It's like warm apple cider for the soul...
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
Art Direction/Design: 7
Themes/Archetypes/ Artistic Interpretation: 10
I gotta get up. I gotta get going, I'm going to see a friend of mine. He's round and he's fuzzy, I love him because he's just...
Pooh Bear! Winnie the Pooh Bear!
Lookin' for fun, chasin some hunny bees
Pooh Bear I know he's out there
Rumble-y tumble-y, climbin' a hunny tree
I'll spare you the rest. So, Winnie The Pooh. This particular theatrical release was cobbled together from three previously released featurettes, Winnie The Pooh and The Honey Tree (1966), Winnie The Pooh & The Blustery Day (1968), and Winnie The Pooh and Tigger Too! (1974), so technically, this is a package film. But, it holds itself to a far higher standard, and came out thirty years later, so we're going to ignore that fact.
The film is a collection of stories about our titular Pooh Bear, from his first encounters with his addiction, Hunny, his hilarious attempts to scam bees out of said Hunny by disguising himself as a little black raincloud, to the time when he ated to much Hunny, which got him stuck in Rabbit's front door. This pretty much wraps up the first of the three acts. The second one includes Blustery Days, introduces us to rapid stalwarts of the story Tigger and Piglet. First, the massive storm happens, wherein blusters occur, Owl's house is ruined, Tigger arrives and explains the subtleties of hephalumps and woozles to a confused Pooh, rain comes and provides a disturbing level of water damage to everyone's homes, Pooh accidentally resuces Piglet, Piglet gives his home to Owl, and moves in with Pooh, despite the relative brevity of their relationship.
The final short deals with Rabbits frustration over Tigger, and his harebrained schemes to get Tigger to stop bouncing. He finally succeeds in this, after a failed attempt to get Tigger lost, wherein he himself is lost, until finally Tigger, in a fit of Hubris, bouncs too high, and is scared to come down. Rabbit makes him forswear bouncing and this makes Tigger sad, but then Rabbit lets him bounce, and all are happy. Then, there is a heartbreaking scene where Christopher Robin, the boy amongst stuffed dolls, tells Pooh that he as to start growing up, and Pooh says he'll always be there for him. Then it pulls back to a live-action Nursery, where live-action Pooh Bear winks, much to your horror. End.
This film is unique, even among Disney films, for its ability to make me feel like I'm watching it all over again for the first time. The second Sebastian Cabot begins explaining the Mr. Sanders sign above Pooh's house, I'm five again, my mother is making me french toast, I'm in pajamas with feet, and all is well with the world. No matter how old I get, the first time I see Pooh try to think, or hear Tigger explain the intricate, most likely foreign spelling of his name (T-i-double guh-err), something inside me melts, and everything is full of... whatever I was full of at age five.
The art is unexceptional, but good by the relatively low standards of the 60s/70s, and the framing device of the book is used to great effectiveness in both the art and plot. What defines this film though are clearly the characters. Frankly, I could care less about inclement weather or bees, because Pooh Bear is adorable doing anything. He is all that is light in this world. And while perhaps some of his songs aren't as memporable, and his stakes aren't as high, he's still among the finest creations, and finest re-definitions of a character, that Disney ever created.
Oh, bother. Tut tut, it looks like rain. Oh, stuff and fluff. Think, think. You never can tell with bees. Silly old bear.
You can't deny the Pooh charm. I remember my sister had a Pooh whose nose wiggled when you squeezed his hand. You could totally hear the mechanized rotating what-dilly at work, but it was still just the most precious thing. What's confounding about Pooh is his amazing ability to be so cute without ever crossing into annoying. Like so many animals that populate works designed for children, Pooh is very child-like, but he's also something of a little old man (thanks Sterling). Pooh may be gluttonous and a bit simple, but thankfully he's never going to try to teach you how to count or speak Spanish. Those are both valuable lessons, don't get me wrong, but Pooh somehow manages to create a richly populated world where adventures are had without the risk of anything truly horrible happening and lessons are imparted without them ever feeling heavy-handed. Though it's not a problem in this film, I found the limitations of the Hundred-Acre Wood to be grating in later installments. More so than anything else Disney, nothing truly bad happens in this world, so it's hard for there to be things like character growth or intricate plotlines. But, that's not really the point.
