Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Sleeping Beauty

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty marks the end of an era for Walt Disney. The man who invented the animated feature was just about ready to be done with them. Sleeping Beauty was a make-or-break proposition intended to capture Walt’s animators working at the very top of their game. It was supposed to cement their reputation as the absolute best in the business. Instead, it very nearly spelled the end of Disney animation entirely.

Walt began developing Sleeping Beauty back in 1950. It would take him most of the decade to complete it. By Disney standards, story development went relatively quickly. This is a little surprising since Charles Perrault’s original fairy tale, the primary source for the adaptation, is only about 15 pages long, not counting illustrations. If Disney’s team was going to make a meal out of this meatless bone, they’d have to add a lot more ingredients.

Walt put Wilfred Jackson in charge of the film. The first order of business was fleshing out the villain. In Perrault’s original, she’s an unnamed wicked fairy who shows up just long enough to place a curse on the princess and is never seen or heard from again. Given an essentially blank slate to create a character from scratch, the Disney team came up with Maleficent, one of their most iconic villains.

The movie doesn’t really give us a whole lot of information about Maleficent. Unlike past villainesses like Snow White’s Queen and Cinderella’s stepmother, Maleficent doesn’t seem particularly threatened by or jealous of Princess Aurora. She’s just mad that King Stefan didn’t invite her to the christening. But no one ever questions why Maleficent does what she does. The character design and animation by Marc Davis and vocal performance by Eleanor Audley (also the voice of Cinderella’s nemesis, Lady Tremaine) are so singular that we don’t need any backstory.

Jackson and his story team also embellished the three Good Fairies, cut down from Perrault’s original seven, probably to downplay any comparisons to Snow White’s dwarfs. Weirdly, Walt wanted the thee Fairies to be virtually identical. Animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston talked him out of that idea, thank goodness. Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are ostensibly supporting characters but in a lot of ways, the movie’s really about them. They’re the ones who have to raise and protect Aurora. They’re the ones who end up defeating Maleficent (Prince Phillip may throw the sword but who knows what would have happened without their enchantment). Robbing them of their distinct personalities would have been a serious mistake.

When Jackson turned in his first pass at Sleeping Beauty, Walt was unimpressed and ordered him, Ted Sears and the rest of the story crew back to the drawing board. This was not unusual. What was unusual was that this seems to have been the extent of Walt’s concerns with the story. On Snow White, Walt had been involved with every last detail. There wasn’t a line of dialogue or a plot point in the entire picture that didn’t have Walt’s stamp of approval. But by Sleeping Beauty, Walt had checked out. Story meetings became a thing of the past. Walt’s mind was on Disneyland, television, and live-action features. By the middle of 1953, the script for Sleeping Beauty was considered good enough.

Theatrical poster for the 1970 re-release of Sleeping Beauty

To the extent Walt did care about Sleeping Beauty, it was all about the movie’s look. Eyvind Earle had joined the studio in 1951 as a background painter. In 1953, he worked on the short subject Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom. This was a radical departure from the typical Disney house style, influenced by the modernist, angular style of the independent animation house UPA (United Productions of America). UPA had been formed in 1943 by a number of ex-Disney animators in the wake of the strike that bitterly divided the studio. The UPA style was unique, widely praised by critics, and a direct reaction against the rounded, formal Disney style.

For years, Walt resisted any change to his signature animation style. But the Oscar-winning success of Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom started to change that. Walt put Earle in charge of defining the look of Sleeping Beauty. He’d been using concept artists (or “inspirational sketch artists”) to help establish tone from the early days. Artists like Albert Hurter and Tyrus Wong had been hugely important in setting the right visual palette on films like Pinocchio and Bambi. But Walt had begun to feel that the elements that made, for example, the concept art of Mary Blair special was being lost in the finished animation on films like Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan. Walt vowed to change that with Sleeping Beauty. Earle’s vision would be represented on screen no matter how long it took.

As it turned out, it took a very long time indeed. The animators struggled to reconcile the realistic figure movement Walt had been demanding for years with the hyper-stylized character designs. They disagreed with Earle’s color choices and fought against his overly detailed backgrounds. When they took their issues to Walt, he would take Earle’s side every time. Toward the end of 1953, Wilfred Jackson suffered a heart attack and was replaced as supervising director by Eric Larson. At the time, Sleeping Beauty was scheduled for release in February 1957.

Larson struggled mightily with the massive workload but Walt’s insistence on perfection in every frame kept progress to a snail’s pace. According to Neal Gabler’s book Walt Disney: The Triumph Of The American Imagination, the animators took such meticulous care drawing Aurora that at one point, they were only producing a single cleaned-up image a day. The release date was pushed back to Christmas 1957. When it became clear they wouldn’t make that date either, Larson was taken off the project, replaced by Clyde Geronimi. Larson would later refer to Sleeping Beauty as his “downfall”.

With the help of Wolfgang Reitherman, Geronimi was able to get Sleeping Beauty over the finish line and into theaters by the end of January 1959, not Christmas 1958 as they’d hoped. What was meant to be Walt Disney’s crowning animated achievement landed with a bit of a thud. Reviews compared it unfavorably to earlier films like Snow White and Cinderella, exactly the reactions Walt had wanted to avoid. With a few exceptions, most critics disliked the animation style everyone had worked so hard to perfect. People seemed to enjoy the music (George Bruns’ score, adapting Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet, received the film’s sole Oscar nomination) but that was about it. Since the movie had taken so long to produce, its budget had skyrocketed and its original theatrical released failed to earn it back.

Even today, Sleeping Beauty isn’t quite as beloved as some of Disney’s animated classics, although it has certainly undergone a critical re-evaluation. For instance, time has been very kind to Eyvind Earle’s singular design scheme. It bridges several gaps, from the Industrial Gothic Renaissance art that inspired Earle to his own modernist style. But it also connects the traditional Disney style of animation to the sleek, vertical style of UPA. The movie shows us not only where animation has been but where it’s headed.

Make no mistake, the animation in Sleeping Beauty is nothing short of breathtaking. Shot in Technirama, this is some of the most spectacular animation Disney ever produced. The animators learned quite a bit about shooting in widescreen thanks to Lady And The Tramp. They put those lessons to good use here. Every frame is perfectly staged, filling the eye with color and movement.

But while Walt was obsessing over the visual aspect, he really ought to have worried a bit more about the story. With a running time of only about 75 minutes, Sleeping Beauty doesn’t seem all that interested in letting us get to know its main characters. The opening sequence packs in a lot, establishing the baby Princess Aurora, her future betrothal to Prince Phillip, the three Good Fairies, Maleficent and her curse that Aurora will die on her 16th birthday, and the Fairies’ promise to raise Aurora under the name Briar Rose deep in the woods without using magic. That isn’t a story. That’s the set-up for the story.

However, the very next thing we know, it’s already Briar Rose’s sweet 16 and the Fairies are getting ready to say goodbye. We’ve been given no chance to get to know this girl. We don’t even get to see Flora, Fauna and Merryweather try to live a magic-free existence. Virtually the entire burden of getting the audience to care about Aurora is placed on the forest sequence where she meets Prince Phillip. It’s a nicely animated sequence and the song “Once Upon A Dream” is pretty good. But that’s a lot to ask of a single scene and song.

The movie doesn’t let up once Aurora falls into her sleep and Maleficent captures Phillip. Perrault’s original has our heroine cursed to sleep for one hundred years before she’s rescued. The story team was smart to realize that’s too long for a movie but they go too far in the opposite direction. Unable to face telling King Stefan that they’ve failed, the Fairies decide to put the whole kingdom to sleep until they can fix all this, then go straight to Phillip. Aurora’s plight doesn’t mean a whole lot if nobody even knows about it.

Freeing Phillip, the Fairies warn him that he’ll have to face the rest of these challenges on his own. This turns out to be a lie. They do nothing but help him, zapping Maleficent’s Goons and enchanting his sword for the death blow against Maleficent herself. This is not to take anything away from the power and beauty of this incredibly animated sequence. The arrival of Maleficent in dragon-form is legitimately awe-inspiring. None of it makes a lot of sense logically but that’s OK. The only problem is that it seems to take no time at all. By the time the curse is lifted and everyone wakes up, it feels more like Aurora was cursed to an afternoon nap.

Sleeping Beauty has a great big hole in its center where it heart should be. It’s just too difficult to become invested in the romance between Aurora and Phillip. We don’t spend enough time with either of them to care. But it’s easy to overlook that potentially fatal flaw because everything surrounding that hole is so great, beginning with Maleficent.

Theatrical re-release poster for Sleeping Beauty

Visually, Disney has never created a more compelling villain (unless you want to count the demon Chernabog in Fantasia). The fact that we don’t know much about her apart from her commitment to pure evil makes her one of Disney’s most mysterious and sinister villains. It was also enough to justify expanding the character into the Angelina Jolie vehicle Maleficent, automatically one of Disney’s more interesting live-action adaptations of an animated property simply by virtue of not being a shot-for-shot remake.

