The landing page, with rationale and links to other posts in this series, can be found here.
The Three Caballeros
1944, directed by Norman Ferguson
Is The Three Caballeros so superior to Saludos Amigos? Not by so much, really, although it gets a lift from its more smoothly integrated human-animated scenes. But The Three Caballeros does have the largest collection of psycho birds before Hitchcock. Ze Carioca returns from Saludos Amigos! and joining him from Latin America is Pancho Pistoles, who is so named because he packs a pair of hand cannons that would have made Jules Winnfield envious. The other is the Aracuan bird, who you almost certainly know if you’re reading this, but if you’re not, well:
If Saludos Amigos! had replaced that little try-hard plane with the bird who appears to have discovered all the cocaine in the world, it would be here instead. Until then, scream like a maniac and wave goodbye to the propaganda pieces.
The Black Cauldron
1985, directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich
From the beginnings of this blog I have called upon the manifold cowards in the moviemaking business (concerned with “money” and “bottom lines” and “eating” and other bourgeois considerations) to let the MPAA jack up the ratings of their movies. Why make it R when you can make it NC-17, for example? Not every movie needs to aim higher, so to speak; God knows My Neighbor Totoro wouldn’t have been improved with like, gunplay or splattered profanity. But The Black Cauldron could have been PG-13—literally, as the rating was just a year old around the time of this movie’s release—and I even think that if they had made this movie for 2015 instead of 1985, it would have benefited from being a tinge more mature. As it was, everyone in 1985 decided that this movie was mature enough, giving it the PG rating which had never saddled a Disney movie before. The Black Cauldron probably even earns that, what with its depictions of a lich attempting to smother the whole green world with an undead army. The Horned King is creepy, and he presumably skeeved out some number of six-year-olds, but he can neither horrify nor terrify. He can only make us uneasy, and that’s the existential problem with The Black Cauldron. Seven years before he voiced the rasping Horned King, John Hurt starred as the voice of Hazel in Watership Down. There’s a movie which has less to work with than The Black Cauldron in terms of standard horror elements but which uses horror like a hammer when Fiver’s visions fill the screen or when rabbits bleed. Even a Black Cauldron that had the stomach of Watership Down would be more memorable, but this movie is merely lukewarm instead.
What’s here, despite its lukewarmness, is not uninteresting. I am definitely on Team Gurgi, who is one of the ten most bizarre characters in Disney/Pixar history. There’s a commitment to the quest that Taran undertakes alongside Eilonwy which I think is pretty well done. I’ve written before about how much I adore the settings that these characters are placed in. Even if they look like standard-issue cartoons, the world they live in is shrouded in dark greens and murky browns, occasionally livened with a surprisingly liberal use of pink. “Chiaroscuro” is an overused description these days, but this movie really does bear similarities to that technique, down to the use of a single light in a shot which cannot quite fill the whole frame. The Black Cauldron is probably weakest, then, in its casting. Hurt and Nigel Hawthorne (another Watership Down veteran) do well, but there are very few other standouts to be found. Grant Bardsley, who voices Taran, is the worst of the many voice actors who have ever had a leading role in one of these movies. He is never convincing in his speech, always seems to be reading lines off a paper, and is incapable of getting us to care about our protagonist, whose zero-to-hero journey is the kind of thing we’ve all been conditioned to root for. For all its flaws, this is the one which is most damning.
Make Mine Music
1946, directed by Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Joshua Meador
The most crowded of the Disney package films, Make Mine Music feels longer than its spare running time, and the most interesting pieces, if not always the most successful, are the ones which are most concerned with physical activity as an entity for its own sake. “All the Cats Join In,” a Benny Goodman joint, is probably the best of the bunch, although I’m probably being swayed by my fondness for ’40s cinematic anthropology and pencils drawing the action in animated sequences. Zooming teenagers in jalopies speed up to a malt shop (for goodness’ sake it says MALT SHOP right on the facade), although they have just enough wisdom to slow in front of a motorcycle cop before launching themselves inside. They are minimalist portraits, with thin eyebrows and round black eyes; the boys have mouths like their eyebrows, while the girls have little painted pouts which the section knows are the result of artifice. “All the Cats Join In” boils down to action and movement and vitality, and at its best it really shines through in a way that’s special to animation; in real life jitterbugging teenagers can’t turn each other into basketballs or lassos. “Blue Bayou” and “Two Silhouettes” both attempt similar ideas, but neither one of those works on a kinetic level; then again, neither one of those is backed by Benny Goodman.
Of the other segments, most of which are longer and more plot-driven, there are fewer standouts. Two hats lose one another and find each other again to the dulcet tones of the Andrews Sisters. “Casey at the Bat” is given some of old-fashioned flair, clearly set thirty years or so before Make Mine Music was released and given to fittingly sweaty hyperbole. Neither one is particularly memorable. “Peter and the Wolf” has some moments (see above), although it doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes to appreciate how much more exciting the story is when it’s imagined rather than seen. Literal musical adaptations, from Fantasia to Fantasia 2000, have never been Disney’s great strength. The anchor leg of Make Mine Music is bombastic, occasionally entertaining, and surprisingly sad by the end. “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” is at its best when it’s letting Nelson Eddy run wild, and his performance as, well, everyone in the short is a testament to his wonderful singing. The animation is as unremarkable as most of the rest of that populating Make Mine Music, but then again, what a lot of fun Jeanette McDonald must have had costarring with Nelson in all those pictures.
