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The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
1977, directed by John Lounsberry and Wolfgang Reitherman
The great romantic comedy of 1977 was never Annie Hall, but The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Let’s see Alvy Singer love himself as much as Pooh loves pots of honey during the middle of a flash flood. (“What I like best is me going to visit you and then you saying, ‘How about a smackerel of honey?'”) Then again, to say that Many Adventures is from 1977 is to dissemble a smidge; the movie, which is neatly delineated into chapters, so much so that it almost resembles the package films of the late ’40s, had been released in parts already. (“Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day” had in fact won an Oscar for Animated Short Film, a category that has existed and people have been apathetic about since the ’30s.) In any case it’s a lovely collection. Even though this is the movie that includes Pooh’s mission to jank a suspicious beehive’s honey and his unfortunate lodging in a door, the events of “Blustery Day” are the best. It’s the one that has Pooh’s musical introduction to Tigger (THE WONDERFUL THING ABOUT TIGGERS IS TIGGERS ARE WONDERFUL THINGS! etc.), the aforementioned flood, and “Heffalumps and Woozles.” “Heffalumps and Woozles” is the great-nephew of “Pink Elephants on Parade.” The animators clearly didn’t have the leeway to go wild with what these elephants and weasels could be, but they certainly do come in a number of clever forms. The elephants sticking their trunks into honey pots are rather like hot-air balloons; an elephant’s trunk is a cannon that a weasel in a bright uniform can fire. And of course, they do “come in every shape and size.” It’s a catchy little ditty and one of the better, more unexpected Disney songs in the canon.
The end of the movie required a new sequence, a short one in which it’s revealed that Christopher Robin has to go back to school and thus will be leaving his friends, especially Pooh. But Pooh promises to always be there when Christopher Robin comes back, and the narrator (the ubiquitous Sebastian Cabot) makes the connection for us that we don’t need but which we’ll take anyway: Pooh will always be there for all of us. Disney movies frequently appeal to people my age and older as a statement of nostalgia, and it’s not a new way of feeling. We can always crack open our videotape of The Lion King and rewind it, because we never did that as kids, and then start it over and have Simba and Timon and Scar again. Pooh is special, and the movie knows he’s special. He’s the one that Christopher Robin wants to do nothing with, and while even children know how precious that is, adults know it all the more. Pooh is all the wasted time, all the empty spaces in planners and calendar apps on our phones, and there’s nothing that’s more inviting or sweet. All stories must end, the narrator tells us, but Pooh is right, too. We can go back to the beginning and do all over again.
2016, directed by Pete Docter
What’s outstanding about Inside Out, and if this ranking is going to hold up in ten years what will need to remain outstanding about the movie, is Riley. Not Riley’s mind and the little beings who populate it and wander around its islands, but Riley herself. She is Pixar’s most relatable character, and while I usually care very little about the relatability of a protagonist, this movie is only powerful if we can put ourselves in her shoes. No matter how emotionally intelligent we are, it can take us a minute to figure out exactly why we’re feeling what we’re feeling. What Joy has been trying to put off into the far future is the realization that Riley only can vocalize when she’s decided not to run away from home: “I know you don’t want me to, but I miss home. I miss Minnesota. You need me to be happy, but I want my old friends and my hockey team…” Twice she addresses the pull she feels as a responsible, loving daughter, and three time she emphasizes what it is she’s thinking about. The movie is fun for people who aren’t old enough to miss, but even for a kids’ movie that is a fairly small proportion of the population who saw it. It’s Minnesota for Riley, but it’s any number of things for us in the audience. Maybe it is a place we used to live. It could be an ex, or a song we haven’t heard in a few years, or two jobs ago, or a parent, or, fittingly, an emotion. Inside Out gives us a way into that headspace, a way for an audience to put a visual language on our own minds, which is why I think so highly of that late scene where Riley and her parents hug it out. That is a costly emotional moment, one that Inside Out makes us pay a dear price for along the way. At its best this movie is therapeutic, and to focus on Joy or Sadness or Bing Bong or whoever as characters at the expense of Riley and her parents is a disservice to what this movie is good at, and maybe it’s even a disservice to our own health.
The problem with the movie is that the story is based on Joy and Sadness and Bing Bong doing things, and it can get wrapped up in the things they’re doing and the jokes about the inner workings of the brain and the quick cuts between the folks in Headquarters (get it) and Riley in the real world. The journey from Long Term Memory back to Headquarters is stilted on the first viewing and hasn’t improved on later ones for me. There are some very good gags that we get out of it, like the TripleDent jingle (“Sometimes we send that one up to Headquarters for no reason!”), but all of the jokes the movie has about the brain would need to be that funny or, barring that, tremendously clever, to make that journey with it. For every imaginary boyfriend who would die for Riley, there are multiple sections of Riley’s mind that Joy has to traipse through. We aren’t brought closer to that group hug at the end because there was a jaunt through the pun of “abstract thought,” after all.
