Disney Plus-Or-Minus: White Wilderness

Original theatrical poster for Walt Disney's White Wilderness

In 1957, Walt Disney tried mixing up the tried-and-true True-Life Adventures formula with Perri. Labeled a True-Life Fantasy, Perri was the first explicitly fictional entry in the popular series. But Disney had been playing fast and loose with the rules of documentary filmmaking from the beginning. Even Oscar winners like The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie made no distinction between footage caught in the wild and scenes staged in the controlled environment of the soundstage. If you knew what you were looking at, you could tell the difference. But to most audiences, the movies were so entertaining that nobody seemed to notice or care.

White Wilderness would be the third and last True-Life Adventure to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Purportedly shot in the Arctic over the course of three years, the movie won rave reviews. More than one contemporary critic singled it out as Walt’s best nature film to date. And on the surface, it is indeed a beautifully shot, highly entertaining picture. Unfortunately, the filmmakers were more than a little overzealous in their use of movie trickery this time. They crossed a line that ends up tainting the entire project.

Things start promisingly enough with Winston Hibler’s narration and our old pal, the Animated Paintbrush, whisking us back to the Ice Age. Hibler gives a little backstory about some of the animals we won’t be seeing in this film, like woolly mammoths and mastodons. We next tour the Arctic landscape, accompanied by majestic images of glaciers, avalanches and frozen seas. It’s some of the most stunning nature photography in the entire series.

Then we start to meet the animals and they’re frankly delightful. Walruses, beluga whales, seals, they’re all here and they’re all fantastic. Best of all are the polar bears, especially Mama Bear and her cubs. Cute baby animal footage is the stock-in-trade of the entire True-Life Adventures series. But of all the adorable baby animals we’ve seen so far, there are none cuter than polar bear cubs and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. We don’t really learn much about them but who cares? Just look at those little goofballs!

Later on, more baby animals turn up in an attempt to give the polar bears a run for their money. There are the goldeneye ducklings who are hatched in trees. They leave the nest before they’re able to fly, so they tumble out of the tree and bounce when they hit the ground. There are some cute little wolf cubs taught how to howl by Papa Wolf. They’re all fun but bouncing ducks and playful wolves are still no match for polar bear cubs in the cuteness department.

By the end of the movie, we’ve been introduced to a wide cross-section of animal life. Majestic birds like the osprey. Great herd animals like the caribou. Cute but fierce predators like the ermine. Less cute and even fiercer predators like the wolverine. The footage is top-notch. The animals are varied and interesting. Even the Oscar-nominated music by Oliver Wallace is less overbearing than some of the other True-Life Adventures. All signs point to this being a high point of the entire series.

But then, right smack in the middle of all this, there’s the lemmings.

Hibler informs us that the little hamster-like lemming breeds even faster than the rabbit. Mama Lemming can welcome two or three big litters each season. Once they’re old enough to fend for themselves, the lemmings emerge from their underground burrows to forage for food. Sure enough, there are lemmings as far as the eye can see, getting underfoot and gobbling up every bit of vegetation in sight.

Once the lemming population becomes unsustainable, Hibler tells us they follow a primal instinct to migrate to the sea. Off they go, swarming the countryside on their little lemming feet, until they reach the inevitable end of the line. Confronted with the frigid Arctic Sea, the lemmings march on, plummeting over the edge of the cliff and into the waters below. They swim until their little lemming bodies can swim no more. And so, the lemming population ebbs back, the result of an instinctual kind of mass suicide. The ways of nature are mysterious indeed.

As it turns out, almost everything we’ve seen and heard in this sequence is complete crap. It’s probably worth pointing out again that screenwriter and narrator Winston Hibler and director James Algar were not men of science. They were men of cartoons. They knew how to tell a story and the myth of lemmings committing suicide is a good one. Not true, though. The idea is so widespread that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game felt compelled to address it on their website.

But worse than the misinformation is the way the sequence was filmed. In 1982, a Canadian news show called The Fifth Estate ran an episode called Cruel Camera. Journalist Bob McKeown investigated reports of animal cruelty in Hollywood. He sat down with Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney, who had worked on several True-Life Adventures, to discuss staged sequences in the series and in particular, White Wilderness.