(Maleficent will presumably appear in this column eventually, assuming people are still reading this by the time we make it to the 2010s.)

Eleanor Audley, voicing her second and final Disney villainess, is absolutely perfect in the role. Apart from a couple episodes of The Swamp Fox miniseries on Walt Disney Presents, this would be Audley’s last Disney role. She went on to a prolific television career with recurring roles in shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and My Three Sons (alongside Fred MacMurray, someone we’ll soon start seeing a lot of in this column).

Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are equally well-cast, completely disproving Walt’s theory that they should have had identical personalities. Verna Felton was an old pro by now, having voiced characters in Dumbo, Cinderella and Alice In Wonderland. She also provided the voice of Aunt Sarah in Lady And The Tramp, with Barbara Luddy (Merryweather) as Lady. Barbara Jo Allen (Fauna), a new voice at the studio, was better known as Vera Vague, a radio character she’d played that became so popular that she temporarily adopted it as her professional name. This column will hear from all three of these women again.

Felton, Allen and Luddy are so perfect as the Fairies that it’s hard to imagine other actresses in the roles. But other actresses did play the parts for the live-action reference footage that was shot. Frances Bavier (The Andy Griffith Show’s Aunt Bee), Madge Blake (Batman’s Aunt Harriet) and Spring Byington (an Academy Award nominee and presumably somebody’s aunt) were performance models, as was Hans Conried for King Stefan. The use of live-action reference footage was common at the Disney studio but there was usually more overlap between the vocal and live-action actors. This time, only Eleanor Audley performed both halves of her character.

I can’t find any explanation for why they chose to separate the voices from the live-action models this time around. Conried had provided both the voice and live-action reference for Hook in Peter Pan. Not to take anything away from Taylor Holmes but Conried would have made an excellent King Stefan. It may have simply boiled down to the film’s lengthy production schedule.

The long production had one very immediate effect at the studio: Walt would no longer commit the same kind of money and resources to animation. Following the financial failure of Sleeping Beauty, Walt was forced to institute wide-sweeping layoffs that hit the animation division especially hard. While they still produced occasional short films, they no longer had a separate department dedicated to their production. Animators would be forced to find cheaper, more efficient ways of making the features. Walt himself would only oversee three more animated features before his death in 1966 and they would be much different from those that came before.

The disappointment of Sleeping Beauty also scared the studio away from an entire genre. It would be years before Disney dared to tackle another fairy tale. That movie, The Little Mermaid, would come to represent the beginning of an era just as Sleeping Beauty marked the end of another. But that’s a tale for another column.

Theatrical re-release poster for Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty didn’t receive its first theatrical re-release until 1970. Subsequent re-releases would restore the film to its 70mm Technirama glory. Those screenings would be a revelation for those of us who had never seen a Disney film of this size and scope before. For awhile in the 1980s, I would have considered Sleeping Beauty to be my favorite Disney movie. There simply wasn’t anything else quite like it.

Today, I’m a bit more reserved in my appreciation of the film. Its technical qualities are beyond reproach. The movie still has the ability to dazzle and amaze audiences. But its story flaws prevent it from being the masterpiece Walt wanted it to be. In his pursuit of technical perfection, he lost sight of the heart and soul that made his best movies truly special. Disney animation would never be the same again.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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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: Perri

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Perri

By 1957, Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures had become profitable, critically acclaimed, popular and maybe just a little predictable. Shorts and features alike followed an identical template. You see that spinning globe centered in the compass, followed by the Animated Paintbrush setting the stage, and you know pretty much what to expect. You do not expect something like Perri, which may well be one of the strangest movies we’ll cover in this column.

Perri is unique among True-Life Adventures in many ways, most obviously in its official categorization as a “True-Life Fantasy”. Some of the other True-Life Adventures may have engaged in some dubious methods but this is the first (and only) one that is explicitly not a documentary. It’s based on the novel Perri: The Youth Of A Squirrel by Felix Salten, the author of Bambi. But while the narrative is entirely fictional, the accompanying footage is so expertly shot that it can be hard to tell the difference between what’s staged and what’s real.

As the movie opens, it’s easy to assume that you’re watching Bambi II. Instead of the typical True-Life Adventures opening or even a live-action establishing shot, the first thing we see is a gorgeous matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw with effects by Ellenshaw and Ub Iwerks creating the illusion of a sunrise. The effects slowly and seamlessly transition to live-action nature photography. But the juxtaposition of real and manmade footage creates a subliminal dreamlike atmosphere.

The general thrust of the story follows Perri, a newborn female pine squirrel over the course of her first year. The movie hews closely to the Bambi template. The action is divided into seasons. Perri loses her father early on and later becomes separated from the rest of her family. It even features a climactic forest fire. At least Perri doesn’t have to worry about the threat of man in the forest.

None of this was accidental. Walt knew exactly what he was doing. He makes the Bambi connection even more explicit by having Perri actually encounter the Great Prince of the Forest and his new young son. So the concept of a shared universe didn’t arrive at Disney with their acquisition of Marvel. As early as 1957, Walt had already established the Shared Bambi-verse.

Perri boasts some extraordinary footage, some of which is very intense. There’s an early sequence where Perri’s mother attracts the attention of a hungry marten (the marten will eventually reveal itself as the film’s villain, even as Winston Hibler’s narration goes to great pains to assure us that the marten is just another mother trying to feed her young). The marten chases the squirrel back to her nest high in the trees and even tries to follow her in, nipping in extreme close-up the entire time. Perri’s father sees the commotion and draws the marten away from the nest, only to lose his own life.

Because of sequences like this, you might want to think about it before you plunk your youngest, most impressionable kids down in front of Disney+ to watch Perri. Younger children have a rough enough time with Bambi and his mom’s death happens off-screen. The footage in Perri would be rough to watch even if we weren’t being asked to identify with a baby squirrel losing a parent. These animals are really going at it.

Perri’s dad is far from the only casualty. We can safely assume at least some of the on-screen deaths were captured in the wild and on the fly. There’s a spectacular shot of a hawk nabbing a flying squirrel in midair that I would chalk up to skilled nature photographers being in the right place at the right time. The squirrel vs marten sequence is more problematic since it was clearly staged. The story dictates that Perri’s dad dies, so co-directors N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. and Ralph Wright set up their cameras, let loose a couple of their many squirrels and martens and shot nature taking its course. PETA would definitely have a problem with Perri if it was released today.

Theatrical re-release poster for Perri

If you’re not an animal rights activist, the biggest problem with Perri is narrative. The life of a squirrel just doesn’t seem to be as interesting as the life of a deer. Perri runs around a lot trying to find food and a nest. Eventually, she finds Porro, the young male squirrel who becomes her mate. But she doesn’t make any friends and spends most of the movie alone. Because she’s an actual squirrel and that’s the way actual squirrels behave. Disney would have left himself a lot more story options if he’d turned this into a cartoon.

Instead, the movie fills time with a lot of other animals whose interactions with Perri are minimal at best. There’s a beaver family and a racoon family and a skunk family and a fox family and all sorts of birds. At times, the movie gets so sidetracked by these other woodland creatures that it’s easy to forget about Perri completely.

Also like Bambi, Perri makes time for several original songs by the likes of Paul J. Smith, George Bruns and Hazel “Gil” George. None of the songs in Perri are as memorable as “Little April Shower” or “Love Is A Song” but they’re fine. Smith’s score did manage to snag an Academy Award nomination, his eighth and last. He lost to Malcolm Arnold’s score for The Bridge On The River Kwai.

Music plays a big role in the film’s strangest sequence, an extended winter dream filmed entirely in studio. To the accompaniment of Smith’s score, rabbits, squirrels and birds scurry about, appearing and disappearing in bursts of animated snowflakes courtesy of effects animator Joshua Meador. Meador had been with the studio since 1936 and he’d worked on pretty much everything. From shorts to features, from propaganda films to True-Life Adventures, from live-action/animation hybrids to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Meador had done it all.

When an effects animator is doing their job right, you really shouldn’t notice them at all. Their work is designed to blend into the background, providing things like ripples and waves that add to a scene’s realism. Perri provides a rare showcase for Meador. This time, the snow effects are meant to call attention to themselves, distinguishing the dream from reality. It’s a beautifully realized sequence, even if it does seem to come out of left field.

Perri was one of the few True-Life Adventures not directed by James Algar. Instead, it was a collaboration between cinematographer Paul Kenworthy, animator and storyman Ralph Wright, and True-Life narrator Winston Hibler. Walt had been impressed enough by Kenworthy’s work as a college student to buy his footage and hire him to expand it into The Living Desert. Kenworthy assembled a large and impressive team of photographers for Perri, including Walt’s nephew, Roy Edward Disney. Roy got his start in the family business working as an assistant editor on earlier True-Life Adventure films. He would end up wearing a wide variety of hats at the studio over the next several decades. We’ll see his name again.