No, the point is the charm. But more than that. RM and I chatted about that particular feeling watching this gives us. For RM, it's a maple flashback full of warm fuzzies. But, for me Pooh will always be autumnal. And I don't just mean in the blustery-day, muted color style way, I mean that feeling of melancholy as it starts to get colder and dark. The series has always hinged on that tension between Christopher Robin growing up versus remaining in the Wood. And, while Christopher Robin is hardly the most interesting character (what with being a stand-in for us), there's the worry that, when he goes away, the Hundred-Acre Wood ceases to exist. There's more ambivalence toward growing up here than one finds in Peter Pan - for Peter, his opposition to adulthood is unequivocal and bratty, and (I think at least) the world he offers is more deeply flawed than the Hundred-Acre Wood. Yet, even though the Wood is something of a paradise, none of the animals pull a Pan and kick/scream as Christopher announces he won't be coming around so much anymore.
But, while you can return to the Wood (unlike Neverland), I do think it's never quite the same. I watch Winnie the Pooh and most of all I'm filled with sadness that I no longer think all my stuffed animals come alive when I'm not around. Pooh inspires a longing in me for more magical times, that sort of magic that's really the charm of Disney, isn't it? For all the cynicism, and the slapping of these films on the slab to dissect, the wonder never dissipates. And yes, we all must grow up, but I think that's all the more reason you have to have those Hundred-Acre Woods to come home to stay sane. Maybe it's a little Don Quixote of me, but I think that's so.
Final Grade: B+
2.) The Lion King
3.) Sleeping Beauty
4.) The Hunchback of Notre Dame
5.) Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs
6.) The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
7.) Peter Pan
9.) The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad
10.) Lady and The Tramp
11.) The Great Mouse Detective
13.) The Jungle Book
14.) The Black Cauldron
16.) The Three Caballeros
17.) Treasure Planet
18.) Saludos Amigos
19.) Fun and Fancy Free
A Celluloid-y oracle.
Art Direction/Design: 10
Themes/Archetypes/ Artistic Interpretation: 10
Fantasia is the magical story of a young princess, Melodia, who finds herself gifted with a talent for song. As luck would have it, the dashing prince of the nearby kingdom is having a singing competition, which he aptly has named "Thrills, Trills, and Girls, Girls, Girls!" Melodia journeys to the neighboring kingdom, but is beset by many trials. To the tunes of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, she becomes lost in the shadowy forest that separates the two kingdoms. Abstract shapes fly by in the darkness, some bearing an uncanny resemblance to musicians (from Hades!!!). Thankfully, she soon comes upon a more tranquil area of the wood, where she encounters a group of cute fairies frolicking to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite. Melodia laughs with delight as they perform for her, and is thrilled as various plant forms that bear a strong resemblance to certain ethnic groups join in the fun. Melodia flees, though, as things begin to get hairy and the fairies run amok with climate manipulation. Horrors!
Melodia, nearly out of breath, soon finds herself at a large stone tower in the middle of the wood. She thinks back to tales she heard long ago of an ancient and powerful sorcerer who lived therein. As she peeks inside, she is hit full-on with a bucket of water. Melodia starts to yell at the offender, only to see that it is in fact a broom with two grotesque arms, marching to the beat of Paul Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Melodia looks inside, only to see dozens upon dozens of brooms dumping cascades of water into the overflowing room. A torrent of water bursts out the window, sending Melodia spiraling down a path and into an open crevice. Melodia tumbles down, down, down, until some wild-looking trees slow her fall. Melodia slides down the branches of the tree and looks around. What an interesting place... and with a song titled The Rite of Spring playing, what could possibly go wrong? Is this merely an underground forest? No! It is the LAND OF THE LOST! Melodia turns and lets out the most beautifully pitched scream as a lumbering, famished Tyrannosaurus Rex stretches its razored maw to...
Intermission, intermission, intermission...
Melodia wakes up. Was it all a dream? Around her, chubby-buttoxed cherubs splash her with wine. What fun! Melodia stretches and is helped upright by a jaunty centaur (much to the irritation of his color-corresponding centaurette mate). It is a veritable Pastoral Symphony as adorable mythological mutants frolic in barrels of wine and crystal-clear lakes. At last, thinks Melodia, I have arrived at the idyllic land for which I set out! And look, ostriches performing the Dance of the Hours on point as alligators attempt to rape a hippo in a tutu!
But here was Melodia's terrible mistake. She stood by watching, and did nothing. As punishment for her sinful inactivity, the Bald Mountain cracks open and Satan devours her. The end.
So, that's basically how Fantasia goes down, except without the princess, thank God. I'd first like to direct you to the Wikipedia article on this film to provide some context - I could do it here but mostly I'd just be copying and pasting. And you have the time, right? Right?
