchio some advice but the puppet kills it with a hammer. Talk about a grim fairy tale.

Disney’s first order of business was to make Pinocchio himself more likable. He softened and humanized the design of the character considerably. It’s a testament to the animators’ talent that you can even tell the difference when Pinocchio does eventually turn into a real boy. Apart from his exposed wooden arms and legs, his dominant feature is his head, with its expressive face and floppy shock of black hair. It’s very easy to forget that Pinocchio is a puppet.

Another key to that illusion is the casting of young Dickie Jones as the voice of Pinocchio. Jones would have been around 11 or 12 when he recorded the part, which I believe would have made this one of the first times an actual child provided the voice of an animated child. (There might be others…don’t @ me about this.) The other main juvenile role, the ill-fated Lampwick, was voiced by Frankie Darro, who was 10 years older than Dickie Jones.

Disney’s other brilliant idea was promoting the dead cricket to co-star status. Jiminy Cricket (voiced by popular singer/actor Cliff Edwards) became the prototype for a long line of Disney supporting characters voiced by celebrities. He starts the movie singing “When You Wish Upon A Star,” then breaks the fourth wall and comments on it (“Pretty, huh?”). He’s quick with a snappy comeback or an aside and speaks a modern American dialect. It is not a big leap to get from Jiminy Cricket to Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin.

Jiminy Cricket also became one of the few characters introduced in a feature that became a full-fledged, stand-alone star in his own right. Sure, Disney is happy to keep their characters active through little cameos and appearances in comics, games and merchandising. But Jiminy Cricket was able to join the Disney pantheon alongside such icons as Mickey, Donald and Goofy. His cheery, home-spun demeanor made him an ideal host for educational films and TV specials throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Dickie Jones and Cliff Edwards make a terrific pair as Pinocchio and Jiminy. Together, they provide a real feeling of innocence and optimism, which certainly helps the movie stay warm and inviting even when things get dark. And let’s face it, Pinocchio gets pretty darn dark even with Collodi’s sharpest edges filed down.

It’s clear from the get-go that characters like Honest John (a.k.a. J. Worthington Foulfellow), Gideon and the puppet-master Stromboli are up to no good. But it isn’t clear just how bad things are going to get until Stromboli tosses Pinocchio into a birdcage as Geppetto braves a torrential rainstorm to track him down. It’s right around the time the Blue Fairy demonstrates that lying causes Pinocchio’s nose to grow (something that only happens once in the movie, despite how indelible that image has become) that the movie really crosses over into nightmare territory.

Pinocchio’s next stop is Pleasure Island, where the sinister Coachman rounds up disobedient little boys, offers them every hedonistic delight a prepubescent mind could imagine, then sells them into slavery once they’ve made literal jackasses of themselves. This sequence alone is probably responsible for countless bad dreams. Pleasure Island itself is like a cross between Atlantic City, Coney Island and Thunderdome: one of the “attractions” is just a big tent where everybody beats each other up. And Lampwick’s transformation into a donkey is genuinely disturbing. A lot of it happens in shadow but you actually see his hands transform into hooves. No other movie, animated or live action, would come close to an effect like that for decades.

But I think one of the biggest reasons that the Pleasure Island sequence had such a big impact on kids is that it remains unresolved. Lampwick and the rest of the kids are not rescued. Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio consider themselves lucky to escape with their own lives. Of all the little details in Pinocchio that I think would be changed if Disney made this movie today (including all the smoking, drinking and the weird sexual tension between the obviously underage Pinocchio and the various female puppets during the “I’ve Got No Strings” number), this is one that stands out the most. Today’s play-it-safe filmmaking by committee would demand that Jiminy and Pinocchio go back to rescue those kids. It’d probably derail the rest of the movie but they’d still try to shoehorn it in somehow.

All of this brings us to Monstro the whale. If Pleasure Island didn’t give you nightmares as a kid, Monstro probably did. Monstro lives up to his name. He looks completely unlike any other character in the Disney canon. He looks less like a character and more like a background painting come to life. Monstro is a force of nature that dominates the screen. And the final showdown with Monstro offers some of the most stunning effects animation ever produced, every frame of which was produced by hand. It’s simply breathtaking.

