Tag Archives: Disney

Enchanted

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Determined not to let her stepson Prince Edward marry and deprive her of her throne, Queen Narissa pushes the lovely Giselle into the real world on her wedding day. Once over the shock caused by modern day New York, Giselle discovers that there is more than one Prince Charming prepared to bestow true love’s first kiss.

Disney once ruled the roost in the world of family films, but it’s a world that has recently become a very crowded place, whether you’re talking about animated features or otherwise. Hemmed in by a horde of revisionist fairytales (the Shrek Trilogy and Hoodwink’d to name but two), Disney have decided with Enchanted to make fun of themselves, although as might be expected the ribbing is very gentle.

The beginning of Giselle’s fairytale story is very familiar, with its pop-up storybook and old-fashioned swelling choir leading us into an animal-filled dwelling, clearly inviting us to recall classics such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Giselle is looking for her first experience of true love, seemingly to be provided by the square-jawed Prince Edward. Saving Giselle as she falls from a tree, the pair are to be married; but the jealous Queen Narissa, in the form of an old crone, puts paid to the union by pushing the bride into a mysterious waterfall, causing her to land up in a live-action Times Square.

As the animated section lasts little longer than ten minutes, it would be wrong to dwell on it too much. However, the characters are clearly drawn with the live actors in mind and this makes them look odd, and Amy Adams’ voice is not particularly suited for a cartoon heroine; also, the wise-cracking chipmunk Pip comes across like an annoying PA, so it’s a huge relief that he loses his voice in the Big Apple.

Anyway, Giselle (now entirely represented by Adams) is rescued from her Big City trauma by pragmatic divorce lawyer Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey) and his daughter Morgan, who is not allowed the fantasy of fairytale books even though she’s only six. Robert is due to marry fashion designer Nancy (Idina Menzel), though as he gets to know Giselle better his feelings about her and romance as a whole evolve. In the meantime, Edward (James Marsden) also arrives in New York to rescue Giselle, hampered by Narissa’s devious lackey Nathaniel (Timothy Spall) who pops up and tries to trick Giselle into eating poisoned apples.

You can guess the fun and misunderstandings that are to be wrought from naïve cartoon characters appearing in businesslike New York, and Enchanted does a pretty good job of presenting them: an impromptu musical interlude in Central Park is a particular highlight, the cast singing That’s How You Know with energy and colour; the vermin cleaning Robert’s flat are also funny and immaculately brought to life. As far as the story goes, however, there are a few problems.

Firstly, the basic idea of Enchanted is essentially a copy of Elf, and Will Ferrell does the larger-than-life fish-out-of-water rather better than Amy Adams, who is all wide-eyed surprise and hand waving. Secondly, Adams and the rest of the cast are not well served by a mediocre script, which takes a lot of time establishing that Robert doesn’t believe in romance when it should be having fun.

James Marsden is entertaining as Prince Edward, but he is often overshadowed by Spall or the Computer-generated Pip (who we see too much), and Edward inevitably recalls Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride, a much sparkier and wittier movie. The script also has shopping as the most magical thing that can happen in the real world (“much better than a fairy godmother,” says Morgan, waving a gold credit card); this is great news for all the Manhattan boutiques that get a bit of screen-time, but is surely a horrible message to give to children, however subliminally.

I have other minor gripes too. Not that she has to be, but Rachel Covey as Morgan is not a particularly cherubic child; she’s no brat, which is good, but compared to (say) Mara Wilson at a comparable age she doesn’t bring much to the picture. Menzel is badly done by as Robert’s less charming option (scenes giving her a more rounded character were cut for ‘pacing’), and palming Nancy off with Edward seems small recompense. Whilst Susan Sarandon is perfectly good as Narissa, getting to act her head off in the scary finale, and Giselle rescuing Patrick a refreshing reversal from the norm, the end of the film is not particularly original – and it’s a long time coming. And don’t get me started on why the song chosen for the Waltz is all wrong!

Enchanted is not a bad film in the slightest, and viewers of a certain age will no doubt find the adventures of the sweet Giselle completely captivating. For me, however, it doesn’t shake up memories of classic film fairytales so much as make me wish I was watching one of the classics instead. For while this has its moments, it’s not particularly magical, and I can’t see it being regarded as a classic in the years to come.