Home on the Range
2004, directed by Will Finn and John Sanford
Look, either you’re on board for a movie where Roseanne Barr and Judi Dench voice temperamentally opposed cows while trying to wrangle an obese yodeling rustler voiced by Randy Quaid, or you aren’t, and if you are, let me temper that enthusiasm by reminding you Cuba Gooding, Jr. is in this movie too. Home on the Range, aside from employing an entire outrage cycle’s worth of problematic faves, is sometimes even entertaining. The voice acting is charming enough; special credit goes especially to Dench, who is just ludicrously overqualified to voice a cow whose most important character trait is a flowered hat, Jennifer Tilly in her own part as a daffy cow, and Joe Flaherty as a terrifically cantankerous goat. The yodeling is pretty weird, the homages to spaghetti westerns are enjoyable, and I’m a sucker for supporting characters in the vein of the Willie Brothers, who are not the brightest bulbs in the box. Alameda Slim, the aforementioned rustler who buys up properties under the telling name of “Y. O’Del,” tries out his standard disguise in front of the Willies: a hat, glasses, etc. The reaction is immediate and perfect every time: “What did you do with Uncle Slim!” With their jaws jutting out too far, their eyes hidden under little umbrellas of straw-colored hair, and their voices in a perpetual nasal whine, they provide the only real laughs of the movie…if their brand of dumb is your cup of tea. If it’s not, then Home on the Range is a mighty slog.
Home on the Range desperately needs moments like those to work, but even if they do, then the only really fun part of this movie fits in three minutes of YouTube clips. Heaven knows Home on the Range tries, using a bingo card of setpieces as ammunition. There’s a wrestling match in the mud between two of the cows, a “Pink Elephants on Parade” descendant that comes from somewhere beyond left field, a wild roller coaster ride in a mine, bad singing, a betrayal in the last act that’s about as surprising as Judas Iscariot’s…you don’t have to be Mies to think this is an awful lot more than what they need. What they needed more than a buffet of weird action was a plot that didn’t feel dull from the word go, a reliance on dialogue instead of a buzzword like “home,” and a sense of place. Cars, for better or worse, is centered very keenly on Radiator Springs. Home on the Range is a road movie primarily, but in so doing it loses its anchor. As much as everyone’s goal is to save Patch of Heaven from foreclosure, there’s nothing about the place that feels awfully important, no serious element beyond cute animals, and the aimless trail these cows traverse is no Route 66.
Oliver & Company
1988, directed by George Scribner
It’s been over thirty years, and we have yet to get the Disney version of Bleak House which replaces Esther Summerson with like, a very charismatic horse wandering Los Angeles or something. I won’t rest until they adapt all the Dickens novels with critters.
I joke (maybe), but Oliver & Company would have done better if it had chosen a lane. The most memorable sequences are the ones which leave the humans out of it entirely, or at least see them as giant, benign obstacles, à la The Rescuers. Dodger skates effortlessly around the streets of New York City while Oliver tries desperately to keep up with him; the gang puts together a scam featuring a theatrical bulldog as the pledge and a wire-chewing chihuahua as the prestige. Compared to most of the work that was going to come out of the studio in the next decade, it’s hardly scintillating, but it keeps our attention and provides a few laughs. But then significant time is given to the criminal underworld that Fagin appears to have wandered into by accident while he blunders about trying to do Sykes’ bidding; that’s countered with scenes at Jenny’s enormous house uptown (sing with me now). The counterpoint of Manhattan’s diverting social classes is not unwelcome, but the movie doesn’t have anything in mind for them short of a ransom plot that even the movie’s characters know is stupid. Oliver & Company is a musical, although it is an awfully skeletal one that spends most of its musical capital giving Billy Joel and Bette Midler a reason to collect their paychecks. The overall effect is that a movie less than ten minutes longer than Dumbo is in a hurry to get nowhere fast.
The best of Oliver & Company, as it was in The Black Cauldron, is its background animation. The heyday of the “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD” New York was nearly fifteen years past when Oliver premiered, but in its views of shipyards and hot dog carts and waterfront slums we see some of that same DNA running through the movie. In that scene where Dodger struts into breakfast, you really can all but smell the stale urine. A guy is hocking sunglasses on the side of the road. The names of a dozen different businesses, from dentists to fruits and vegetables to shoes, are visible in just a couple of bordering buildings. Hot air rushes through the grates in a sidewalk while a fire hydrant is already broken open in the early morning traffic. Old yellow taxi cabs seem to pile on top of one another in the busy streets. That shot where the camera looks at Dodger from above as he rides a piano sketches New York as I’ve always liked to imagine it: flaring in pale blue chrome in morning sunlight. Even if it’s grimy at times and unforgiving in others, New York is still very much a place of opportunity for those like Dodger who know how to work it, or for those like Oliver who are lucky enough to land in the right brownstone.