To this day, Pinocchio remains a high-water mark for hand-drawn animation. Every single frame is rich with extraordinary detail, whether it’s Geppetto’s workshop, Pleasure Island or the belly of the whale. And the Disney animators took everything they learned from Snow White and kicked it to the next level. The characters are a fluid, seamless blend of realistic humans (ironically, the Blue Fairy is the most realistic character in the film), slightly caricatured figures (Geppetto, Stromboli and the Coachman), anthropomorphized animals (Jiminy Cricket and Honest John), regular animals (Cleo, Figaro and Monstro), and puppets, both living and otherwise. Somehow, this odd mix works. You never question why a fox and a cat are walking around, dressed in people-clothes and making shady deals with humans. The animators give each character weight and personality that establishes their place in this fantastic world.

Pinocchio would also make history as the first animated feature to win competitive Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and Best Original Song. These days, Disney wins one or both of those categories more often than not but back then, it was very much the exception, not the rule. “When You Wish Upon A Star” was an instant classic that soon became the official theme of Walt Disney Studios. Today you hear it every time you watch a Disney movie.

Creatively, Pinocchio was a home run, at least as good if not better than Snow White. Financially, it was another story. Pinocchio had cost twice as much as Snow White but it didn’t come close to matching its spectacular box office success. At least part of this was due to the fact that European and Asian markets were closed off thanks to the outbreak of World War II. But even taking that into account, Pinocchio was a huge disappointment for both the studio and for Walt Disney personally.

Today, of course, Pinocchio is widely regarded as a masterpiece. Some even consider it to be Disney’s crowning achievement. I don’t know if I’d go quite that far. It’d be kind of depressing to think that it’s all downhill from here when I’m only two columns in to this project. But Pinocchio has more than earned its reputation as one of the finest animated features of all time. It’s funny, touching, scary, dazzling to look at and impossible to forget.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs

In 1937, Walt Disney had something to prove.

He’d arrived in Hollywood from Kansas City in 1923. A cartoonist with aspirations of becoming a live-action movie director, he began to make a name for himself with the Alice Comedies, a series of hybrid short films that combined live-action and animation, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, one of the earliest recurring characters to have his own distinct personality.

Oswald had been created for producer Charles Mintz, who distributed the cartoons through Universal. In 1928, Disney tried to up his fee for the cartoons but Mintz refused, offering less money and reminding Disney that he owned the rights to Oswald. If Disney didn’t accept the terms, Mintz would just find somebody else who would. Disney walked away from Oswald, created Mickey Mouse and made history.

Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. There would be a lot of trial and error, more unfavorable business deals, and key collaborators would both enter and leave Walt’s life (perhaps most notably, Walt’s long-time friend and partner Ub Iwerks, who left in 1930). Still, by most any yardstick, Disney was a huge success by 1937. Mickey Mouse was recognized around the world, the Silly Symphonies series was a smash hit, and Walt had already won 6 Academy Awards (out of an eventual 22, still the most ever won by an individual). He was 36 years old. And yet, he still had something to prove.

Disney wanted to break out of the short subject rut and into feature filmmaking with an adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale Snow White. Outside of the studio, literally no one thought this was a good idea. Even inside the studio, folks were skeptical. Walt’s brother, Roy, and wife, Lillian, both tried to talk him out of it. Throughout Hollywood, the project was referred to as “Disney’s Folly”. Walt thought he could make it for around $250,000. It ended up costing close to $1.5 million and he’d have to mortgage his house to help finance it. It took around three years to make and when it finally premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles on December 21, 1937, it changed everything.

It’s impossible to imagine today just how revolutionary Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs must have been to audiences at the time. Today, most people consider it to be a genteel, rather old-fashioned picture, a relic from Hollywood’s golden age. But no one had ever told a complex story with a beginning, middle and end in animation before. Up until then, animated cartoons were only designed to hold the attention for about 8 minutes with a series of gags and maybe a quick song or two. There were even those who doubted that people could physically take a feature-length animated cartoon. All the bright colors would probably lead to eyestrain and headaches.

Most of all, animated cartoons up to this point were only intended to provoke one of two simple emotions: happy or sad. Sure, people loved characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse but they weren’t emotionally invested in them. You didn’t hope that they’d find a true and lasting love and you certainly never worried that one of them might actually die.

Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs did all that. It told a familiar story in a way that made it seem brand new. It seamlessly integrated the exaggerated animation style of the dwarfs with some of the most realistic human characters the medium had yet seen. It introduced no less than 8 original songs, most of which went on to become instantly recognizable standards including “Heigh-Ho”, “Whistle While You Work” and “Someday My Prince Will Come”. And, as far as I know, it did all this without causing a single migraine or seizure.