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Beauty and the Beast (2017)

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: A haughty prince, cursed with a beastly form and his servants transformed into household objects, gets one last chance at salvation when headstrong beauty Belle sacrifices her freedom to free her father Maurice. The Beast must earn Belle’s love to be released from the curse, but he’s a quick-tempered creature and the path to true love is very far from smooth.

Okay. I’ve got a lot to say, and you know what happens, so let’s dispense with the preamble and get stuck in, shall we?

Alright, quick recap: The beast is cursed because he can’t see beyond outward beauty, the enchantress gives him a symbolic rose, when the last petal falls he’s doomed to his beastly appearance (and his servants will be things) forever, if he can earn the love of another the curse will be broken, Maurice stumbles into the castle, Belle comes to find him and takes her father’s place, she gets to know the castle’s odd occupants but wants nothing to do with the Beast, and in the background the amorous Gaston is plotting to make Belle his wife by any means necessary.

You’ll gather from this that Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is telling pretty much the same tale as Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale’s animated version from 1991; and indeed, most of the story beats in both films are identical: Belle’s entrance, Gaston’s lodge, the encounter with the wolves, the warming of the relationship, the beautiful ballroom dance, and so on.

These moments are brought to the screen with spectacle and lavish detail; but how, the filmmakers must have thought, can we avoid remaking the impeccable original scene-for-scene? Their answer is to flesh out the backstory, swinging the tone firmly towards seriousness and melancholy, which to my mind is a fundamental miscalculation. Yes, events are portrayed with realism, but it’s at the expense of muting the comedy, drama and passions that were all abundant in the original.

The screenwriters and their 21st century sensibilities clearly felt icky about Belle – a strong, independent young woman (here more mistrusted proto-feminist than happy but yearning) – falling in love with her physically domineering and bad-tempered male captor. She can’t be happy with the Beast while she’s not free, a fairly direct reference to the idea that cartoon Belle was a victim of Stockholm Syndrome*.

And, of course, there have to be reasons for Belle and the Beast to come together. He’s well-read – she loves to read too! His mother died when he was a child – Belle’s mother died when she was even younger. These fully-detailed connections expand the movie’s running time to over two hours, a whopping 50% more than the animation, and to little benefit as far as I can see.

Trying to reason or justify why anyone falls in love is an immensely tricky business, yet I had no problem at all with the development of Belle and the Beast’s relationship in the 1991 film and didn’t require them to share common experiences to validate their emotions. Cartoon Belle was no less complete for failing to proactively kick against the pricks; cartoon Beast was no less pitiable – and was actually a whole lot scarier – without a sick mother and horrid father to explain him.

Anyway. The pitch ‘Beauty and The Beast – now with added plague!’ isn’t very appealing but sums up the tenor of the film perfectly. It looks gorgeous and feels incredibly worthy, but it’s not very much fun. Look at the first five minutes of the cartoon (after the wonderfully efficient prologue, that is): there are more jokes and laughs in the Belle sequence than in the whole of the live-action movie, and no amount of arch quipping from Lefou can compensate for the missing amusement of his cartoon counterpart. Maurice’s charming eccentricity is transmuted to a doleful, boring sadness, and ‘real’ Philippe gets no laughs at all.

There’s a greater crime too. The original film contained one of the great cinematic double acts in Cogsworth and Lumiere, the former’s stuffiness contrasting with the latter’s gung-ho attitude. They were lively, spirited, cute. For the update, Cogsworth is lumbering, immobile and virtually expressionless, and accordingly has much less of a role to play – Ian McKellen is just not right for the part and I dislike the impractical character model.

While Lumiere is better served – he can at least dance about, and Ewan McGregor sings Be Our Guest very nicely – it’s often difficult to see his face, and his accent is all over the place. In terms of the enchanted objects, it’s safe to say that I was not enchanted with them: despite the amazing effects work I missed having proper faces to look at, Chip being particularly unprepossessing.