The lemming sequence was not shot on location in the Arctic. It was filmed in Calgary with lemmings bought from local Inuit kids for about a quarter a pop. These particular lemmings weren’t even migratory. To make it look like they were migrating, the filmmakers built a set, stuck the lemmings on a turntable and just cut it together over and over. And when it came time for them to jump into the “ocean” (actually the Bow River), they just pushed ‘em in.

In Cruel Camera, Roy admits they went too far that time. However, he is also careful to make clear that he personally didn’t work on White Wilderness and that he doesn’t believe Walt knew anything about what the crew was up to. Strictly speaking, the crew didn’t break any laws or even guidelines. Oversight of animals in film and television was a whole lot looser in the 1950s than it is now. Even if it wasn’t, the film’s status as a “documentary” probably would have allowed them to sidestep any pesky regulations. Still, it’s a black mark on the film that leaves a really bad taste in your mouth.

The entire Cruel Camera documentary is available on YouTube and it’s worth checking out. In addition to Roy’s interview, you get to see Ronnie Hawkins talk about some of the insanity he witnessed on the set of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Marlin Perkins from Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom get super-defensive when asked about staged sequences on his show.

The lemming business is truly unfortunate because it mars what is otherwise a terrific film. I suspect that lingering concern about the lemming issue was behind the studio’s decision to yank White Wilderness off of Disney+ shortly after its launch. I can’t imagine they had pre-existing contracts with other streamers for the True-Life Adventures and all of the other features are available. Better to just ward off any potential controversy before it starts.

I think it’s important to try and watch movies within the context of their times and not judge them based on contemporary values and ideals. But a film like White Wilderness makes that hard. Audiences in 1958 didn’t know that a lot of this stuff was staged. Even if they did figure it out, they certainly didn’t know the extent to which the filmmakers went. White Wilderness has a lot going for it and if you can somehow overlook its dark history, it’s well worth watching. But once you know the behind-the-scenes story, it’s almost impossible to look at it the same way.

VERDICT: Like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the story behind the making of the film turns an easy Disney Plus into an unfortunate Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Secrets Of Life

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Secrets Of Life

Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventure features were not in the business of playing coy. When you sit down to watch The Living Desert or The Vanishing Prairie or The African Lion, the title alone gives you a pretty good idea what to expect. If anything, Disney was criticized for simplifying things too much, reducing complex behaviors to cute, anthropomorphized routines. But Secrets Of Life is a grand, mysterious title that tells you almost nothing. The poster is even less helpful. This movie could be about anything.

As usual, Walt knew what he was doing. The True-Life Adventure movies had been surprisingly popular but they mostly focused on easily recognizable animals. Secrets Of Life takes a different approach that borders on the experimental. This time, director James Algar sets his cameras on plant life, insects (primarily bees), and fish.

If you think that sounds like kind of a hodgepodge of unrelated subjects, you’re not wrong. Algar does his best to transition smoothly from one topic to the next, relying on the Animated Paintbrush that has traditionally been used to open each feature. We see a lot more of the A.P. this time and with good reason. It’s a quick and easy way to segue from one thing to the next.

But Algar also expands his cinematic toolbox this time out, utilizing time-lapse photography, macro photography and underwater cameras more than ever. He even switches to CinemaScope for the grand finale (more on that in a second). As a result, this is one of the most visually spectacular True-Life Adventures. The time-lapse sequences of plant growth and blooming flowers are beautiful and genuinely interesting. Algar lets these images speak for themselves, reducing the role of Winston Hibler’s folksy narrator. Honestly, Algar may have overestimated how compelling that footage actually is. By the end of the sequence, even the most hardcore gardener may find their attention starting to wander.

We next get up close and personal with bees and ants, thanks in part to the macro-photography of Robert H. Crandall. Crandall had previously worked on the memorable spider-vs-wasp sequence in The Living Desert. There isn’t anything quite that dramatic in Secrets Of Life but the footage is still remarkably intimate. Even with modern advances in camera technology, Crandall’s work still holds up today.

The underwater sequences probably could have provided the basis for an entire True-Life Adventure of their own. Both the short subjects and the features covered creatures of the land and sky extensively but rarely went aquatic. Even when the series did go to the ocean for the Oscar-winning short subject Water Birds, the cameras were pointed up, not down. But Algar finds plenty of fascinating subjects in the water, including the alien-looking anglerfish and the diving bell spider.

