Tag Archives: animation

The Secret of NIMH (1982)

The 1970s was a transition period for the world of feature length animation. Walt Disney’s death had left a leadership void at Disney which was exacerbated by the passing of Roy Disney in 1971. With the Disney brothers no longer at the head of operations, the company turned to Donn Tatum, the first non-Disney family member to head the company. It was during this era that the animators on staff started to feel like the company no longer prioritized the art of animation the way it had under the Disney brothers. It probably didn’t help that the decade began with the release of The Aristocats, one of the least celebrated Disney animated features to date. Because of a sense of stifled creativity, a group of animators staged a walk out lead by Don Bluth. He along with animators Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy, and several others left the company during production on The Fox and the Hound and Don Bluth Productions was born. Seeking to emulate the classic style of early Disney works, Bluth and his associates set out to making features as quickly as possible. They found a partner in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and a story in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. They knew what they wanted to do, but the hard part would be making it all happen.

The tale of Mrs. Frisby had been brought to Bluth’s attention by fellow animator Ken Anderson while working at Disney. Try as he might though, he just couldn’t get Disney to bite on it. And there was some solid reasoning behind that as animation director Wolfgang Reitherman cited the recent release of The Rescuers as being too similar to the tale of Mrs. Frisby and her fantastic rat friends. When Bluth left Disney, the story went with him and it was the book he turned to first when it came time to prove that feature length animation could flourish outside the House of Mouse. Working outside of Disney though meant a lower budget and a shorter schedule which necessitated Bluth and staff to work ungodly hours on the feature. And a certain company that popularized a flying disc necessitated a name change of the titular character of Mrs. Frisby to Mrs. Brisby.

Bluth wanted to prove to Disney that others were capable of outperforming them and The Secret of NIMH certainly packs the visuals.

I was in the fifth grade when the story of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was introduced to me. I was a kid who liked to take shortcuts when it came to academics. I was fortunate that most subjects came easily to me, but it did stifle my intellectual curiosity as a result. When it came to independent reading, I just recycled junk I had been reading for years that my new teachers wouldn’t necessarily be aware of. Eventually, my teacher, Mrs. Roy (who remains my favorite teacher ever), wrote a note in my report card that I needed to read more challenging books. I really had no desire to honor the request, but also had little choice in the matter so I simply asked one of my friends if he got the same edict. When he confirmed he did not, I asked what he had been reading that she seemed to approve of and he directed me to the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I read it and thought it was good enough to read the sequel when I was finished. Better yet, my teacher left me alone when it came to my independent reading assignments. At the time I read it, it was the early 90s and I had no idea a film had been made out of the story a decade earlier. I think I just happened upon it one night at the local video rental store and asked my mom if we could rent it, so we did!

Ever since seeing The Secret of NIMH I have thought of it very little. I think I liked it, but it clearly didn’t leave a mark. The book really didn’t leave a lasting impression either, though I can say it did stick in my head far better than the sequel of which I remember nothing but the title. In my house though, Saturday is movie night and we alternate who picks the movie each week among the members of my family and when the choice falls to me I like to find things that my kids haven’t seen and will hopefully enjoy. That’s how this film popped up on my radar recently, so out I went (safely) to a nearby media store and found a used DVD release of the film for a mere five dollars. It’s certainly not a great DVD release as it only has a full screen option, but it was an opportunity to see this film again and show it to my kids for the first time and I’m still not willing to digitally rent things. I’m just weird like that.

Mrs. Brisby is out to save little Timmy. I feel like it’s always a “little Timmy.”

The Secret of NIMH tells the tale of the widow Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman), a field mouse, and her quest to save her ailing son Timothy (Ian Fried) from a bout of pneumonia. The illness itself isn’t necessarily the threat, it’s the fact that the harvest season has arrived and Mrs. Brisby and her family need to vacate their current home for the farmer’s tractor will soon level it. Unfortunately, Timothy is too sick to be moved so Mrs. Brisby is forced to turn to the Rats of NIMH for help. The rats are a colony that lives in a nearby rose bush and they possess intelligence seemingly beyond that of man. It’s all the result of once being lab rats. Throughout the film viewers are introduced to a small portion of their various members and their wonderous home while also learning about their past and their relationship with Brisby’s deceased husband. Internal strife also exists within the ranks of the rats which will pose a problem for Mrs. Brisby and her family.

The story is quite brisk and uncomplex as it moves along during its 82 minute runtime. Mrs. Brisby basically has a problem and receives advice from one source to go to another, who then sends her to another, and so on. It’s easy for a child to follow and Brisby is a likeable and empathetic lead. She is joined, at times, by the crow Jeremy (Dom Deluise) who provides comic relief, while the seemingly ancient leader of the rats, Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi), adds a little wonder to her supporting cast. The danger of the situation is illustrated clearly, and other dangers arise throughout the film. Since we’re largely dealing with a cast of mice and rats, expect a cat to play a role.

Jeremy is the character we’re supposed to laugh at, but I didn’t hear much laughing in my home.

The story is cohesive, but what isn’t is the world created by O’Brien and added to by Bluth. The rats are said to possess human level intelligence, and perhaps more as their home is quite elaborate for something that exists in a bush. However, seemingly all of the animals (except the cat) possess incredible intelligence anyway making the rats seem less remarkable. Mrs. Brisby and her children all wear clothes and live in a home full of human comforts. They even use utensils and boil water for tea and such. A Bluth addition is the inclusion of magic. Bluth seems to think animated tales should contain elements of the fantastic like magic, so Nicodemus is now a wizard of some kind. He’s the first character we meet as he views Brisby through a magic looking glass and remarks how he has a talisman for her. No explanation is provided by the film for this magic or how Nicodemus and the Rats of NIMH came to possess it, but the talisman does at least serve a practical purpose of putting the power to save her family in Mrs. Brisby’s hands, quite literally. Movies don’t have to explain everything, of course. People seem willing to happily accept that Cinderella can communicate with animals and such in her Disney film, but this is also the type of film that does try to provide explanations for everything else, and hand-waving the concept of magic feels off as a result. It also forces a lot into the final five to ten minutes of the film. Animation is expensive and hard, so it’s no surprise to see this one clock in under 90 minutes, but it’s a film that would have benefited from more time. We barely get to know the rats and their inner conflict so the climax that conflict leads to doesn’t land like it should. Everything just sort of happens and as a viewer I was left feeling, “That was it? Huh.” My kids, on the other hand, fell asleep.

The film’s decision to shoehorn some magical elements into it doesn’t really satisfy from a plot perspective, but it’s at least visually interesting.

The Secret of NIMH isn’t as captivating or as enchanting as it probably would like to be, but what can’t be denied is the visual fidelity. The Secret of NIMH looked terrific in 1982, and by any standard it still does. I wish I had tracked down a Blu Ray version, but beggars can’t be choosers. Bluth and his fellow animators set out to emulate the early Disney style and they absolutely nailed it. Show this to someone who is just a casual animation viewer and they’ll probably mistake it as a forgotten Disney feature. The designs of the mice and rats are very reminiscent of The Rescuers and Cinderella, but absent those tell-tale Xerox lines from the Disney films of the 1970s. It’s gorgeous, and the more fantastic elements are captured with simple, effective, animation techniques. I may not have been fully engaged with the film’s plot, but the visuals definitely held my attention for the duration of the film.

Less celebrated is the soundtrack of Jerry Goldsmith. It is certainly capable, but not quite memorable. The same can be said for most of the Disney features from that era, so in that respect this one feels quite similar to what Bluth’s old place of work was outputting. The voice cast is plenty capable though and I very much enjoyed the late Elizabeth Hartman in her role as Mrs. Brisby. She brings a gentle confidence to the character and I imagine it’s quite similar to the voice I heard in my head when reading the book back in fifth grade. Dom DeLuise is good in his role as Jeremy, though I think the film thinks he’s funnier than he really is making him more of a distraction than true comic foil. The Rats of NIMH are all given rather regal and distinguished voices while Nicodemus is treated as an elderly wizard, a departure from the source material. It’s a cast that doesn’t contain many big names from the era, but it’s a professional cast more than capable of bringing these characters to life.

The Secret of NIMH is a triumph of animation with a somewhat forgettable story. That adds up to a solid viewing experience that provided movie-goers in 1982 with a glimpse of where Don Bluth was heading. He and his team of animators would go on to make better films, and worse ones, leaving The Secret of NIMH to serve as the appetizer of the Don Bluth feast. The film did eventually receive a sequel, but without any contribution from Bluth, which makes it similar to the book sequel which was not written by Robert O’Brien. I have never seen it, but it received a near universal negative reception upon release in 1998 as a direct-to-video feature. Which is fine, as this isn’t a film that cries out for a sequel. It’s quick, fairly tidy, and mostly beautiful and a perfect way to kill an hour and a half on a Saturday night.


Dec. 7 – SuperTed Meets Father Christmas

Original air date December 19, 1984.

When it comes to British imports and the subject of bears is brought up, most probably immediately think of Paddington or Winnie the Pooh. Few probably recall SuperTed, the Welsh teddy bear brought to life by a spotted alien and given super powers by Mother Nature. SuperTed is similar to Mighty Mouse in that he wears a Superman-like costume and can apparently do Superman-like things.

SuperTed was created by author Mike Young in the 70s. Like a lot of children’s characters, SuperTed was initially created by Young for his child before he realized he had something he could potentially turn into a children’s book. SuperTed got started in literature, and come the 1980s was turned into a cartoon series simply titled SuperTed. Towards the end of the decade, Young would partner with Hanna-Barbera to bring The Further Adventures of SuperTed to the US.

SuperTed had a nice little run for himself in the 1980s, even landing a timeslot on the coveted Disney Channel.

SuperTed is one of those characters I had completely erased from my memory until I stumbled upon this Christmas special as I searched for content to pad this website with. I don’t know how I came upon SuperTed as a child, but I did watch and enjoy it and I lamented to some degree the lack of merchandise for me to bug my parents to buy. I probably watched the Hanna-Barbera cartoon on television, though it’s possible we also rented videos of the series from the local library, if such a thing were possible. I remember no specifics about the series and basically I only recall the character of SuperTed and not his allies or enemies.

The general plot for SuperTed (Derek Griffiths) is he and his alien friend Spotty (Jon Pertwee) travel the world looking to help people. Along the way they are constantly running into the villainous Texas Pete (Victor Spinetti) who is out to enrich himself through illegal means. Texas Pete is joined by two bumbling henchmen, the oafish Bulk (Roy Kinnear) and an effeminate skeleton named, appropriately enough, Skeleton (Melvyn Hayes). As a citizen of the US, I am amused to see the villain of the series is a cartoon Texan, though he has a bit of a Cajun accent going on. He looks a little like Dick Dastardly or the Disney version of Captain Hook. Skeleton is a bit odd since they chose to make what appears to be a homosexual corpse a villain. My guess is if SuperTed were made today the character would be altered considerably.

Ted ripping off his own skin as part of his transformation process is one of the few things that stuck with me over the years.

Every episode of SuperTed begins with a narrator (Peter Hawkins) who tells the viewer how SuperTed came to be. Apparently Spotty (who looks like the love-child of C-3PO and Mr. Poopybutthole from Rick & Morty) found a discarded teddy bear deemed defective and used some space dust to bring him to life. He took him to Mother Nature (in space?) who gave Ted his powers. Again, I remember nothing of this, but the one thing that did jar my memory was seeing Ted transform into SuperTed as it’s this horrifying animation of Ted ripping off his skin to reveal the costume below it. This visual has stuck with me because as a kid I found it really confusing, and a bit frightening. I don’t know if the show ever depicted him doing the inverse and how that worked. Does he just rip his costume off and he’s a bear again? Is he wearing a false suit of fur over his costume at all times? It’s certainly different, but leaves so many questions unanswered.

Placing the camera inside a Christmas tree is never a bad move.

The episode begins with the narrator informing us it’s Christmas and Father Christmas (this is British, after all) is making a stop. His sleigh is parked outside and appears to have just one reindeer. We soon find out though that this is no Father Christmas, but Texas Pete in disguise! And he doesn’t even have an actual reindeer as it’s clearly a horse with some antlers attached to its head. A little boy is waiting inside the home and he’s apparently none the wiser as Texas Pete enters. Just what is Texas Pete hoping to accomplish this night? It’s not clear, but apparently the real Father Christmas has come and gone since the underside of the tree is loaded with gifts.

This looked legitimately painful.

The little boy comes down the stairs happy to see “Father Christmas,” who is presently trying to rip the head off of a teddy bear left behind by the real Father Christmas. The boy grabs it and clutches it to his face delighted with his new toy. Pete then picks up him by the back of his shirt and proceeds to drop the boy right on his face! It’s pretty harsh adult on child violence, and the crying kid is sent back to bed leaving Pete to indulge in some cookies Father Christmas left behind while laughing at the camera like the evil madman he is.

Spotty has some impressive alien technology, but insulation apparently never occurred to him or Ted.

Elsewhere, Ted and Spotty are trying to get warm in their hideout, which is apparently a tree house. It looks like a rather ordinary tree house, save for the giant communication equipment on one wall. A buzzer goes off and Ted checks the video monitor. The boy we saw earlier tearfully relays to Ted that Father Christmas has made off with all of his toys and ruined his Christmas. Ted won’t stand for this, and quickly transforms into SuperTed while Spotty puts on his jet pack.

Ted actually has rocket boots which helps set him apart from other flying super heroes.