2003, directed by Andrew Stanton
There’s a case to be made that Finding Nemo is the most quotable Pixar movie, and there’s a good chance, too, that it will never be overtaken in that field. (Even the quotes by the actors about the film are memorable: everyone remembers that quip Ellen made about wanting to play Haagen-Dazs in her next movie after voicing a blue tang made it hard for her to eat fish anymore.) The unkind assessment of the movie is that it’s a snappy collection of quirky dialogue and goofy moments which, in sum, are less than their parts. There’s a contingent of people my age who assess this kindly as Pixar’s best movie. The BBC’s recent list of the 100 best movies of the 21st Century plops it at 96, above White Material, Ten, and Toni Erdmann. (Whoosh! Seriously, though, this is the lowest-ranked of four Pixar movies on the list.) My assessment is that Finding Nemo is, about twenty-five years after Toy Story, the quintessential Pixar movie. An odd couple are thrown together by chance and ultimately learn from those differences; an giant ensemble of comedic secondary characters anchors the B-plot; the movie drops a poignant moment on us, but ensures we smile leaving the theater. Other movies do this better than Finding Nemo—a quick look at what I haven’t written about yet suggest I feel more strongly in favor of Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille, for example—but this is the zone that Pixar worked in beautifully for so long that we took it for granted. I’ve praised the movie in the past for its distinct episodes for Marlin and Dory, but what I’m not sure I said loud enough is that the reason those episodes work is because each one is a piece of the puzzle. From the time that Marlin literally…I guess “swims” is literal here…into Dory, the film builds them. I love that scene with the school of fish that performs different shapes with the zeal of a child who’s figured out how to use their hand to make the shadow of a dog on the wall. It’s got my favorite Dory misremembering of Nemo’s name (“He’s lost his son, Fabio”), it’s a winning John Ratzenberger role, and most of all, it shows us something about Marlin. At this point in the movie, Dory’s ability to read has proven useful twice: not only has it saved their lives, but it’s given Marlin his one clue as to his son’s whereabouts. Yet after all this time he still doesn’t trust her, or believe that she has quality way to solve his problems. The fact that she wheedles directions to Sydney out of the school is totally unexpected for him, and it’s proof for us as viewers that a) his neuroticism, while very much earned, is also borderline narcissistic, and b) he can grow out of his chauvinism. Without this scene, there’s no happy “THAAAAANK YOOOU” directed at a whale in Sydney Harbor much later on.
Maybe Toy Story 3 crams more characters into the movie than Finding Nemo does, but if it does it can’t be by much. Finding Nemo has a whole ocean’s worth of characters to work through, and it has them clearly organized in tiers of importance. Above all non-clownfish and tang characters is Gill, the scarred leader of the aquarium fish. (Can you imagine being a human named “Lung?”) Aside from being an inspired choice to voice this fish obsessed with escaping from a dentist’s office—and who among us has not felt that way about the dentist’s office?—Willem Dafoe’s character is a way into understanding Nemo. Gill is the only fish in the tank who seems to harbor any serious feelings about trying to get out of there. It sure seems like Peach, who we can’t hear, would be perfectly happy talking shop with Nigel the pelican; Bloat and Gurgle dig their little rituals at the summit of Mount Wannahockaloogie; Bubbles has bubbles. But GIll’s ambition to get out is the opposite of Marlin’s desire to stay in, and Marlin’s fundamentally ableist belief that his son can’t is the dark reverse of Gill’s belief that Nemo can. It’s important that Gill and Marlin are never in the same body of water at the same time, because they would probably cancel each other out entirely. Gill’s surrogate fatherhood is in its own way put in concert with Crush’s extremely active fatherhood, or Mr. Ray’s gentle hands-off approach to learning, or even Bruce’s aspirational leadership of that little group of vegetarian sharks. Each has a set of minor characters who follow them around and develop our main characters, and each mixes that singular Pixar brand of giggles and sorrow.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
1937, directed by David Hand
The only animated movie to land on both iterations of AFI’s Top 100, Snow White is always going to be overrated by people who conflate importance and excellence. (Thus its place at the top of the AFI Top 10 for Animation, which somehow makes even less sense to me.) This isn’t to say that Snow White is any less than a good movie, and it’s held up better than other acclaimed movies of 1937 like The Life of Emile Zola or Stella Dallas. It does make the movie hard to talk about. If we graded movies by process, then the incredible ambition to produce the first feature-length cel animated movie (and in color!) would push Snow White far up the list. If we grade movies by results, then Snow White is a seriously artful movie which is funny and heartfelt, but never romantic in any real sense and not a winning musical. In practice that means that Snow White is as difficult a movie to write about as any other on this list. Watching this movie with the benefit of history, it’s nice to watch a princess who was never made with brand synergy in mind. Although Grumpy and Dopey are probably the real stars of this movie, Snow White has more personality than several of her descendants. The cheerfulness she displays while that classic array creatures—birds, deer, raccoons drawn by people who have never seen a raccoon before, etc.—surrounds her is fun without winking. Snow White is so wonderful and her voice so sweet that varmints simply can’t help but want to gather around her. The movie uses it as proof that she’s delightful or willing to befriend woodland weirdos (not excepting the dwarfs later on) and not as proof that she is a Disney Princess your three-year-old can take a picture with at a theme park. Her place in history makes it easier for us to read her as a movie character than an icon, which is probably counterintuitive but works nicely.