There are plenty of possible reasons why Disney never gave sea creatures their own True-Life Adventure spotlight. Maybe shooting an entire feature underwater would have been too expensive or technically challenging. Maybe Walt didn’t think fish were relatable enough to attract general audiences. It’s even possible that Walt didn’t think he could compete with the groundbreaking work of Jacques Cousteau, whose 1956 documentary The Silent World won the Oscar. Whatever the reason, the lack of an underwater True-Life Adventure feature feels like a missed opportunity.

Having covered plants, insects and sea creatures, Secrets Of Life wraps things up with…volcanoes. Why? I guess because when you’ve got breathtaking, CinemaScope footage of active, erupting volcanoes, you’ve gotta use it somewhere. And don’t get me wrong, this stuff does indeed look fantastic. Hibler tries his best to tie the footage to the rest of the picture, intoning about the earth’s cycle of life, reinventing itself in fire and so on and so forth. But really this is just a big fireworks show included for the sole purpose of making the audience go, “Ooh!”

Despite the movie’s lack of cohesion, Secrets Of Life is one of the better True-Life Adventures. The photography is top-notch and the variety of plant and animal life we’re introduced to is genuinely interesting. Algar picked his subjects wisely, providing unusual facts and information. Of all the True-Life Adventure features covered in this column so far, Secrets Of Life is probably the most educational. I think most viewers would learn at least a little something new from this.

But it’s also the entry in the series that feels the most like school. Hibler’s narration is a little drier than usual and the moments of comic relief are less frequent. As long as you’re interested in the subject at hand, the movie remains compelling. But if your interest starts to flag, and at some point, it certainly will, the movie becomes a bit of a slog.

Still, with a running time of only 70 minutes, it never turns into an interminable slog. If you find yourself getting bored with a segment, just wait for a few minutes. It’ll soon be over and you’ll be on to something new. Secrets Of Life can feel a bit like a clip show made up from leftover scraps of footage that didn’t quite fit anywhere else. If that is indeed the secret of Secrets Of Life, Algar and Disney made the right call. The footage was too good to waste.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The African Lion

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The African Lion

Any number of people could make a legitimate claim for being most responsible for the success of Disney’s True-Life Adventures series. Director James Algar, narrator and co-writer Winston Hibler, producer Ben Sharpsteen and composer Paul Smith all worked on every installment, both shorts and features. They established a consistent tone and style for the films that worked like a charm. The series had been successful from the get-go and nobody was in a hurry to shake things up.

But the backbone of the series was the work of the nature photographers who spent months in the wild gathering hundreds upon hundreds of feet worth of footage. Alfred and Elma Milotte had been the first to join the studio. Their work resulted in the Oscar-winning Seal Island. If the Milottes had never met Walt Disney, True-Life Adventures may never have existed at all.

The Milottes had been responsible for most of the early True-Life Adventures shorts. Six of those short subjects had won Oscars. So it was inevitable that the Milottes would eventually get a feature of their own. The husband and wife team spent three years in Africa, shooting enough footage for multiple features. Eventually, Algar and his team pared it down to a brisk 75-minute feature titled The African Lion.

The film itself is a fairly straight-forward and clear-eyed look at the African ecosystem. The King of the Jungle is front and center, positioned as the alpha predator sitting atop the food chain. It’s through the eyes of the lion that we see how other animals interact and coexist with each other on the savanna. The Milottes’ cameras capture giraffes, hippos, rhinos, baboons, elephants and lots more. None of the animals are particularly rare or unusual, even for 1955, but the Milottes manage to get a bit closer than most of their contemporaries.

The African Lion deviates ever-so slightly from the successful True-Life Adventures formula by downplaying the anthropomorphism and cornball humor of previous installments. No mating dance hoedowns in this one. In fact, this is one of the grimmest entries in the entire series. Algar and the Milottes do not shy away from the fact that the lion and other large cats like the cheetah are both hunters and carnivores. The African Lion is all about the Circle of Life and we see the end of that circle over and over again.

Perhaps the most upsetting sequence in the film comes with the discovery of a rhinoceros trapped in the mud of a drying water hole. The rhino thrashes and bellows, attracting the attention of other nearby animals. For a second, Hibler’s narration actually tricks us into thinking we’re watching a cartoon. Hibler suggests that the observing animals are considering the problem and trying to figure out a way to help. Of course they don’t but you half expect the elephant to extend a helping trunk to his pal the rhino. In the end, the rhinoceros is left to suffer what will surely be an agonizing fate.