Perri would be Kenworthy’s crowning achievement at Disney. He left the studio by the end of the 1950s and would go on to win a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for developing the Kenworthy Snorkel Camera System, a revolutionary periscopic camera head still used today.

Ralph Wright joined the studio in the 1940s, making a name for himself as a story artist on Goofy’s How-To shorts. Apart from a couple of documentary shorts for Disney’s People & Places series, Perri would be Wright’s only live-action credit at the studio. Later on, he’d achieve immortality as the voice and personality model for Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh films.

As for Winston Hibler, he had been co-writing and providing the narration for the True-Life Adventures since the very first short, Seal Island. Hibler was very involved with Perri, producing, writing the script with Wright and lyrics to some of the songs. Hibler and Wright decided to present most of the script in rhyming couplets, a choice that gets a little distracting after awhile. The rhyming isn’t consistent or rhythmic enough to fade into the background. Hibler also tries on a more formal affect for the narration, losing some of the friendly charm that made his voice so distinctive. Still, it’s nice to have the consistency of Hibler’s voice throughout the series.

When Perri was released in August 1957, both critics and audiences were impressed. It did well enough at the box office to inspire a couple of theatrical re-releases and some memorabilia: storybooks, a record, even a Revell model kit of Perri herself. But it did not inspire any follow-up True-Life Fantasies. Its legacy would be carried on in movies like The Incredible Journey, features with minimal human cast members and animals that are somewhat easier to film like dogs and cats. But Perri remains one of a kind, a unique, sometimes meandering but often beautiful film that would almost certainly never be made today.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Alice In Wonderland

Original 1951 theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Alice In Wonderland

Walt Disney’s Alice In Wonderland did not come into this world quickly or easily. He had been trying for years to get a feature-length adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic books off the ground. By the time it was finally released to indifferent reviews and lower-than-expected box office returns in July of 1951, Walt found himself wondering if it had even been worth the effort. I’m here to tell you that it absolutely was.

Walt’s history with Alice dates all the way back to 1923 when he and Ub Iwerks made a ten-minute short called Alice’s Wonderland. Inspired more by Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo In Slumberland than Lewis Carroll, the short follows a live-action girl named Alice (played by Virginia Davis) who takes a train to cartoon-land after a visit to Walt’s fledgling Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City.

Laugh-O-Gram went out of business shortly after the film was made and Walt headed west to join his brother Roy in California. But the short caught the eye of cartoon distributor Margaret Winkler, who commissioned the Alice Comedies. Along with the later Oswald The Lucky Rabbit cartoons, the Alice Comedies helped launch Disney’s animation career.

By 1933, Walt had begun to tinker with the idea of making a feature-length version of Carroll’s Alice using a hybrid process similar to the Alice Comedies. Mary Pickford was to play the live-action Alice. But when Paramount released their own all-star live-action Alice In Wonderland, Walt put his idea on the shelf. In 1936, Walt got a little bit of Wonderland out of his system with the Mickey Mouse cartoon Thru The Mirror.

After the release of Snow White, Walt secured the film rights to Carroll’s books, specifically the editions with the familiar John Tenniel illustrations. David Hall created some beautiful concept art based on Tenniel’s work but Walt rejected this version as too dark and difficult to animate. The outbreak of World War II resulted in all work on Alice and several other films being put on hold.

When Walt returned to the project, he still planned on a live-action/animation hybrid. British writer Aldous Huxley, then earning a living as a Hollywood screenwriter, was hired to work on the script. He looked at a number of different potential Alices, including thirtysomething Ginger Rogers, child star Margaret O’Brien, and contract player Luana Patten (from Song Of The South and So Dear To My Heart). But Walt rejected Huxley’s script as “too literary” and began to have doubts about the hybrid format.

Enter artist Mary Blair, who had joined the studio in 1940. Blair had been a part of the Good Neighbor tour of South and Central America that had produced Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Her eye for color and design made her an invaluable part of the Disney team. She produced some Alice concept art that moved away from the Tenniel look in favor of bright colors and abstract shapes. Her work convinced Walt to move ahead with Alice as a feature-length cartoon. Using Blair’s paintings as a guide, the story and music departments took one last crack at shaping the project.

Alice In Wonderland concept art by Mary Blair
Mary Blair, Concept art for the Walt Disney animated feature “Alice in Wonderland,” c. 1950, gouache on board. (Photo Courtesy of the Hilbert Museum)

The music department played an even more important role than usual in dictating the movie’s tone. Walt wanted to maintain as much of Carroll’s language as possible, especially the verse, so songs were built around such passages as The Walrus And The Carpenter and Jabberwocky. Over two dozen songs were written for the film by such talents as Sammy Fain and Bob Hilliard, Oliver Wallace, and Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston, who had just finished work on Cinderella.

A few songs were left on the cutting room floor. Jabberwocky was an early casualty. The only reference that remains is the Cheshire Cat’s song, “’Twas Brillig”. Two others were given new lyrics and used in Peter Pan. Even with these cuts, Alice In Wonderland still has more original songs than any other Disney film before or since.

Some of those songs have become so familiar, such as “I’m Late” and “The Un-birthday Song”, that we barely even register them as songs anymore. They’re more like common, everyday expressions that everyone just happens to say in a specific cadence. Others, like “All In A Golden Afternoon” and “Very Good Advice”, may not have become standards like other Disney songs. But they’re extremely effective in the context of the film.

Perhaps in an effort to ease concerns that he would Americanize Carroll’s book, Walt selected British actress Kathryn Beaumont to provide the voice and live-action reference modeling for Alice. While it certainly would have been interesting to see some of the other actresses Walt had considered, young Miss Beaumont turned out to be the right fit for the part. You can’t have an Alice who overreacts to the odd sights and characters she encounters. Kathryn Beaumont underplays the part beautifully, while the animators bring out subtle facial expressions and gestures from the reference footage. We relate to both her dreaminess and her eventual exasperation with Wonderland’s nonsense.

But the character of Alice was also a big part of what frustrated Disney about Carroll’s book. Unlike previous and future Disney heroes and heroines, Alice doesn’t have a story arc that touches the heart. She just wants to escape into a world of fantasy and nonsense. By design, Alice is something of an aloof blank slate. She’s reactive instead of active. Even Pinocchio is an active participant in his own downfall and redemption. Alice just pinballs from one wacky situation to the next.

But in the movie’s defense, those situations represent some absolutely first-class wackiness. Walt’s top animators all worked on Alice In Wonderland and you get the sense that they realized that, despite everyone’s best efforts, this was not going to be a particularly cohesive picture. Instead, to keep themselves engaged, they turned it into a thrilling game of one-upmanship. Each sequence is more colorful and imaginative than the last, with stunning design and kinetic movement.

In this way, Walt’s team managed to find a visual equivalent to Carroll’s brilliant use of language and wordplay. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and its sequel, Through The Looking Glass, are overflowing with puns, nonsense words and hidden meanings. Even the layout of the text on the page is significant.

None of that can ever be truly replicated in a movie. But the animation finds countless opportunities for visual gags and details that would be equally impossible in a book. Think of the March Hare’s request for just “half a cup” of tea, whereupon he slices the cup in half. Or the countless ways the animators find for the Cheshire Cat to disappear and reappear. Or the smoke letters blown by the Caterpillar.

The picture also benefits from its stellar vocal cast, one of the best ensembles Disney ever assembled. Vaudeville star Ed Wynn became forever linked to the Mad Hatter after this. It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect match between actor and character. Shockingly, this was one of Wynn’s only vocal performances. It only seems like he did a million of them because so many other cartoon actors went on to do an “Ed Wynn voice”. But we’ll see him again in this column when he starts to appear in Disney’s live-action films.

Bill Thompson had become famous on radio, voicing a character named Wallace Wimple. That character helped inspire Tex Avery’s creation of Droopy for MGM, which Thompson also voiced for many years. The White Rabbit is basically just Thompson’s Wimple/Droopy voice on speed but it works like gangbusters. But he was no one-trick pony. Thompson also provides the voice of the Dodo. It adds a little something to the scene where the Dodo decides to burn down the White Rabbit’s house when you realize Thompson is doing both voices. We’ll hear the vocal stylings of Bill Thompson many more times in this column.

Richard Haydn, on the other hand, never did another cartoon voice after Alice In Wonderland but his one role for Disney was a keeper. As the Caterpillar, Haydn finds the exact note of haughty superiority. One of the few things Tim Burton’s live-action remake got right was casting Alan Rickman, who frequently seemed to be channeling Haydn’s Caterpillar in his performances anyway, in the role.