It’s clear from the opening titles that Walt Disney had put everything on the line with this production. A personalized title card early on reads, “My sincere appreciation to the members of my staff whose loyalty and creative endeavor made possible this production.” That sounds as much like a goodbye as a hello, as though Walt was resigned to the possibility of failure and was saying, “Well, boys…we gave it our best shot. Thanks for trying.”

As it turned out, everyone else also sincerely appreciated their creative endeavors. Even today, it’s impossible not to respect the artistry behind Snow White, even if you find elements of it dated. The stunning backgrounds, the fluid movement of the characters, the design elements, everything comes together to create a lush spectacle that’s simply beautiful to look at.

Disney’s success with short subjects translated surprisingly well to creating Snow White‘s story structure. As with the shorts, the story was broken down into a series of interconnected gags, with the distinct personalities of the Seven Dwarfs serving as the driving force behind many of them. But gags are sprinkled throughout the film. If the movie had been a flop, Disney could easily have excised the “Whistle While You Work” sequence and released it as a stand-alone Silly Symphony.

The vocal performances are also key to selling the story. The dwarfs’ design gets you halfway there but it’s the voices of Pinto Colvig, Roy Atwell, Billy Gilbert, Otis Harlan and others who bring them to life. Lucille La Verne had been an actress for over fifty years when she voiced the evil Queen, both in her vain, “fairest-of-them-all” form and as the apple-poisoning old hag. Both voices are terrifying and intimidating in their own unique ways. La Verne retired from acting after Snow White, perhaps realizing she’d already achieved immortality.

The most divisive voice these days is Adriana Caselotti as Snow White herself. Her high-pitched, tremulous voice has been parodied for generations at this point. But it’s frankly perfect for the character. It’s nowhere near as one-note as those parodies might have you remembering. And the character is meant to be as pure and innocent as the driven snow, after all. If Caselotti’s voice has since come to sound like a cliché, that’s because it works.

In later years, Disney would become a bit overprotective of Snow White’s voice. Jack Benny famously wanted to hire Caselotti for his radio show but Walt refused, not wanting anything to ruin the mystique of that perfect voice. Caselotti probably lost quite a bit of work over the years thanks to Walt. Still, she never seemed to hold a grudge, at least not publicly, and became the first female voice actor to be named a Disney Legend in 1994. Even so, from today’s perspective at least, it does seem like Walt was a bit of a dick about it.

The public went wild for Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. For a little while, it was the highest-grossing film of all time (at least until Gone With The Wind came along). The movie landed Walt and the dwarfs on the cover of Time magazine. At the Oscars, Shirley Temple presented Walt with an honorary Academy Award and seven mini-Oscars, recognizing the film as “a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field”.

The movie’s music also earned a nomination for Best Scoring. This was at the 10th Oscars and, like many categories in the ceremony’s early years, they were still trying to figure this one out. At the time, the nomination went to the head of the studio’s music department and pretty much every studio was guaranteed a nomination for whatever movie they chose to submit. Snow White, and everything else that year, lost to the Deanna Durbin musical One Hundred Men And A Girl. Its “score” consisted of two original songs and a whole bunch of classical music. Realizing that it wasn’t entirely fair to make people compete with the likes of Mozart and Wagner, the Academy changed the category’s rules in time for the next ceremony.

Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs changed movies forever. It paved the way for every single animated feature film that would follow, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that audiences could be made to care just as deeply about a series of drawings as they did about flesh-and-blood characters. The Disney Era had begun.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Introducing Disney±

In the history of Hollywood, there has never been another studio quite like Disney. It’s a studio with an identity, a brand name recognized around the world. Sure, Universal had their monsters and MGM had musicals but they never focused on them to the exclusion of everything else. Even when Disney branched into live-action production, it was a very specific kind of family-friendly live-action production. Even after his death, Walt Disney’s name was featured more prominently than even the studio’s biggest stars.

It’s this immediately recognizable identity that has allowed Disney to prosper in areas like theme parks, merchandising and now, streaming services. Since launching in November, Disney+ has signed up more than 28 million subscribers. More than half of those are in households with kids under 10. As social distancing takes hold, I would expect those numbers to go up in the weeks to come.

