Category: Classic Children & Family Movies


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The day that I get too old to enjoy children’s movies will be the day that my heart stops being capable of having simple, innocent fun. Anyone who’s read my reviews of Toy Story 3, The Iron Giant, or Howl’s Moving Castle know the fondness I hold in my heart for great children’s film-making, and when Pixar or Studio Ghibli are involved, we’re living through a family film renaissance. But, the mark of a great children’s movie is how much the adults in the audience can appreciate it, and though 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a remarkable technical achievement as the world’s first full-length animated film, sitting through it’s actual story was an absolute, almost unbearable bore.

When I was watching the Blu-Ray re-release of Snow White (which impressively decided to not futz with the original film’s 4:3 aspect ratio by not awkwardly forcing a 16:9 schematic into the film), I was bowled over by the film’s artist attention to detail and the sheer scope and gamble that movie surely represented for the Disney studios. No one else had done anything like it before. Cartoons were meant for shorts, not movies, but Walt Disney wrung 90 minutes out of an animated story. And, the backgrounds and characters (except for the hideously drawn Snow White herself) are exquisite and well-crafted in a way that Disney rarely does anymore. Sadly, that didn’t make the actual plot of the film itself any more enjoyable.

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If you are somehow unfamiliar with the plot of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, you’re either an amnesia just waking from a decades long coma or you’re an alien intent on infiltrating the human race. But, here goes. Snow White is a beautiful princess whose evil stepmother, the Queen, fears her stepdaughter’s beauty. With a magic mirror constantly telling her that she’s the most fairest woman in the land, the Queen is content to make her daughter’s life hell and to dress her as a hideous maid until one day the mirror changes its tune and tells the Queen that Snow White is now the fairest of them all.

The Queen, being the psychotic narcissist that she is, doesn’t take the news well. She orders the royal huntsman to escort the young Snow White off to the woods and then to kill her and remove her heart as a trophy. But, when the time comes, the huntsman can not do it and shows mercy on the young Snow White. Snow White is forced to flee into the woods away from the watchful eyes of her evil Stepmother, and in those woods, she stumbles upon the company of seven strange but lovable dwarfs who vow to keep her safe. But, the Queen’s vengeance knows no limits and she devises a plan with a poisoned apple to end Snow White’s life once and for all.

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Words can not properly describe how irritating Adriana Caselotti’s voice is. That’s the woman who voiced Snow White, and it’s like if they took everything that made Judy Garland’s voice so iconic and wonderful and then made it grating like Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain. She thankfully doesn’t talk all that much, but by the end of the film, I was cheering for the Evil Queen to feed her the poisoned apple because I didn’t want to hear her treacly sweet voice ever again. Her singing voice is alright, but most of the enjoyable musical numbers from the film were performed by the dwarfs anyway, but more on them in a second.

The movie’s story is so broad, the characterizations so thin, and the innocence of it so frustrating that it’s difficult for anyone bred on the Disney films of the 90s (like me) to be able to sit through the simplicity of this film’s tale. Until the dwarfs arrive, it lacks much of the trademark humor of a Disney film, and it’s painfully obvious that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was made for young girls and absolutely no one else was likely intended to enjoy it. Alongside the film’s artistic craftsmanship, the dwarfs are the only consistently enjoyable part of the film, and they add a much needed levity to the whole affair. There’s a reason why “Hi Ho” is still a classic of the children’s genre.

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As dull and uninteresting as I found most of the film, I was able to sit through this thankfully brief film because of how gorgeous the artwork is. For what was the very first full-length animated feature, Disney already knew what they were doing, and their dedication to getting things right in an age before computers is incredible. I can’t even imagine the man hours that went into making this movie. So, although I have no intention of watching this film ever again (unless I have a daughter someday who forces me to), I can appreciate the momentous undertaking that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs represented for Disney. And it’s that ambition that keeps this score from being even lower than it alraedy is.

Final Score: B-

 

AliceInWonderland1951-1

It is one of the great tragedies of the modern age that an entire generation of children will grow up with their primary knowledge of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass coming from the abysmal Tim Burton adaptation from 2010. That film fails to capture, even for a second, the wit, magic, and surrealism that has made Alice in Wonderland one of the most enduring children’s tales of all time. And while nothing will ever quite compare to the original source novel, Disney’s 1951 musical adaptation of the two books remains one of the most simply enjoyable films of Disney’s Golden age, and even as a 24 year old man, slipping back into this magical world and it’s colorful cast of characters was an undeniable delight.