(Don’t worry, the rhino was actually fine. After they got their footage, the crew managed to free the animal. In return, the rhino charged after the crew before going on his way. That’s gratitude for you.)

The most interesting moments in The African Lion all tend to be on the dark side. We follow a lioness dragging half a wildebeest carcass back to her young, followed close behind by scavenging jackals, hyenas and vultures. A prolonged drought brings a swarm of locusts so thick they all but block out the sky. A cheetah runs down an unfortunate gazelle. By comparison, sequences of baboons carefully selecting which grass to eat can’t help but seem a little bland.

Of all the True-Life Adventures covered in this column so far, The African Lion suffers the most from the limitations of the technology of its time. The Milottes don’t break any new ground in terms of filmmaking technique. They get as close to their subjects as their telephoto lens will allow. As documentarians, their greatest strengths are really just patience and persistence. Today, advances in technology have allowed filmmakers to capture even more extraordinary footage in shows like Planet Earth. But even by 1955 standards, The African Lion is good but not great.

Contemporary critics and audiences seemed to agree. For the first time, a True-Life Adventure feature was not nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar. (That year’s winner was the Helen Keller documentary The Unconquered. Its director, Nancy Hamilton, was the first woman to win the award. That has nothing to do with The African Lion but I thought it was an interesting bit of trivia.) Even so, it made over $2 million at the box office, which remains impressive for a nature documentary.

The African Lion would remain Al and Elma Milotte’s most ambitious work for Disney. After their three years in Africa, the Milottes spent two years in Australia, resulting in the short film, Nature’s Strangest Creatures. In 1959, they retired from filmmaking and turned their attention to publishing nature books. Elma and Al passed away within five days of each other in 1989 but their legacy lives on. True-Life Adventures continue to attract new audiences on Disney+ and Disneynature, the spiritual successor to True-Life Adventures, continues their work today. So if anyone can be said to be responsible for the long-term success of the True-Life Adventures, I would argue it’s Alfred and Elma Milotte.

VERDICT: It’s a Disney Plus, albeit a relatively minor one.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Vanishing Prairie

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Vanishing Prairie

With the release of Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, Walt and Roy Disney were almost free of their obligation to former distributor RKO. They still owed them one animated feature, which would end up being Music Land, a re-edited remix of segments from Make Mine Music and Melody Time. But now, the Disneys were free to release whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.

After the surprise success of the first True-Life Adventure feature, it makes sense that Disney would want to get another one in theaters as soon as possible. And so The Vanishing Prairie became the second release from the fledgling Buena Vista Distribution Company, a mere nine months after the release of The Living Desert.

It isn’t surprising that Walt was able to get The Vanishing Prairie in theatres so quickly. True-Life Adventures had started out as a series of short subjects. Several of these shorts were actively in production when The Living Desert was released, with titles like Bighorn Sheep, Prairie Story and Cat Family. Now that the Disneys were responsible for their own distribution, features made more economic sense than shorts since they could charge theaters a higher rate for them. So Walt directed James Algar to combine several of the in-progress short subjects into a single feature focusing on the wildlife of the American Prairie.

As you can probably tell from the title, The Vanishing Prairie turns back the clock to focus on animals who once roamed freely in abundance but are now in danger of disappearing. This is a fairly forward-thinking position for a documentary in 1954. The idea of wildlife conservation had been around since the turn of the century. Some of the animals concerned in those earliest efforts, including the bison and whooping crane, are featured in the film. But the first federal protection act wouldn’t be enacted until 1966. In ’54, the idea that a species could simply vanish off the face of the Earth hadn’t quite sunk in for most folks.

James Algar established a winning formula with his direction of the True-Life Adventure shorts and he doesn’t deviate much from it here. If you see something cute or funny and want to see it again, don’t worry. Algar’s got you covered with plenty of additional shots of ducks slipping on ice and baby mountain lions playing. He’s more than happy to show it again and again and again.

But The Vanishing Prairie doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life. We see the mother of those adorable kittens stalk and kill a deer. Although the actual attack is kept off-camera, we do see her drag the carcass back, feed on it with her young and bury the remains for later. This ain’t Bambi, kids.