For many of the other roles, Disney stuck with actors he’d come to be familiar with. Sterling Holloway finds subtle layers of lunacy in his performance as the Cheshire Cat. Radio star Jerry Colonna, who had previously narrated Casey At The Bat in Make Mine Music, is perfectly paired with Wynn’s Mad Hatter as the March Hare. And Verna Felton, who had most recently provided the voice of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, goes to the absolute opposite end of the spectrum with her unhinged take on the Queen of Hearts.

Despite all this, Walt never felt like he had been able to crack Alice In Wonderland. At one point, he was so frustrated by the project that he was ready to cancel the whole thing. But Peter Pan wasn’t far enough along, so shelving Alice would have left the studio with nothing to release in 1951.

When audiences and critics alike failed to show much enthusiasm for Alice, Walt chalked it up as a disappointment. He never re-released the film theatrically in his lifetime. In 1954, he aired a severely truncated version on the television series Walt Disney’s Disneyland, then in its second season. Walt would continue to air it on TV for years.

1974 theatrical re-release poster for Alice In Wonderland

But in the early 1970s, a funny thing happened. Film societies on college campuses around the country, eager to program anything that could even remotely be described as “psychedelic”, started screening Alice In Wonderland. As it developed a cult following, Disney decided it might be worth giving it a general re-release. In 1974, Alice In Wonderland finally returned to theatres with a new marketing campaign that leaned into the whole trippy vibe, although they drew the line at featuring the hookah-puffing Caterpillar on the poster.

It was here that 5-year-old Adam Jahnke’s mother took him to see his very first movie. Because of that association, I have a very hard time looking at Alice In Wonderland objectively. To me, it was a magical, transformative experience. I can understand Walt Disney’s disappointment in the final product. I can sympathize with the Lewis Carroll purists who object to the liberties taken with the books. I can even acknowledge criticisms that the film is too episodic, too cold, and lacks a sympathetic main character.

But that’s not the way I view Alice In Wonderland. I just see a very funny, dazzlingly colorful entertainment that blew the eyes right out of my head as a child. It was my gateway drug to the wider world of cinema. It was as impossible to resist as a mysterious bottle labeled “Drink Me”. I drank every drop and I’ve never looked back.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Cinderella

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Cinderella

The Disney Princess Collection is currently one of the most lucrative franchises in the highly lucrative Disney portfolio. There are clothes and costumes, toys and games, books and albums, dolls of every size and price-point. You can paint your walls with Disney Princess wall paint, decorate the room in Disney Princess furniture, walk down the aisle in a Disney Princess wedding dress and invite your friends to a Disney Princess-themed baby shower. After you’ve lived happily ever after, you can probably even have yourself entombed in a Disney Princess coffin just like Snow White.

(Note: To the best of my knowledge, Disney has not officially licensed the Princesses or anything else to the funerary industry but I’m sure you could find a guy.)

All told, the Disney Princess line has raked in over $45 billion. So it’s a little surprising that it took Walt Disney over a decade to figure out that that’s what audiences wanted to see. He launched his feature animation division in 1938 with the original princess, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. That movie had been a massive, blockbuster success. Nothing else he’d made in the subsequent years had even come close to repeating it. By the time Cinderella became the second Disney Princess in 1950, Walt was in desperate need of a hit.

By the late 1940s, Walt was so in debt that Cinderella came perilously close to never being made at all. After spending the better part of the decade chasing contract work and the diminishing returns of the package films, Walt was at a crossroads. His choice was to either risk a return to feature-length animation or sell the studio. According to some sources, he came very close to picking the latter option.

Even with its fairly obvious similarities to Snow White, Cinderella was by no means considered a sure thing. The story and music departments had been developing a few different projects and Walt wasn’t sure which one to prioritize. He called a studio meeting and presented two options to his employees: Cinderella and Alice In Wonderland. He displayed the artwork, he played the songs, and left it up to a vote. Cinderella won. Even after all that, Walt still wasn’t 100% sold on the idea. He told the Alice team to keep working, kicking off a race to see which project would finish first.

On his earlier films, Walt had been involved in every step of production, leading daily meetings and agonizing over each detail. But now, his attention was elsewhere. He was devoting more time to live-action projects like So Dear To My Heart and Treasure Island. And when he wasn’t on location, he was frequently at home tinkering with his latest obsession: the construction of a miniature backyard railroad. Walt had always loved trains. But to many people, it seemed that his trains were now more important to him than his cartoons.

Fortunately, Walt had left Cinderella in excellent hands. Directors Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson oversaw an all-star team of animators, including all nine of the legendary Nine Old Men. The animators reportedly felt a bit creatively hamstrung by Walt’s insistence on filming live-action reference footage for virtually the entire movie. Even so, their exquisite draftsmanship shines through. The human characters are rendered even more believably and subtly than in Snow White.

Since Walt couldn’t afford to lavish the same amount of time and money on the animation, the team utilized some subtle cost-cutting methods that served the story. Cinderella’s coach seems to float on air, partly because it’s a magical night but mostly to avoid having to animate wheels. When they dance, Cinderella and Prince Charming only have eyes for each other. They’re the only people on the dance floor. That’s highly romantic, considering everyone in the kingdom has been invited to the ball. It also saves a lot of time and money if you don’t have to animate dozens of other dancers.

1973 re-release poster for Cinderella

The blend of character design and shifting perspective between the humans and the animals is absolutely seamless. The parallel world of the animals is arguably Disney’s biggest contribution to the Cinderella story. There are many, many variations on the original folk tale, spanning centuries and different cultures. But Disney is primarily jumping off from Charles Perrault’s version from 1697. Perrault added many of the elements we now associate with Cinderella, including the Fairy Godmother, the glass slippers and the pumpkin-coach with mice transformed into horses.

Disney took that idea and ran with it, transforming the mice (and, to a lesser extent, the other animals) into full-on supporting characters. The animals add some much needed color to what would otherwise be an unrelentingly dark story. It’s Disney who introduced the idea of the animals coming together to make Cinderella’s dress to repay her for her kindness to them. This does a couple of things. First, it tells us a lot about Cinderella’s character, her genuine kindness, and how horribly she’s been mistreated by her stepmother. Even the animals can see how hard a time she’s had.

Significantly, it also helps justify the Fairy Godmother’s gift to Cinderella. She isn’t just sitting around wishing for someone to rescue her. She wants to go to that ball and is more than willing to put in the work it takes to get there. But with her stepfamily plotting against her, her friends are there to help without her even having to ask. And after the dress is ruined, she still isn’t looking for a handout. She doesn’t even know her Fairy Godmother exists. She appears because Cinderella has earned a break.

Let’s talk for a second about that dress-ruining sequence. Lady Tremaine, perhaps the iciest and most disturbing of all Disney villains, points out her daughters’ discarded scraps in the dress and watches with a sneer as Drizella and Anastasia attack, tearing the dress to shreds. This is all done very quickly and very savagely, leaving Cinderella looking very small, alone and vulnerable. It’s a shocking and heartbreaking sequence that carries all the impact of a rape. Up until now, Drizella and Anastasia have been played primarily for laughs. Once it’s over, you feel like the entire family is in league with the devil. After all, they do have a cat named Lucifer.

Cinderella is certainly a more interesting and complex heroine than Snow White. She’s seen tragedy and faces adversity every day but still manages to look on the bright side. The key to her character comes after the ball as she’s hiding in the bushes with Bruno the dog, Major the horse and the mice. The palace guards chase off into the night but she pays them no mind. She simply thanks her Fairy Godmother for giving her such a wonderful night, expecting nothing else to come of it. Cinderella fully expects to go back to her miserable life with her stepfamily with the memory of this one night to sustain her forever.

Now, it’d be a stretch to call Disney’s Cinderella some kind of feminist role model. I do think there have been very valid feminist tellings of the Cinderella story but this isn’t necessarily one of them. But considering the era and the medium, the character is progressive enough to be considered some kind of achievement. I mean, she’s at least slightly more involved in her own rescue than some of Disney’s other heroines. If nothing else, she was smart enough to hang on to that other glass slipper.

1987 re-release poster for Cinderella

But in other respects, the film is as retrogressive as you might suspect. The whole ball is just a setup to get Prince Charming married so the King can have some grandkids to dote on. We know very little about the Prince other than he seems bored by both his princely duties and women in general. We spend more time with the Grand Duke than we do with the Prince. If we assume that “charming” is an apt description of his demeanor and not just his name, it’s only because Cinderella sure seems charmed by him.

And then of course, there’s “The Work Song”, where the female mice actively reinforce their own stereotype by insisting, “Leave the sewing to the women! You go get some trimmin’!” Hey, Jaq and Gus were just trying to help, lady. Cool your jets.

The songs in Cinderella were written by Tin Pan Alley veterans Al Hoffman, Mack David and Jerry Livingston. As a trio, they’d been responsible for the song “Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba”, which had been a big hit in 1947. They’d repeat that trick here with “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”. Lots of artists, including Perry Como and Disney vets Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, ended up having hit records with their versions of the song. It was one of three Academy Award nominations the film would receive.