And the humans/cursed ex-humans? Hmm. Emma Watson does a fair job playing Belle as a modern heroine, even if she rather underplays the role. The bad news is that her singing voice obviously had issues that required electronic tweaking, and those tweaks sound very odd, especially compared with her untreated co-stars. It’s unfortunate and distracting – where’s Marni Nixon when you need her? Dan Stevens is a cultured rather than angry Beast but not at all bad, Luke Evans is a tuneful if fairly unimposing Gaston, while Josh Gad is good fun, once you get used to the fact that his Lefou is no longer an unthinkingly loyal twerp but hopelessly in love (the ‘exclusively gay’ moment? Barely worth mentioning).

Staying with the positives, aside from the noteworthy performances and extraordinary visuals, the new songs are entirely passable; and in one specific instance the film’s melancholic bent works really well. When the servants succumb to their curse and their humanity (briefly) fades away, it’s a crushingly poignant moment. Regrettably, their transformations back to human form are not so well handled, a whirling camera fudging the process.

Overall, the best bits of this Beauty and The Beast are those that come directly from Linda Woolverton’s story and Menken and Ashman’s glorious original songs. I’ve already mentioned Be Our Guest, and both this and the title track are brought to the screen in great style. Yet – yet – I don’t know why anyone would swap the lovely animation of the ballroom scene for all the opulence here, or Angela Lansbury’s warm vocals for Emma Thompson’s. Similarly, I don’t know why you would choose to hear Watson singing instead of Paige O’Hara, Evans over Richard White or Stevens over Robbie Benson.

Ultimately, can this Beauty and the Beast be thought of as any kind of success**? I’m not sure, given that almost everything that’s good about it was already great in its predecessor, and all the advances are to do with technology rather than storytelling. It’s certainly worth a watch: it’s a work of high quality in many respects and may in time become a regular alternative to watching the 1991 version. But I doubt it, unless I feel (or want to feel) considerably more glum than usual. A decent film on its own merits, but why watch this when a wonderfully rendered, beautifully performed, much shorter and much, much, much more fun alternative is already out there?

*NOTE: I’ve never been troubled by the (admittedly pertinent) Stockholm Syndrome argument. My interpretation has always been that the Beast is emotionally done for as soon as Belle selflessly takes Maurice’s place in the jail (‘You would do that for him?’), so he’s hardly her captor at all; she has virtual liberty to wander around her prison and is demonstrably able to leave if she wants, though it’s intriguing to speculate how events might have unfolded during her escape had the wolves not turned up. But let’s not go on endlessly – the irony of an overlong review for this movie isn’t lost on me.

**Ask Disney’s financial department this question and they’ll blow smoke in your face from a huge cigar lit from flaming $100 bills, laughing all the while. Probably.

Frozen

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Elsa’s magical abilities with snow and ice come at the heavy price of loneliness for her and younger sister Anna. When Elsa’s coronation results in the revelation of her secret, she flees, causing a perpetual winter that paralyses the kingdom of Arendelle. Anna must use all of her resourcefulness, and seek help from some strange companions, to find her newly-free sibling.

Like most sisters, Elsa and Anna, princesses of Arendelle, love playing with each other; however, Anna has special reason to love Elsa, as the older girl can magic up snow and ice from her hands at will. An accident injures Anna and although she’s healed by mountain trolls (who also remove her memories of Elsa’s gift), the King and Queen are scared enough to close their castle gates and separate Elsa from Anna. Even the loss of the parents doesn’t reunite the girls, with Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) reaching out to Elsa (Idina Menzel) only to be rebuffed.

Coronation day arrives and Anna can’t wait to meet people, while Elsa can only repeat the mantra ‘conceal, don’t feel’ in an attempt to control her growing powers. Anna meets the handsome prince Hans (Santino Fontana) and they seize the moment by agreeing to marry; Elsa, however, refuses to give her blessing and, as Anna argues, Elsa’s magic bursts out, plunging Arendelle into a freezing winter. Elsa flees to the mountains to embrace her freedom, while Anna races after her, forced to lean on ice harvester Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his friendly reindeer Sven for support; they encounter charmingly naïve snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) on the way. Surely Hans will only think of Anna’s well-being as he assumes control of Arendelle on her behalf? And surely learning of Arendelle’s plight will be enough to bring Elsa back to make things right?

There are so many pleasures, great and small, to be found in Frozen that it’s tempting to do nothing but list the good stuff. More than anything, the characters really live in both the excellent vocal work and expressive animation, from fretful Elsa and the wonderfully optimistic Anna – estranged sisters with thoroughly believable emotions – to surly Kristoff and too-good-to-be-true Hans, plus the fascinating quirks of Olaf and minor players such as Wandering Oaken and the Duke of Weselton.