Like everyone else under the sun with access to pop culture, I grew up with Disney. But my Disney in the 70s and 80s was a slightly tarnished studio still trying to find its way after the death of its founder. Walt died in December of 1966, three years before I was born. So even though I could enter The Wonderful World Of Disney every Sunday night on NBC, Walt himself wasn’t around to serve as my host. The studio was still releasing plenty of movies but none of them really captivated me or any of my friends. The Apple Dumpling Gang just couldn’t compete with Luke, Han and Leia.

But despite the fact that Disney was on the struggle bus for my entire childhood, it still commanded respect. Disneyland and Walt Disney World remained the dream vacation destinations for just about every kid I knew. The regular re-releases of their animated classics were treated like events and served as a vivid reminder of the studio’s potential for greatness. And my family and I dutifully went to see each new animated feature as it came out with a feeling of anticipation. Maybe this’ll be the one that puts them back on top. It’s like we were cheering them on, rooting for them to succeed.

Disney is a long way away from being the underdog anymore. Today, they’re the most powerful and successful studio in Hollywood. So I thought it might be fun to take a look back and try to figure out how they got here. That’s the purpose of this new column which I’m calling (what else?) Disney Plus-Or-Minus (or Disney± if you prefer the stylized look…and thanks to my old pal Bill Hunt for his help with the snazzy graphic).

Every week, I’ll be prying open the Disney Vault and examining both its treasures and its trash. We’ll begin at the beginning with 1937’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs and proceed chronologically from there. I’ll only be looking at theatrical features released under the main Disney umbrella, nothing made-for-TV or direct-to-video, no Marvel or Lucasfilm or any other labels or subsidiaries. I will be including Pixar, since their history is inextricably combined with Disney at this point. Right now, I’m not planning on including anything from Touchstone or Hollywood Pictures, although I might revisit that choice when the time comes. There are certainly Touchstone films that Disney would like to reclaim for itself, so we’ll see.

I’m going to do my best to make this as comprehensive as possible but I’m resigned to the fact that I may not be able to track down every last movie on the list. Disney’s track record is actually better than most studios when it comes to releasing deep catalog titles on home video. But if they don’t want you to see something, they really don’t want you to see it. Despite their initial boasts, Disney+ was never going to provide access to every single item in their library. So I’ll do my best but if the only way I can find something is by paying hundreds of dollars for an out-of-print DVD, I’m gonna have to skip it.

Also, since Walt Disney was no stranger to the Academy Awards, some of these columns will also count toward my other on-going project, An Honor To Be Nominated. I hope you’ll join me on this journey through the Magic Kingdom as we rediscover classic favorites, uncover forgotten obscurities and try to make sense of this thing called Disney. It promises to be a fun, if bumpy, ride.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Nine

THE CONTENDER: Nine (2009)

Number of Nominations: 4 – Actress in a Supporting Role (Penélope Cruz); Costume Design (Colleen Atwood); Art Direction (John Myhre, Gordon Sim); Original Song (“Take It All”, music & lyrics by Maury Yeston)

Number of Wins: 0

Hollywood and Broadway used to enjoy a much more symbiotic relationship than they do today. The Broadway stage was a reliable source of material for moviemakers. In return, Hollywood made Broadway look like the highest peak a young up-and-coming actor, singer or dancer could aspire to. Hell, the second movie (and the first sound picture) to win Best Picture was The Broadway Melody, about a pair of sisters fresh off the vaudeville circuit trying to make it big on the Great White Way.

Some of the most beloved movies of all time are based on Broadway musicals: My Fair Lady, The Sound Of Music, West Side Story, the list goes on and on. One thing these movies all have in common: they all appeared in theatres not too long after their stage debuts. My Fair Lady won the 1957 Tony for Best Musical. The movie came out in 1964. The Sound Of Music came out five years after winning its Tony.

But the movie-going public’s appetite for big, splashy musicals all but died in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Broadway adaptations continued to pop up now and then (The Wiz, Annie, A Chorus Line) but they rarely returned on their investment (Grease being one of the few exceptions).

So pretty much any popular, Tony-winning musical that had the misfortune to debut in the 1980s was resigned to sit on the sidelines. Evita had to wait 16 years before it was made into a film. The Phantom Of The Opera took 18. And Cats…well, we all know what happened to Cats.