SuperTed rockets off from the tree house with an interesting effect. Apparently he doesn’t just fly like Superman, but has rocket boots or something. Spotty flies off to join him and confesses he doesn’t believe in Father Christmas pondering how he’s to look for something he doesn’t believe in. SuperTed is a bit disappointed in his friend’s lack of faith, but before they can have a proper conversation on the subject they spy a sleigh traveling below them.

I’m getting the impression that Spotty generally does more harm than good.

As Spotty complains about the abundance of trees on Earth, SuperTed goes after the sleigh. He’s apparently not very fast, or observant, as he lands on the ground and can’t seem to find the sleigh. He’s also lost track of Spotty, who crashed into a tree above him. When he calls out, his voice causes the snow to fall from the tree burying him. Spotty soon follows and expresses some distress about being unable to locate SuperTed. As he calls out for him, SuperTed rumbles below and Spotty mistakes him for an earthquake. The two return to the sky to look for the sleigh, so this whole sequence was just done to pad out the episode and make an attempt at physical comedy.

SuperTed! No! That’s elder abuse!

From the sky, the duo of SuperTed and Spotty are unable to spy the sleigh once again, but SuperTed sees tracks heading to a cottage. They head for it quickly and SuperTed flies down the chimney and ambushes an individual in the house. A young girl (with a lit candle, even though this appears to take place in a post electricity era) hears the commotion, and heads for the living room to find SuperTed atop Father Christmas! She shouts for him to stop, but SuperTed assures her this Father Christmas is a fake. Only he’s not, and the clump of hair SuperTed rips from his chin is proof of that. The traumatized old man begs SuperTed to leave him alone, while he hides the clump of beard hair behind his back and feigns innocence. Spotty then notices the sleigh is gone and some ominous music takes us out of the scene.

I love a festive concussion!

Texas Pete, Skeleton, and Bulk are hanging out under a street light. Skeleton is delighted he gets to do some acting as he’s also dressed like Father Christmas. Pete then informs us his grand plan is merely to steal presents. As he does so, he lines up Bulk with a fence that is apparently in their way. Pete and Skeleton then lift Bulk off the ground and use his head as a battering ram to blast through the fence. When his head emerges on the other side, festive baubles dance around Bulk’s head which is a nice touch.

I don’t like the look in SuperTed’s eyes.

SuperTed and Spotty arrive on a nearby rooftop with SuperTed apparently still in some denial over whether or not he just assaulted the real Father Christmas. Down the street, they spy Skeleton and Bulk as they enter a house via the chimney. Skeleton goes down easy enough, but Bulk has some trouble fitting. He still has the hunk of fence stuck around his neck and it’s genuinely amusing to watch him narrate his process for his getting stuck. SuperTed finds him lodged in the chimney and offers to “help” him get out. He lifts and tosses him off the roof and a bunch of snow piles on him when he hits the ground.

The common dog: bane to skeletons every where.

Inside the house, Skeleton has fallen to pieces from hitting the ground after descending the chimney. A dog sees him and soon makes off with his arm. Spotty and SuperTed view him through the window basically just to mock him and wish him a Merry Christmas. He begs for help in retrieving his arm, but Spotty and SuperTed care little for the predicament Skeleton finds himself in.

That’s no reindeer!

SuperTed hears Texas Pete calling out in a mock-Father Christmas fashion as he rides away. SuperTed and Spotty quickly go after him. SuperTed reminds Spotty to look out for trees this time, and as Spotty assures him he’ll be fine he, predictably, crashes into a tree. SuperTed, on his own now, lands on Pete’s reindeer and quickly discovers it’s a horse. As he gets jumbled around, he tries to convince Texas Pete to stop, but the fake Father Christmas has no intention of doing so.

Perhaps Ted broke Pete’s spine making the ending of Ted leaving him to die in the snow a bit darker than expected.

Texas Pete grabs SuperTed and flings him onto the sack of toys in the sleigh. SuperTed responds by tossing a toy in his face, which enrages Pete. As he threatens to knock the stuffing out of Ted, he misses with a kick and SuperTed grabs him by the leg and tosses him out of the sleigh. He then climbs onto the horse and pulls hard on the reigns to get it to stop. The camera pans to show us Texas Pete buried in the snow as SuperTed makes a crack about him looking like a snowman.

A Christmas party in Ted and Spotty’s crappy house.

With Christmas saved, SuperTed, Spotty, and both kids they encountered this evening are at the tree house. The girl thanks SuperTed for returning their presents, but remarks there’s one person missing. When SuperTed questions who she is referring to, she responds, “Father Christmas!” As she looks out of the tree house window, the camera pans up and we see Father Christmas on the roof of the tree house. He turns to the camera, the patch of beard still missing following his brush with SuperTed, and gives a wink.

The bandage is there to serve as a reminder that it was actually the hero who maimed Father Christmas and not the villain.

It’s interesting to me that the title of this one is “SuperTed Meets Father Christmas,” when really it’s “SuperTed beats up Father Christmas.” I guess we’re supposed to have some doubts over who he tangled with and that last shot featuring Father Christmas with a bald spot in his beard is the confirmation. It’s just funny because all of the stuff I read on the franchise mentioned how Young wanted SuperTed to be less violent than other cartoons, and yet here he is assaulting Father Christmas.

SuperTed’s reaction to beating up Father Christmas – that rascal!

The whole plot of this one is pretty thin and not really something worthy of much dissection. Texas Pete wants to steal presents either because he thinks he can sell them or because he’s just a bad guy and wants to spread misery at Christmas. It’s odd that SuperTed stopped him and then apparently just left him? Did he bring him to the police off camera? It sure seemed like the gang could have licked their wounds and just went off to another town to resume their thievery. These cartoons are quite short so there’s likely always going to be some lingering questions, but the time it had could have been spent on such details rather than the sequence of Spotty and the trees.

When SuperTed made the jump to animation, Young basically set out to create a studio himself. The animation staff appears to be pretty small based on the credits and the presentation is overall fairly interesting. The backgrounds look great and the colors are nice. The characters have a floaty quality to how they move, but they also emote quite well. The lighting on the early scene of Texas Pete entering the home is really well done. I guess one might call it a touch rough, but I found it pretty fun to look at.

The villains aren’t great as they’re basically distilled to evil American, dumb fat guy, and gay skeleton. Though admittedly, I do kind of like the skeleton.

The design of SuperTed is pleasing enough, though quite basic. I found Spotty to be a bit unappealing as he’s a big spotted yellow guy and Bulk was really boring to look at. Texas Pete is fine though and I do like Skeleton. The Father Christmas here looks like a regular old Santa Claus to me. He also has a lone reindeer on his sleigh which is disappointing, though maybe it’s a regional thing? He’s never shown flying in it either, so no Santa passing in front of the moon shot here!

The voice cast is fine, though I mentioned how Texas Pete has a bit of a confusing accent. The audio though is rather quiet and sometimes understated. The music was better and felt appropriate in terms of loudness. There’s some ominous music in this one that caught me off guard at times. There’s also a SuperTed theme used during the ending credits and it’s not great.

Santa may not pass in front of the moon in this one, but SuperTed does!

SuperTed is yet another bear from the 80s who feels like he has mostly been left behind by time. This is coming from a US person though so maybe things are different across the Atlantic, but it sure feels like SuperTed took a backseat to Teddy Ruxpin here. I don’t foresee a comeback on the horizon for old Ted, despite attempts by Young as recently as 2016 to reboot the franchise, but his show is available on DVD should you wish to give it a look. The company that owns the distribution rights, Abbey Home Media, seems to have most of the episodes streaming for free on Youtube, though they have a banner on them that is a bit annoying. They do not seem protective of the franchise though, so you can find this streaming elsewhere without that banner should you wish to make your Christmas viewing this year a little extra super.


Dec. 6 – Christmas Flintstone

Also known as “How The Flintstones Saved Christmas.” Don’t let the box art fool you, this isn’t A Flintstone Christmas.

The Flintstones have a well-established relationship with Christmas at this point. There have been a few specials, some even prime time, and plenty of home video releases. For that reason it’s a bit interesting that the show actually waited until its fifth season for its first Christmas episode. At that point, the show had been moved from its original prime time slot to a Saturday morning one and was more obviously intended to be a children’s show as opposed to a more general audience one. The fifth season in particular had some pretty wild plots including a Cinderella parody and an episode where Fred gets shrunk, so one that acknowledges the existence of Santa Claus feels practically ordinary.

If you’re not familiar with the property, The Flintstones is a show about the modern stone age family in which patriarch Fred Flintstone (Alan Reed), wife Wilma (Jean Vander Pyl), and daughter Pebbles (Vander Pyl) are just trying to scrape by. The show was inspired by The Honeymooners, and some would go further and call it a rip-off, though Fred doesn’t resort to threats of violence towards his wife. The gimmick obviously is the characters co-exist in a prehistoric world alongside dinosaurs and other extinct creatures. The family “dog” is actually a dinosaur named Dino (Mel Blanc) and most of the world’s technology is driven by dinosaurs. A comedic staple of the show is seeing a dinosaur used for a mundane task who then breaks the fourth wall by commenting on its miserable life.

“Christmas Flintstone,” sometimes referred to as “How The Flintstones Saved Christmas,” arrived on television for Christmas Day, 1964 as the fifteenth episode of the show’s fifth season. The episode centers on Fred and his quest for more money to help with the gift-buying that the holiday often demands. Through that, Fred is going to find his true calling, it would seem, when he winds up playing Santa for a local department store. That’s going to get him some attention from a unique source which leads to an even more unique job opportunity. It’s a story that Hanna-Barbera apparently liked because the studio would turn to it again thirteen years later for a full-fledged hour long Flintstones Christmas special.

Did you know it snows in Bedrock?

The episode begins with a cold open in which a little girl is telling Santa Fred what she wants for Christmas. This will occur later in the episode so I don’t know if it’s considered a true cold open as it’s more like a preview. The catchy theme song then takes over and when it fades out we find Fred and his good pal Barney (Blanc) driving through a gentle snowstorm. Fred is talking about his love for the holiday season and the warm feelings it brings, which quickly fade when he slams on the “brakes” (his heels) to stop for a jaywalker that he admonishes. Barney is quick to remind him about the whole “good will toward men” business of Christmas which causes Fred to bring out his smile again. The jaywalker doesn’t appear to share the same warm feelings.

What kind of Christmas special doesn’t feature some financial distress?

Barney and Fred then take a stroll through the downtown area and Fred starts to fret about his finances. Barney is sporting earmuffs and Fred has green gloves on which looks kind of funny since they’re still shoe-less and bare-armed. Fred notices a help wanted sign in a department store and decides to check it out. He meets with a Mr. Macyrock (Blanc) and gets hired, though he doesn’t know what he’ll be doing. Fred runs out of the office and shares the good news with Barney and then dashes home to tell Wilma the same. The elevator is out, so they have to take the “stairs” which turns out to be the spine of a dinosaur. Barney tells Fred to be careful as the stairs are uneven. When the two disappear from the frame the dinosaur makes a comment about people always going up and down him. If there wasn’t a laugh track I wouldn’t even know he’s making a joke.

It’s not big enough. That’s the joke. That’s always the joke with this show.

We then see Betty Rubble (Gerry Johnson) seated in her home reading a slate. Barney pops into the window and then vanishes. The two carry on a conversation about Fred getting a new job as we see Barney is being bounced by son Bamm-Bamm (Don Messick). Betty tells Bamm-Bamm to put his father down as it’s time for dinner. Barney can’t wait to eat the roast dodo Betty prepared as we then get introduced to the Rubbles’ pet, Hoppy, a green, kangaroo-like dinosaur. Betty asks Hoppy where Bamm-Bamm is, and predictably it’s to setup a joke about Bamm-Bamm being in the dino’s pouch. At the Flintstone household, Fred is assuring Wilma this job is a good thing and bemoaning the fact that he’s only getting one pterodactyl leg, which like the ribs in the ending title sequence, is comically huge. He also makes a bad joke about eating for two now that he has two jobs.

Fred’s foray into gift-wrapping goes better than expected.

The next day, Fred leaves his regular job hastily to get to the department store. There he’s instructed by Mr. Macyrock to head to gift-wrapping. After getting a demonstration on how to wrap gifts, Fred is left on his own when an impatient woman brings him an umbrella to wrap. Fred can’t find a box that fits, so he just wraps it to the woman’s specifications which results in a rather ugly looking parcel. When he hands it to her she questions if it’s a joke. As Fred stammers, the umbrella opens and suddenly the wrapping-job he did looks pretty good! She leaves satisfied, but Fred is soon called to help in the stockroom.

Fred must be getting screwed out of royalties on these toys to need a second job.

As Fred complains about liking gift wrap better, he finds himself in the toy department. He basically turns into a big kid when he sees all of the toys, and apparently is unaware of his family’s celebrity as he makes no comment about the Pebbles, Bamm-Bamm, and Dino dolls for sale. He then spies some baseball equipment, and for some reason, decides it would be a good idea to hit a ball. It ends up getting lodged in the mouth of Mr. Macyrock who seems willing to take things in stride, surprisingly.

Fred needed a miracle to save his ass, and he gets one.

Fred runs before Macyrock knows for sure it was him, but Fred doesn’t go far as he hops onto a rocking horse. The other kids in the department start complaining that he’s hogging the toys and Macyrock orders him to get the stock to the basement. He’ll tolerate a rock-ball to the kisser, but not employee incompetance, and when Fred plummets down the out of order elevator shaft Macyrock lays down his hammer and fires him on the spot.

That is some belt.