Fantasia's a bit of a sticky wicket in terms of the films we've watched up to this point, and it really is more the Disney exception than the Disney rule. Certainly, there are things here that are Disney staples - Mickey Mouse and other anthropomorphized animals, jaunts through disturbing and surreal imagery, racial profiling, and bare-chested women. But, in the live-action opening of the film, clear goals and parameters are defined. For one, this is a project of animators responding directly to a musical piece, as opposed to music scholars working in conjunction with animators to create a concept. Some of the shorts will tell a story, some will present striking imagery, and others will dabble chiefly in the abstract.
If the Disney goal is to create art for mass consumption (and, I think that is certainly part of it), Fantasia must be perceived as a time when art and education succeeded in wresting control from pandering to public taste. Let me be clear: this is not about to go down the road of "If it's popular and people enjoy it, it must suck. Only things the masses dislike are worth experiencing." But I do think this is Disney stretching as far as it can into the territory that's working hard to enrich the audience and elevate animation itself to a more respected plane. It is not meant to be, say, an entertaining diversion.
I know it may sound as though I am speaking in an overly grand way about the film, but you really should do yourself a favor and sit down with it if you haven't watched it in a while. The animation is simply enchanting, as artists have been given free reign to play within the confines of a flexible music piece as opposed to a hard, dialogue-driven narrative. Even having seen computer-animated features and startling later pieces of animation, I was still struck by the sheer beauty of the animation here.
While there's no weak number in the bunch, I will admit that certain pieces are likely to appeal to some over others. In my case, I can appreciate the abstract lines and phallic clouds of gold in Toccata and Fugue, but it's not to my taste. I actually enjoy the final two most of all - Dance of the Hours still cracks me up, and Night on Bald Mountain manages to still be scary even as other things I found scary as a child are now (at best) novel or amusing. And I have to hand it to Fantasia - I remember watching it several times as a child, and while there were certain drag areas, it managed to hold my attention for two hours without narrative propelled by dialogue. It's just so damn clever. One complaint I have, however, is that the audio hasn't really stood the test of time. Perhaps there is a mega-specialer DVD out there I need to get my hands on, but the tinniness of these great works sometimes held back from the majestic factor. Hey, you know what'd be awesome? Seeing Fantasia done with a live orchestra. Oh, delicious...
What to do about Fantasia. My esteemed colleague, has already espoused its genius, and I must say, it is among the finest five or so pieces of theoretical animation I've ever seen. Disney had a vision, and it was that they could do a rotating series of these things, with 20-30 of these classical shorts that would be switched in and out, like guest stars. Which, as it turns out, didn't work out. But the seven or so pieces of art (which is what they really are) that are in here are truly sublime. If Snow White showed us that feature-length animation was possible, Fantasia showed us that animation itself can be more than Bugs Bunny in drag (though, why would you ever want it to be?)
So why do I feel weird watching Fantasia?
Not in that "Oooh, those centaurettes ain't got no tops on" (I shit you not, in Fantasia, female centaurs are centaurettes) way, or in that "Wow, I'm never going to sleep now that I've seen Chernabog in all his mountainy glory" way.
It's the part of me that is a philistine. I watch this, and I appreciate it's art. More is done in this ONE FILM, in exploring what can and can't be done with ink and brush than in any other Disney film. Texture, color, motion are all pushed beyond what you could expect now, much less what must have been feasible then. But something feels weird, and I think I know what it is.
As fun or funny The Pastoral Symphony is or Dance of the Hours is, and as enjoyable as the rest are, I spend at most twenty minutes with any one character, and though those twenty minutes are well crafted, and done better than most of the feature lengths, when you spend 80 minutes following Belle, or Ariel, or Aladdin, you feel for them. You care about them. You're invested in them.
In short, this movie could have used Melodia.
I wasn't invested in Fantasia. Its parts are more glorious than many other Disney films. But to me, it is no more than the sum of those parts. Which is why, though technically amazing, I won't be reaching for it when I have that "Disney Itch," which, coincidentally, is transmittable through fluids, so, be safe everyone.
Final Grade: A+
2.) The Lion King
3.) Sleeping Beauty
4.) The Hunchback of Notre Dame
5.) Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs
6.) Peter Pan
8.) The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad
9.) Lady and The Tramp
10.) The Great Mouse Detective
12.) The Jungle Book
13.) The Black Cauldron
15.) The Three Caballeros
16.) Treasure Planet
17.) Saludos Amigos
18.) Fun and Fancy Free