I find it almost astounding that this film predates the psychedelic movement and isn’t, instead, a product of a bunch of completely stoned animators. The hippie movement, and especially the acid-fueled subset of that group, took so many of the symbols and motifs of the book and film and incorporated them into the hippie iconography, and it’s not difficult to see why. There’s a moment early in the film where Alice is falling down the proverbial rabbit-hole where, for no discernible reason, the screen swiftly changes tints and hues in total disorientation. Grace Slick directly quotes the film in “White Rabbit” which is one of the most beloved songs of the psychedelic era. Though it makes sense within the context of the film, Alice in Wonderland‘s dedication to absurdity and constantly surreal overtones is present in every scene, and it’s easy to see why the “heads” of the 60s and 70s loved this movie so much.

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For those who have somehow never seen the film or read the book, Alice in Wonderland is the story of the adventures of young Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) and her journey into the insane, magical, incomprehensible Wonderland. After growing bored with her studies, Alice spies a talking White Rabbit muttering about being late and follows him into a rabbit hole where she falls down to Wonderland. And there, she stumbles upon an increasingly bizarre cast of characters ranging from the homicidal Queen of Hearts, the positively insane Mad Hatter and March Hare, and the obfuscating Cheshire Cat. And, she finds herself in one misadventure after another usually involving food that makes her grow or shrink depending on the side she eats, and before long, it’s clear that all Alice wants to do is get home.

The animation in Alice in Wonderland is truly superb, and although I love pretty much the entirety of the Pixar canon (there are one or two exceptions), I do find myself missing the type of hand-drawn cartoons that I grew up on, and part of me thinks that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy anime so much. Alice in Wonderland is just stunning to look at from beginning to end, and it’s sad that movies that look like this are almost never made anymore. From the way that the film regularly plays with perspective to the imaginative creatures that inhabit Wonderland (such as a rocking horse fly and a dandelion that is half lion and many others) to constant kinetic action and animations, Alice in Wonderland is one of the Golden age animated films that should set the standard for what hand-drawn animation should look like .

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Not only is this film the introduction many kids my age (and for the thirty eight years before I was born) had to post-modernism, it was also likely our first introduction to weird, antiquated political satire that we were too young to understand (and are now too far removed from the people and figures being satirized to comprehend as adults either). It pokes fun at the comedy of manners and class snobbery (the scenes with the flowers) but it also pokes fun at the political establishment and the futility of certain promises of political elites (the moments with the Dodo where they all run in circles) and also how the rich exploit the poor (the Walrus and the Carpenter). Those aren’t the types of things that kids watching the movie would notice (or even enjoy) but it adds another layer to what was already one of Disney’s best films.

If there’s any legitimate complaint to make about Alice in Wonderland, it’s that the musical numbers aren’t up to the par set by the Tim Rice era of the late 80s and early 90s, but let’s face it, Tim Rice is in a class all his own as a songwriter for children’s movies. The songs aren’t bad (and a couple are memorable enough), but as a musical, it lacks a stand-out hit tune. It’s a minor flaw in an otherwise timeless Disney classic. If I ever have children some day (which seems unlikely cause I don’t like kids), it is a certainty that this will be one of the films from my childhood that I foist upon them, and it is my sincerest hope that there’s never a day where this movie isn’t considered a wonderful delight.

Final Score: A

One of the first things I was forced to learn as a film critic was that I had to distance the quality of any single performance in a movie from the over all quality of the film. A show-stopping Daniel Day Lewis caliber role has to be seen as only one of many parts in the total value of a picture. David Lynch’s direction in Inland Empire was inspiring and Laura Dern inhabited her character in terrifying ways, but there’s almost no denying that the script itself was fairly outrageous and practically impossible to follow (though that was also Lynch’s intention). Take away Will Smith’s Oscar-nominated performance in The Pursuit of Happyness and you are left with a terribly conventional Horatio Alger tale of rags to riches. Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson’s incendiary comic (and eventually for MacLaine, heart-wrenchingly dramatic) performances saved Terms of Endearment from being complete and utter melodramatic drivel. I recently finished the 1956 film, The Court Jester, and while Danny Kaye’s comedic and musical chops are unquestionable, the actual  film faltered on a basic inability to decide what kind of film it wished to be and delivered the promised laughs far too rarely.

A spoof of Errol Flynn swashbuckling hero films (most specifically Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood), the movie spins the tale of a fictional king in medieval England and the band of outlaws trying to restore justice. King Roderick (Cecil Parker) usurped the throne from the true heir, an infant with a purple pimpernel birthmark on his behind. Ferried away from the castle by loyalists to the true royal family, the heir is now in the protection of an outlaw band led by the Robin Hood stand-in, the Black Fox (Edward Ashley). Employed by the outlaws as both the heir’s nanny as well as entertainment for the band, Hubert Hawkins (Danny Kaye) is a bumbling carnival performer who quickly finds himself swept up in the final plot to dethrone the pretender King Roderick. Along with the help of the beautiful but deadly Maid Jean (Glynis Johns, Mary Poppins), the Black Fox’s chief lieutenant, Hawkins infiltrates the castle posing as the new Court Jester, Giacomo the Incomparable, and gets caught up in assassination conspiracies, the hypnotic schemings of a witch, and more medieval action scenarios than you can shake a stick at.