The manager for the store runs over to Macyrock informing him of a problem. It would seem their Santa is sick and can’t make it. Worse, the hiring agency is completely booked and now people are starting to leave. Macyrock then gets an idea and runs back to the elevator. By now, Fred has emerged and is aware of his termination, but Macyrock quickly undoes that and informs Fred that he’ll be the store’s new Santa. Fred is a bit surprised at first, but he soon takes to the job quite well. Macyrock gives him a costume which for some reason includes a cow-print belt and Fred is able to impress with his best “ho ho ho.”

Those trees would feel right at home in a Charlie Brown special.

Fred heads out into the store as Santa Claus and goes into a Christmas song. The title is “Christmas is my Fav’rite Time of Year,” and Alan Reed sings it well enough. It’s not great, but is short, and once it ends we see Fred doing the Santa routine and the little girl from the cold open is on his lap. After she gives him a long list of presents, Fred tells her to just give the list to her mother and she’ll get it to him. She tells him she loves him, and Fred gets a little emotional in a nice bit of voice work by Reed.

We gotta make some room for Dino!

We cut to another scene and a little boy is telling Fred he’s been a good boy all year. Fred responds, without cynicism, that everyone has told him the same before we cut to another scene. It’s a bit weird to have such a quick cut, apparently someone really felt that was a good joke. The other scene still features Fred in Santa’s chair and more kids have gathered around for a story. Once again, Fred is oblivious to his celebrity status as the book he reads is about his own pet, Dino, and the story is sung. I guess this was just done to get fan-favorite Dino some screen-time and as Fred sings the song we see the events of the book unfold in still images. It’s all about Dino cutting and trimming a tree for some kids without them knowing. It’s cute and fills some time.

Dino was apparently allowed to hang some of his favorite pictures.

With the shift over, Fred gets congratulations from Mr. Macyrock for a job well done. As Fred heads home for the night, Macyrock remarks he thinks Fred truly believes he’s Santa Claus. Fred then arrives home and his presence initially terrifies poor Dino. Fred has apparently decided to wear his costume home, and when Wilma sees him she thinks he’s the real deal and hastily trims the tree. Fred insists it’s him, not Santa, and then tells Wilma to sit down and he’ll explain what happened.

I do enjoy the attitude all of the adults apparently have in regards to Santa Claus.

Barney and Betty decide to stop by and see how Fred’s first day at the new job went (they’re apparently comfortable leaving the house with their kid asleep in his bed). When Santa Fred answers the door Betty is surprised and starts listing off a list of wants for Christmas which include mostly expensive things. When Fred cuts her off by telling her he’s not Santa, she confesses she knew, but was hoping to be wrong. Barney then gets in a zinger about telling Santa to bring Fred a new bowling ball so he has no excuse when he loses to him. Fred reluctantly invites the pair in. He tells them what happened with work while enduring a bunch of fat jokes from Barney. Seriously, the guy is pretty relentless.

Fred Flintstone: local celebrity.

The next day, everyone watches Fred get interviewed as Santa on television. He seems to be enjoying the attention, but it’s also closing time on Christmas Eve, so he wishes everyone gathered at the store the merriest Christmas ever. With that done, Fred retreats to the locker room pretty satisfied with himself. He soon falls asleep in his chair and a pair of heads peek through the doorway. They’re elves, and they soon wake Fred up to tell him they need his help. Fred doesn’t believe them, especially when they both claim to be over 300 years old, and thinks they’re kids. Blinky (Messick) and Twinky (Dick Beals) are pretty insistent that Santa Claus needs Fred’s help and he decides to go along with it.

Only three “reindeer?” That’s a sorry looking sleigh, boys.

The elves lead Fred to a sleigh outside outfitted with three dinosaur reindeer. The elves call out to only two though, Dancer and Prancer, and the sleigh takes off into the night sky. Fred is shocked, but also convinced, that these guys are indeed who they say they are. He soon finds himself at the north pole face to face with the real Santa Claus. It seems the big guy is sick this year and can’t deliver the presents, and since Fred did such a good job playing him at the store, he wants Fred to deliver the presents for him.

This may seem unwise on the part of old Saint Nick, but we’re about to learn that Santa’s job is remarkably easy.

What do you do when Santa Claus (Hal Smith) asks something of you? You do it, of course! Fred heads back to the sleigh with Blinky and Twinky and they fly over the world. It would seem Santa’s job is pretty easy in this world as Fred is just instructed to dump the presents over the side of the sleigh. When he asks how they’ll possibly be able to hit every house in a single night, Blinky just responds with a joke so the episode clearly isn’t interested in exploring how Santa’s magic works.

That’s it! That’s all the job requires.

Fred empties the sack and presents fall out. Eerily, some resemble Pebbles and you would think Fred would have some hang-ups about dumping dolls resembling his daughter into the night sky. Maybe he’s just really confident in the tiny parachutes attached to each toy as they all have little trouble finding a chimney to slide down. One smokestack even gulps the toys down.

Oh shit, did Fred accidentally dump Pebbles overboard?!

As the sleigh flies around the world, Fred calls out “Merry Christmas,” in various different languages. Since this is a stone age world, the language thing helps to let us know where they are since it isn’t always obvious based on the visuals. I’m also assuming the elves helped him out there, or maybe it’s just Christmas magic that allows Fred to be multi-lingual for a night.

The job is so easy that even the family is still up when Fred gets home.

With the job done, the elves drop Fred off at his house. He’s now in his regular attire and bids farewell to the elves. As he heads for his front door, he soon realizes he forgot his own presents for the family in the sleigh. Fred chases after the sleigh, but it’s long gone. Dejected, Fred heads inside prepared to tell Wilma he lost their presents. Instead though, he finds his family along with the Rubbles in a particularly festive mood. They congratulate him on his act of coming down the chimney and delivering the presents. The kids were convinced he was Santa (though I guess they’re less convinced now as Wilma relays this information right in front of them) and everyone is rather joyous. Wilma then comments she’s glad that Fred was able to get over his cold.

The old guy even had to go down the chimney, so his night was probably harder than Fred’s!

Confused, Fred steps back outside. He looks up to the sky and sees another sleigh soaring through the sky. A fellow in it wishes him a “Merry Christmas,” followed by a sneeze. Fred finally figures out what happened, and remarks how great a guy Santa is to get out of his sickbed to make sure he and his family have a great Christmas. He then gets excited and shouts out to open presents as he races back inside.

This guy loves Christmas, so it should come as no surprise he’s pretty excited about opening presents.

The episode cuts to the traditional festive closing. The entire gang, Flintstones and Rubbles, are gathered in a festive environment to wish us, the audience, a merry Christmas. It’s a fine enough way to close things out.

This is a nice little Christmas episode for The Flintstones. Like a lot of the episodes of this show, it’s not very funny and the laugh track almost emphasizes how unfunny the show is. One joke I enjoyed was Santa and Fred messing up Twinky’s name and calling him Winky by mistake, but I’m not even sure if that was an actual joke or if they just messed up the script. I did think it was funny that Dino appears to have some dinosaur pin-ups by his bed.

This episode pretty much had to end on a group shot.

What the episode lacks in humor it at least is able to make up for with some nice holiday visuals. Bedrock covered in snow is legitimately pretty and just about every scene features a nod to the holiday of some kind. This is a bit of a big deal for a Hanna-Barbera cartoon since the studio is famous for recycling a lot of animation. There’s still moments of that in this episode, in particular the crowd shots at the department store, but all in all it’s quite pleasing to the eye. I watched this on the DVD release for A Flintstones Christmas Carol and the colors are really rich and wonderful. I don’t know if this was restored, or if the studio just took excellent care of the masters.

In case you were wondering, yes they did manage to slip in a “Sleigh passing by the moon,” shot.

Fred taking over for a sick Santa Claus is a good premise for a Christmas plot. It’s fair to wonder if The Santa Clause was partially inspired by this story, or the story of the special that followed. A Flintstone Christmas uses a similar plot, only Fred is forced into playing Santa by Mr. Slate and Santa doesn’t get sick, but instead falls off of Fred’s roof. Barney gets to go along for the ride, and while that special definitely doesn’t need the full hour it gets, it does spend a lot more time with Fred and Barney playing Santa. This episode doesn’t do that enough and basically just glosses over it by having Fred just dump gifts out of the sleigh. It would have been nice to see Fred have some mishaps with a chimney or unwelcoming pet. It’s possible this is where Hanna-Barbera’s budget police played a role as there is certainly some padding in this episode with the songs which require less animation or present opportunities to recycle some. I feel like the episode really did us a disservice by not going in that direction and since it does devote too much time to the mundane I feel like I have to recommend A Flintstone Christmas over this one.

In years past, you could expect to catch this special on television, but that is no longer the case. The series is available on DVD, though I can’t recommend going that route as the show isn’t great. As I mentioned before, this episode is included on the DVD release of A Flintstones Christmas Carol which is made available every year at department stores. It’s usually dirt cheap too, and often even cheaper if you wait until after Christmas. I do not recommend The Flintstones’ take on the Dickens classic, but I didn’t mind paying five bucks for it along with this episode. You can also rent this via several streaming platforms and it’s probably available on Boomerang if you happen to have that.


Dec. 5 – The Captain’s Christmas

The Captain’s Christmas premiered December 17, 1938

Did you ever wonder where those speech balloons in comic books came from? Maybe you just assumed they were always there, but they actually originate from a comic strip titled The Katzenjammer Kids. The strip was created by cartoonist Rudolph Dirks and it debuted in newspapers in December of 1897. It was incredibly popular for its time, and after Dirks jumped ship from the Hearst Organization, he was forced to continue the strip under a different name: The Captain and the Kids.

The Captain and the Kids ran in newspapers all the way until 1979 while Hearst actually continued The Katzenjammer Kids into the new millennium. Neither series has a ton of name recognition these days since print cartoon strips are all but dead, but for its time period The Captain and the Kids was quite popular. Popular enough that when MGM was looking to get into the cartoon making business, it turned to the franchise and some now familiar names served as directors: William Hanna, Bob Allen, and Friz Freleng. Despite the strip’s popularity, the cartoon series was viewed as a flop. After roughly a year and 15 cartoons, MGM put an end to The Captain and the Kids and turned its attention to other projects.

During its brief run, The Captain and the Kids did manage to bestow upon us one Christmas short: The Captain’s Christmas. The Captain (voiced by Billy Bletcher, best known as the voice of Pete from the Mickey Mouse shorts) is the star of the shorts and as his name (title?) implies he’s a sailor, only he’s shipwrecked and has taken to a role of surrogate father for the local kids. His rival is the pirate John Silver (Mel Blanc) who causes trouble for the Captain. The twins Hans and Fritz, basically the real stars of the strips, are present but take a back seat to the Captain. Their mama, who is just referred to as Mama (Martha Wentworth), is another supporting character. Thirteen of the fifteen cartoons were presented in black and white, with The Captain’s Christmas being the first done in Technicolor.

The cartoon, directed by Freleng, opens with a shot that appears to be from the vantage point of someone looking through a telescope. A stereotypical pirate voice narrates the scene of a snow covered town and children hanging stockings in their warm house. The Captain then comes into the picture dressed as Santa Claus with a cow dressed-up as a reindeer pulling his sleigh. We then see our narrator is John Silver, and if I didn’t know Mel Blanc was performing his voice I wouldn’t have guessed it. He thinks he’d be a better Santa than the Captain, and the three sailor stooges around him agree, and we have a plot!

The poor guy is just trying to do something nice and he winds up with three guns drawn on him on Christmas Eve.

The Captain rigs up a pulley system to hoist his “reindeer” and sleigh onto the roof feeling this is required to complete the stunt. The little pirate henchmen then show up behind him and hold him up. This allows Silver to jump in and strip the Captain of his Santa disguise and commandeer it for his own good. Silver Claus grabs the rope the Captain was holding and as the cow falls from the roof, he goes up. The others are left to panic momentarily before the cow lands on them.

This Santa is a god damn maniac!

On the roof, Silver has some trouble getting his barings. He has a peg leg after all, which can’t make navigating a snow-covered roof easy. He slips and goes tumbling into the chimeny, which breaks apart and then messily re-assembles itself as he falls in. In the house, Mama and her boys are forced to scramble as “Santa” comes tumbling in. The boys are pretty pumped to see Santa in their house, though Silver is a bit out of sorts at first. He soon remembers what’s going on and then whips out his pistol and starts blasting in celebration of his arrival. He even blasts open the sack full of toys and they all come spilling out looking no worse for ware. And upon first inspection, none appear to be racist – it’s a 1930’s cartoon Christmas miracle!

Damnit…

Silver continues his jaunty celebration and then turns his attention to the blond boy (I don’t know which is Hans and which is Fritz) who is playing with a dancing, marionette, toy. Unfortunately, the toy is horribly racist so there goes our Christmas miracle. And then to rub salt in our eye wounds, Silver starts shooting at the toy’s feet to make it dance more violently which is in incredibly poor taste (what little I know of this comic strip though makes it apparent there’s a lot of problematic elements that wouldn’t fly today). The other pirates watch from the window as Silver continues to get out of control even swiping a tricycle from one of the kids declaring it’s his turn to play with it.

Look at this asshole! It’s not enough to steal the kid’s bike, he’s gotta hang him from the tree too.

Silver rides around the room on the bike, and while he does he gets a reprimanding look from a jack-in-the-box which is rather clever. He ends up crashing into a bunch of toys though and winding up on some horse toy. The pirates outside make a reference to The Lone Ranger as Silver continues to smash through the house leaving carnage in his wake. He eventually comes to rest atop a pile of broken toys and the remnants of the family’s Christmas tree. As he has a good laugh, he looks around and realizes he’s the only one laughing.