Cover art for the 1950 release of Walt Disney's Cinderella Story Book Album

“Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” lost the Best Original Song Oscar to “Mona Lisa” from the mostly forgotten Alan Ladd vehicle Captain Carey, U.S.A. That was a highly competitive category in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Seemingly every song that won is now considered a standard, even if many of the films they were originally written for have been overshadowed.

For whatever reason, Walt Disney never fully warmed up to Cinderella. He thought Cinderella’s transformation into her ball gown was one of the best individual pieces of animation his studio had ever produced. But he would also refer to the film dismissively as “just a picture”. Regardless, Cinderella turned out to be exactly the hit he needed. Both critics and audiences hailed it as a return to form. It was the fourth highest grossing film of 1950 in North America. Perhaps more importantly, it was also a huge hit overseas, particularly in England and France, territories that had been closed off for years.

Without Cinderella, the Walt Disney Studios we know today wouldn’t exist. There would have been no theme parks, no TV shows. If Cinderella had bombed, Walt would have been forced to declare bankruptcy. Instead, he started the 1950s on a high note. Its success would catapult Walt Disney into one of the most productive decades of his life. But animation would play a relatively small part of that decade. His attention would be increasingly spent on new ventures like Disneyland and live-action production. Obviously he would never completely abandon cartoons. But animation was no longer his first and only priority.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Song Of The South

Song Of The South theatrical release poster

I’ll bet some of you thought I was going to skip Song Of The South, didn’t you? If anyone who actually works at Disney reads these columns, they were probably hoping I would. Song Of The South is the studio’s not-so-secret shame, the one movie above all others they wish would just go away. Whether or not it deserves this reputation is another story and, as far as Disney is concerned, kind of beside the point. They appear to have made their corporate mind up on the subject. In the process, they’ve given the film a horrible reputation it doesn’t entirely deserve but is now impossible to live down.

Song Of The South‘s journey to the screen was almost as turbulent and controversial as its journey away from it. After the success of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney went on a bit of a spending spree, buying the film rights to a wide array of properties. One of these was Uncle Remus, a collection of black oral folktales codified, collected and adapted by Joel Chandler Harris, a white journalist from Atlanta. Harris himself is a fascinating and divisive figure. But since the name of this column isn’t Harris Plus-Or-Minus, you’ll have to find his story another time.

At first, Walt wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to do with Uncle Remus. He considered making a series of Br’er Rabbit shorts and even a full-length animated feature. But Roy Disney, Walt’s brother and business partner, wasn’t convinced. He thought Harris’ original stories were too slight to justify the expense of a feature film. Roy successfully lobbied for a more limited use of animation.

Since the film would now be primarily live-action, Walt decided to find someone other than his usual team of cartoon story-men to write the script. He hired a writer named Dalton Reymond who had never written a screenplay before and never would again. His primary qualification seems to be that he was from the South. He had kicked around Hollywood for a few years, serving as “technical advisor” on such Tales of the Deep South as Jezebel and The Little Foxes.

Reymond’s treatment left a lot to be desired. For one thing, it wasn’t a shooting script. For another, it went a lot farther with its language and its racial stereotyping than the Hayes Office would allow. Walt knew Reymond needed help. His first choice was Clarence Muse, the distinguished African-American actor who had made a name for himself on vaudeville and Broadway. Muse was also a writer, having co-written the film Way Down South with the poet Langston Hughes.

Muse and Reymond did not get along and Muse quit the project in frustration over Reymond’s refusal to accept his suggestions. Muse then became an outspoken opponent of the film, writing against Disney and Reymond in the black press. Walt had another take on the subject, claiming it was all just sour grapes after Muse didn’t land the role of Uncle Remus. Whatever the case, Muse apparently got over it enough to appear in a couple of other Disney productions later in life.

After Muse’s departure, Walt hired screenwriter Maurice Rapf, a Jewish, pro-union liberal and card-carrying Communist, to help temper Reymond’s white southern sensibilities. The notoriously anti-union, anti-Communist Disney and Rapf sound like strange bedfellows but according to Rapf’s autobiography, they got along quite well.

After Reymond inevitably had another blow-up, Walt took Rapf off the project and assigned him to work on another feature in development, Cinderella. Unfortunately, Rapf was never credited for his work on that film. By the time Cinderella was released, his career was essentially over thanks to the House Unamerican Activities Committee. The screenplay for Uncle Remus, which would soon be retitled Song Of The South, was completed by journeyman screenwriter Morton Grant.

Disney considered several actors as Remus (including Paul Robeson, which is wild to think about) before settling on James Baskett, who had actually answered an ad looking for voice talent. Baskett also came out of the Broadway scene where he had appeared alongside the likes of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Louis Armstrong.

In Song Of The South, he gives the kind of instantly iconic performance that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. It’s a warm, folksy, magnetic appearance. It would also be his last. In 1948, James Baskett died of heart failure due to diabetes. He was just 44 years old.

Roy Disney had hoped that switching to live-action would help keep the costs of the film down. But so far, the studio had very little experience with live-action. Most everything they had shot was either limited to a soundstage (as in the musical performances in Fantasia and the documentary sequences of Victory Through Air Power) or just strolling around the Burbank lot (The Reluctant Dragon). This was their first time shooting on location, building period costumes and assembling a large cast of actors, so it was hardly a surprise when the project went over-budget.

But Disney was aware that audiences had been disappointed by the lack of animation in features like The Reluctant Dragon and Saludos Amigos. This time, he decided to get ahead of any possible complaints by playing up the live-action aspect in some of the initial advertising for the film. This original poster makes the movie look more like Gone With The Wind than any Disney movie to date.

Original 1946 theatrical release poster for Song Of The South

In the end, Walt contented himself with just three main animated sequences, less than half an hour of the 94 minute film. A few of these fully incorporate Uncle Remus into the animated world. Baskett’s entrance into that world at the beginning of the “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” number is a great, unforgettable movie moment.

The mix of animation and live-action in Song Of The South is a huge step forward from what Disney had accomplished just a few years earlier in The Three Caballeros. MGM had already advanced the state-of-the-art by having Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry Mouse in 1945’s Anchors Aweigh. For my money, the work in Song Of The South is even more impressive. One of the best examples finds Uncle Remus sitting down for a spot of fishing next to Br’er Frog. Bassett strikes a match, lights Br’er Frog’s pipe, then lights his own with the cartoon flame, and puffs out square animated smoke rings. The level of subtle detail in this simple action is extraordinary.

Of the three animated sequences, the most controversial is certainly the Tar Baby. For those of you who don’t know the story, Br’er Fox crafts a vaguely humanoid looking creature out of tar in an attempt to capture the gregarious Br’er Rabbit. Sure enough, Br’er Rabbit gets annoyed that the Tar Baby doesn’t respond to his friendly greetings and gets stuck. The more he struggles, the more stuck he gets. He frees himself by pleading with Br’er Fox not to throw him into the treacherous Briar Patch. Sadist that he is, Br’er Fox hurls him in, only to realize too late that Br’er Rabbit lives there. As fables go, it’s a pretty good one.

The problem is that the term “tar baby” has come to be used and taken as a racial slur. How this happened is absolutely beyond me. The story has roots in African folklore, specifically in stories of the trickster god Anansi. But at a certain point, “tar baby” came to be considered offensive mainly because it feels like it should be offensive. But there’s absolutely nothing racist or offensive about the actual Tar Baby story. Disney’s Tar Baby can’t even be considered a racial caricature. There are plenty of offensive African-American caricatures throughout animation and the Tar Baby shares none of their characteristics. But today, the expression is offensive because ignorant people decided to weaponize the phrase and people who should have known better didn’t fight to keep it.

1970s re-release poster for Song Of The South featuring the Tar Baby

In a way, this is the problem with Song Of The South in general. On the surface, it feels like it might be kind of racist. Therefore, it must be because digging any deeper might expose a minefield and nobody at Disney wants to deal with that. They aren’t in the business of building conversations. Their entire reputation is built around escapist fantasy. Anything that challenges that is considered taboo, even if the cause turns out to be relatively benign.

For example, take the songs performed by the plantation workers, all versions of traditionally African-American music from the Deep South. There’s the call-and-response of “That’s What Uncle Remus Said”, there’s “Let The Rain Pour Down” (based on the blues classic “Midnight Special”), and there’s a spiritual (“All I Want”). Every time I’ve seen this film, I’ve thought that these are some of the most white-bread, Lawrence-Welk-style versions of black music I’ve ever heard.

Imagine my surprise to discover that these songs were performed by the all-black Hall Johnson Choir. Hall Johnson himself was one of the most renowned arrangers of African-American spirituals in the world and an early inductee into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. By assuming these songs were performed by a white chorus, I was displaying my own ignorance and buying into a stereotypical idea of what “black music” should sound like. Be that as it may, it should also be pointed out that most if not all of the music was written by white songwriters. These songs could have been made a lot more authentic simply by hiring black musicians to write them.