Nine premiered on Broadway in 1982 and it was kind of a big deal. It helped launch Raul Julia (already a big Broadway star) into a film career, won multiple Tony Awards and was nominated for a Grammy. 21 years later, a revival of the show also won a bunch of Tonys. But it wasn’t until six years after that when the movie version was finally released to an indifferent public who had most likely forgotten all about the show. It probably didn’t help matters that just a few months earlier, a completely unrelated animated film called 9 had been released (and that one had come out just a few months after District 9…nines were everywhere in 2009).

Based on the classic by Federico Fellini (who was reportedly cool with giving over the stage rights to his film as long as his name and the movie’s actual title were kept far, far away from it), Nine follows cinema maestro Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he preps for his latest film, Italia. Principal photography is scheduled to begin in just 10 days but Guido doesn’t have a script. Panicked, Guido flees a press conference and attempts to hole up in a spa away from Rome, summoning his mistress (Penélope Cruz) and stashing her in a much seedier hotel close to the train station…just in case.

Naturally, “just in case” becomes a reality as the entire film crew follows Guido in an effort to get him to focus on the project. But the script remains elusive as Guido’s mind slides into a fantasia of all the women in his life, including his wife (Marion Cotillard), his leading lady (Nicole Kidman), his costume designer/confidante (Judi Dench), an American reporter (Kate Hudson), a prostitute from his childhood (Fergie) and his late mother (Sophia Loren).

The impressive lineup of talent doesn’t stop in front of the camera. The screenplay was written by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella (this ended up being his last film credit). The director was Rob Marshall, who had made an impressive transition from Broadway to film with the Oscar-winning Chicago just a few years earlier. On paper, everything about this movie seems like a home run. So why is it so totally inert?

A big part of the problem here is the character of Guido, both as written and as played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Guido is a brooding, narcissistic, control freak who gets away with his bad behavior because he’s a genius. Day-Lewis has the brooding control freak side of the character down pat but we don’t get to see even a glimpse of the genius or any other redeeming quality to suggest why we should care about this guy.

He also never seems particularly comfortable with the singing and dancing that comes along with starring in a musical. He only has a couple of numbers and he’s a fine singer. But songs in musicals are all about taking what a character is feeling inside and making it physical through music and movement. Day-Lewis is such an internal actor anyway, you feel him bristling at being made to externalize his emotions. It isn’t his strong suit.

Fortunately, the ladies do most of the heavy lifting in the music department while Day-Lewis looks on, usually bathed in a spotlight and smoking a cigarette. They’re all perfectly fine, although I wouldn’t say any of them are particularly inspired. Marion Cotillard has the most to do as Guido’s ignored wife and gets two numbers, including one of the three new songs written for the film. “My Husband Makes Movies” is sort of an insipid introduction to the character but she fares better with the new song, “Take It All”. Nicole Kidman and Sophia Loren are barely in the movie long enough to register, while Kate Hudson pops in for an energetic but stupid new tune, “Cinema Italiano”. As for Judi Dench…she’d go on to appear in Cats, so we’ll cut her some slack for this one.

But when you have a cast like this, somebody’s bound to get an Oscar nomination and this time, Penélope Cruz’s name was pulled out of the hat. Her performance is…fine. No better or worse than anyone else in the cast. She gives 100% to her sexy performance of “A Call From The Vatican” and her role allows for a bit more range than Cotillard’s did, so I assume that’s why she got the nod. But honestly, this is one of those nominations that feels like the Academy selected just by throwing a dart at a poster of the movie.

The best song in the movie and the one sequence that feels authentically Fellini-esque belongs to Fergie, the only person here who has never been nominated for an Oscar. “Be Italian” is clearly the show-stopper, so thank God they gave it to somebody who could sing the hell out of it. But during the black-and-white flashback sequences, Fergie is the one person in the cast who looks like she belongs in a Fellini film. She’s sexy, earthy, uninhibited and playful in a way nobody else pulls off. It’s the one sequence in the film that really comes to life.

It’s hard to argue against Nine‘s art direction and costume design nominations. If nothing else, the movie looks spectacular. It lost in both categories (to Avatar and The Young Victoria, respectively) but production designer John Myhre, set decorator Gordon Sim, and costume designer Colleen Atwood have all won Oscars before (and since, in the Atwood’s case), so don’t feel too badly for them.

2009 was the first year the Academy upped the number of Best Picture nominees to 10. You’d think that with more slots available, a movie with Nine‘s pedigree would be a shoo-in for the big prize. But Nine was unable to muscle past the likes of The Blind Side and A Serious Man, much less eventual winner The Hurt Locker. In fact, Nine tied with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek for the most number of nominations without getting a Best Picture nod. Difference is that Star Trek actually won one (that’d be Best Makeup).

