Film Review: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Release Date: January 29th, 1959 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Clyde Geronimi (supervising director), Eric Larson, Wolfgang Reitherman, Les Clark
Written by: Erdman Penner, Milt Banta, Winston Hibler, Bill Peet, Joe Rinaldi, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright
Based on: Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault
Music by: George Burns (adapted from Tchaikovsky)
Cast: Mary Costa, Bill Shirley, Eleanor Audley, Verna Felton, Barbara Luddy, Barbara Jo Allen, Taylor Holmes, Bill Thompson, Marvin Miller (narrator)

Buena Vista Film Distribution, Walt Disney Productions, 75 Minutes

Review:

“A forest of thorns shall be his tomb! Borne through the skies on a fog of doom! Now go with the curse, and serve me well! ‘Round Stefan’s castle, cast my spell!” – Maleficent

This is my favorite classic animated Disney film of all-time. While I also love Alice In Wonderland immensely and have (in my own mind) debated which one takes the cake for me, it’s always Sleeping Beauty that wins out, especially when I see them both pretty close together.

As far as the classic Disney style and patented tropes go, this is a perfect motion picture but then it’s also more than that.

This, at face value, looks like a standard Disney princess story but it also features the greatest villain that Disney has ever had in Maleficent. A villain so badass and cool that she’s been featured in the great Kingdom Hearts video games and gone on to have her own series of live-action films featuring her as the main character over Aurora a.k.a. Sleeping Beauty.

On top of that, this is a visual triumph for the Disney company, as it has a very unique animation style with incredible character design, a delectable, vivid color palate and a sort of looming darkness that their other films don’t have. There’s a real beauty with this picture that holds it above Disney’s other masterfully crafted and visually impressive films.

The animation is also so smooth, especially in regards to the great action sequences. The big action-packed climax that sees Prince Philip take on Maleficent in her massive dragon form is stunning to behold. Sixty-plus years later, it has held up incredibly well and is, hands down, one of the absolute best and most memorable animated action sequences in film history.

For me and what I like in Disney films, as well as fairytale stories, this is just a perfect storm, which is greatly enhanced by the unique and alluring visuals and one of the greatest silver screen villains ever created.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: other classic animated Disney films of the classic era.

Film Review: Lady and the Tramp (1955)

Release Date: June 16th, 1955 (Chicago premiere)
Directed by: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske
Written by: Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Ralph Wright, Don DaGradi
Based on: Happy Dan, The Cynical Dog by Ward Greene
Music by: Oliver Wallace
Cast: Barbara Luddy, Larry Roberts, Bill Thompson, Dallas McKennon, Bill Baucom, Verna Felton, Peggy Lee

Buena Vista Film Distribution, Walt Disney Productions, 76 Minutes

Review:

“(repeated line) As my grandpappy, Ol’ Reliable, used to say… I don’t recollect if I ever mentioned Ol’ Reliable before?” – Trusty

As I started reviewing Disney’s classic animated features from the beginning, I wondered where their distribution partnership with RKO Radio Pictures would end. I guess it’s here, as this is the first film distributed by Buena Vista, which was created to be the distribution arm of the Disney company.

While that might not seem as if it is important to the final film, it could possibly be a reason as to why this one feels like a slight step down in quality for what Disney had been putting out, at the time. However, following up Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan couldn’t have been easy.

Also, that’s not to say that this is bad or unworthy of the Disney brand. Lady and the Tramp is still one of the best animated films of its time and deservedly considered a classic.

In fact, this is one of the classic Disney films that I watched the most, as a kid. I always liked the characters, the story and yes, even the romance. Honestly, this may have been my first experience seeing romance play out in a film. Well, it was at least the first romantic movie I probably paid attention to.

The animation is great and I also like the few songs in the film. However, the movie plays more like a sequence of events without much tying them together. At least, there doesn’t seem to be much of a point to the larger arc of the story and it almost feels like there isn’t one. Things happen, dogs fall in love and eventually, they live together and have babies. All of this, however, just felt like things that happened around random scenes.

I guess it didn’t need to have a clear objective and can be brushed off as just peaking into these two dogs’ lives for a bit but its lack of real structure and narrative progression does effect the quality.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: other Disney animated films of the 1950s.

