We’re diving straight into the next decade, and unfortunately, the films in this decade leave a lot to be desired…
Pinocchio (1940, directed by Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske (supervising directors))
My only recollection of this film is a random whale scene towards the end of the film, and also something scary involving Pinocchio going to school with an apple.
And I wasn’t that far off, to be honest. Pinocchio himself is infuriatingly naïve, the plot is nonsensical (Geppetto ends up in a whale at the end and it’s never explained?), and there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of heart to it. I applaud Disney for not folding to studio demands that he release another ‘princess film’ following the reception of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, however this film just doesn’t hit the mark for me.
The animation is beautiful, and the underwater sequence is particularly admirable. The balance of puppet to human is done to perfection with Pinocchio’s character.
I’d also forgotten how dark this narrative is! Pinocchio is kidnapped and sold by Honest John, then he and other young boys are stolen and turned into donkeys to form part of a child slavery ring.
It’s an interesting choice to have Jiminy Cricket as a narrator, almost handholding the adults through the film, and I wonder how audiences would have responded to him at the time of release. Watching it today, his presence is almost entirely unnecessary, save for having another character for Pinocchio to talk to.
The nostalgia just isn’t there for me with this one, and Geppetto is quite mean to his cat, Figaro. That knocks off a few stars on its own.
Fantasia (1940, directed by Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen, David D. Hand, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe, T. Hee, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson)
What an incredibly creative concept for a film – one where the animation is inspired by music. My grandpa showed me this film for the first time, so there is a little nostalgia here for me.
What I didn’t remember was the four significant stages of the film’s “narrative”. I invert the word “narrative” because the four sequences of animation are snapshots which form together in an overall repertoire.
Mickey Mouse’s broom sequence, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, is probably the most recognisable, and it’s a beautiful sequence. The water animation is again elevated from the previous film, but with a slightly more surreal edge.
The ballet hippos from Dance of the Hours are also recognisable and form a really fun and imaginative sequence.
I’m not so sure about the overly sexualised centaurs in The Pastoral Symphony, or some of the more psychedelic sequences from the first few segments, but the final sequence, Night on Bald Mountain, set to Ave Maria,is a beautifully done, atmospheric piece of art.
I can see how children might not warm to this as a cohesive film, but some of the better segments would definitely entertain them. However, perhaps an older audience is able to appreciate the film as a whole a little more.
Dumbo (1941, directed by Ben Sharpsteen (supervising director), Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Bill Roberts, Jack Kinney, Samuel Armstrong)
Boy this movie wraps up faster than a gift purchased on Christmas Eve. You find out Dumbo can fly and then… front pages of newspapers of him flying, the air force naming jets after him, aaaand… roll credits. And, unfortunately, that feeling of, ‘Is that it?’ really sums up the film for me.
Dumbo barely has a plot, other than: Dumbo is born, he has big ears, turns out he can fly. We barely even see him struggle to fly, or grapple with his ‘gift’.
I will admit that Dumbo’s characterisation is probably the cutest we’ve seen from Disney so far, especially given the character never speaks. Even for a layman, it’s also interesting to see the animation style slowly progress to something a lot cleaner.
Even with the heartfelt scene between Dumbo and his mum, the film left a lot to be desired for me. Well, whatever this was, it sure was better than the 2019 live action remake.
Bambi (1942, directed by David Hand (supervising director))
God. I knew it was coming, and it still hit. It’s interesting the way they choose to deal with death in this movie is having Bambi’s mum appear in one frame as they are running away and then not show her in the next. It’s definitely a contrast to, say, The Lion King’s treatment of Mufasa’s death, where Simba interacts with the body. I’d be interested to know if these differences were purely from a story perspective (for Bambi, his mother is just there one instance and gone the next, whereas Simba is very much involved in the death of Mufasa), or if there were classification considerations for what they could show in a children’s film. Either way, it still hurts to watch this scene.
So, it turns out these early Disney movies have no plot at all, do they? Bambi hangs around in the forest for a bit, then his mum dies, then he becomes an adolescent, then they run away from a fire. (Can we call Bambi a ‘vibes film’?) The animation is beautiful to watch, particularly the ‘Bambi on ice’ scene, which definitely holds up.
It’s still confronting to see hunting onscreen, and the film definitely conjures up a lot of sadness for what it implies beyond the movie. It’s slightly odd and a little convenient that Bambi’s mum dies from one shot, and yet Bambi is shot and has no trouble surviving in the wilderness.
Overall, it’s definitely an improvement from the earlier works in this decade, but not one I’ll rush to revisit.
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