Some of the footage proved too graphic for 1954 audiences. A shot of a buffalo birthing a calf caused the film to be censored and even banned outright in some cities. To their credit, I don’t believe Disney ever cut the scene themselves. The uncut version is currently available on Disney+.

The footage in The Living Desert had primarily been the work of two men, N. Paul Kenworthy Jr. and Robert Crandall. The Vanishing Prairie utilizes a large team of nature photographers. The footage they were able to capture is absolutely remarkable by 1950s standards. The best of it holds up even today.

Tom McHugh and his team traveled to Montana to film the buffalo. Draped in a buffalo skin, McHugh was able to position himself right in the middle of the herd. Husband-and-wife team Dick and “Brownie” Borden shot some beautiful slow-motion sequences of geese in flight. In arguably the film’s most memorable sequence, Lloyd Beebe and James R. Simon follow a mountain lion as it attempts to track a fawn, getting startlingly close without ever actually finding it.

Kenworthy also returned, creating a cut-away prairie dog burrow to track the animals’ movements underground. Once again, Disney took some heat for including staged sequences like these. Animals enter and exit the burrows on the surface and the camera follows right along, seeming to plunge beneath the earth. Editor Lloyd Richardson does an extraordinary job making this look seamless. But obviously what we’re seeing is impossible. The above-ground footage can’t possibly have been shot at the same time and place as the below-ground footage. In “documentary” terms, this fails as an objective and accurate document of events. But dramatically, it works like gangbusters.

Of course, this was 1954 and not all elements of the film have aged well. Winston Hibler’s introductory narration praises the “Red Man” and his relationship to nature, coming to understand the world in “his primitive way”. Later on, Hibler claims that Native Americans patterned their dances off the mating dances of the grouse. Composer Paul J. Smith lays on some stereotypical Indian music in case you can’t see the similarity. Now, did some tribes actually get inspiration from the grouse for their dances? Possibly, I guess. But without any concrete proof to back up this assertion, the sequence just comes across as, “Hey, look at the funny birds!”

The condescending tone continues when it comes to gender roles. Another sequence shows male and female birds trading off the duties of going out to find food and warming the eggs in the nest. That’s fairly progressive…until the male bird accidentally carries an egg out of the nest and Hibler pipes up to remind us that dads are dumb when it comes to woman’s work. Gotta love the domestic humor of the 1950s.

Fortunately, these are minor moments in a film where the focus remains on the wildlife. Algar, Hibler and cowriter Ted Sears don’t bludgeon you over the head with their conservationist message but it’s definitely present. Hibler never once utters the word “endangered” but nearly every species we meet is described as “vanishing”. The narration includes at least one disparaging reference to “Man, the Invader”. This is clearly understood to refer to white settlers, not the Native Americans who had found a balance with nature.

Theatrical re-release poster for a double feature of The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie

Any doubts about the commercial viability of True-Life Adventure features were wiped out by The Vanishing Prairie. On its initial release, The Living Desert had been paired with Ben And Me, an animated featurette about Benjamin Franklin and his best friend and assistant, a mouse named Amos. Skeptics might argue that The Living Desert’s success had been helped by the prospect of a brand-new Disney cartoon. But The Vanishing Prairie was released with Willie The Operatic Whale, the Nelson Eddy segment from Make Mine Music. Not to diminish the popularity of Nelson Eddy but it’s safe to assume that audiences were not primarily drawn to theaters by an 8-year-old cartoon.

The Vanishing Prairie netted Walt Disney his second consecutive Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It raked in close to two million dollars at the box office. Not at all bad for a picture that was budgeted at less than $400,000. Like The Living Desert before it, The Vanishing Prairie remained popular over the years. In 1971, both films were re-released theatrically as a double feature. The True-Life Adventure features were here to stay. We’ll see a bunch more of them in the weeks ahead.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Living Desert

Original theatrical quad poster for Walt Disney's The Living Desert

The Living Desert may appear to be a minor entry in the Disney catalog. It isn’t a cartoon, although it does open with a few minutes of animation. It’s live-action but there isn’t a single human being to be seen. But this feature-length nature documentary represents a significant milestone for the studio. To see why, we’ll eventually have to go all the way back to Disney’s very first films. But first, let’s rewind just a decade or so.