Danny Kaye is possibly the very definition of comic energy. Able to quickly morph from a riveting musical number with a troupe of dwarves to Gilbert & Sullivan style tongue twisters to a variety of distinct characters all with their own unique humor and identity to a pitch perfect parody of the Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks heroes of old, he is an absolute marvel to watch. With a beautiful voice and a natural charisma and humor, Danny Kaye was the film’s distinct (though not necessarily sole) saving grace. Basil Rathbone was deliciously villainous as the duplicitous Sir Ravenhurst, and his fencing scenes with Danny Kaye towards the film’s climax were among the only highlights of the action oriented moments of the film. Glynis Johns (who I instantly recognized as the mother from Mary Poppins) was a surprisingly tough and action oriented heroine for a movie from the 1950’s, and it was a refreshing sight from an age where most female characters were more akin to Angela Lansbury’s (Beauty and the Beast) Princess Gwendolyn.

The film’s Achilles heel however is its basic inability to determine what tone and style it wants to project. At one moment, it’s a children’s musical with Danny Kaye periodically breaking out into song even when it isn’t necessarily appropriate to the story. The next scene it could be a nearly perfect satire of the swashbuckler subgenre. Later, it will want to be a more wordplay and rapid-fire pun style of comedy. Then to top it all off, there are moments where it just wants to be the kind of movies it’s nominally parodying without actually attempting any humor. The writing for the film wasn’t nearly sharp enough to afford them this lack of focus, and I found myself going vast periods of time without laughing at a single gag (when the film took the effort to even make any). Similarly, the ending seems to drag towards eternity, at least until its riotous final moments. While not every comedy needs to be chock full of laugh out loud moments (Sideways or The Savages show that a comedy can be extremely dramatic), when the drama is as uninteresting and stale as what’s presented in The Court Jester, the lack of laughs is potentially unforgivable.

For movie fans who yearn for a more innocent day and simpler storytelling, you may find more mileage from this cult classic than myself, but for everyone else, it may seem to quaint and antiquated to remain truly entertaining 55 years later. It certainly had its moments; the “vessel with the pestle” scene as well as the first musical number involving the dwarves were quite original and energetic, but mostly the film teased you with a potential for hysterical parody of the swashbuckling epics of yesteryear but chose intsead to simply make a less entertaining version of those very films. Danny Kaye deserves every bit of praise that has been lavished on him over the years, but even he is unable to save this film from its weakest elements.

Final Score: B-

 There is nothing quite as disappointing for a film buff as to finally watch a film that you’ve heard nothing but great things about your entire life only to find it to be not just terribly over-rated but generally awful. I remember how excited I was to watch Citizen Kane after repeatedly hearing it called the greatest film of all time and then how disappointed I was in how dull I found it (I watched that when I was a freshman in high school so admittedly adult Don Saas owes Orson Welles another go). Well, I had heard nothing but great things about the original The Pink Panther film and I found Peter Sellers to be riotously funny in Dr. Strangelove. So, the fact that this film was incredibly dull and not remotely funny (at least until the end) made my whole experience with The Pink Panther a real let-down.

The Pink Panther is the story of the attempts by three different thieves to purloin the titular Pink Panther, which is one of the world’s most valuable diamonds. It is the property of Princess Dala of India who is quite beautiful. The three thieves are Sir Charles Litton (David Niven), a debonair playboy who attempts to seduce the diamond out of the princess, Charles’ nephew George (Robert Wagner) who stumbles himself into the plot, and Simone Clousseau, the conniving wife of French Inspector Jacques Clousseau (Peter Sellers). Jacques Clousseau is hot on the trail of a mysterious jewel thief named the Phantom which leads him to the Italian ski resort where Princess Dala is vacationing and where the plan to steal her diamond begins. Clousseau is beyond incompetent and fumbles his way into one embarrassing situation after another.

This movie isn’t funny. I didn’t laugh a single time for well past the first hour of the film, and it wasn’t until its madcap climax that I began to release some chuckles, but that was as far it ever went. I could count on one hand the number of times the film elicited a laugh or chuckle from me. That’s not a good sign for a comedy. It was way too long and could have been about half an hour shorter. I can only recommend this to hardcore film purists for the role that it plays in cinema history. However, I would also recommend not really believing the hype that this film has earned itself over the years. I’m really not looking forward to the two or three other Pink Panther films that are also on my master list for this blog. I hope they’re significantly better than this one.

 Final Score: C