Today, Nine is a footnote in the careers of those involved with the movie. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the play is that it was one of the first big Broadway shows based on a movie. These days, when everything from The Lion King to Beetlejuice to Evil Dead to Monty Python And The Holy Grail has been adapted for the musical theatre, it feels almost risky to base a show on a 1960s Italian art film. And who knows…maybe if Nine had made the transition back to cinema back in the 80s, maybe it would have been something fresh instead of the reheated pasta it became.

Nine is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Twelve Monkeys

THE CONTENDER: Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Number of Nominations: 2 – Actor in a Supporting Role (Brad Pitt); Costume Design (Julie Weiss)

Number of Wins: 0

Not too long ago, I sat down to finally watch Terry Gilliam’s long, long delayed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. As I did, I was confronted with the sad but very real possibility that I was watching his last film. Gilliam has rarely had an easy time getting his movies made but the road to Don Quixote had been especially arduous. It had been preceded by the barely-released The Zero Theorem; The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, which had to be completely rethought after star Heath Ledger died in the middle of production; and the even-more-barely-released Tideland, which found the former Python making the publicity rounds while toting a cardboard sign reading, “Studio-less film maker. Family to support. Will direct for food.” How much does he have to put up with before he finally says enough is enough?

It wasn’t always this way. Gilliam’s 1981 breakthrough, Time Bandits, was a bona fide smash hit. It was the 10th highest-grossing movie of the year in America and remains a delightful, endlessly rewatchable classic. His troubles began with his next film, Brazil, which became embroiled in a notorious struggle for final cut between Gilliam and Universal Pictures (specifically then-chairman Sid Sheinberg). Gilliam won that battle and the film is now rightly regarded as a masterpiece but it didn’t exactly demolish box office records.

Then came The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, a fantasy epic that went wildly over-budget and completely tanked at the box office. Most directors never recover from a debacle like that (see also: Cimino, Michael). But Gilliam was determined to shake his reputation as an irresponsible, out-of-control auteur. He rebounded and back-to-back made the two biggest hits of his career: The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys.

An Academy Award-winning film in its own right, The Fisher King will be a subject for another day. So let’s contemplate the unlikely success of Twelve Monkeys. First off, it’s a remake of (or, as the credits have it, “inspired by”) a 28-minute French art film told almost entirely in still images, Chris Marker’s La Jetée. It’s a dystopian science fiction nightmare about a violent criminal (Bruce Willis as James Cole) who is “volunteered” to travel back in time to gather information about a virus that wipes out most of humanity in 1996. His job isn’t to prevent the virus from being released. We’re told repeatedly that ship has sailed. The world is dead. The best Cole can do is assist the scientists in their search for a cure.

Cole’s first journey to the past sends him back too far, arriving in 1990 where he finds himself committed to a mental hospital under the care of Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). He’s befriended by fellow inmate Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), who rants and raves about corporate America and consumer culture. Cole is snatched back to his own time, then accidentally sent to a battlefield in World War I before finally ending up in 1996, just before the virus is due to be released. The scientists believe a group of radical environmentalists called The Army of the Twelve Monkeys is responsible and it turns out that Jeffrey Goines is the leader of the group. But all this back and forth is taking a heavy toll on Cole. He’s doubting his own sanity and is plagued by a recurring childhood memory of seeing a man shot by police in an airport.

In a nutshell, Twelve Monkeys is a dark, dark film. It’s all about madness and death, it takes place in run-down sanatoriums and on the decaying streets of Philadelphia in the grayest of winters, and ends by promising a future that’s about to get a whole lot worse. Nevertheless, it was a sizable hit and earned a pair of Academy Award nominations.

One of those nominations went to costume designer Julie Weiss (she’d be nominated again a few years later for her work on Julie Taymor’s Frida). As far as I’m concerned, Gilliam’s films should routinely be nominated for both production and costume design. There simply aren’t any other movies that look like his. Weiss’ work here is fantastic and not just the futuristic containment suits. Even the contemporary scenes bear a mark of individuality. The various mental patients and homeless people Cole encounters all look weathered and beaten down by life. Of course, these aren’t exactly the kind of fashion statements that win Oscars.