I hope you’re proud of yourself, Impostor Claus!

The kids, devastated that Santa showed up only to destroy everything, are weeping and Mama looks distressed as well. Silver immediately starts to feel bad as he’s soon accosted by his inner child who appears beside his head similar to the old devil/angel gag. As the child berates him, he soon begins to sob as he realizes he’s ruined Christmas for these lads. The child asks him how he plans to fix this mess and then whispers a suggestion into his ear. Silver immediately perks up and heads out.

I’ve heard of worse ideas, I suppose.

In the snowy town, Silver is pulled down the streets by the cow from earlier. He comes to rest in the center of town, and pulling out a little tuning fork, tells the other pirates he intends to secure those kids a big, barrel, of money. They then go into song, “Hang Up the Holly in the Window,” but the town does not reciprocate with money. John reasons they need to do it better, so they restart the song only this time at a faster tempo and an overall more cheerful vibe.

I think this is what got the crowd on their side.

The townsfolk do not respond in kind to this livelier version and soon start tossing all manner of junk from their homes in a bid to silence the troupe. For some reason, everyone is dressed as Santa Claus too. Eventualy they start throwing larger objects like a piano, freezer, and even a bathtub which the boys have some fun with. As the song moves along, they start getting pelted with toys as they row the bathtub down the street. Soon, they have enough toys to fill the sleigh, and John Silver instructs his would-be reindeer to head back to the house he massacred earlier.

Incoming!

Inside the home, the Captain has joined Mama and the boys as they rush to the fireplace because they hear a commotion. Soon a barrage toys comes rushing in like a tidal wave burying the home in goodies. The kids are happy, and even the adults don’t seem to mind the incredible amount of toys they’ll be stepping on for months.

Well, at least there do not appear to be any racist toys this time.

Outside, John Silver looks through the window and seems quite proud of himself. His inner child from earlier shows up again to congratulate him, and even plants a little kiss on his head. John Silver laughs and appears to be genuinely happy with himself as the short comes to an end.

John Silver gets to be happy with himself in the end, so happy that he imagines a child version of himself giving him a kiss.

The Captain’s Christmas is a simple little short that manages to tell a unique Christmas story. Even though it’s titled The Captain’s Christmas, it’s really John Silver’s Christmas as the trickster and glory hog commandeers the Captain’s surprise and gets to present himself as Santa Claus. He comes across as a jerk, but apparently a well-meaning one as when he realizes he did a bad thing he sets out to make it right. And conveniently, he’s able to and ends up giving the kids an even better Christmas than they would have had, if we’re simply going by the volume of toys they received. It’s fine as a tale, though John Silver is the only worthwhile character as he dominates everything.

They probably should have called this series The Misadventures of John Silver.

The Captain and the Kids may have failed as a cartoon series, but it doesn’t appear as if budget had anything to do with that. It’s quite competently animated by MGM, though the actual short basically forgoes any credits. If IMDB can be trusted, this short was animated by George Gordon, Emery Hawkins, Irven Spence, and Jack Zander, all of whom enjoyed lengthy careers as animators. Future household name Joseph Barbera wrote this one, and as mentioned earlier, Freleng was in the director’s chair. The coloring on the short looks great even today, and I’m assuming no one bothered to remaster this one. I don’t think I’d call any of the visual gags truly memorably, but few stuck out as cliche for 1938 so it at least has an original feel to it.

This cartoon looks good enough, and there’s some solid Christmas imagery as well.

Ultimately, The Captain and the Kids was a failure of a cartoon series and I suppose it’s because it wasn’t truly memorable or stand-out. Everything that is here, be it the music, voice acting, animation, is all fine, but it feels like this was MGM figuring out the medium before going onto bigger and better things. It’s nice though to have a Christmas short that isn’t just two parties battling around a tree or one that’s just a visit from Santa in which nothing exciting happens. There’s some conflict here, a little slapstick, and someone is even moved by the holiday into doing something good. It checks all the boxes, just without any exclamation points.

In short: it’s fine.

It probably will not surprise anyone when I say The Captain’s Christmas is very easy to come by should you wish to watch it this year. Warner Bros. owns the copyright now, but isn’t very protective of it. There’s also no comprehensive release of The Captain and the Kids on DVD, but you can find this cartoon on The Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 6 as a special feature on disc two as part of a Friz Freleng spotlight. Since that comes with three other discs of classic Looney Tunes shorts, it obviously comes with my recommendation. If for some reason you don’t want to own Looney Tunes shorts, you can also stream this one for free with minimal effort. Seriously, just type it into YouTube.


Rocko’s Modern Life Season 4

It’s an accepted part of life that all good things must come to an end. Bad things have endings too, but the only endings that are usually painful are the good things. And for Rocko’s Modern Life, it certainly was a good thing that ended perhaps before it needed to. After 52 episodes (100 segments) creator Joe Murray felt it was time to move on. It should be said that it was more of a personal decision in that he just didn’t have anything more to say with the show. He even stepped back some taking on the role of executive producer for the final season allowing Stephen Hillenburg to assume the role of creative director. Murray encouraged the network, Nickelodeon, to continue the show without him, but the network decided not to renew it for a sixth season. This was pretty typical of Nickelodeon as it often didn’t go beyond this type of episode count with its Nicktoons, or really any shows. As a result, Rocko’s Modern Life is one of those shows that feels like it went out on top. There were likely many more stories that could be told with these characters, but they’ll have to remain untold.

The fourth season of Rocko’s Modern Life continues to explore the setting of O-Town and life in the 90s for the main cast. Rocko (Carlos Alazraqui) once again is forced to tackle the mundane and the insane like managing conflicts between friends, rude neighbors, love, ghosts, and even a bout a hypnosis. His gluttonous best friend, Heffer, (Tom Kenny) takes on the role of co-star for many segments and even gets to assume a larger role at times than the star. Filbert (Mr. Lawrence) returns as a married turtle and will get to experience fatherhood this season while the Bigheads (Charlie Adler) are still around to make life miserable for neighbor Rocko.

A theme of the final season seems to be an emphasis on side characters. In this one, Rocko teaches Heffer’s mom how to drive.

The fourth season might be the best looking season of the show. I don’t know if anything changed on the production end, or if it was a case of the masters being better stored, but the DVD release really pops. The colors are deeper than they were on the first three seasons and the animation is quite fluid. It’s perhaps not as gross as the prior seasons, and that could be Hillenburg’s influence as creative director this season. There’s still moments that are somewhat gag-inducing, but it’s definitely not a defining characteristic.

Seeing Heffer, Rocko, and Filbert as O-Town High students doesn’t make much sense, but it does give us one of my favorite scenes from the show involving Filbert and some potato chips.

On the flip-side, this season seems to feature less continuity. We’ll see Filbert become a father in the early season episode “From Here to Maternity,” but afterwords his life doesn’t seem to change a whole lot. There will be times the gang goes to his trailer and it looks like he lives alone. I understand not wanting to be restricted by this development (it would be tiresome to write into every episode who is watching the kids), but there is a disconnect. Similarly, the dog Earl taken in by Bev Bighead seems to disappear this season and there’s a confusing flashback episode in which Rocko, Filbert, and Heffer are depicted as high school students even though Rocko moved to the US during adulthood. These aren’t really things that prevent one from enjoying the show, I just liked the continuity on display in the past seasons since so few cartoons contain such.

This season seems to feature a couple of movie parodies, including this obvious Ghostbusters one.

The show is still wildly funny in many places. I think a lot of fans consider season three of the show to the peak for it, but it’s hard to find any real drop-off with season four. “Sailing the Seven Zzz’s” might be the show’s funniest episode. The plot concerns Ed Bighead and his somnambulism in which he thinks he’s a pirate and makes nights miserable for Rocko. Heffer and Filbert see this as an opportunity to mess with him, and it gets pretty wacky. And speaking of Ed, he basically assumes a starring role in several episodes of this season. My favorite might be “Closet Clown” where we find out Ed enjoys playing a clown, but hides it from everyone. It’s yet another episode of the show that might be dealing with a sensitive subject, such as closeted individuals, but doing it in a very funny, natural, way.

There are a few segments that don’t work as well as others. “Dumbells” gives Gladys the Hippo (Adler) a starring role alongside Rocko in which she gets addicted to the thrill of the childhood prank ding, dong, ditch. It’s okay, but not really an interesting way to shine a light on a one-note character from prior seasons. “Wallaby on Wheels” is another episode where Rocko is trying to impress a girl (he seems to finally be over Melba) that feels a bit too familiar. The same could be said for one of the broadcast finale segments, “Turkey Time.” That one is depicting Rocko’s introduction to Thanksgiving and he invites a turkey home for dinner not realizing the intent is to serve it for dinner. It plays a lot like the episode where Heffer brings an elk home for the same reason. “Turkey Time” then gets extra redundant when everyone in town finds out about Rocko having a party and invites themselves over, which is the same plot as “Rocko’s Modern Christmas.” It does feature one of the racier jokes in the season though when Heffer brings out a turkey for the party and Rocko’s living room is basically decked out like a strip club.

Closet Clown is a funny episode, but might also be scratching the surface of a bigger societal issue.

Speaking of racy jokes, you can’t have a discussion about Rocko’s Modern Life without a discussion of censorship. This season contained one episode that was essentially banned after its initial airing and that’s “Heff in a Handbasket.” In it, Peaches returns whom viewers should remember from “To Heck and Back.” Peaches is the lord of the underworld and he’s tasked with acquiring Heffer’s soul, since he outwitted him before. It’s nothing too salacious and it’s a very silly episode where Peaches rigs a game show designed to steal Heffer’s soul, only Heffer is so stupid that he keeps messing it up. It’s a funny episode, so it’s a shame it got kicked off the air, and I guess it got the boot simply because part of it is set in a version of Hell.

Unlike a lot of cartoons, Rocko’s Modern Life did get a proper series finale. The segment “Future Schlock” is the intended finale, though the Thanksgiving episode aired after it to line-up with the actual holiday. Most of the episode takes place in the future when Filbert’s kids find a banana in the refrigerator of Rocko’s abandoned house and bring it to their eldery-looking (but only 38 year old) father to find out why anyone would put a banana in the refrigerator. Much of the episode from there is a flashback, but I enjoy the fact that it displays Filbert’s contempt for Heffer which is something that seemed to be rising with each season (though Filbert in general got a bit nastier, see him try to sacrifice Rocko for a wig in the segment “Rug Birds”). The show ends with the whole gang getting mistakenly blasted-off into space and the Netflix special Static Cling from 2019 actually picks up where the episode leaves off and you’ll definitely hear my thoughts on that before the summer is through.

The plot for the final episode is set in motion by an old banana.

The DVD for the fourth season of Rocko’s Modern Life is a lot like the other three. It’s essentially just the episodes presented in broadcast order. It would have been nice if they could have been arranged in production order for this season, since it has a proper ending, but it’s not a big deal. The only special feature is a video recording of a fan event from 2012. Hosted by voice acting legend Rob Paulsen, it’s a gathering of the main cast of the show for a reading of “Wacky Delly Part 1” and it’s quite a bit of fun. After the script is read, they also talk about the show and share their thoughts on everything. It’s crazy to think this was recorded 8 years ago at this point, but everyone sounds great and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

If you liked Rocko’s Modern Life or have all three seasons up to this point, then there’s absolutely no reason not to own season four. It’s a little different, but still plenty hilarious, wacky, and silly. Some characters get more of a spotlight shined on them so if you had a favorite side character from before then maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised by their inclusion here. There’s just a great chemistry between the characters in the show and the people behind the image that shines through. Joe Murray and his team can be proud that they created a cast that could work in almost any setting because they’re interesting, funny, and even sympathetic. Reliving this fourth season has me wishing even more than I already was for more content down the road. I don’t know that any will ever come, but it doesn’t hurt to hope.


Onward (2020)

onward_tease2020 is probably going to be remembered for a lot of things, as most years are, but it’s hard to imagine it being more remembered for anything other than Covid-19, aka coronavirus. The global pandemic has shuttered businesses, cost people their jobs (and lives), while turning us all into hermits. Social distancing is a phrase we’ve all learned and are unlikely to forget. And as we move beyond this era which will hopefully end in a return to normalcy, there will be things forever associated with this period in time and one of those items forever linked to Covid-19 is the Pixar animated feature Onward.

Onward was wide-released on March 6, 2020. Roughly two weeks later, the film industry came to a screeching halt. Even when the film opened, some were already staying away from crowded places before many states in the US started forcing closures of non-essential businesses. As a result, Onward became Pixar’s lowest grossing movie through no fault of its own. As of this writing, it’s estimated to have earned a little over 100 million dollars. With no end in sight to the current climate, Disney saw no reason to keep it in theaters. Disney decided to make the best of the current situation and quickly pivoted Onward to digital using it as a lure to get more subscribers to its relatively new streaming service Disney+. Patrons could pay to rent the film digitally on March 20, or wait for it to arrive on Disney+ on April 4, less than a month after its theatrical release. Because it’s so new and people are forced to stay at home, it’s possible more eyeballs will be trained on this film than some other recent Pixar fare because it’s quite a novelty to have a brand new Pixar feature so readily available.

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Brothers and Ian and Barely are going on a quest to resurrect their father and maybe learn a thing or two about each other.

Onward is a buddy comedy starring two brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), who embark on a “quest” to restore their late father to life for one day. The hook of the feature is that it’s set in a modern-day fantasy world. The premise is essentially what would a classic fantasy world have evolved into once things like electricity were discovered? The answer seems to be that magic was largely abandoned in favor of modern technology which advanced largely in step with our world. The main difference is that elves and orcs live side-by-side and some never found better housing than hollowed out giant mushrooms. The film was conceived by director Dan Scanlon who shares a similar backstory to the central characters here in that he and his brother lost their dad at a young age. Jason Headley and Keith Bunin were brought on to refine the screenplay and the story centers on the brother protagonists and explores their relationship with each other.

