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: Lady And The Tramp

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Lady And The Tramp

When Lady And The Tramp debuted on June 22, 1955, it should have been a bigger deal. For years, the Disney name had been synonymous with feature animation. Here was the studio’s first feature cartoon since Peter Pan two years earlier. Not only that, it was the first ever produced in CinemaScope. But animation had become almost an afterthought at the studio. Walt himself had decided it was time for his name to become synonymous with something much bigger. His attention was entirely on Disneyland. Lady And The Tramp would have to sink or swim on its own merits.

Lady And The Tramp is easily one of Disney’s most unusual feature animations. For the first time, the story was entirely self-generated and not based on a classic fairy tale or book. Development began all the way back in 1937 when animator Joe Grant brought in some sketches he’d done of his English Springer Spaniel, Lady. Grant had just had a baby and his sketches of the jealous Lady made Walt think there might be a story there. He assigned a small group of storymen to the project and work quietly began on Lady.

By 1945, work on Lady hadn’t progressed much farther than that. Various artists and storymen dropped in ideas here and there but it simply wasn’t coming together. The project might have disappeared into the vault if Walt hadn’t come across a short story in Cosmopolitan magazine called “Happy Dan, The Cynical Dog”. Walt decided a scrappy, cynical dog might be just the counterpoint the sweet, lovable Lady needed.

Walt already knew the story’s author. Ward Greene was a writer and journalist but his day job was general manager of King Features Syndicate, distributing columns and comic strips to newspapers around the country. Disney had been a staple of the funny pages and a feather in King Features’ cap since the Mickey Mouse comic strip premiered in 1930. Odds are this was not a difficult negotiation.

Work continued on what would eventually be titled Lady And The Tramp off and on for the next several years, mostly off. Joe Grant left the studio (and animation, at least temporarily) in 1949, leaving the story to be molded primarily by Ward Greene. Still, the project was simply not a priority at the studio.

Finally in 1953, Walt and Roy Disney had a problem. For years, they had struggled with having too many animated projects in various stages of development. Now, for the first time, they didn’t have enough. Peter Pan had been released but Sleeping Beauty, intended to be Walt’s magnum opus, was nowhere near finished. Roy was in the process of launching Buena Vista, the studio’s new distribution arm. It would be a lot easier to woo exhibitors to Disney distribution with the promise of new Disney animation.

According to Neal Gabler’s excellent book Walt Disney: The Triumph Of The American Imagination, Walt first considered simply cobbling together another package film. That would have been easier said than done, since the production of animated short subjects was trickling to a halt. Any animators not working on Sleeping Beauty had been kept busy producing new but cheap footage for the Disneyland TV series and The Mickey Mouse Club. Instead of a package film, Roy encouraged Walt to kickstart Lady And The Tramp, figuring it would be a relatively quick and easy project to complete.

It probably would have been except for one thing: CinemaScope. The widescreen process had become Hollywood’s latest craze toward coaxing audiences away from televisions and back into theatres. Disney had successfully used it on the live-action 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and the Oscar-winning animated short Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom. When he decided to shoot Lady And The Tramp in CinemaScope, the animators had to make some big adjustments. The backgrounds had to be bigger. Layouts had to be changed. They even had to prepare a second, alternate version formatted for theaters that weren’t equipped to project CinemaScope. Consequently, the “quick and easy” project took longer to complete than anticipated.

Narratively, Lady And The Tramp remains true to the modest goals first laid out by Joe Grant. The story opens on Christmas with Jim Dear presenting Lady in a hatbox as a gift to his beloved wife, Darling. This incident, supposedly inspired by Walt’s own Christmas gift of a puppy to his wife, Lillian, early in their marriage, helped obfuscate Grant’s contribution to the story in later years. Opening with such a personal moment, everyone simply assumed the story was Walt’s and Walt himself did little to suggest otherwise.

The movie ambles along at its own pace from there, following Lady as she grows up, gets to know her neighbors Jock and Trusty, acquires her collar and official dog license. The movie’s almost a third over before we’re introduced to either the idea of a new baby entering the home or even Lady’s costar, Tramp.