The screenplay for the most part treads exactly the right path, providing laughs, scares and (forgive me, no other phrase will do) heart-warming entertainment that can truly be enjoyed by all ages, bolstered by witty and tuneful songs. The climax in particular provides high-quality drama, with a novel denouement that subverts the traditions of resolution through ‘true love’, supplying a message without being at all heavy-handed.

Frozen is amusing, moving, thrilling and charming by turns, and then – of course – it has its Big Moment. Let it Go is the showstopper to end all showstoppers, a stirring, powerful number that begins with Elsa’s despair and builds – lyrically, musically and visually – to a defiant statement of self-empowerment. It’s really that good, and if it doesn’t quite have the bounce of the similarly-themed Hakuna Matata or the warmth of Beauty and the Beast’s main theme, a billion girls and boys will tell you that it’s as catchy as hell.

All of which said, as someone who’s seen Wicked, it would be remiss not to mention Let it Go’s relationship to that musical’s Big Moment, Defying Gravity. I don’t think you could reasonably accuse the writers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson Lopez of copying Stephen Schwartz’s music or lyrics; but there is a definite sense that both songs are serving exactly the same self-affirmative purpose within the larger piece. How much this sense is driven by Idina Menzel’s soaring voice, and how much by conscious decisions on where the story should go, is anyone’s guess.

Futhermore, while it’s not the case that the song is too good for the rest of the movie, Let it Go certainly casts a long shadow over the remaining musical numbers: Olaf’s In Summer is good fun but comes at a point where the film doesn’t need to stop for yet another song, while Fixer Upper has a host of issues. Musically, it’s a strange, frenetic mixture of gospel, show tune, all kinds of chord changes and everything bar the kitchen sink; and its (perfectly decent) lyrics and upbeat tone are at complete odds with what’s happening to Anna, as demonstrated by the jarring gear shift as soon as it finishes. Frozen could easily be 10-15 minutes shorter without losing anything of real significance.

I’m not too keen on the duets (if that’s the term) where Anna and Elsa are singing their own lines in the same song either, but that’s by comparison with great examples such as The Confrontation in Les Mis.

I do have other nits to pick – specifically, I’m not convinced by Kristoff being ‘adopted’ by the trolls (where were his parents?) – but these have to be seen in the context of an overwhelmingly positive experience, and one which (amazingly) doesn’t pall on repeat viewings. Weary adults may feel the need to pop out of the room from time to time, but in general you’d have to have a cold, cold heart not to get a kick out of Frozen.

Tangled

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: On the eve of her eighteenth birthday, Rapunzel gazes out of her tower, dreaming of visiting the bright lights of the faraway city. Her mother is full of horror stories about the outside world, but the intervention of charismatic thief Flynn Rider is about to turn all their worlds upside-down. Armed with only a frying pan, a pet chameleon called Pascal and her good nature, Rapunzel embarks on a series of hair-raising adventures, leaving the increasingly interested Flynn in her wake.

Once upon a time…a beautiful blonde baby princess is snatched away from the king and queen by the evil Mother Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy), who has discovered that the girl’s hair can keep her eternally at the same age as long as it remains uncut. Nearly eighteen years later, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is kept secluded in a tower, free only to hoist her ‘mother’ up with her insanely long hair, and gaze on the royal city which, on her birthday, sends a host of bright lanterns into the sky.

Gothel firmly forbids Rapunzel from leaving the tower so it’s handy that while she’s out, smooth-talking thief Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) drops by, hiding from fellow rogues the Stabbington twins and dedicated palace horse Maximus. With some less-than-subtle negotiation, Rapunzel persuades Flynn to take her – and chameleon Pascal, of course – to the city in exchange for his swag; though he fully intends to take full advantage of her naïvete, as the trip progresses he starts to see that there’s more to ‘Blondie’ than first meets the eye.