Ian is the more central figure of the story. He’s about to turn 16 and is a shy individual with few friends. Barley, his older brother, is more boisterous and in-love with the world’s fantastical history. He’s also a bit of an activist, as he sometimes clashes with their mother’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) police officer boyfriend (a centaur voiced by Mel Rodriguez) when he stands in the way of demolition crews looking to tare down old world relics. When their mother was pregnant with Ian, and Barely was quite young, their father passed away after suffering an illness. With Ian coming to age though, their mother presents them with a gift their father left for them and it turns out to be a magic staff with instructions how to bring their father back for one day. Ian sees this as a way to finally meet the man he only knows through pictures and an audio recording. When the spell goes wrong though, the boys are forced to seek out a new source of magic which takes them on a road trip. Barley, being a history buff, is excited to embark on what he considers a quest while Ian just wants to get it done and over with as quickly as possible so they have the maximum amount of time available to them to spend with their dad.

ONWARD

An early, quiet, moment where Ian listens to a recording of his dad he’s probably played a thousand times.

The film is largely a comedy with some fantastic set pieces and visual moments. The humor is derived from both physical comedy and conventional gags. The film mostly puts the visual gags of introducing fantasy creatures into suburbia upfront freeing it to be more creative as the film rolls along. It’s genuinely funny, though like the best Pixar features it relies more on heart and characters. Barley, being the excitable one, is often impulsive which clashes with Ian’s cautious approach. Barley would rather follow his gut while Ian wants to stick to a map the two find early on. The two need each other though, for it turns out Ian has an aptitude for magic and is able to make use of their father’s staff and the spells in Barley’s possession normally relegated to a Dungeons & Dragons type of game. And Ian needs Barley’s help because he can do practical things like drive. There are natural moments of conflict that can arise from this situation, and it’s easy to see these moments coming as Ian largely keeps quiet and defers to Barley, but you know he’s simmering on the inside at times. The film is a bit of a disguised film about what it means to be brothers. It seems to want viewers to think of it as a father-son pic at the onset, before pivoting to this brotherhood theme.

As someone who grew up reading lots of fantasy books, I welcome this setting and premise of Onward. Ian’s magical staff starts off rather neat, but it does threaten to become a crutch in order to advance the plot. The boys often run into an obstacle with the answer to such being a new spell for Ian to try out that Barley suggests. The film does at least utilize this arrangement to force the characters to learn how to work together. Initially, Barely’s suggestions on spells will be met with doubt from Ian with the miscasts even affecting Barley in a negative fashion. Ian will have to learn to trust his brother’s knowledge of the arcane, as well as his own abilities, in order to actually wield it effectively. It still ends up functioning as a deus ex machina, for the most part, but at least there’s the added goal of bringing the two characters closer.

ONWARD

Barley’s enthusiasm for history, which for this world is basically Dungeons & Dragons, is a source of embarrassment for brother Ian.

Because the film does deal with death in some way, it naturally lends itself to comparisons to Coco (and I suspect the upcoming film Soul will as well). It’s a bit unfortunate as Coco is quite possibly the best film Pixar has ever produced, it’s certainly my favorite. And it’s a wonderful film that Onward really can’t match. The plot beats here are pretty easy to see coming and it’s basically accepted at the outset that this is a film that will try to make you cry come the end. It’s at least more sincere and focused than a similar Pixar flick The Good Dinosaur. Where that film felt manipulative at times, this one does a better job of being sincere and earning its watery moments. Some viewers might feel conflicted about the ending, but it’s at least the one moment where the film does wander off the formula a touch. It’s accepted that things won’t go perfectly for Ian and Barley in their quest to be reunited with their father, but that also won’t stop viewers from yearning for that outcome.

corey_mom

Corey and Laurel could have been an interesting pair for the film’s B-plot, but it doesn’t really find anything unique for them to do.

Ian and Barley’s adventure is the main focus of the film, and it’s smart to do so. There are some solid side characters, but they have a hard time taking our focus away from Ian and Barley. The main side plot involves their mother , Laurel, who pairs up with a manticore named Corey (Octavia Spencer), who happens to know where the brothers are heading and, more importantly, knows they’re about to unleash a curse upon the world. The two are in a race to stop them, but we mostly know how that will play out based on similar stories. The brothers also have a couple of brushes with the law, but that’s mostly resolved fairly quickly before the film can get all Smokey and the Bandit on us. Mostly when the film was away from the brothers I just wanted to get back to them. I understand it needs to show us what’s happening elsewhere so the eventual meet-up between all of the characters is earned, but it wasn’t as fun as it could have been. Which is a shame, because the characters of Laurel and Corey have chemistry together and I think there was room for them in the film, but they just weren’t able to find it.

Mychael and Jeff Danna handled the film’s score and it’s not afraid to lean into that fantasy setting vibe. There’s also an original song over the ending credits performed by Brandi Carlile. The score is mostly fine, though I was disappointed with it in some areas. It doesn’t take many chances to meld the fantasy with modern sounds. When it goes for a gag in which Barley selects some questing music it also falls flat. Maybe they originally intended to license something, but instead it’s just bland synth-rock when I was looking for something bombastic akin to Rhapsody of Fire.

ian_magic

There’s magic to be found in this world, but the film doesn’t rely on it for visual spectacles too much.

Onward is a film rescued by its heart. It has a solid premise for a story and finds a way to arrive at a clever conclusion, even if the plot beats to get there feel very familiar. I think it could have done more with its setting. The idea is there, and some of the gags are well-played, but the whole thing feels surprisingly underplayed both visually and in the score. The actual technical abilities of the film also are not wow-inducing. Pixar is somewhat harmed by its own legacy in that respect since we’re so used to the studio raising the bar, but instead Onward is just comfortably fine. It does save its best piece of technical art for the end, which is a logical move, but it’s also not the type of visual you’ll walk away from saying “You have got to see this!” The relationship of brothers Ian and Barely though is what makes the film, and it’s not afraid to lean on the two. Pratt and Holland are both charismatic and believable in their roles and the characters are handled with grace. It’s hard for the audience to side with one over the other. They’re both right in some places, and weak in others. It’s easy to relate to both and thus hard to even pick a favorite.

It should also go without saying that the focus of the film on loss is easy to relate to. We either are that someone or know someone who has lost their father. Many can even relate to Ian as someone who never knew a parent due to tragedy. It’s a very compelling plot device to ask an audience what they would do in order to have one more day with someone they love. As a result, it’s almost impossible to separate this film from real world examples. If the film dwelled on that too much it would have felt manipulative, but instead it presents the premise and then lets it mostly simmer on the back burner. Because that sense of loss is such a personal thing, I suspect this movie will appeal more to people willing to allow themselves to “go there” and be vulnerable for 100 minutes or so. I would say Onward will be among the most polarizing for Pixar, but I think that’s too strong a word. There will be some who cite this as their new favorite from the studio, but few will number it among the worst. I think the divide will largely fall on the line of those who consider it great, and those who found it entertaining.

I lean more towards the latter, as I think the film offers a totally worthwhile and enjoyable experience, but it won’t be threatening to dethrone the likes of Coco and Finding Nemo for me. And in many ways I don’t think my opinion matters. Onward feels like a movie made by Dan Scanlon (and other talented people) for Dan Scanlon to process and deal with the tragedy in his past. He wasn’t able to wield a magical staff, but hopefully he and his brother were able to arrive at a similar place to Ian and Barley. And ultimately, I hope Onward ended up being the movie he wanted to make.


Sunshine Blogger Post

 

sunshineYou may have heard of or seen this Sunshine Blogger thing going around. It’s essentially a chain post, not unlike a chain letter or those chain posts that used to (still do?) circulate through social media. I was tagged by Jay Friz over at RJ Writing Ink for such a post in which most of the participants appear to be anime-centered blogs. While The Nostalgia Spot is not an anime blog, it has certainly touched upon the subject from time to time mostly via several posts on the Dragon Ball franchise. I am a lover of animation though, so naturally I do enjoy anime and this presents an opportunity to touch upon it, so thank you for such, Jay.

All chains have rules, and these are the rules for this particular chain:

1. Thank the blogger who nominated you in your post and link it back to them.

2. Answer the 11 questions the blogger asked you.

3. Nominate 11 new blogs to receive the award and write 11 new questions for them.

4. List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo on your first post.

Once again, thanks go out to Jay for the acknowledgement. If you have not visited his blog, he does a lot of animation-related posts of old and new properties and is currently doing a daily Halloween post (and if you read this regularly you know about my affinity for that format) and it is certainly worth checking out.

What got you into blogging?

My journey into blogging began nearly 9 years ago. I had always wanted to write and pursued a writing degree while in college. It eventually struck me as something impractical, and rather than reach for a dream I went with a different major. It has financially worked out, but I missed writing. After being out of school for many years and finding myself with a lot of spare time, I decided to start a blog for my own benefit. The theme of nostalgia came naturally, and it’s something I’ve had fun writing about. I do it for the enjoyment of writing, not for publicity. If people read and enjoy it then that’s great, but if no one read it I’d still consider it a worthwhile endeavor.

scrooge triumphant

I love me some Christmas, and here’s a little teaser for a future Christmas Spot post. Recognize it?

What’s been your favorite thing to blog about?

Nostalgia seems like too broad a topic for the purpose of answering this question. I have greatly enjoyed revisiting Batman: The Animated Series. Not only does it provide me with something to write about, but I also re-watched every episode along the way. It spanned more than two years of my blogging life, and I’m actually a little sad it’s over (final post scheduled for the end of November). I have also enjoyed doing the same for the much smaller Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars. Bucky O’Hare being a smaller, often forgotten, subject makes it rewarding for different reasons, even though the quality of that series is not on par with the likes of Batman. Without question though, my favorite posts are the Christmas ones. After dabbling with Christmas for years, I finaly went all-in on doing an advent calendar of posts a few years ago. When you blog for sheer enjoyment it can be hard to find time to make posts. Plus my own tend to total 3000 words no matter what I do, so doing 25 days of posts is hard. That’s why I spread them out and make use of the scheduler function to make sure they post when I need them to. It gives me a reason to stay tapped into Christmas all year round.

If you could date one fictional character, who’d it be?

Let’s go with Sara Valestein from the Trails of Cold Steel video games. She can kick ass and loves a good brew – what’s not to like?

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Sara (left) was likely created with the whole “Hot for Teacher” vibe in mind.

What’s your all time favorite show? Or video game?

My favorite show is probably either Futurama or The Venture Bros. Those are the two I’ve revisited the most. From a more nostalgic perspective, my favorite as a kid was X-Men. As for video game, it’s a lot harder since I play a lot of RPGs, but rarely revisit them. I’ll just stick with the same answer I usually give and go with Xenogears. It has its problems, but I love the aesthetic of it and the battle system is unique enough to separate it form other JRPGs.

What’s your favorite show from the 2010s?

It’s hardly much fun to say this is my favorite show from the past decade, but it’s Game of Thrones. The showrunners may not have stuck the landing, but it was a fun ride while it lasted.

What are you looking forward to the most in 2020?

Whatever NECA releases in its line of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, and the same for Boss Fight Studio and its Bucky O’Hare line. Looking forward to new toys is supremely exciting for me, likely because it allows me to feel like a kid again. That and I rarely have time for video games so looking forward to them feels like a waste of energy.

bfs bruiser and bucky

Bruiser will hopefully arrive in 2019, but could slip to 2020. Either way, I look forward to whatever is next in this toyline.

If you could have any fictional power, what would you want?

Let’s keep it simple and just go with flight. I live in Boston and traffic is brutal, flying would solve so many problems.

What’s been your favorite anime recently? For non-anime fans, you can say cartoon

Recently it’s been Dragon Ball Super, which just wrapped up a week ago for the English dub. I never really wanted a proper sequel to Dragon Ball Z, so I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoyed the new series. I’ve also really enjoyed My Hero Academia and Devil Man Crybaby, as the Devil Man OVA was one of the first DVDs I ever purchased.

If you could travel to a fictional universe, which one would you want to go to?

Duckberg. I’d stand out, but it would be fun trying to break into Scrooge’s Money Bin.

What was your favorite cartoon/anime growing up?

My favorite cartoon was X-Men, my favorite anime was Dragon Ball Z.

X-Men (FOX) [1992-1997]Shown from left: Wolverine, Morph, Beast

I lived for Saturday morning as a kid.

Beef or chicken?

Chicken, always chicken.

 

Thanks again to Jay for the chance to do something different. He made his questions fairly broad and not applicable to anime, which probably worked better for me since most of my anime related responses would just refer to Dragon Ball or Cowboy Bebop, fine shows certainly, but also shows that have been talked about a lot. My insulated nature means I have no blogs to tag for future responses as the few I follow have already done this post. I don’t normally spread chains too, but I wanted to play along with this one especially since I’ve been buried in Batman and Christmas-related writings lately. If this is something you want to do, feel free to consider yourself “tagged” and answer the same set of questions I already have, and as always, thanks for reading.