At worst, Song Of The South is guilty of sending mixed messages and a lot of that is Walt Disney’s fault. To his credit, he was aware of how delicate this subject matter was, even in the pre-Civil Rights era, and clearly did not want to make a movie with an explicitly racist agenda. Granted, that’s a super low bar to set for yourself but still. The problem is that Walt was a lot more afraid of offending white Southern audiences than he was of what African-Americans might think.

Because of this, a lot of material that would have helped put the movie in context was dropped. For instance, it’s never explicitly stated when it even takes place, which has led a lot of people to assume that the plantation workers are slaves. They’re not. They’re sharecroppers. Song Of The South takes place during the Reconstruction Era after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War but the audience is left to figure that out for itself.

At one point, Uncle Remus leaves the plantation entirely. Eventually we come to realize that he went to Atlanta to bring back little Johnny’s absent father (more on this guy in a minute). The movie wants to build suspense and make us think he’s leaving for good and that something might happen to him. From a dramatic perspective, that makes sense. But if the filmmakers left in dialogue about Remus being a “free man”, able to come and go when he pleases, the intent would be clearer and Uncle Remus would come across as a stronger, more independent character.

The entire set-up of Song Of The South is unnecessarily shrouded in mystery. As the film begins, young Johnny (played by Bobby Driscoll, who will be back in this column several times) arrives at his grandmother’s plantation with his parents for what he assumes will be a short vacation. But something’s up between mom (Ruth Warrick) and dad (Erik Rolf). There’s tension between them and it turns out that they’ll be separating. Dad’s going back to Atlanta while Johnny and his mother stay with Grandmother (Lucile Watson) and Aunt Tempy (Hattie McDaniel).

Now, because the tension between the parents is so palpable and no other real reason for it is offered, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Father is going off to war. You need to pay attention to the opening dialogue to realize that John Senior is a newspaper editor in Atlanta and apparently the center of some controversy. Since Uncle Remus creator Joel Chandler Harris worked as an associate editor under Henry W. Grady at the Atlanta Constitution during the time the movie is set, it’s probably fair to assume that John Senior is based somewhat on one or both of them. Both Harris and Grady supported a vision of the “New South”, stressing industrialization and reconciliation. Of course in real life, their politics were more complicated. But for a Disney-fied version of the New South, sure…John Senior was a unifier. Not that you would know any of that from the information supplied by the film itself.

Song Of The South does itself no favors by playing coy with this material but there are some problems that are built in to the film itself. Uncle Remus is basically the template for every Magical Negro character that followed. With his ability to converse to cartoon animals, he is literally magical. But is that this movie’s fault? Or is it the fault of all the other filmmakers and storytellers who later decided to pick up the ball and run with it? Stereotypes don’t become stereotypes without repetition and the first example is rarely the worst.

Song Of The South‘s depiction of African-American stories and characters absolutely received some criticism at the time of its release from both black and white critics. Protests were organized by the National Negro Congress, while the NAACP expressed its frustration that such a technically well-made picture could incorporate so many objectionable elements. But the movie also had its champions on both sides. Herman Hill, writing in the respected black paper The Pittsburgh Courier, said that the movie would “prove of inestimable goodwill in the furthering of interracial relations”. His response to the movie’s critics was essentially, “Lighten up.”

Perhaps what’s most objectionable about Disney’s treatment of Song Of The South is their apparent desire to pick and choose what elements of the movie they want to acknowledge. The Oscar-winning song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” is still an integral part of the Disney Songbook. It has never not been included on one of their many compilation albums. It’s still used on Splash Mountain in the Disney theme parks, as are Br’er Rabbit and the rest. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been even a suggestion that the ride needs to be redesigned.

Also lost in Disney’s rush to disown the film is the fact that James Baskett won an Honorary Academy Award for it, becoming the first black male performer to win an Oscar. Walt Disney personally campaigned for the award, although why it was an honorary award instead of just a regular nomination for Best Actor, I’m not quite sure. The Academy certainly had a history of singling people out for individual achievements that didn’t fit their conception of what movies are supposed to be like. Regardless, Baskett’s untimely death prevented him from capitalizing on his win during his lifetime. Disney’s subsequent treatment of the film prevents his legacy from being celebrated or even acknowledged.

1980s theatrical re-release poster for Song Of The South

Even with the controversy, Song Of The South proved to be a sizable hit for Disney and not just in 1946. I’m old enough to remember seeing it during its re-release runs in the 1970s and 80s. It was back in theatres as recently as 1986, when it brought in over $17 million in basically free money for the studio.

The truth is that Disney’s moratorium on Song Of The South is entirely self-imposed. Nobody has actually banned the movie. Disney is simply afraid of how the film might be perceived by modern audiences and can’t be bothered to put it in any sort of context that would help explain it. Whoopi Goldberg, for one, has urged the studio to release the film in an edition with supplementary features for context. Ironically, one of the voices who argued stridently against the film ever being seen again was America’s disgraced former dad, Bill Cosby.

No one is going to argue that Song Of The South doesn’t have a complicated legacy. It is in no way a perfect film. Walt Disney could have done any number of things differently that would have made it better. But pretending it doesn’t exist does a disservice to both the filmmakers and their work. With no evidence to the contrary, an entire generation has grown up believing that Walt Disney was nothing short of a white supremacist who made an animated Birth Of A Nation. Walt’s politics and beliefs may not have entirely lined up with mine or yours but it’s unfair to characterize him in such a negative light.

For the animators and effects team, Song Of The South represented some of their very best work of the 1940s. The combination of live-action and animation is stunning. It wouldn’t be topped until Who Framed Roger Rabbit came along nearly 40 years later. This work deserves to be restored and seen by an appreciative audience.

Perhaps the biggest loser in all this is James Baskett. He’s a tremendous screen presence. It’s unfortunate that he never became a bigger star. It’s a tragedy that his most iconic performance has become a flashpoint in the ongoing debate over racial representation on screen. It’s a conversation that’s almost impossible to have when you can’t see what exactly you’re arguing over.

In a way, I think Disney even realizes that Song Of The South deserves to be seen. They just don’t want to be the ones who let you see it. It’s very, very easy to find bootleg DVDs, typically sourced from a Japanese laserdisc release, on eBay or other online sources. Disney has a long reach. If they wanted to, they could shut these unofficial operators down in a snap. The fact that they haven’t suggests to me that the studio doesn’t want to get rid of the movie altogether. They’ve just thrown it into the Briar Patch. Like Br’er Rabbit, you’re welcome to jump in after it.

VERDICT: It’s a mixed bag, to be sure. But in the end, the good outweighs the bad. Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Three Caballeros

The Three Caballeros original theatrical release poster

The war years were proving to be some of the hardest times Walt Disney had faced to date. His staff had been reduced, thanks to both an acrimonious labor strike and from men going off to fight overseas. The lucrative European markets had been closed off to him for years. The company was barely getting by on the strength of its contract work. Disney needed cash but he didn’t have a project ready to go. And even if he had, he didn’t have enough theaters to screen it.

But the government-sponsored goodwill tour of Latin America had opened up a new market for Disney’s work. Saludos Amigos had been a surprise hit, not just in America but south of the border as well. Since it was less than an hour long, Disney still had plenty of leftover live-action footage from the tour. He also had a couple of unfinished cartoon ideas that he could dust off. Walt padded this skeletal framework by focusing on Donald Duck, whose sequences had been the most popular parts of Saludos Amigos, and lo and behold, Disney’s first sorta-kinda sequel was born.

If Saludos Amigos seems like an unusual candidate for a sequel, The Three Caballeros itself is a most unusual sequel. This is one of the strangest movies Walt Disney ever produced. There’s a lot to unpack here, so you may want to get comfortable.

Unlike Saludos Amigos, which presented itself as a fairly straightforward travelogue, The Three Caballeros goes to the trouble of establishing a framing device excuse for its various bits and pieces. Donald’s birthday is coming up (on Friday the 13th…not that anything comes of the bad luck association) and his new friends from Latin America have sent him a bunch of presents! He excitedly tears into the first package and finds a projector and some “home movies”. This flimsy excuse provides the set-up for practically the entire first third of the movie.

These first segments all revolve around a rough theme: “Birds of South America”. First, “Professor” Sterling Holloway, already well on his way to becoming a Disney favorite, introduces us to Pablo, a little penguin who can’t stand the cold. So he contrives a way to leave Antarctica and settle on a tropical island. That’s it. The end. There’s no real story to speak of and the gags are pretty basic but at least the penguins are cute.