Though it’s probably best to ignore the internal Disney entanglements behind Tangled – it’s CGI but not Pixar, and overseen by John Lasseter – it feels as though many, many strands have been woven together to create the film. The Grimm fairytale is Classic Disney fodder, as are the expressive animal sidekicks, while the generally pleasing Alan Menken tunes recall more recent successes such as Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. The script (like so much modern animation) takes its irreverent cues from Shrek, and the whizzo technical stuff that all computer animation has nowadays is suitably impressive, even in 2D: Rapunzel’s hair, whether glowing or merely flowing, is a wondrous thing to behold.

In many respects, this is quite enough to keep Tangled going. Moore’s Rapunzel is a feisty heroine and her dynamic with the not-as-objectionable-as-he-first-appears Flynn/Eugene develops nicely, even if the real stars of the show are clearly Pascal and especially Maximus, the great horse detective. Gothel is a suitably evil (fake) mother, too.

The action is kinetic (if obviously built around the 3D) and the gentler parts work particularly well, most noticeably in three set-pieces: firstly, the very funny I’ve Got a Dream with the reprobates of the Snuggly Duckling tavern; secondly, the uplifting ‘Kingdom Dance’; and shortly after, the magnificent lighting of the lanterns. Like Beauty and the Beast’s rose, the lanterns are more than objects; they are symbols, in this case tens of thousands of symbols of hope that the princess will return to her parents. Even though I know the scene leans heavily on BatB’s famous ballroom scene, and even though the recognition of Rapunzel and Flynn’s love overloads the significance of it all, and even though I see the Light isn’t up there with the best of Menken’s songs, I was moved to tears by the spectacle of it all. Tragic, maybe: but the day I stop having emotional reactions to films is the day I stop watching them forever.

Which isn’t to say I was charmed by everything Tangled had to offer. Because it takes inspiration from lots of other animation, there’s something inorganic and faintly calculated about the way the film is assembled. I wasn’t enamoured with Dan Fogelman’s script, which was evidently tailored for teenagers, or tweenagers, rather than younger children or a universal audience. Not that there’s anything offensive or inappropriate in it, but the plot is classic teenage angst – ‘I totally heart this boy and my mother doesn’t understand’ – and the jokes are mostly of the snippy, smart-talking variety.

There’s also some rather dodgy plot mechanics in evidence, when Gothel and the Stabbingtons have Rapunzel and Flynn at their mercy but let them escape because of some supposed greater plan. What troubled me most, however, was the fact that – for all the incredible (and incredibly expensive) work done on CGI hair, water, lanterns and what have you, the modelling of the human characters is, to my eyes, unattractive. Gothel is, of course, meant to have an evil look about her, but it’s not that; it’s more that she and Rapunzel have disconcertingly large eyes which, instead of adding to the emotion of the characters’ expressions, can become isolated from the rest of the face. Technically amazing though they are, and beautiful though the rest of the film undoubtedly is, its people lack the charm of hand-drawn characters like Snow White or the animals in The Lion King.

Slick, swish and – a few lovely highlights apart – somewhat soulless, Tangled passes a pleasant ninety minutes for adults and children alike without presenting anything new or exciting, unless you’re intrigued by the intricacies of convincingly animating 40 ft of hair. I enjoyed Tangled, some bits very much, but I’m not sure Disney want my abiding memory of their 50th animated feature to be of people with big Beanie Baby eyes – and a funny horse.

The Lion King

WFTB Score: 16/20

The plot: Protected by his doting father Mufasa, lion cub Simba looks over the Pridelands with excitement, knowing that one day he will become ruler of all he sees. However, Simba’s jealous uncle Scar callously usurps the throne, sending the rightful heir into exile full of panic and guilt. Simba makes new friends and carves out a new untroubled life, but a familiar face or two make him aware of his rights and responsibilities.

From their vantage point of Pride Rock, regal lions Mufasa and Sarabi (voiced by James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair) present their first-born son Simba to their respectful subjects – zebras, giraffes, hippos and so on. Not everyone is delighted by the new arrival, however; Mufasa’s brother Scar (Jeremy Irons) resents being pushed down the line of succession, and tricks the young, impetuous cub (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas as a child, Matthew Broderick as an adult) and his lioness friend Nala (Niketa Calame/Moira Kelly) into visiting the dangerous elephants’ graveyard, the lair of savage hyaenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed (Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Jim Cummings). Alerted by his fussy majordomo, hornbill Zazu (Rowan Atkinson), Mufasa rescues the youngsters, but the incident sparks an idea in Scar’s mind. He places Simba in the path of a buffalo stampede, then sets up Mufasa for a fatal fall and lays all the blame on the distraught cub.