Toy Story 4

 

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Toy Story 4 (2019)

Is there a better tetralogy of films than the recently completed (?) Toy Story franchise? It’s a question I didn’t immediately ponder upon viewing Toy Story 4, but in the days that followed it’s something I’ve started to consider. I’m not sure what the most famous tetralogy is, but my mind first went to the Indiana Jones franchise. While that one is quite good, I think most would agree the fourth film is okay at best. After that, and it gets murky for me. There’s a lot of trilogy franchises that were turned into four films like The Hunger Games and Twilight. I’ve seen The Hunger Games, I’ve never bothered with Twilight, but I don’t think many would argue for either as being great. There’s also Avengers, but that feels like another beast entirely given how interconnected it is with other Marvel films. And then there are a bunch of former trilogies turned into long-running franchises like Star Wars that took themselves beyond four films.

I’m surely missing out on some and there’s probably a good tetralogy or two I’m spacing on, but I’m having a hard time finding a worthy contender to what Pixar has done with its Toy Story franchise. It’s surprising how successful it has been considering Pixar never even envisioned doing a sequel. Disney all but mandated Toy Story 2 be a thing because of how successful the original was. It even started as a direct-to-video feature that earned a theatrical release and, for many, is the most beloved entry in the series. Toy Story 3 surprised and delighted movie-goers in 2010 and seemed to put a bow on the franchise as it dealt with the toys moving on from their beloved owner, Andy. A few TV specials have emerged since and it seemed like that’s where Toy Story was destined to reside. Then the world was surprised in 2014 when Toy Story 4 was officially confirmed as in development.

Toy Story 4 had probably the most treacherous development cycle (though most treacherous moment still belongs to Toy Story 2 when that film was accidentally deleted) of any of the films in the series thus far. A lot of writers came and went and the picture was delayed a year not once, but twice. John Lasseter was unceremoniously dumped by Disney and Pixar following some allegations of inappropriate conduct which was made worse when actress/writer Rashida Jones left the picture citing a disagreement on where the story was heading and renewing concerns that Pixar was not a great place for women creators. Given the turmoil behind the scenes, and the already high bar set by the previous films, it would not have been at all surprising if Toy Story 4 turned out to be a bust in the end. Pixar has a tremendous track record, but a similarly troubled picture like The Good Dinosaur wasn’t able to overcome development hell.

bo peeps outlook

Bo Peep is back and she has a whole new outlook on what it means to be a toy that Woody has to come to grips with.

Unlike The Good Dinosaur, this is Toy Story. This is the franchise that essentially made Pixar was it is today and it’s these characters that the company will be most identified by for as long as humans are around and talking about movies. There was likely a different kind of focus behind the scenes and a determination by those involved to make sure that this movie did not harm the reputation of the studio and the franchise as a whole. A lot of credit seems to be going to Andrew Stanton who has helmed several Pixar projects and director Josh Cooley, who was selected by Lasseter to helm his first feature-length project. Further credit should also go to these wonderful characters created by Pixar who quite simply refuse to stop being so damn charming and interesting despite appearing in now four films where the plot is nearly the same in all four with just slight variations on the setup.

Several years ago I ranked Pixar’s 10 best features and selected Toy Story 3 as my favorite in the Toy Story trilogy. It’s still my favorite, but following it I also had no idea how the franchise could go on. Well, that’s not entirely true. Pixar could have easily just stitched together another adventure only now instead of Andy in the background it’s Bonnie. After all, at their core all four films are just the toys getting lost and having to find their way back. That, however, isn’t really Pixar’s philosophy. Their features have purpose, and for Toy Story 4 the concept of self-identity and self worth are its purpose and main story. And the vehicle for that story is Woody (Tom Hanks), who was once the favorite toy of Andy but is now a cast-off in the eyes of Bonnie. He’s going to be paired up with newcomer Forky (Tony Hale), a spork turned into a toy via Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) who has a hard time coming to grips with the fact that he’s no longer a discarded utensil but an actual toy.

Bonnie takes an immediate liking to Forky, and at least for the duration of the film, Forky is her new favorite toy. Forky though considers himself trash and all he wants is to be thrown away. It’s up to Woody to make sure that doesn’t happen. It’s a task Woody gives himself because he has no other purpose at the moment and he’s not even willing to share the responsibility of safeguarding Forky, which becomes quite a problem when the family hits the road for a good old fashioned RV vacation.

woody introduces forky

Woody introducing Forky to the rest of the gang.

The film opens with a flashback revealing what happened to Woody’s old flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts), the porcelain doll who adorned a lamp belonging to Andy’s sister Molly. She disappeared between Toy Story 2 and 3, and in Toy Story 4 she is reintroduced as a lost toy. During an attempted escape from the RV by Forky, Woody and he end up on their own in search of the RV. During that time they happen across an antiques store where Woody recognizes Bo Peep’s lamp in the window, but without Bo Peep. He’ll eventually find her, and the film turns into a story about Woody and Bo Peep that’s essentially a G-rated rom-com.

Along the way, new toys will be introduced like Keanu Reeves’ Duke Caboom, a dare devil motorcycle toy with confidence issues, and the comedic duo of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele voice Ducky and Bunny, a pair of carnival prizes looking for an owner of their own. Old favorites like Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and Jessie (Joan Cusack) are here as well, but they play very minor roles compared with past films. Really, only Buzz has a substantial role as the others are mostly left waiting on the RV absent from the adventure being experienced by Woody. It’s something that does not read well in a review, or at least it wouldn’t had I read any reviews going into seeing this film, but I honestly did not miss those characters even if I mostly adored them in the prior films. That’s a testament to the engrossing nature of the film’s main plot, the questions it asks, and the stakes it creates.

clucky and bunny

Your old favorites are here, but there’s also new characters to introduce and, more importantly, merchandize.

Those stakes are partially created by outside forces. There’s a sense of finality going into this film, as there was with Toy Story 3, which makes it feel like almost anything could happen. And then there was also the impossible to avoid press on the film (even by someone like me who does his best to avoid such) in which Tim Allen and Tom Hanks openly talked about the emotional ending to the film. That had people speculating wildly on what could happen, and it was in the back of my mind while viewing the film. Even so, probably around the one-hour mark in the movie I could see where the picture was headed. That did not diminish my enjoyment of the film, though it probably contributed to my finding of the film’s resolution less emotional than its predecessor.

Toy Story 3 is a film that hit me right in the feels, so Toy Story 4 not matching that level of emotion is hardly a negative. It would have been hard to pull that off, but what Toy Story 4 did manage to do in terms of topping the prior films is up the comedy. This is, especially in the first half of the film, the funniest Toy Story movie yet. A lot of that comes from Forky who is basically suicidal, in a sense. I was quite skeptical of the character going into this one, but he absolutely won me over and he basically steals every scene he’s involved with. Ducky and Bunny also lend a certain level ludicrousness to this one that wasn’t found in past installments, or really in any Pixar film I can think of. I’m curious how much, if any, ad-libbing Key and Peel were allowed to do for their characters as it feels like their brand of humor certainly had an influence on their parts. Reeves is more charming than truly funny as Duke Caboom and Kristen Schaal’s Trixie is also good for a chuckle when she’s around.

toy story 4 scary

Your little ones may find some of the scenes in this picture a bit intense.

Toy Story 4 is not only the funniest film in the series, it might also be the scariest. While there is no moment where all of the toys look like they’re going to perish in a fire as there was in Toy Story 3, there’s some pretty scary imagery that may freak out the younger members of the audience. In particular is the army of old school ventriloquist dummies which occupy space in the antiques store. Those puppets, like clowns, are never not scary so when they’re trying to be terrifying it works. The film’s villain, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), is quietly unsettling as well and I always felt a feeling of discomfort when she was around, similar to Lotso from Toy Story 3.

The scary and the funny moments are just entertainment beats along the way to telling the story of Woody and Bo Peep. They have quite the adventure in this picture not unlike the past ones and everything looks quite spectacular along the way. The leap in terms of visuals from Toy Story 3 to 4 isn’t as impressive as what we saw in going from 2 to 3, but it’s still noticeable and this is a high point for Pixar. Whether it’s the toys or the few humans on display, this picture is marvelous to look at. The action pieces are thrilling and the novelty of viewing a world through the eyes of a toy has yet to grow stale. While I do think some liberties were taken in this picture in terms of the actions of the toys going unseen by the humans they share space with, it never diminished my enjoyment of the film.

I have heard there’s some disappointment amongst the fanbase in how this film resolves itself and some of the plot points it took to get there, but I can’t say I share them. Is this the story I would have told had I been given the keys to the franchise? Probably not, but I also would never be put in that position, and with good reason. I never desired to find out what happened to Bo Peep, just as I don’t really care what happened to Weezy or that shark who momentarily wore Woody’s hat in the first film, but Pixar created a story and a film centered on Bo Peep and it works. She is everything Woody fears as she’s a lost toy who is beholden to no owner, and Woody has to struggle to understand that world view. I get a sense some are disappointed to see that Bonnie has also essentially discarded the cowboy she appeared to love in Toy Story 3. To those I say how many of you continued to love every toy you received as a four-year-old? It would be more improbable for that four-year-old girl to continue to adore an old cowboy as opposed to finding something new (and in this it’s clearly established that she prefers Jessie to Woody). And while it’s unlikely any child would continue to love and adore a plastic spork turned into a toy, it’s totally probable in the short-term. I know my own kids have professed to love a Happy Meal toy or something similar for a few days or a week at most only for it to wind up under a bed or in a toy box for months on end (and then when I go to get rid of it they suddenly love it all over again).

woody bo rooftop

I never would have expected a rom-com from Toy Story, and yet that’s what we got and it works.

As it is, I find nothing improbable about the film’s overall plot, aside from it being about sentient toys. I accept the story for what it is, and found the film delightfully entertaining for its entire duration. There are parts that made me a touch uncomfortable with where these characters were going, but good films and stories should do that. They should challenge the viewer and take them out of their comfort zone at times, otherwise what’s the point?

Naturally, folks will debate what is the best movie in this franchise. It’s perhaps too soon to tell, but I do think Toy Story 4 is probably going to be the least liked film in the series, and yet it’s still going to be held up as another Pixar masterpiece. That says less about the movie than it does about the franchise as a whole, which has been remarkably consistent. It brings me back to my original question when I started this review:  what is the best tetralogy in film history? I’m not qualified to answer that definitively, but I’m having a hard time coming up with a series of four films better than what Pixar has given us with Toy Story. These are four delightful films populated by interesting and wondrous characters who have already managed to stand the test of time for nearly 25 years. Toy Story 4 is probably the end for these characters, though if you asked me I would have said the same after Toy Story 3. It’s always possible another movie comes along, and additional shorts will probably happen, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on Toy Story 5. If this is indeed the end then it’s a wonderful way to go out. Maybe it didn’t answer all of the questions fans had been asking (Who was Andy’s dad? Did Andy’s mom once own Jessie?),  but it kept the focus on the toys and it gave us a pretty full look at what it means to be a toy. It made us laugh and it made us cry and it probably also caused more than a few viewers to feel a little guilty about all of those toys we left behind ourselves, but mostly it captivated us and showed us a new way to enjoy animation. Toy Story is a franchise with an amazing and unforgettable legacy attached to it, and Toy Story 4 adds to it and is yet another film that will be enjoyed by kids and adults alike to infinity and beyond.


Disney’s Best Five Film Run

walt_disney_pictures_logo_slice_01The Walt Disney Company has been producing animated features for 80 years now. In that time, the company has released 55 films with a 56th on the way later this year and others in development. I’m only talking about the animated ones, because if you add in live-action and all of the films released by Pixar or under the Marvel or Star Wars banner then you’ll easily eclipse 100 films. Disney’s bread and butter has been the animated feature though, beginning in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Over the years they’ve had ups and downs and had to keep up with changes in technology and film production techniques. It’s a very interesting history, and likely numerous rankings exist around the internet listing out the films in order of best to worst, or vice versa.

For this post, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to look more at the eras of the films produced. At first I thought about just going in 5 year chunks, but that made things unbalanced as Disney has had periods where they churn out a bunch of films and periods where they don’t. Instead, I felt it would be more interesting to just divide the films up into groups, and with there being 55 total films as of this writing, it made sense to go with groups of five. These groups seem to work well as they tend to span around 7 or 8 years and result in some fun pairings. At first, I listed them out and then just did a totally subjective ranking. I was fine with the end result, but just for some added fun I added a score to each film on a scale of one to five with five being the best and then ranked them by total score and I ended up with almost the exact same list. Since that ranking felt a little more interesting, I’ll keep it and include my totally subjective score for each film as we go along while also linking to any films I may have reviewed here, so let’s get to it.

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Saludos Amigos (1942)

1942 -1949 – 10 points

Well, this isn’t surprising. By going with groups of five I inadvertently grouped basically all of the package films together in one grouping. These were the films produced during World Word II when Disney was cut-off from overseas revenue streams on its films. As a result, the company had to settle for cheaper releases. None of these films are particularly good, though each also has its moments which is why they all scored a 2 across the board (you have to be pretty bad to score less than 2, and really great to score a 5 from me). Saludos Amigos is basically a propaganda film aiming to improve opinions of South America as Disney was not opposed to making such crap. At least it has Donald Duck in it though. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad definitely has its fans too, but I personally don’t enjoy that picture very much. Basically anyone doing a ranking like this one is going to start with this quintet.