Film Review: Peter Pan (1953)

Release Date: February 5th, 1953
Directed by: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske
Written by: Milt Banta, Bill Cottrell, Winston Hibler, Bill Peet, Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright
Based on: Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie
Music by: Oliver Wallace
Cast: Bobby Driscoll, Kathryn Beaumont, Hans Conried, Paul Collins, Tommy Luske

RKO Radio Pictures, Walt Disney Productions, 77 Minutes

Review:

“All this has happened before, and it will all happen again. But this time it happened in London. It happened on a quiet street in Bloomsbury. That corner house over there is the home of the Darling family. And Peter Pan chose this particular house because there were people here who believed in him.” – Narrator

This used to be one of my favorite Disney animated features when I was young. It’s still damn good and I’d consider it one of the best but it doesn’t quite hit me in the same way, now that I’m an adult. Although, I still appreciate it and its message about embracing the youthful parts of your spirit, especially for those of us who are much older than the kids in the story.

Overall, this is a good, fantastical, swashbuckling adventure. It features pirates, Native Americans and a group of kids that are trying to be a force for good in the fantasy land that they inhabit. Most importantly, it’s just a feel good movie that is fun to escape into for 77 minutes.

The thing I really like about it, as a fan of this style of animation, is the overall look and vibe of the movie.

I love the character design, the design of the locations and the animation, itself, is really damn good, propelling the Disney standard to new heights, once again.

At this point, Disney had mastered fluidity in its use of motion. It makes me further appreciate how great the company and its animators were, almost seventy years ago and more than thirty years before the PIXAR computer animated style became the norm. This is also why 2-D animation of this style is still and will always be my favorite.

Peter Pan is just amusing and entertaining from top-to-bottom. It’s stood the test of time, greatly, and it has spawned an eternal interest in the characters and its world that movies based off of it are still made today. While this is based off of the J.M. Barrie book, I truly believe that it is this film that kept Barrie’s creation alive for future generations.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other Disney animated films of the 1950s.

Film Review: Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Release Date: July 26th, 1951 (London premiere)
Directed by: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske
Written by: Milt Banta, Del Connell, Bill Cottrell, Joe Grant, Winston Hibler, Dick Huemer, Dick Kelsey, Tom Oreb, Bill Peet, Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Ted Sears, John Walbridge
Based on: Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
Music by: Oliver Wallace
Cast: Kathryn Beaumont, Ed Wynn, Richard Haydn, Sterling Holloway, Jerry Colonna, Verna Felton, J. Pat O’Malley, Bill Thompson, Joseph Kearns, Dink Trout, James MacDonald

RKO Radio Pictures, Walt Disney Productions, 75 Minutes

Review:

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary-wise; what it is it wouldn’t be, and what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?” – Alice

Growing up, Alice In Wonderland was my favorite animated Disney film after Sleeping Beauty. I’ll get into that other film’s greatness when I review it in the near future.

Getting back to Alice, I always saw it as the most bizarre and fun film in Disney’s massive catalog. Always being an artist, I also loved it’s surrealist approach to storytelling and its unique art style and clever design.

It’s still a solid film and one of the best of its era. I don’t know if I still hold it as high in the Disney oeuvre, as I once did, but it’s still really high up on my list because out of all the Disney animated features, it offers up the best type of escapism. In fact, that’s really what the movie is about, as a young girl escapes into her mind (or does she?) to help pass the time on a fairly mundane day.

I think that escapism is important and it seems lost in the modern world where entertainment is almost always injected with political and social messages to the point where escapism seems impossible, even in the realm of entertainment. Essentially, entertainment has stopped being entertainment but I’m also not here to harp on that, as I’m now doing the same thing that I’m criticizing.

Alice In Wonderland is a beautiful and energetic film that moves at a quick pace and actually does a lot with a short running time.

It’s just amusing from start to finish and full of bonkers characters, crazy situations and it captivates the imagination in a great way. You don’t have to think too hard or really at all. You can just get lost in the absurdity of this vivid and visually pleasing tale. It’s almost impossible to watch this film, even repeatedly, and not end with a smile on your face.

This film, for what it is, is near perfect. It absolutely accomplished what it set out to do and that’s probably why it has stood the test of time and is one of the most beloved Disney animated classics that typically finds itself near the top of most people’s list.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: other Disney animated films of the 1950s.

Film Review: Cinderella (1950)

Release Date: February 15th, 1950 (Boston premiere)
Directed by: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Wilfred Jackson
Written by: Ken Anderson, Perce Pearce, Homer Brightman, Winston Hibler, Bill Peet, Erdman Penner, Harry Reeves, Joe Rinaldi, Ted Sears, Maurice Rapf (uncredited)
Based on: Cinderella by Charles Perrault
Music by: Oliver Wallace, Paul J. Smith
Cast: Ilene Woods, Eleanor Audley, Verna Felton, Rhoda Williams, James MacDonald, Luis van Rooten, Don Barclay, Mike Douglas, William Phipps, Lucille Bliss

RKO Radio Pictures, Walt Disney Productions, 74 Minutes

Review:

“[to the clocktower chiming] Oh, that clock! Old killjoy. I hear you. “Come on, get up,” you say, “Time to start another day.” Even he orders me around. Well, there’s one thing. They can’t order me to stop dreaming.” – Cinderella

Cinderella was the first full-length, non-anthology Disney feature film in nearly a decade. It also kicked off what many have considered to be the greatest era in Disney history.