Simba flees and grows up trying to forget about his past, aided by easy-living pals Timon and Pumbaa (Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella), a tuneful meerkat and warthog combo; but reminders are never far away, especially when Nala turns up with dreadful tales of Scar and the hyaenas’ desecration of the Pridelands, soothsaying Baboon Rafiki (Robert Guillaume) hot on her heels. Will Simba confront his own guilt – and his treacherous uncle?

Although Disney are naturally upbeat about their movies, many of which are (apparently) timeless ‘Classics’ as soon as they’re released, even the most sycophantic of supporters would concede that films such as The Black Cauldron and Oliver and Company did little to enhance their reputation in the 1980s. However, the decade ended with The Little Mermaid and the impetus provided by its success snowballed into Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. The majestic gathering of the animals with which the film starts can only have been made by people who absolutely love animation, and the rest of the film aims for equal levels of excellence.

Famously, The Lion King was the first Disney animation to feature no humans, and it’s all the better for it; the characters are beautifully animated, combining just the right amounts of cartoon cutesiness and animal grace. They are given vocal talents to match, too: the wonderful rich tones of James Earl Jones, the weary sarcasm of Irons, the buffoonish blustering of Atkinson, the arch wisecracks from Lane, the sinister menace from Goldberg.

The script is full of smart little jokes, especially for Timon and Zazu (his interrupted rendition of ‘It’s a Small World’ is a lovely little in-joke), but the overall feel is grand, epic, the tale of a great tradition. The film is sincere about the circle of life, in ecological terms (Mufasa’s speech about Antelopes eating the grass) as well as hierarchical, Mufasa and Simba being from a line of kings who rule to keep the land in balance. And on top of all that, the songs by Elton John and Tim Rice are mostly of high quality* and are backed up by Hans Zimmer and Lebo M’s evocative, African-tinged score.

If there are nits to be picked, they are largely down to matters of personal preference which others will say act in the film’s favour. The Lion King is not exactly over-burdened with plot, and what there is plays out as a junior-school reduction of Hamlet (ie. taking out the incest, contemplation of suicide, and the possibility of Nala going mad and drowning herself in the watering hole). Which is fine, but older viewers may just yearn for something a tad meatier – although the climax is brilliant and provides as much drama as you could possibly ask for.

And some may take issue with The Lion King’s philosophical stance. I wouldn’t call it fascistic by any stretch, but it is interesting to contrast The Lion King with the equally charming Babe: one says that you’re born into a role and that you’re letting yourself and others down if you deviate from it, by (for example) adopting the dropout philosophy of ‘Hakuna Matata’; the other says that your status at birth shouldn’t hold you back from changing your life as you see fit. I’m not suggesting that these competing philosophies are writ large on the screen, or that they have any bearing on the quality of either movie: but the messages are there and are worth pondering.

Anyway, if little of this seems like a review of the movie, it’s because The Lion King is simply a marvellous film with so much to recommend it that niggles over a lack of complexity or originality** only act as slightly dull spots which boost the shine of the whole. Funny, moving and beautifully brought to life, I definitely feel the love for one of Disney’s genuine classics.

NOTES: 1The ‘Special Edition’ loses a point for the reinstatement of ‘Morning Report’. It was obviously not good enough to be the first song of the film proper, so why inflict it on us now?

2The Japanese animation Jungle Emperor/Kimba the White Lion never made it over to Britain, so I couldn’t possibly make any comparisons. I have, however, seen a few Youtube clips which are, let’s say, interesting. As the teacher says, there is no new thing under the sun…

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Snow White is tolerated as a maid by her stepmother, the wicked Queen, until the day the young woman’s beauty exceeds her own. Lucky to be alive but cast out into the woods, Snow White falls upon a house owned by seven dwarfs who succumb to her charms and take her in. Hearing of her survival, the Queen disguises herself as an old crone and sets off for the woods with a poisoned apple in her basket.

A long time ago in a land far away, cartoon maker Walt Disney had a dream: to make a feature-length animated movie, in colour, with sound. ‘It can’t be done!’ those around him said, but Walt pressed on with his ‘folly’ and after three years’ work Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and a new type of cinema, were born.