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Lilo & Stitch (2002)

2002 – 2005 – 11.5 Points

  • Lilo & Stitch – 5
  • Treasure Planet – 2.5
  • Brother Bear – 2
  • Home on the Range – 1
  • Chicken Little – 1

Also not surprising for Disney fans, this era captures Disney’s struggle to stay relevant in the field of 2D animation while also exploring CGi. Treasure Planet is a hybrid picture that at least looks good, but doesn’t offer much else. Brother Bear is okay, but feels outdated and like a picture that’s struggling to match some of the old Disney classics. The latter two are just plain awful and probably the two worst Disney animated features. Home on the Range has the fun distinction of essentially being the film that killed 2D animation at Disney – thanks! Propping this group up and keeping it from a dismal finish behind even the package film era is Lilo & Stitch, a supremely wonderful picture about two sisters trying to cope and understand each other following the loss of their parents. It basically explores depression in adolescents, but kind of hides it by also injecting the incredibly fun Stitch to the mix and it’s also gorgeous to boot. It’s really on my short list of the best films put out by Disney.

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The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

1999 – 2001 – 12.5 Points

  • Tarzan – 3
  • Fantasia 2000 – 2
  • Dinosaur – 2
  • The Emperor’s New Groove – 3.5
  • Atlantis – 2

This era represents the winding down of the New Renaissance era started in the late 1980s. You basically have two perfectly good Disney films in Tarzan and Emperor’s New Groove together with two forgettable ones and one sequel that really didn’t impress. Emperor’s New Groove might be on the studio’s most underrated films as it’s a really fun story with some great animation. Tarzan is the more popular due to its legendary character and for some reason the Phil Collins soundtrack was really popular. It’s one of those films that I think looks better than it is, but it’s fine. Dinosaur is pretty bad, it’s earnest so I won’t drop it to the dismal rankings but it just doesn’t work and has aged poorly. Atlantis, like Treasure Planet, is visually interesting and little else. And Fantasia 2000 was about as big a flop as the original. While the original benefits from being unique when it was released, and for containing the iconic Sorceror’s Apprentice (re-including that in 2000 doesn’t really count for as much) while the 2000 version just looks better and doesn’t introduce really anything noteworthy.

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The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)

1977 – 1986 – 14.5 Points

  • The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh – 3.5
  • The Rescuers – 3
  • The Fox and the Hound – 3
  • The Black Cauldron – 2
  • The Great Mouse Detective – 3

Commercially, this era of films is looked on rather badly. This is when critics were sounding the bells of doom for Disney wondering if the studio could turn it around. The Black Cauldron was one of the biggest flops the company ever endured, costing a boatload of money to produce while failing to connect with critics and audiences. Because of that status it might be lumped in with a few others as being among Disney’s worst, but it’s really not that bad. It at least contains a really memorable, and frightening, villain in The Horned King and brings back some of that old scary fairy tale vibe. It has its fans, like noted critic Roger Ebert. As for the rest, they’re all pretty good films just none are able to really rise above the cream of the crop. The Pooh shorts collected in The Many Adventures are pretty much considered classics by now while The Great Mouse Detective gets the credit for turning the studio around. It’s a fun adventure and one I’m a little surprised didn’t get a sequel. The Rescuers will get that honor a few years later, but the first outing for Bernard and Miss Bianca is the superior one. And then there’s The Fox and the Hound, a nice little buddy movie that aims big, but doesn’t quite deliver as impactful a story as it wants to. It’s still a nice little picture though.

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Tangled (2010)

2007 – 2011 – 15 Points

If this era had a title it would probably be The Great Turn-Around. After bottoming out with the pair of Home on the Range and Chicken Little, Disney really needed to reassert itself as a leading producer of quality animated features. Pixar had eclipsed them and this group of films marks the moment when things finally started to get going in the right direction, though they still needed to take a couple more lumps. It’s also, sadly, the last of the 2D animation and marks the full commitment to CG pictures going forward. Meet the Robinsons and Bolt were another duo of clumsily animated CG pictures. Bolt is the better of the two, and I considered going with a 2.5 score, but in the end it’s also really not a film I care to watch again. The Princess and the Frog is gorgeous, and Winnie the Pooh is a delightful continuation of The Many Adventures that should please most children. Tangled is the clear star though and it’s the first CG film Disney made that is on par with Pixar in terms of visuals and it’s also a modern princess film that works. It helped lay what is a new foundation for that sub-genre of films and it kind of gets overlooked because of the success of another princess movie still to come, but I actually prefer it to all of the CG princess tales.

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The Lion King (1994)

1994 – 1998 – 15.5 Points

  • The Lion King – 4
  • Pocahontas – 2
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame – 3
  • Hercules – 3
  • Mulan – 3.5

The coasting years. Hot off the success of early 90s films like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, Disney settled into a nice groove of pretty films with big songs and good enough stories. The Lion King is probably the studio’s last hallmark offering of the 90s. It’s a film some might give a higher score, but I think it’s definitely not as good as the group of films that preceded it. Meanwhile, the only dud of the group is Pocahontas, a film that has its heart in the right place, but plays too loose with actual history and is hampered by the G rating from telling the story it probably wants. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, on the other hand, found a way to tell a more mature story under the restraints placed upon it by the studio. Hercules is a fun film, nothing more and nothing less, while Mulan is a greater triumph than all but The Lion King. It tells its own Joan of Arc tale through the eyes of a strong, young Chinese woman. I wish it had a little better of a climax, which is the only thing keeping it from being among Disney’s best, but at the time it was a much needed film as it took the lead woman out of the damsel in distress role. All of these films follow the broadway format, which was getting tiresome by this stage, but all of them also look and sound fantastic. If we were ranking just by visual fidelity, then this group would probably place near the top.

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One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

1961 – 1973 – 16 Points

The Xerox era. Finding animation was too costly, Disney turned to a new technique that utilized Xerox to copy cels and thus reduce the load on the animators. The studio basically gives credit to this process for even allowing them to create One Hundred and One Dalmatians as animating all of those puppies the old-fashioned way would have just been too daunting. As a group of films, that gives them a pretty distinct look as the earliest films done this way have a very rough, sketch quality to them. It has its own charm, though I prefer the old days. This is a solid, almost spectacular, grouping though. You have The Sword in the Stone and Robin Hood, both fun little tales that can please a gathering of all ages. And then you have One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Jungle Book, two pretty big releases for the Disney company. Dalmatians, in particular, is one of the studio’s best and it’s a fun caper set in a modern setting that doesn’t beat you over the head with songs. The Jungle Book is just a good buddy comedy of sorts, and Mowgli is a relatable and sympathetic character throughout while the shadow of Shere Khan adds intrigue along the way. It also features some of the best work of the renowned Sherman Brothers. Lastly, there’s The Aristocats. If Dalmatians hadn’t come before it I wonder if I’d look upon it more fondly as it basically feels like a retread of that picture, but with cats instead. It has one pretty good song though, so at least there’s that.

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Lady and the Tramp (1955)

1950 – 1959 – 17 Points

Perhaps the most divisive grouping. This is a group of films lots of people grew up with, so they pack a lot of nostalgic value. They’re also a bit divisive as well since you have some old-fashioned princess tales where a kind, submissive woman is rescued by a dashing prince. There’s the racial imagery in Peter Pan, also not a high point for Disney, and then just the manic atmosphere of Alice in Wonderland that you either like or don’t like. As you can tell by my score, I’m among those who do not particularly care for Alice in Wonderland. I think it starts off fine, but then just gets too bogged down in being “wacky” and I struggle to remain invested whenever I watch it. Sleeping Beauty was another huge flop for the studio, but it seems like over time it’s become much more beloved. I don’t particularly enjoy the very angular features of the characters and the flatness of the visuals, plus the story is kind of the studio’s low point as far as making interesting leading women. It’s saved by the iconic Maleficent from being truly dreadful. At the other end of the spectrum is Cinderella, which tells the tale of a victim of circumstance who finds a way to be a decent person throughout it all and is rewarded in the end. By itself, it’s a nice film and I don’t find fault with the film’s message. It’s only when lumped in with other “princess” movies that it starts to feel problematic. Peter Pan is merely fine. I think it’s weak in terms of song and as an adventure it’s ho-hum. It’s more of a kid’s fantasy film, than anything. The best though is Lady and the Tramp, a really fun “dog movie” with interesting characters, a simple but effective premise, and the best visuals of any Disney movie. This one is beautiful and I get a little sad every time I watch it because Disney just doesn’t make movies that look like this anymore and maybe never will. It also doesn’t feature a ton of songs, which is a plus in my book. I understand those who may find it boring or slow, but for me it’s almost perfectly paced and just too visually stimulating for me to lose interest at any point.

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Pinocchio (1940)

1937 – 1942 – 17 Points

The group that started it all. It’s actually tied with the group preceding this one at 17 points a piece. My tiebreaker was simply to pick the best film of the bunch and go with that group, and if you’ve read my reviews for some of these films then you would know that Pinocchio is my all-time favorite Disney picture. It’s a great story that’s captivating, warm, scary, suspenseful and is pushed along by wonderful visuals and timeless songs. It’s the best example of Disney’s old way of creating an animated movie which wasn’t as reliant on song-breaks like the films of the late 80s and 90s. Joining Pinocchio is, of course, the one that started it all – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I recently reviewed this one in light of the fact that it recently turned 80(!) and it seemed like a good time to revisit it. It’s breath-takingly beautiful, even by today’s standards, which helps to cover-up a sometimes slow moving plot. It may have scored a half-point for nostalgic reasons now that I think about it, but I’m sticking with the 3.5 since it feels like it should be elevated about the likes of Dumbo and Bambi, which round out this list. Both are adorably sweet films that also have moments of fear and sadness to balance them out. Dumbo is the simpler of the two, while Bambi is the more visually impressive. Fantasia was basically Walt’s pet project and something that I think was made to appeal to him first and foremost, which makes it rather interesting. It’s not really for me, but I recognize that it has value and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment is pretty wonderful. It also has the distinction of being one of the only Disney movies to never be aired on free television.

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Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

2012 – 2016 (Present) – 18 Points

  • Wreck-It Ralph – 4
  • Frozen – 4
  • Big Hero 6 – 3
  • Zootopia – 4
  • Moana – 3

You may think this one is up this high because of recency bias, but let me assure that is not the case. This is the first, and only, grouping of all CG films and it just so happens all of them are pretty damn good. While none managed a 5 rating from me, none also fell below a 3 which is also a first on our list. Let’s start with my pick of the worst, which is Big Hero 6. It’s a great visual film, but it suffers because it just feels too derivative of other Disney films in its turning points. It also is a victim of being essentially a super hero film and there’s certainly some fatigue associated with that genre these days. If you’re a younger person who is only familiar with Disney’s modern output then it might be more appealing to you since its tragic elements feel less repetitive, but for me it’s just okay. Moana is slightly better. It’s a pretty solid adventure with a fun pairing between its heroine and Maui, a god, that would probably be better if it was a bit shorter and knocked out a song or two. Zootopia is ambitiously serious and it’s a pretty fantastic one-time viewing experience. Its lack of “fun” and reliance on mystery and plot twists cause it to not hold up as well on repeated viewings, but just judged by itself it’s actually pretty great. Frozen is the most popular film on this list, though I think it’s visually the worst. It had a whole bunch of problems during production, originally starting off as a hand-drawn picture, so it’s not really surprising to see it doesn’t look its best, but it makes up for it in charm. This is a likable cast that puts a nice twist on the princess formula. I think, musically, it’s a bit overrated. Not “Let It Go,” that song is fantastic, but other than “Do You Want to Build A Snowman?” I could do without the rest. Wreck-It Ralph is the star for me, and not because it’s a video game movie, but because it best combines characters, heart, plot, and visuals into a total package. In looking at my ratings, I’m actually thinking maybe I should bump it up a half-point to separate it from the rest, but I’ll stick with what I’ve got. It’s only real failing is that it doesn’t really take advantage of the cameos from video games, outside of the therapy session, and it does feel a bit on the long side. Still, a great movie and one I tend to get sucked into whenever it’s on television (which is a lot, it seems).

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Aladdin (1992)

1988 – 1993 – 19 Points

At last, we’ve come to our top spot and perhaps not surprisingly it captures the peek of Disney’s New Renaissance. This is a three-headed monster of films that really changed the game on what an animated feature could deliver, including the first one to be nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. It’s also a gauntlet of pictures as each one was released in a different year – five pictures for five years. The amusing part is it also contains two films that are certainly not beloved. Oliver & Company holds some nostalgic value for me because it’s the first film I can recall seeing in a movie theater. As such, I probably like it a bit more than the 2 rating I gave it, but I can see it’s faults as a film. It does deserve credit for establishing the new format that our big three would adopt. The Rescuers Down Under has the distinction of being the only theatrically released direct sequel of any animated Disney feature, a distinction that will end later this year when the Wreck-It Ralph sequel is released. By itself, it’s fine and Bernard and Miss Bianca are actually interesting enough to justify another feature, even if no one was really begging for it. Hardly Disney’s worst, but possibly its most forgettable considering the film that preceded it and the ones to follow. This group is defined by the three big ones:  The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Some dislike The Little Mermaid for being another princess tale, with Ariel needing to be rescued from the likes of her father, King Triton, and her love interest Eric – the dashing prince. I see it more as a tale of adolescence with Ariel embodying the personality of many 16 year olds I’ve come across. She has passion, a rebel spirit, and is perhaps too quick to identify what she wants. Perhaps an ending where she decides that Eric isn’t all that great would have turned things on its head and been more interesting, but it’s not as if Eric is a bad person. He actually is pretty great, so maybe happily ever after isn’t so bad? It’s also Disney’s best film when judging it strictly on the merits of its soundtrack thanks to the triumvirate of “Under the Sea,” “Part of Your World,” and “Kiss the Girl.” With Beauty and the Beast we’re treated to a heroine that’s a bit more realistic and willing to take charge of her situation. She sacrifices herself to The Beast to free her father, a noble gesture for sure even though it’s not what any father would want for their daughter. The film is hurt slightly by the fact that they need to gloss over the warming-up of The Beast and Belle, but that’ what happens with 90 minute features. Lavishly animated and wonderfully scored, it’s not a surprise why so many think it’s the best the studio has produced to date. And lastly, there’s Aladdin – Disney’s greatest tale of adventure. It’s almost surprising it took the studio this long to tackle the story of Aladdin as it fits in with a lot of the adventure pieces from both the animation department and the live-action one from the decades before, but Aladdin benefits greatly from being made in the 90s because it looks incredible and packs an iconic performance from the late Robin Williams as The Genie. This is a supremely entertaining film that might be my favorite of the bunch, but really on  any given day I could make a case for why any of those three are the best.