Theatrical re-release poster for Lady And The Tramp

Lady And The Tramp has a reputation as one of the most romantic movies of all time, animated or otherwise. It landed at Number 95 on the American Film Institute’s 2002 list of love stories, 100 Years…100 Passions. But the film takes its time revealing that side of itself. Crucially, Disney spends the first 45 minutes or so romanticizing the characters’ world rather than the characters themselves. Tramp and his friends from the wrong side of the tracks are kept separate from Lady and her Snob Hill neighbors. Both worlds seem equally appealing and idyllic on their own. When Lady and the Tramp come together, they blend into a singular, magical space.

After Disneyland opened, it became common shorthand to compartmentalize Disney’s work into the four park areas: Fantasyland, Adventureland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland. But there was always a fifth area to the park, Main Street USA, and it’s that idealized, hyper-nostalgic worldview that’s on full display in Lady And The Tramp.

More often than not, Disney would indulge his nostalgic impulses through live-action films like So Dear To My Heart and later, Pollyanna. Lady And The Tramp translates that live-action aesthetic into animation and the result is even more idealized. We believe in the somewhat unlikely romance between these two dogs in large part because of their perfect surroundings.

Supposedly, Walt was ready to cut the now-iconic spaghetti dinner scene, concerned that the sight of two dogs wolfing down a big plate of pasta would just look ridiculous. Animator Frank Thomas fought for it, animating the whole thing by himself to prove his point. The beautifully animated scene kicks off the “Bella Notte” sequence, a lovely blend of character animation, sumptuous backgrounds and romantic details. How could anyone not fall in love to images like these?

Theatrical re-release poster for Lady And The Tramp

Their happiness is short-lived as Lady is thrown into the local dog pound, where she learns some harsh truths about her new boyfriend. Tramp gets around and everybody’s got a story to tell about his love life. By the time she gets sprung from lockup, Lady’s fed up with Tramp. He ran off and abandoned her when she was caught. Now it seems he never really cared about her at all.

But Tramp hasn’t abandoned Lady or run away. He’s completely selfish but he isn’t a coward. We’ve already seen that he’s got a soft spot for puppies and is a true and loyal friend, rescuing dogs on their way to the pound. He assumed that Lady would be fine, thanks to her get-out-of-jail-free license. As soon as she’s out, he comes by to check on her and learns that love means putting another person (or dog or, in this case, baby) ahead of your own best interests. As relationship lessons go, the ones taught by Lady And The Tramp aren’t bad.

For the voice talent, Disney cast a wider net than on other projects, recruiting a number of actors from outside the studio. Barbara Luddy provided the voice of Lady. It was her first role for Disney but not the last. She’d go on to voice a number of characters over the years, including Kanga in the Winnie The Pooh series. Tramp was voiced by Larry Roberts, a stage performer who never made another film. He retired from show business in the late 1950s and went into fashion design. Reliable Disney stock players Verna Felton and Bill Thompson appeared as Aunt Sarah and Jock.

Disney even brought in a pair of voice talents not typically associated with the studio. Stan Freberg was an established voice talent at Warner Bros. and on radio who was beginning to hit the big time with his own comedy records when Disney brought him in to provide the voice of the Beaver. Alan Reed was still a few years away from landing his defining role as Fred Flintstone but was a popular radio and character actor when he voiced Boris, the Russian wolfhound.

But the not-so-secret weapon of Lady And The Tramp is undoubtedly Miss Peggy Lee. Disney had never relied on celebrity voices for his cartoons but he certainly wasn’t against using them. Bing Crosby and Basil Rathbone had toplined The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad and Alice In Wonderland’s Mad Hatter was modeled after radio star Ed Wynn. But Peggy Lee was in a different category when she arrived on the Disney lot.

Peggy Lee became the singer in Benny Goodman’s orchestra in 1941. Within two years, she had the number-one song in the country, the million-selling “Why Don’t You Do Right?” After she left Goodman’s group, her career really took off with huge hits like “Golden Earrings” and “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)”. Her being asked to work on Lady And The Tramp was the 1950s equivalent of Elton John working on The Lion King or Phil Collins on Tarzan.