The film’s other nomination went to young up-and-comer Brad Pitt. It was his first nomination and he’d go on to win in the same category just this year for Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. It’s not quite fair to say that this was the first time Pitt had shown he was more than just a pretty face. He’d been proving himself as an actor for awhile by now in movies like A River Runs Through It and Legends Of The Fall. He’d also grunged himself up for movies like Kalifornia and True Romance. So we already knew he wasn’t exactly vain. We also knew that he was willing to go into some pretty dark territory. His other big hit of 1995 was Se7en. Brad Pitt was not spending the year spreading sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.

But up until now, Pitt’s screen persona had been very laconic, almost bordering on sleepy from time to time. He was charming and extremely good-looking but his energy was very low-key. Twelve Monkeys was the opposite of all that. For the first time, here was Brad Pitt literally bouncing off the walls, firing off dialogue like a machine gun and grinning like a lunatic. We’d never seen this Brad Pitt before and, honestly, we haven’t seen too much of him since. His performance is absolutely over-the-top but in the best way. Personally, I’d love to see Crazy Brad show up again someday.

Bruce Willis (perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not) has never been nominated for an Academy Award. Did he deserve one here? Possibly. Willis certainly doesn’t disappear into the part of James Cole. He’s not that kind of actor. But he anchors this film in some important ways. The consistency of the character’s through-line is what prevents all the time travel mind games from becoming confusing, even as Cole thinks he’s going insane himself. And Willis has at least one genuinely lovely, touching moment when Cole hears music again for the first time in lord knows how long. Willis really sells that scene. The expression of pure happiness on his face speaks volumes about what he’s endured.

You would think that after the back-to-back success of The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys that Terry Gilliam would have had an easier time of it. You would be wrong. His next film, the appropriately gonzo Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, divided critics and struggled at the box office. After that, Gilliam spent a lot of time on movies that never got made, including a go at adapting Watchmen and the first of several attempts at The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Gilliam was even J.K. Rowling’s first choice to direct Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone before cooler heads prevailed, Gilliam deciding he didn’t want the headaches of a big tentpole film and Warner Bros. deciding they didn’t want the headaches of dealing with Gilliam.

If Terry Gilliam’s directorial career is indeed winding down, Twelve Monkeys will stand as his last big hit. In 2015, SyFy launched a 12 Monkeys TV series that credits Chris Marker and screenwriters David and Janet Peoples but pointedly not Terry Gilliam. People now seem to believe that the movies Gilliam made that were successful succeeded in spite of him, not because of him. If so, that’s a real shame. Terry Gilliam remains a singularly talented filmmaker with a vision all his own. His legacy will outlast any virus.

Twelve Monkeys is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

Tribulation Is Here

Hey, I have a website! Almost forgot about that.

Hello again, Electric Theatregoers. My apologies for the long absence between posts. And I apologize also for returning with a blatant piece of self-promotion. But the long absence is partially explained by what I’m promoting, so I hope that helps.

Most of you who have found your way to the Electric Theatre probably know me from my work over at Bill Hunt’s The Digital Bits. But my reviews and what-not are really just a small part of my writing output. Over the last couple of years, I have dipped my toes into the new/old world of audio drama with Tribulation.

We started Tribulation as a podcast back in 2017. The first season picked up a bit of a cult following and some great reviews in the podcasting community, enough to attract the attention of Audible. They picked us up for a second season and, this past October, Tribulation was reborn as an Audible Original!

Audible put a lot of faith in our little show, going so far as to cast Josh Charles in the role of Magus. You may know Josh from his roles on Sports Night, The Good Wife and/or Netflix’s continuation of the Wet Hot American Summer franchise, absolutely none of which will prepare you for his performance here as a demented cult leader who thrives on pain and suffering. The entire cast (including Lauren Revard, Eric Goins, Tom Clark, Janet Metzger, Trevor Goble, Kate Kovach, and Hannah Pniewski) is first-rate. Acting for audio is a unique challenge and I’m in awe of their talents.

Tribulation is available now exclusively on Audible. If you’re already a member, you can use one of your monthly credits to check it out. If you’re not, they’ve got a free 30-day trial. I hope you’ll give it a listen and, if you enjoy it, please consider leaving us a review. These things really do help a lot.

Anyway, that’s the end of my sales pitch. The Electric Theatre will be back sooner rather than later with the usual mix of whatever it is we do here.

Your pal,
Jahnke