 

 


Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

This past December, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs turned 80. On December 21, 1937 the world was introduced to feature-length animation. Well, maybe not the world since that date was just the premiere. It wasn’t until February 4, 1938 that the rest of the United States was introduced to the picture. The film was behest by production delays and budgeting concerns and the mood was that this would be Disney’s greatest failure before it arrived. That wasn’t the case, and it’s a good thing because had Snow White failed we likely would not have the many subsequent pictures, or maybe even a Disney. This post should have ran in December, but since I was elbow-deep in Christmas I sat on it until now, timing it with the picture’s wide release. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a remarkable achievement and a film worth celebrating any day, but especially so when it turns 80.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had to be a special film in order to justify the need for an extended running time. Prior to its release, cartoons were relegated to the pre-show, if you will. Theaters would run a Mickey Mouse or Betty Boop or some other toon before a picture along with news reels and other pieces of film. Since there was less competition from other past times, a trip to the movie theater was practically an all day affair as opposed to modern times when movie-goers are left griping that a cartoon short is too long. In order to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs stand out, Disney naturally injected a huge amount of cash into the production. Live footage was recorded to animate over, numerous backgrounds were painted in lovingly detail, and a new camera technique even had to be invented. The Multiplane camera is a massive structure that basically separates three backgrounds at three different distances from the camera. This creates a literal foreground, middle-ground, and background for a given scene and the camera can zoom or pan on the image creating an illusion of depth. It’s on display right at the beginning of the film and it’s a fun little trick that would be utilized for basically all of Disney’s animated films to come.

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The Queen approaches her magic mirror.

Originally, Walt Disney thought he could produce the film for around $250,000. That’s a tiny sum by today’s standards, but in the 1930’s a typical Silly Symphony cartoon cost about $25,000 to produce. Disney must have assumed the feature would be ten times as long and cost ten times as much money as a result. If that was his reasoning, he failed to account for all of improvements he wanted to make to the process as the picture ended up costing around 1.5 million dollars. That was a rather colossal sum at the time, especially for a cartoon few thought would be a success, including brother Roy and wife Lillian. Disney had to mortgage his own home and most likely put up every piece of collateral he could to get the picture made. It was a gamble, but it paid off since what makes the film so special is the production values which help to cover a fairly pedestrian story.

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Young Snow White will spend quite a bit of time socializing with the various animals of the forest.


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
basically establishes the template for the Disney “Princess Movie.” A kind and good-natured young woman is made the target of a ruthless villainess through no fault of her own. This young woman, either a princess or soon to be, then just sort of lets everything happen around her hoping against hope that a prince will come to her rescue and take her away to live happily ever after. It’s a common setup for fairy tales and it’s a pattern that will be reused in both Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty years down the road. Of the three, Snow White is the one that follows it most closely. When the film begins, we find out that Snow White has lost her parents and is left with only her cruel step-mother, the Queen Grimhilde (Lucille La Verne). Despite being a princess, she’s forced to tend to the castle like a commoner while her jealous step-mother looks on concerned that Snow White’s beauty will soon surpass her own. When her magic mirror on the wall confirms this, the Queen responds with violence and commands her huntsman to lead Snow White into the forest where he is to kill her and return to his queen with the maiden’s heart in a box.

Snow White (Adriana Caselotti) is a happy and contented young woman despite her station in life. I suppose being a servant in a castle is probably better than a peasant, but we are introduced to her washing the castle steps in a tattered dress while she sings a happy song (“I’m Wishing”) to the birds that swarm around her. A dashing prince (Harry Stockwell) hears her song from outside the castle walls, scales them, and surprises her by sneaking up alongside her and joining in her song. Frightened, Snow White retreats into the castle proper disappointing the prince, but a little peak his way lets us know she’s more than a little curious.

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The box intended to hold Snow White’s heart.

Love will have to wait, as the Huntsman (Stuart Buchanan) leads Snow White off to pick wild flowers where he is to do as his queen commands and end her life. When first confronted by the Queen, he is alarmed at the request and once the moment is upon him he finds he is unable to go through with it. Sobbing, he begs Snow White to flee from the evil woman sending her into a panic. She runs through the forest which takes on a supernatural quality. Trees reach out to her with thorny fingers and hideous visages as she screams and runs this way and that. Her dress gets caught multiple times, she stumbles into a bog, and bats and owls frighten her further. When the animals of the forest come to her aid she reacts with fear once more causing them to flee. Seeing their fear seems to snap her back into reality, and Snow White is soon apologetic and gradually calms down.

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The cautious dwarfs return home to find an intruder in their house.

She walks through the forest which leads her to a little cottage. Inside she finds the place a mess with dust everywhere and dishes piled high in a wash basin. She notices the tiny furniture and the many beds upstairs adorned with silly names like Sneezy and Bashful and deduces this must be the home of some children. She happily cleans and prepares a meal while the many critters assist her. Of course, this home does not belong to children but to the seven dwarfs who are hard at work in a nearby mine harvesting various wonderful gems. They sing their little song as they work, which leads into perhaps the film’s most famous tune, “Heigh-Ho,” as their work day concludes and they set off for home.

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Snow White meets the seven dwarfs.

Upon arrival, they find the house is occupied and they immediately suspect the worst. Doc, the dwarf with glasses, is apparently the leader of the troop but Grumpy is the one with the loudest opinions. Little, beardless Dopey, is apparently the one lacking in wits and he’s encouraged to venture upstairs and see who is sleeping in their beds. He sees Snow White and mistakes her for some kind of monster and the other six dwarfs need little convincing that he did not as they all scamper away in fright. Eventually, they return to the second level and see that the individual resting in their beds is not a monster, but a beautiful young maiden. She awakes to her own surprise that the inhabitants of the castle are not children, but seven dwarfs. The ice is broken almost immediately, and the new friends set in for a night of feasting, laughter, and dance.

Meanwhile, the evil queen knows her huntsman has betrayed her, and utilizing her magic mirror once more, she finds where Snow White is hiding. Turning to her book of spells, she concocts a potion that will disguise her as a hideous old hag and another that will coat an apple in poison. Any who consume a portion of the apple will fall into an eternal slumber. Only love’s first kiss can break the spell, and the Queen dismisses the possibility as soon as she reads it.

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Lots of singing, lots of dancing. This particular sequence will be re-animated numerous times in other productions, most notably in Sleeping Beauty when Aurora dances with the owl.

The rest of the story is likely not foreign to anyone reading this. The dwarfs head off to work the next morning while the Queen finds the cottage and is able to trick Snow White into taking a bite of the poisoned apple. The dwarfs, alerted by the forest critters wise to the Queen’s plan, are too late, but they do successfully chase off the Queen indirectly causing her to meet an untimely end. Unable to bring themselves to bury Snow White, they instead incase her in a glass coffin and stand vigil for many months until her prince eventually finds her and wakens her with a kiss. What convinced a prince to kiss a long-dead maiden is beyond me, but I suppose you can’t argue with results.

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The story is capable of charm especially when the dwarfs all line up for a goodbye kiss before work.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is an achievement not because of its story, but because of its production. The plot is well-paced leading up to and including the introduction of the dwarfs to Snow White. The whole sequence of a frightened group of men tip-toeing through their cottage is a delight and genuinely amusing. Their warming period to Snow White is needed to make their reactions to her eventual “death” convincing, though it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a significant amount of padding at this point of the picture. Not accustomed to creating features, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs falls victim to long stretches of time where nothing really happens. Just seeing characters dance and be merry might have been enough entertainment for a crowd in 1937, but to a modern audience it starts to feel long. Watching the film with young ones at home and this becomes even more obvious as their attention wanders. And yet, the film ends in a some-what rushed fashion reducing the emotional payoff of the moment when Snow White awakens. Despite that though, the dwarfs feel genuine in their remorse when they find Snow White apparently dead. From an emotional standpoint, it’s the film’s highest point as the little men, especially Grumpy, are reduced to tears at the horrible sight.

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The Queen in her witch guise will probably put a little chill in the hearts of viewers even today.

Even 80 years after the fact, the animation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is still remarkable to behold. Because live-action actors were utilized to map out the movement of the characters, everything has an elegant flow to it. It’s eerily realistic and the Queen looks especially splendid with her large flowing robes and dramatic movements. As an old hag she creeps along convincingly. If not for her cartoonish nose you’d think it was live footage and not animation. The only limitation of this approach, essentially tracing live footage onto animation cels, is in the facial animations. The small details and realistic proportions for Snow White are difficult to translate to a drawing (hence why so many animated characters have over-sized eyes and mouths) so her mouth kind of “floats” on her face and her eyes sometimes lack any semblance of life to them. The dwarfs, by comparison, have a more cartoonish appearance so they don’t have the same limitations. They mostly have large, bulbous noses and simple, but expressive, eyes. Live footage was tracked for them as well so their movements are not out of place when compared with the more human characters. All of this adds up to create one spectacularly animated film.

The backgrounds in the film are also lovingly crafted. Disney would perhaps learn eventually that not so much detail was required, but considering this was the first feature it’s not surprising they went a little overboard here. Every dusty little nook and cranny of the cottage is created. Wood grain appears on every wooden object and you can even see little hinges and bolts where appropriate. There’s also a nice water effect early in the film from the perspective of the wishing well that Snow White looks into. Such an animation trick is hard to pull off and I can only imagine how breath-taking it was in 1937. The scary forest and the Queen’s laboratory are also exquisitely drawn. In the case of the lab, it’s convincing to believe the Queen has been inhabiting this place for a long time. Her transformation into the old hag is perhaps not as ambitiously animated as it would be if done today, but is still effective and even a bit frightening. I also really enjoyed the little touches, such as a pair of buzzards stalking the old woman seemingly foretelling of her demise. And when she actually convinces Snow White to taste the poisoned apple we experience it through her eyes as she eagerly rubs her hands together and looks upon the girl with hungry eyes. When Snow White collapses, we just see her hand hit the ground by the witch’s feet as the apple rolls away. I don’t know if this was an artistic call or a bit of self-censorship on their part not wanting to show Snow White’s death onscreen, but it’s effective nonetheless.

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The most iconic scene and song from the picture probably belongs to the “Heigh-Ho” sequence.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is as much remembered for it’s stellar look as it is for its music. Music and Disney are intertwined and many of the studio’s animated productions are synonymous with their musical numbers. That is certainly the case for Snow White as many tracks have gone on to become celebrated and often associated with the Disney brand:  “Heigh-Ho,” “I’m Wishing,” “Whistle While You Work,” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” These songs are all often referenced and sung today by children and adults alike. Though societal attitudes have somewhat tarnished “Someday My Prince Will Come” as this is an easy point of reference when deriding the trope of a young woman simply waiting for a man to come and better her life. A song that has aged just fine though has got to be “Heigh-Ho,” as who hasn’t left work on occasion singing that one to themselves?

Certainly the notion that a “Princess Movie” should seek to empower young women is perhaps the biggest obstacle for an old picture like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to be enjoyed by a modern audience. As an amateur animation historian, I enjoy this picture for the story behind the scenes, the real-world struggle to get it made and the fantastic artistic results. As for the actual story within the film, I do recognize the short-comings of the Snow White character. While it’s not a bad message to encourage unfailing optimism, like a character hoping against hope that their life will improve if they stay the course and be a good person, it is a bit unfortunate to see a young woman simply rely on a prince to carry them off to the happily ever after. I suppose it would have been nice to see more resolve from the title character. Instead of running off like a frightened child she could have shown some determination or maybe even fought off her attacker. The short run time necessitates a hastening of the romance in basically all of these films, so that part I can forgive. As a “Princess Move” though, Snow White is guilty of many of that genre’s sins. When compared with Disney’s other films, I’d probably slide the character ahead of the rather boring Aurora, but behind Cinderella who is at least more sympathetic given her relationship with her step-mother is explored in greater depth than what we have here.

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Given the film’s historical significance, it hardly comes as a surprise that the characters can still be found at the various Disney parks around the world.

Given that there are numerous “Princess Movies” to show your sons and daughters, I don’t think the message contained within Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is particularly damaging or anything. Today’s kids can find better role models in modern pictures, but I also personally doubt many would seek to truly emulate the characters here because they’re fairly shallow. The dwarfs are the real stars are they’re consistently funny and charming and the Queen is memorable for being scary and cruel sure to leave a mark on a young child. Snow White, by comparison, is a bit boring and her look and even singing are some-what dated and not likely as captivating as modern characters. If your child prefers her to Elsa then consider me surprised. Because the film is a bit slow for children, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs feels more like a picture that will entertain adults more than children, especially if the audience is just looking to drink-in the glorious animation. As the first feature-length animated production in the US, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is definitely worthy. Even with a pedestrian story, it looks fantastic and stands the test of time as a result. I imagine that when production began way back in 1934, that’s exactly what Walt Disney hoped to accomplish. Well done, Mr. Disney.


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