Getting back to feature-length storytelling, Disney was able to tell a better, more fleshed out, cohesive tale. Additionally, the company’s animators and conceptual artists didn’t have to stretch themselves too thin, as all their focus got to go into one story.

While I don’t know if more man hours went into this or the anthology films before it, the animation, here, is a step up from what Disney has done previously.

You really notice it in regards to the facial features and movements of the characters. Emotion is conveyed so well and everyone in the film wears their thoughts on their face, even if they don’t say anything. While that might not seem like a big deal in 2020, seventy years later, it’s really noticeable if you go back and watch all of these movies in release order, as I have been doing.

Now the plot is kind of a paint-by-numbers fairy tale but being that this was the first real “princess” movie, this is the film that really created the tropes and what has become the patented Disney style with their “princess” features.

The story is pretty basic but it’s also very effective. You feel for Cinderella and her situation and you want to see this pure soul find a much better life for herself. Her optimism and her attitude shine through and this is a story about never giving up hope and trying to be the best person you can be in spite of difficult situations.

A lot of people have come along over the years and talked down Disney movies like this for creating a culture where young girls are just waiting for a prince to come and save them. I’ve always thought that was bullshit and people who think that way just don’t understand films like Cinderella and just project their own world view on it. Besides, they obviously didn’t pick up on the optimism part and would rather play victim and blame a seventy year-old cartoon for their problems. But I digress.

Cinderella isn’t quite a masterpiece and Disney, in my opinion, has made much better films in their classic animated style. However, it is an important and historically significant one in setting the stage for what was to come from one of the greatest studios to ever exist.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: other Disney animated films of the 1950s.

Film Review: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

Also known as: Two Fabulous Characters (working title)
Release Date: October 5th, 1949 (Washington DC premiere)
Directed by: Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, James Algar
Written by: Erdman Penner, Winston Hibler, Joe Rinaldi, Ted Sears, Homer Brightman, Harry Reeves
Based on: The Wind In the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
Music by: Oliver Wallace
Cast: Basil Rathbone (narrator), Bing Crosby (narrator), Eric Blore, Pat O’Malley, Colin Campbell, John McLeish, Campbell Grant, Claude Allister, Leslie Denison, Edmond Stevens, The Rhythmaires

Walt Disney Animation Studios, RKO Radio Pictures, 68 Minutes

Review:

“Come along! Hop up here! We’ll go for a jolly ride! The open road! The dusty highway! Come! I’ll show you the world! Travel! Scene! Excitement! Ha ha ha!” – Mr. Toad

This is the sixth and final movie in Disney’s string of anthology/package films, ending their strange and very different approach to feature length animated productions in the 1940s.

Overall, this is my favorite film in this strange stretch of pictures, as it feels more like traditional Disney storytelling, as it only features two stories and both are done quite well and exhibit that Disney storytelling magic better than anything else out of the package film releases.

I really like both of these stories and both were favorites of mine, as a kid. However, I’ve never seen them presented in this full film version and usually just saw them used separately as filler to take up time between movies on the classic ’80s version of The Disney Channel, back when it was a premium cable channel that had to be subscribed to similar to HBO and Showtime.

This movie actually feels like the people at Disney were already planning on returning to feature length storytelling but they had to do this to get their mojo back and to learn how to tell a longer story, once again.

This film is made by two different teams, each focusing on their half of the film.

The two stories here are adaptations of two different books: The Wind In the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. The former makes up the Mr. Toad portion of the film, the latter makes up the Ichabod story.

I think what I liked about these stories was that they were just amusing and fun. I loved the spirit and tone of the Mr. Toad segment but then I really fell in love with the Ichabod half because of its finale with The Headless Horseman, which is still, in my opinion, one of the greatest finale sequences that Disney has ever done.

Seeing this now, the animation really stands out and it’s clear that over the course of these six experimental anthology pictures, that the Disney company really honed their skills in a variety of ways. In this film, applying these more refined skills, we’re treated to a picture that looks better than most of the work that Disney has done previously in regards to their standard animation style.

This is more fluid, the action and motion is just more dynamic and the two sequences just blend together nicely, even in spite of their very stark narrative and style differences.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: Disney’s other 1940s package/anthology films.