Peggy Lee gave the work her all. She provides the voices for four characters: Darling, the cats Si and Am and, of course, Peg the Pekingese. She even gave story notes. Trusty the bloodhound was supposed to die at the end until Peggy Lee cautioned against traumatizing a generation that was still grieving Bambi’s mom.

Album cover art for Songs From Walt Disney's Lady And The Tramp by Peggy Lee

Most importantly, she collaborated with Sonny Burke on six original songs. Burke had first worked for Disney on Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom and he’d go on to produce some of Frank Sinatra’s most iconic records, including “My Way”. The songs Lee and Burke wrote for Lady And The Tramp work perfectly with Oliver Wallace’s Victorian-tinged score. The lullaby “La La Lu” bridges the gap between the eras nicely.

But the songs everyone remembers from Lady And The Tramp are distinctly modern. “Bella Notte”, “The Siamese Cat Song” and “He’s A Tramp” are very much of their era. They help contemporize Lady And The Tramp, bringing it out of the rose-colored mists of nostalgia and into the present day. Today, it creates a feeling of double-nostalgia for both Walt’s turn-of-the-century youth and for the 1950s. It’s the same powerful feeling that accounts for the continued popularity of movies like Grease. We’re nostalgic for nostalgia itself, not for a specific era.

As for “The Siamese Cat Song”, it’s a bit lame to brush aside its casual ethnic stereotyping by saying that this is far from the worst example of it we’ll see in a Disney movie. Sure, they’re cats but there’s no missing the implications of the character design, music or voices. One can certainly understand why the song was scrapped from the recent Disney+ remake. Still…it’s a good song. The Asian pastiche is a pretty common type of popular song and this is one of the better examples of it.

Besides, it isn’t like the cats are singled out. It’s a long-standing tradition in animation that if an animal can be defined by an ethnic stereotype, it will be. Jock, the Scottish terrier, is very Scottish. Boris, the Russian wolfhound, is very Russian. Pedro, the chihuahua, is very Mexican. Of course Si and Am are going to be very “Siamese”, which is a word that people just took to mean generally Asian back in the day. At least they weren’t called “Oriental”. On our ongoing list of Outdated Tropes of the Past, “The Siamese Cat Song” doesn’t seem worth getting too worked up over.

Lady And The Tramp was not an immediate hit with critics. Many longtime Disney supporters dismissed it as sentimental and inconsequential. But audiences loved it. It quickly became the studio’s biggest hit since Snow White, ending up as the sixth highest grossing film of 1955.

Lady And The Tramp didn’t exactly lend itself to Disneyland attractions or toys and games beyond the usual merchandise but its popularity earned it a spin-off comic strip. Scamp, originally written by Ward Greene and distributed by King Features, followed the adventures of Lady and the Tramp’s mischievous son for over 30 years. The strip finally ended in 1988 and Scamp returned to animated form in the 2001 direct-to-video sequel Lady And The Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure.

Comic book cover art for Walt Disney's Lady And The Tramp spin-off Scamp

Even today, Lady And The Tramp remains one of Disney’s most popular films. In 1987, the film was released on VHS for the first time and surprised everyone by becoming the best-selling videocassette of all time. Perhaps nobody was more surprised than Peggy Lee, who sued Disney for royalties on the video sales. She was eventually rewarded over $2 million and the case changed entertainment copyright law forever, forcing studios and unions to grapple with new media like home entertainment.

Lady And The Tramp proved that Walt Disney didn’t need a beloved book or fairy tale to deliver a heartfelt, masterfully animated feature. The studio was more than capable of crafting their own stories. But unfortunately, it came around a little too late. Walt had almost done everything he wanted to accomplish with animation. His heart and his mind now belonged to Disneyland. The golden age of Disney animated features was coming to a close.

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: 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: Dumbo

Original 1941 poster for Walt Disney's Dumbo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A surreal image from Pink Elephants On Parade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dumbo VHS Clamshell release from 1981.

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Plus