‘Lovely little princess’ Snow White lives as a scullery maid in the employ of her stepmother, charming the birds from the trees and attracting the attention of a handsome prince, much to the displeasure of the Queen. Wildly jealous that (in the opinion of her magic mirror) Snow White has become the fairest in the land, the Queen commands a huntsman to kill the princess and bring back evidence. The huntsman cannot bring himself to do the deed, however, and tells the princess to run to the woods, where she is beset by perils but brought back to her senses by the woodland creatures who take her to an empty, cosy cottage.

Believing it to be inhabited by children, Snow White and the animals clean the house and everything in it before she is overtaken by fatigue; the actual owners, seven diamond-mining dwarfs, return and are originally spooked by the invader before she reveals herself to be benevolent and also a cook and dancing partner.

The dwarfs – even irascible Grumpy – fall in love with the princess, but their warnings for her to be careful cannot save her from a trick played by the Queen, who magically disguises herself as an old crone and persuades Snow White to bite a poisoned apple. The dwarfs race back to deal with the Queen, but are they too late to save their new friend from the ‘sleeping death’?

It would be a miracle for any seventy year-old film not to have a few issues, let alone one that was the first of its kind; and there are issues, though by and large these come down to personal taste. Firstly, the backgrounds, whilst charming, are largely static (except for the waterfall and the imaginative use of a reflective surface for a river).

Secondly, some of the facial characteristics are odd, by which I mean that Snow White and the prince are too realistic (their lips, noses and eyes don’t look quite right), and the contrasting long, oval eyes of the dwarfs are also strange, as they are always looking straight up or straight down. Of course, large eyes give the dwarfs a certain expressiveness whenever they’re looking coy or ashamed, but they also make them look twee – for my taste, anyway.

In terms of the story, a great deal of time is spent showing the dwarfs at work, being afraid of whatever’s invaded (and tidied) their house, then being introduced to Snow White, washed for supper and so on; and though this offers much in the way of comedy, it does slow down the pacing of the film and the telling of the tale. I would happily have sacrificed five minutes of the dwarfs’ antics to give more depth to the prince and a fuller explanation of his efforts to locate the sleeping princess in her glass coffin. As it is, a caption does this job, so the time that elapses between Snow White’s ‘death’ and her revival is very brief: you hardly have time to mourn with the dwarfs before they have cause to celebrate again, and the film ends very suddenly.

But these are nitpicks compared with what Walt Disney’s team have done brilliantly. Snow White is appealingly positive, and even if her facial movements don’t always convince (especially when she speaks) she is otherwise animated beautifully, the fluidity of her movement still impressing today (she was closely modelled on dancer Marge Champion).

The delineation of the seven similar-looking dwarfs is also impressive, with Grumpy bagging the best lines. I don’t like Dopey very much, his mute nature, sagging clothes and big ears occasionally making him look more the dwarfs’ pet than one of their number, but he has the lion’s share of the physical comedy.

Best of all, though, is the characterisation of the Queen, a malevolent, frightening presence in both her forms whose threat is real and dark, reflecting more of Grimm’s fairy tales than modern sensibilities might be comfortable with: not only does the Queen order Snow White’s death, she demands her heart in a box as proof.

Perhaps the best compliment to Snow White is that it feels like a normal animation even to modern audiences. However basic some of its attributes may be, the heroes and villains are established, as are the comic/action sequences and musical interludes. The style of the singing may be dated but the songs themselves – I’m Wishing, Whistle While You Work, One Day My Prince Will Come and of course, Heigh-Ho – have stood the test of time extremely well.

I am not enamoured of everything Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has to offer, and because it’s a little sugary and old-fashioned for my senses I would prefer to watch Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, given a free hand. But when I say Snow White is a significant achievement, it’s in no respect meant to patronise Disney’s work; for not only is it a pioneering film which established the formula for feature-length animations for decades to come, it is also very good on its own terms.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

WFTB Score: 18/20

The plot: When eccentric inventor Maurice is held captive after seeking refuge in an enchanted castle, his daughter Belle makes the courageous decision to trade her freedom for his, sacrificing herself to the Beast who lives there. The Beast knows that Belle falling in love with him is his last chance to lift a curse, but even with a houseful of animate objects giving him advice, it seems impossible that he will be able to control his temper; certainly not against the baying townsfolk who pitch up at his gates.