Donald’s next movie is all about rare and unique South American birds, including the most unusual of them all, the Aracuan Bird. The Aracuan Bird, who continues to pop up throughout the picture, has more in common with the dodo from the classic Looney Tunes short Porky In Wackyland than with any Disney character. The Aracuan Bird breaks multiple fourth walls, jumping out of Donald’s movie to introduce himself and later strolling right off the edge of the frame of our movie. The appearance of the Aracuan Bird is your first clue that this is not going to be your typical Disney movie.

In the third segment, Fred Shields, another familiar Disney voice thanks to Goofy’s How-To shorts, tells the story of a little boy in Uruguay and his winged, flying donkey, Burrito. They enter a horse race, which they manage to win despite some initial hiccups. The segment ends on an odd, ambiguous note when Burrito flies away, with the little Gauchito dangling from the leash, never to be seen again. It wouldn’t surprise me if this cartoon was cut from Saludos Amigos because they couldn’t come up with a satisfying conclusion. They still couldn’t but I guess it didn’t matter so much anymore.

Donald’s second present is a pop-up book about Brazil sent by, and actually containing, his old amigo, José Carioca. Continuing his work as spokes-parrot for the Brazil Tourism Board, José is here to extol the many pleasures of Bahia (misspelled “Baia” in the film…whoops). The first part of this segment is actually one of the most tranquil and lovely sequences in the movie with a beautiful color palette and a great song. It’s a welcome moment of calm and serenity before the chaos to come.

After repeatedly asking Donald if he’s ever been to Bahia (he has not), José shrinks Donald down and brings him into the world of the pop-up book. After a quick train ride (which is almost derailed by that pesky Aracuan Bird), they arrive in Bahia. Donald immediately falls head over heels in love with a cookie seller played by Aurora Miranda, Carmen’s younger sister.

Yes, some 40 years before the arrival of Howard The Duck, Disney was a pioneer in the field of interspecies romance. Much of the movie’s second half revolves around Donald’s insatiable attraction to human women. There’s nothing remotely subtle about it but I guess you can’t blame a sailor on vacation for wanting to get lucky on his birthday.

Apart from the weird sexual tension between Donald and Aurora Miranda, the Bahia samba sequence is notable for its pioneering mix of live-action and animation. The technology was still developing but there’s something charming about the lo-fi version on display here. For the long shots, they simply projected the finished animation onto a screen and had Miranda dance in front of it. The illusion is far from seamless but it works.

After returning from Bahia, Donald has one present left to open. It contains the third caballero, Panchito Pistoles from Mexico. Panchito bursts into the movie with a rousing rendition of the title song before sharing a piñata and a Mexican Christmas tale called Las Posadas. This is the only Christmassy thing about The Three Caballeros but it was enough for Walt to later justify airing an edited version of the movie on his Disneyland TV series as A Present For Donald. All he had to do was switch the occasion from Donald’s birthday to Christmas and poof! Instant Christmas special.

Title card for the Disneyland episode A Present For Donald

Panchito’s magic serape then whisks the Caballeros off for an aerial tour of live-action Mexico, with special attention paid to its beaches and their lovely señoritas. Donald’s sexual frustration nears its peak here, so when Dora Luz appears singing “You Belong To My Heart,” it’s little wonder than he’s instantly smitten.

Donald’s obsession with Dora Luz takes us into the film’s madcap climax, Donald’s Surreal Reverie. The Disney animators really go for broke here. If some Disney Archivist discovered a missing scene that has Panchito, José and Donald heading into the Mexican desert to drop peyote, it would go a long way toward explaining this non-stop barrage of music, sound, color and visual trickery. There’s some genuinely cutting-edge work here, especially in the combination of animation with live-action. As a technical achievement and as a creative exercise, it’s all very impressive. As an entertainment, it’s more than a little exhausting.

Like all of Disney’s package films, The Three Caballeros is a mixed bag. The various segments sit uncomfortably alongside one another. The Cold-Blooded Penguin and The Flying Gauchito both play better on their own, which they did when they were re-released as individual short subjects a few years later. And while the character and effects animation are both up to Disney’s usual standards, Walt decided to save money on the backgrounds by essentially eliminating them entirely. Donald opens his presents in a formless void against bright, solid colors. After the lush backgrounds of Bambi, Pinocchio and others, The Three Caballeros feels like a low-rent, no-frills affair.

But the movie’s biggest problem is simply that it’s relentless. It wants to show you a good time so badly that it doesn’t know when to let up. Animators like Chuck Jones and Tex Avery were a lot better at pulling off this kind of sustained wackiness than anybody on the Disney lot. And they were smart enough to realize that audiences couldn’t really take much more than seven minutes of it. The Three Caballeros just won’t quit. It’ll pause occasionally to catch its breath but then it goes right back into the crazy. Over. And. Over. And. Over. Just calm down, Caballeros.

The Three Caballeros did OK business when it was released in February of 1945 (it had premiered in Mexico City the previous December). It received nominations in Disney’s usual Oscar categories (Best Sound and Best Original Score) but it didn’t win anything. Almost none of the songs were completely original compositions, so it failed to grab an Original Song nomination. Even the memorable title song was based on a popular Mexican ranchera song. Only the lyrics by Ray Gilbert were new and they had nothing whatsoever to do with the original words.

But The Three Caballeros proved less popular than Saludos Amigos, which probably explains why the Caballeros didn’t ride again for many years. José Carioca will make one last appearance in this column before long and both he and Panchito Pistoles went on to appear in Disney comics. But the trio effectively disbanded after their maiden adventure until the 21st century.

Recently, Disney has taken to using the Caballeros in shows like House Of Mouse and the current incarnation of DuckTales. In 2007, Disney opened the Gran Fiesta Tour ride at Epcot’s Mexico Pavilion and in 2008, they were added to the refurbished It’s A Small World ride at Disneyland. And in 2018, José, Panchito and Donald finally got their own show, Legend Of The Three Caballeros.

It makes complete sense that Disney would want to revitalize the Caballeros. With the Latino market more important than ever, why on Earth wouldn’t they? It’s not like they have an overabundance of minority characters. José has always remained popular in Brazil. And as a representative of Mexico, you could do a lot worse than Panchito. Just ask Speedy Gonzales.

But the Disney studio has always been hesitant to engage with The Three Caballeros. Its only theatrical reissue was a badly hacked-up version back in the 1970s. They haven’t exactly tried to hide it, like some movies I could mention, but it has never been a priority.

I suspect the reason for this has nothing to do with cultural sensitivity and everything to do with how utterly strange this movie is. In many ways, it’s Disney’s most off-brand release, a madcap, hyper-sexualized romp with nothing on its mind other than fun. That is both its greatest strength and weakness. The Three Caballeros provides a unique, exhilarating rush but it’s really easy to overdose on its manic energy. Use only as directed.

VERDICT: Any Disney movie that leaves you wondering, “What the hell did I just watch?” must be considered some kind of success, so Disney Plus but only just.

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Victory Through Air Power

Original theatrical release poster for Victory Through Air Power

World War II affected every single Hollywood studio. But perhaps no one was hit harder than Walt Disney. After the US formally entered the war in December of 1941, Walt put virtually every one of his projects on hold to focus on the war effort. This was not entirely by choice. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. Army troops moved into Disney’s Burbank studio, which was strategically close to a Lockheed aircraft plant. The studio remained under military occupation for eight months.

With the Army already enjoying Disney’s hospitality, it was only a matter of time before the armed services and other branches of the government asked Walt to join their propaganda effort. For the Office of War Information, Disney produced animation for Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series. He produced short subjects urging citizens to pay their taxes, buy war bonds, and conserve grease. And in 1943, he released his most ambitious wartime effort and one of the most unusual films of his career: a feature-length animated documentary based on a book arguing the theoretical applications of aviation in wartime. Sounds like a real crowd-pleaser, doesn’t it?

Surprisingly, Victory Through Air Power was not a government commission. This was all Walt’s idea. Like a lot of people, Walt had read the best-selling book by Major Alexander P. de Seversky and was completely won over by his ideas. Walt felt the book had a message that needed to be heard. He believed in it so much that he financed it personally, fast-tracking the film’s production. When RKO, Disney’s regular distributor, refused to release the decidedly uncommercial project, Walt brokered a deal with United Artists to get it into theaters. RKO’s instincts turned out to be correct. Victory Through Air Power was another money-loser for Walt, although to be fair, he wasn’t really looking to turn a profit on this one in the first place.

The movie starts with the History of Aviation, an entertaining sequence that continued to be screened on its own for years after the rest of the film fell into obscurity. It is astonishing to realize that the Wright Brothers’ first flight had only happened 40 years prior to this movie’s release. Walt himself was actually two years older than the first airplane. That’s a lot of change in a really short time and this sequence does an admirable job condensing it into a fun, easy-to-understand animated short, even as it glosses over and oversimplifies some of its information.