Walt Disney first got into documentary filmmaking during the war years, producing the feature-length Victory Through Air Power and assorted short subjects to help with the war effort. This opened up a little side business producing educational shorts for corporate clients like General Motors and Johnson & Johnson. These projects kept the studio afloat during the lean years of the 1940s.

An inveterate traveler throughout his life, Walt made his first trip to Alaska in 1947. He fell in love with the area and was eager to see more. A friend suggested he check out the work of Alfred and Elma Milotte, a husband-and-wife team of nature photographers. Walt was impressed with their work and commissioned them to return to Alaska and film whatever they wanted. He didn’t particularly know what he was going to do with the footage. He just wanted to see what they’d get.

The Milottes shot thousands of feet of film. Out of all this, Walt was most interested in footage they’d captured of seals cavorting on the Pribilof Islands. He assigned James Algar, an animator who had directed The Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment in Fantasia and Victory Through Air Power, the job of building a narrative around the footage. The resulting half-hour short, Seal Island, was presented as the first in a series of films called True-Life Adventures.

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Seal Island

Both Walt and Roy Disney felt that Seal Island was a winner. But RKO, their distributor for over a decade, didn’t want anything to do with it. Only after Seal Island won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Subject did they agree to put it in theatres.

Over the next few years, Disney, Algar, the Milottes, writer/narrator Winston Hibler and producer Ben Sharpsteen made half a dozen more True-Life Adventures. Four of them, In Beaver Valley, Nature’s Half Acre, Water Birds, and Bear Country, won Academy Awards. The series was an unqualified success. As far as the Disneys were concerned, a full-length feature seemed like the next logical step.

The Living Desert was inspired by the work of photographers N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. and Robert Crandall. Kenworthy was a graduate student working on a short film for his thesis project. He’d made some amateur 8mm films of insects and had read about Pepsis wasps, a large desert insect that preys on tarantulas. Nobody had ever filmed a wasp/tarantula battle before, so Kenworthy contacted Crandall, an entomologist based out of Arizona. Crandall’s scientific knowledge and Kenworthy’s skill with the camera allowed them to capture the entire event on film.

Kenworthy brought his footage to Disney, thinking it might make for a good True-Life Adventure. Walt loved it, bought the footage immediately and hired Kenworthy and Crandall to head back to the desert to get more. This also meant that Kenworthy had to start over on his thesis project, since he’d sold the rights to his film, but it seemed to work out all right for him.

The Living Desert was ready for release in 1953. But this time, RKO flat-out refused to distribute it. They had begrudgingly released the other True-Life Adventures shorts but a feature-length documentary was not what they wanted from Disney. This would be the last straw in the long-simmering feud between Disney and RKO.

Walt and Roy had struggled with their distributors from the very beginning. Their relationship with their first distributor, Margaret Winkler, fell apart when she stepped away from the busines and put her husband, Charles Mintz, in charge. Walt created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit for Mintz. When the character became popular and Walt pressed for a better deal, Mintz went behind his back and hired virtually his entire staff away from him. Mintz also kept the rights to Oswald, inspiring Walt and Ub Iwerks, the only animator who remained loyal to him, to create a new character, Mickey Mouse.

Walt didn’t have much better luck with his next distributor, Pat Powers. Disney had originally signed with Powers to use his Cinephone recording system while making Steamboat Willie. But the terms of the arrangement were heavily in Powers’ favor. Once again, Walt tried to negotiate a better deal only to have Powers poach his key men. This time, he even lost Ub Iwerks, as well as composer Carl Stalling. As a result of the strain, Walt suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931.

Once he was able to extricate himself from the Powers deal, Walt signed up with Columbia to distribute the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies cartoons. That relationship soured in 1932 when Walt moved over to United Artists. By 1937, UA was pressuring Walt to sign over the television rights to his cartoons. TV was still very much in its infancy and Walt, having been burned repeatedly in the past, wasn’t about to commit to a long-term contract for something that wasn’t yet fully understood. So Walt left the studio and signed up with RKO.

The relationship between RKO and Disney had its ups and downs. RKO had been reluctant to release some of Disney’s earlier films, including Dumbo (too short), Fantasia (too arty) and Victory Through Air Power (which they also turned down entirely, leading Walt to release it through UA). For their part, Roy and Walt had been unhappy with RKO’s lackluster promotional efforts.