Belle (voiced by Paige O’Hara) isn’t a typical young woman, at least not in the quiet French village where she lives with her eccentric father, inventor Maurice. Whereas the other girls are blonde, showy and only too keen to flutter their eyelashes at local stud Gaston (Richard White), Belle prefers the company of a good story, the sort that frees her mind and allows her to imagine a different sort of life to that she seems destined to live. Belle’s disinterest provokes Gaston all the more and he plots, with his idiot sidekick Lefou, to lure Belle into marriage; but tragedy intervenes when Maurice goes missing and Belle tracks him down to an enchanted castle, owned by a Beast (Robby Benson) who has been cursed with his appearance forever unless he can earn the love of a woman, and peopled with enchanted objects that were formerly his servants. Knowing none of the Beast’s history, Belle selflessly forsakes her freedom for her father’s but struggles to live with her new master’s anger, and after a row she flees, requiring him to rescue her from a pack of wolves. By degrees, the two come to appreciate each other’s qualities, but just as it seems they are about to fall in love, Belle discovers that her father is in danger and Beast lets her go, unwittingly opening himself up to attack when Belle – in order to save her father from being locked away in an asylum – reveals his existence to the villagers. Can Belle reach Beast and reveal her feelings before Gaston and his mob get to him?

Before I go any further, I should declare my hand. I have never felt any special love for Disney, and have never understood the appeal of their boring flagship mouse nor why anybody, young or old, would want to spend any time in theme parks stuffed full of the studio’s creations. Many of their recent successes, until they merged, were bought-in Pixar films and I have always thought the reputation of Disney as purveyors of magic for kids of all ages has been largely undeserved. Just so you know.

That said, Beauty and the Beast is brilliant. Utterly superb. Although the animation is largely traditional in feel, it has a distinctive style which makes the characters live: not too cute, and not too lifelike. For instance, Belle is not exactly a curly-haired blonde princess, and Beast, while capable of prowling and snarling like an animal, can also carry off civilised behaviour. More importantly still, the characterisation of each of the main characters is accomplished with humour and energy by the animators and actors alike, creating memorable roles throughout: from Belle to the bickering pair of Cogsworth and Lumiere (David Ogden Stiers and Jerry Orbach), right down to the gormless Lefou and Maurice’s horse Philippe. The enchanted house is a thing of wonder, Angela Lansbury’s Mrs Potts ordering the dishes about with enthusiasm; yet all the time the withering rose in the forbidden West Wing, a sign that Beast’s curse is destined to stay with him forever, anchors the action in serious drama. That any sort of affection should grow between Belle and the Beast appears implausible, but Linda Woolverton’s script orchestrates their encounters so that their love grows organically. The songs of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (to whom the film is dedicated) also help to accentuate the action, with witty lines and spritely tunes helping the film throughout its tight 81-minute running time.

In two places the songs and visuals come together to extraordinary effect. The first is for Be Our Guest, in which the kitchenware dances for Belle in a terrific copy of a lavish 1930s musical. Better still, though, is the title song. For Beauty and the Beast, the directors set up an intimate dance between the leads whilst Lansbury sings the lovely tune with enormous sympathy and feeling, then ramp up the emotions by showcasing a few brief but incredibly effective shots of the couple dancing in an extraordinary computer-generated ballroom. No doubt it’s the sort of thing that could be knocked up in a few hours these days, but the glittering, polished ballroom heightens the mood of the scene in an unexpected and totally unique way. To top it all, the film refuses to linger on this achievement and carries on with a moment of self-sacrifice from Beast that has you rooting for him right until the end against the vicious, arrogant Gaston.

Very few films are perfect, and some of Beauty and the Beast’s animation is a little rough: the mouths of the characters don’t always match their voices and ironically the post-transformation prince is, to quote Fargo, kinda funny looking. These are minor quibbles, though, for a film that brushes away cynicism with good humour, good tunes, and endless charm, all of which earned it an unprecedented Best Picture nomination. It didn’t win, of course, and perhaps that’s right; for this movie is a different kind of special. Beauty and the Beast isn’t perfect: but it’s absolutely magical.