I like that there is one scene in this movie which is unabashedly played for horror. The Huntsman, who is about half an hour away from dropping off a pig heart in a jeweled box to his queen, warns Snow White that he has been sent to kill her. He doesn’t—it’s a near thing!—but he does send her into the woods posthaste, where she experiences what still ranks as one of the three or four creepiest Disney sequences ever. (It’s also been lampooned at least once; “Ooh, it’s a scary tree!” Kuzco says during a late night promenade through some South American forest.) For just over a minute, our girl scurries into the deep forest, maneuvering through vines, managing the expectations of an owl with glowing eyes inside a dead tree, and then dodging a whole bunch of bats. The scene takes a turn when the trees themselves start to move. Branches claw at the hem of her dress. Everything that shouldn’t have a mouth or eyes develops them, and then they appear to speed directly at her before she faints dead away. No doubt a number of geriatric nightmares still feature trees who bear grudges.
1940, directed by Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske
(This isn’t relevant, but I think about this one Calvin and Hobbes strip every time I think about Pinocchio, in part because it makes me laugh and in part because it makes me nod rapidly in agreement.)
Pinocchio is another order of magnitude more ambitious than Snow White. (Amusingly, Fantasia is a couple orders of magnitude more ambitious than Pinocchio, but we’ll get there when we get there.) Snow White has about a dozen characters, a limited number of settings, and a plot as straight as an arrow. Pinocchio is only a little longer than Snow White, but it has far more characters to manage, more settings to work through, longer (and better!) musical numbers, and a somehow underrated sense of physical scale. For a movie whose most famous character is probably not the title character but Jiminy Cricket, it’s easy to forget about how seamlessly he’s integrated into a movie with a child-sized Pinocchio, any number of untrustworthy adults, and a sperm whale on ‘roids. The beginning of the movie lets Jiminy Cricket amble around Geppetto’s workshop, and what he finds there is funny, slightly bawdy, rustic. It’s also the only time that everything is going to be the right size for him, down to the single ember he pulls out of the fire with his umbrella to warm himself up. Compare that to some of the grander setpieces of the movie, such as Pleasure Island, which has a little of everything going on as long as “everything” involves wanton destruction, or, of course, Jonah 2. Geppetto and Figaro and Cleo sit on their boat in semi-darkness, contemplating what they’ve given up on while they sit in this belly of a whale. That establishing shot makes Monstro’s insides look as vast as a cathedral, and it makes their sacrifice for Pinocchio—a boy who, despite their feeling for him, they hardly know—into something saintly. Pinocchio probably could stand one segment fewer, but it’s hard to know exactly what to axe. Could you get rid of the underwater sequence where Jiminy Cricket breaks a sea horse and Pinocchio explores the ocean floor? It’s not a necessity, but it’s remarkable: there’s no Xerox machine for those bubbles.
Pinocchio has a more expansive rogues’ gallery than your average Marvel sequel, and at least you can tell these folks apart. Each new villain ramps up the wickedness a little bit. Honest John and Gideon, who get Pinocchio to ditch school, are bad dudes with training wheels on them. Stromboli, one of those relics of a time when Italians weren’t white yet in the popular imagination and thus subhuman, screams at Pinocchio and locks him in a literal cage, but he appears to be a threat to Pinocchio and not particularly to anyone else. (I’ve always been tickled by the fact that he burns an old puppet as firewood; it’s obviously freaky for Pinocchio, but on a more logical level…if you’ve got the puppets to spare, who are definitely not alive, why not?) Monstro is the beneficiary of some really tremendous animation that makes him seem to ripple even when he’s lying still. He’s not an inky black, but a textured, shaded black, and that choice makes him the most realistic character (I know) in the entire movie. His flesh is closer to the flesh of something from life than anyone else’s in the movie. But the great villain of the movie is the unnamed one, the Coachman who recruits bad boys to come to Pleasure Island, where the magic of the place turns them into donkeys who are sold to mines and circuses and other undesirable places. Lampwick, arguably the cockiest boy on that cursed rock and thus the one who most powerfully attracts our dweeby protagonist, has a transformation for the ages which is, in its own unnatural way, just as uncanny as Snow White’s walk in the woods. Before Pinocchio’s eyes (and largely as a shadow on the wall for us), he becomes a screaming donkey. The Coachman, who has a round face and rosy cheeks, is the most interesting character in the movie. As a child raised Protestant, I saw him as an avatar of justice: the boys behave badly and he ensures they reap the benefit of it. Even after I learned the word “entrapment,” it’s hard to shake the nervous feeling in the gut that those boys, in some way, earned the graves they dug.