With the background established, it’s time to turn to the themes and ideas in Major de Seversky’s book. And who better to convey those ideas than Major Alexander P. de Seversky himself? In live-action footage helmed by journeyman director H.C. Potter, de Seversky addresses the camera directly, using giant maps and oversized globes to help illustrate his points. The props help a little but the movie unavoidably swerves into sleepy lecture-hall territory whenever de Seversky pops up.

The animation in the second half is somewhat simpler than what had become the norm for Disney, with less detailed backgrounds and more abstraction. But the work is still striking, especially since we’re seeing the Disney style applied to some very atypical subject matter. The Dunkirk sequence is a grim and starkly beautiful standout.

But here’s the thing. Victory Through Air Power is unquestionably an interesting film, especially if you’re a Disney historian, a student of animation or a World War II buff. But “interesting” is not the same as “entertaining”. Even at just 70 minutes, this can be a long sit. Watching someone painstakingly explain strategies and theories from over half a century ago may be fun for some Monday morning quarterbacks but I suspect that most people would rather watch just about anything else.

Victory Through Air Power opened on July 17, 1943, six months after the mini-movie Saludos Amigos. Hardly anybody went to see it but it did at least get in front of people who mattered, like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score (although the music categories were essentially participation ribbons at this point) and quietly faded back into the fabled Disney Vault. Disney would not release another feature film until 1945.

But the work the Disney studio produced during these lean years would end up having a lasting impact. His government contracts not only kept the studio afloat, they resulted in some truly innovative and daring short films. Education For Death: The Making Of The Nazi is a radical departure, following a young German boy named Hans as he grows up and is indoctrinated into the party. It’s beautifully animated and one of the most serious, somber films Disney would ever produce.

On the other extreme is one of Disney’s wildest cartoons, the Oscar-winning Der Fuehrer’s Face. Donald Duck wakes up in “Nutzi Land”, jarred out of bed by a band (whose members include Mussolini, Tojo, Himmler, Goebbels and Göring) playing Oliver Wallace’s memorable title song. Spike Jones and his City Slickers had a big hit with their rendition of the tune. After breakfast (one-bean coffee, a slice of bread-shaped wood, a bacon-and-egg-scented mist) and a little light reading of Mein Kampf, the band hustles Donald off to his job at a munitions plant. The job and the constant “heil”-ing of Hitler sends Donald off the deep end…at which point he wakes up in his own bed (and his own stars-and-stripes pajamas) back in the good old U S of A.

Disney's Donald Duck enters World War II in Der Feurher's Face

Even though the whole thing is just a dream, it’s more than a little jarring to hear the words “Heil Hitler” coming out of Donald’s beak. Of course, that was the whole point. Donald Duck became Disney’s go-to wartime character, even doing a hitch in the Army in a whole series of cartoons. But Der Fuehrer’s Face stands out as one of Disney’s most effective and entertaining pieces of anti-Nazi propaganda.

Perhaps the most important legacy of films like Victory Through Air Power was the discovery of a new source of income for the studio: educational films. In the years that followed, Disney and his team would produce dozens of short films for use in schools. Some would use familiar characters like Donald Duck and Jiminy Cricket. Others would be more straight-forward, on topics ranging from The ABC Of Hand Tools to The Story Of Menstruation.

Roy Disney, Walt’s older brother and business partner, had also learned a valuable lesson from movies like Saludos Amigos and Victory Through Air Power. Live-action sequences were a lot cheaper to produce than fully animated features. At his urging, the studio would start incorporating a lot more live-action footage into its features moving forward.

VERDICT: It’s certainly not without interest but for most people, Victory Through Air Power is far too specialized and frankly dull to be considered anything other than a Disney Minus.

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Saludos Amigos

Original theatrical release poster

If there’s one word the Disney Marketing Department loves to toss around, it’s “timeless”. Not without some justification, of course. So far, this column has looked at six films made around 80 years ago. All but one of them has continued to enchant and delight audiences around the world to this day.

During this time period, Walt only seemed to know how to make two kinds of movies: timeless classics and hyper-specific oddities that make almost no sense when you take them out of context. Falling squarely into the latter category are such films as The Reluctant Dragon and Saludos Amigos.

The backstory of Saludos Amigos is almost more interesting than the movie itself (in fact, it’s the subject of its own Disney-produced documentary, Walt & El Grupo). In 1941, Disney was in a bit of financial trouble. Walt had opened an expensive new studio in Burbank, his features were struggling at the box office, and his animators had gone on strike. So when Nelson Rockefeller, President Roosevelt’s newly appointed Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, called to commission a feature, Walt wasn’t exactly in a position to say no.

Rockefeller was on a diplomatic mission, strengthening ties between the US and our Latin American neighbors and counteracting the Axis propaganda that had been flooding these countries during the early days of World War II. To do this, Rockefeller met with a number of celebrities and artists, appointing them Goodwill Ambassadors and sending them off on cultural tours of Latin America. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters went on tour and recorded Latin music with Xavier Cugat. Orson Welles hosted the radio show Hello Americans and started work on the film It’s All True. And Walt Disney assembled a team of artists and musicians to sketch their way through Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru. But unlike Welles, Walt was able to finish his movie.

It probably didn’t hurt that Walt’s movie really stretches the definition of what’s considered a feature film. At just 42 minutes, Saludos Amigos makes Dumbo look like Lawrence Of Arabia. Watching it today, it’s hard to believe that it actually played in cinemas on its own. I can’t imagine most audiences left the theater feeling like they got their money’s worth. It almost feels like an extended teaser for some other movie. Live-action footage introduces the premise that Walt Disney and his team are traveling south of the border to do research for an upcoming picture. The movie’s almost over before you realize that this is that picture.

The live-action footage continues throughout, linking four new animated segments. This wasn’t really Disney’s first “package” film. Prior to the release of Snow White, Disney had strung together five Silly Symphonies and released the compilation to theaters under the snappy title Academy Award Review of Walt Disney Cartoons. Fantasia had been a highly prestigious package film and The Reluctant Dragon had padded out its animated scraps with extensive live-action footage. But in the years to come, Disney would rely more and more on package films like this one to keep the doors open. They were cheaper, they were faster, and they could be easily chopped up and sold for parts.

Saludos Amigos kicks off with tourist Donald Duck exploring Lake Titicaca and having some trouble crossing a suspension bridge with a llama. Next, we meet the young Chilean airplane Pedro. Disney would essentially revisit this concept some 70 years later in the Cars spinoff Planes. Goofy, always a welcome presence, shows up in the third segment to demonstrate the ways of the Argentinean gaucho. Finally, Donald reappears to help introduce another new character, the Brazilian parrot José Carioca.

José “Joe” Carioca (voiced by Brazilian musician José Oliveira) was positioned as the breakout star of Saludos Amigos. His segment is certainly the most exciting, both visually, breaking the fourth wall of animation by having the animator’s paintbrush creating backgrounds around the two birds, and musically.

The song, “Aquarela do Brasil”, had been around for a few years but didn’t become a hit until Oliveira performed it here. Today, of course, everyone knows it as simply “Brazil” and it’s one of the most instantly recognizable samba songs ever recorded.

Saludos Amigos soundtrack album

José Carioca did in fact become a beloved, heavily merchandized star in Brazil but he never quite took off here in the US. Though that wasn’t for lack of trying on Disney’s part. We’ll see José in this column again soon.

Saludos Amigos isn’t really a bad movie. It’s far too slight and inconsequential for that. In fact, it’s barely a movie at all. Unlike some of Disney’s other package films, the segments here are extremely forgettable. Pedro is a little wisp of a cartoon and El Gaucho Goofy is far from the Goof’s funniest showcase. Donald fares slightly better. It’s always fun to see him in obnoxious tourist mode and the musical and visual flair of the finale ends things on a high note. But the whole thing’s over before you’ve even finished your popcorn.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Saludos Amigos is that the damn thing worked. There was no way the movie was not going to make money. The whole project had been bankrolled by the government and guaranteed with federal loans. But audiences actually turned up for this mini-movie. For many Americans, this was their first exposure to South American culture and they liked what they saw. More importantly, they liked what they heard. Latin American music became the hot new sound and its popularity continued to explode throughout the 1940s and 50s.

Saludos Amigos was even nominated for three Academy Awards, albeit in the traditionally overstuffed categories of Best Sound, Best Original Song and Best Original Score (Musical). Still, that’s the same number of nominations as Bambi. The movie’s best songs, “Brazil” and “Tico Tico”, weren’t original, so that left the title tune to compete in the Best Original Song category. It didn’t win any of the awards it was up for. But the fact that the Academy even recognized this as a feature and not a short subject is fairly impressive.

At best, Saludos Amigos was a minor success. It certainly wasn’t a dream project for Walt or anyone else at the studio. But Walt needed something to stay afloat. If that turned out to be a government-sponsored piece of South American boosterism, so be it. By turning his talents to propaganda, Walt would make it through World War II.

VERDICT: Disney Minus seems a little harsh, so let’s call it a Disney Neutral.

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