In 1948, multimillionaire and movie dabbler Howard Hughes took control of RKO. Hughes proceeded to run the studio into the ground, releasing a mix of expensive flops and low-budget B-movies. During these years, Disney provided some of the few hits RKO had. At one point, Hughes even offered to sell RKO to Disney. Walt passed, supposedly saying something like, “I already have a movie studio. What would I want with another?” I can honestly not imagine any of Disney’s current executives expressing this sentiment.

By 1953, Disney was doing more for RKO than RKO was doing for Disney. After giving the studio a string of huge hits like Treasure Island and Peter Pan, Walt and Roy felt they’d earned the right to release whatever they saw fit. When RKO passed on The Living Desert, they decided they’d had enough of outside distributors. Roy proposed creating their own distribution arm. Walt liked the idea but didn’t want to be too involved, busy as he was with plans for Disneyland and his TV show. So Roy ran point on the new venture and established the Buena Vista Film Distribution Company, named after the Burbank street where the studio stood.

Original theatrical release poster for The Living Desert

The Living Desert was the first Buena Vista release and it was an immediate success. It raked in millions at the box office, both domestically and internationally, and had only cost about $300,000 to make. Buena Vista was off to a very profitable start.

Watching The Living Desert (or indeed any of the True-Life Adventures) today, it’s immediately apparent that this is the work of animators, not seasoned documentarians. Winston Hibler, who cowrote the scripts with James Algar and provided the narration, had been a story man. Beginning with the Johnny Appleseed segment in Melody Time, he contributed to The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad, Peter Pan and several other animated features. Algar had been with Disney since Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.

Algar and Hibler imbue the animals in The Living Desert with distinct personalities, giving them names like Skinny and Mugsy. That isn’t too difficult when you’re showing a bobcat get chased up a cactus by a pack of wild boars. But it’s quite another thing to anthropomorphize more alien-looking creatures like wasps and scorpions.

The biggest weapon in their arsenal is the omnipresent use of Paul L. Smith’s music. Disney pioneered the use of music in animation and that influence extended over into live-action films. So much so that the technique of exactly synchronizing music to the action on-screen is referred to as “Mickey Mousing”. In general, that term is not considered complimentary.

The Living Desert is guiltier of Mickey Mousing than most actual Mickey Mouse cartoons. When a couple of cute baby coatis (kind of a desert cousin to the raccoon) fall asleep in their nest, you can be sure that Smith will cue up “Home Sweet Home”. The most extreme example is the mating dance of the scorpions, which Smith and Hibler turn into a full-on country jambaroo complete with square dancing calls and manipulated footage to make it look like a nearby owl is also getting down.

Critics and naturalists cried fowl at obviously staged sequences like this but audiences at the time certainly didn’t mind. They also shouldn’t have been surprised. Walt had already proven that he wasn’t above creating an entirely fictional narrative to get across some broad facts in the studio tour feature The Reluctant Dragon. At least he didn’t try to make it look like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were on a desert safari.

Despite the somewhat dubious educational value of such tricks, The Living Desert went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It was a big night for Disney. Even though none of his animated or live-action features were even nominated that year, Walt cleaned up in other categories. Bear Country won Best Live-Action Short Subject (Two-Reel). The Alaskan Eskimo, the first entry in a sister series to True-Life Adventures called People & Places, won Best Documentary Short Subject. And the great Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom won Best Short Subject (Cartoons). The four Oscars Walt won set a record for the most taken home by an individual in a single night.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Living Desert and Bear Country double feature

The Living Desert has had a much longer shelf life than most documentaries from the 1950s. It was re-released theatrically a few times over the years. I remember watching it and other True-Life Adventures in school, a good 25 years after its original release. Today, it’s available on Disney+ and I can vouch for the fact that kids are still watching these vintage True-Life Adventures. Just this past July, we went to visit my girlfriend’s family. Her young nephews cycled through at least three of them one afternoon and, near as I could tell, that was all their idea.

By treating nature like a cartoon, Walt found a way to give documentaries a timeless appeal. The studio continues the tradition today with the Disneynature films. Celebrity narrators have replaced the friendly, folksy voice of Winston Hibler and sometimes they get an IMAX upgrade. But the spirit of the True-Life Adventures lives on. We will see more of them in the weeks ahead.

VERDICT: This is one of the few films I’ve ever watched that completely captivated my cat. Any movie that can hold a cat’s attention for over an hour has to be considered a Disney Plus.

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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: 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