Sunday, December 16, 2012

Darkness from Disney

Film: Pinocchio; Fantasia; Dumbo
Format: VHS from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on big ol’ television (Pinocchio; Fantasia); streaming video from NetFlix on laptop (Dumbo).

As much as I would have loved to have posted this last night, I fell asleep. I watched all of these on Saturday, which means that some references to “today” might come off as strange. Anyway, better late than never, right?

I think I’d seen Pinocchio years ago because I remember specific parts of it, but I really can’t be sure if that’s because I’ve seen the film or seen clips of it. In a lot of ways, despite knowing the story, this was my first viewing of the film, the second full-length, story-driven animated feature from Disney. The story may not have been well known at the time, but has become (thanks in no small part to this film) a beloved story of many.

So, quick summary. An old carpenter named Geppetto (Christian Rub) makes a little marionette of a boy under the watchful eyes of his kitten Figaro and his goldfish Cleo. That night, Geppetto makes a wish on a star that the puppet, which he named Pinocchio (Dickie Jones), would come to life. Because this is Disney and a fairy tale of sorts, the wish comes kind of true. The Blue Fairy (Evelyn Venable) awakens Pinocchio and tells him that if he is good, he can become a real boy. To help him, she appoints Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards) as his out-of-body conscience.

Of course, Pinocchio gets in all sorts of trouble, first attempting show business. Here, he is put under the tutelage of Stromboli (Charles Judels), who plans to use this stringless marionette to make himself wealthy, trapping Pinocchio in a birdcage and leaving town. Jiminy comes to the rescue, but it is the Blue Fairy who really gets him out of the cage. This is also when Pinocchio learns that lying will make his nose grow, an event that only happens in this scene. Anyway, now dedicated to doing the right thing, it isn’t long before Pinocchio finds himself in trouble again, shipped off to Pleasure Island where naughty boys are turned into donkeys and sold into the slavery of the salt mines.

Eventually, Jiminy gets Pinocchio on the right track again and they return home only to find that Geppetto has gone looking for them, but instead has been swallowed by Monstro, the giant fearsome whale. Pinocchio and Jiminy go looking for the old carpenter, leading to a trademark Disney climax involving a good deal of danger and some real darkness.

It’s this darkness that I’d really like to discuss. Many Disney films contain a good deal of darkness and scary-for-kids horror, and Pinocchio has this in spades. Stromboli, who threatens to eventually chop Pinocchio into firewood, is dark enough, but so too is the man who takes the boys to Pleasure Island. The conclusion with the fearsome Monstro could well be upsetting for young kids. None of this matches the rather terrifying reality of Pleasure Island, though. When we realize that the boys have turned into donkeys and that some can still talk and have retained their own minds, it’s scary enough. But the transformation of Pinocchio’s naughty friend Lampwick is the sort of think that horror filmmakers study. It’s really quite upsetting, and brilliant because of it.

As you may well see in the paragraphs ahead or from the tag at the top, I watched a trio of older Disney films today, but Pinocchio was my favorite, and was so because it wasn’t afraid to go dark. This is especially disturbing because of the character of Pinocchio. He is perhaps unfairly thought of as behaving like a naughty boy, but nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, Pinocchio is perhaps the purest naïve character ever created for a film. He is essentially born into the world and told to act morally without really knowing anything about the difference between right and wrong. His external conscience is hardly enough to help him, since he doesn’t really understand what his conscience might be good for. I could easily draw a parallel here to a number of religious fables, but I’ll let your mind work on that instead. They’re there.

The songs are pretty good, too. The most noteworthy is “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which is the unofficial official Disney theme song. Great stuff.

Fantasia came out the same year as Pinocchio and tends to get a lot more acclaim. While I genuinely preferred Pinocchio overall, there are parts of Fantasia that make it as well known and influential as it is. Some of the animation here is remarkable. Other parts are slow, and a couple of places are weird and almost perverse. But the great parts really are great, the sort of animation that anyone interested in the artform will think of when the topic comes up. In this case, I’m talking about moments like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and the ballet dancing hippos.

We spend a good deal of time with the orchestra in this film, watching the musicians play, talking with the conductor, and getting a sense of the different instruments. This is fine, because Fantasia has no plot. Instead, it is a group of short films connected by returns to the orchestra. The animation is an attempt to put a story to the music, or to at least connect the music to a series of tangible images.

The decision to start the film with some extremely abstract animation followed by dancing mushrooms and flowers, though, might not have been the best, since it’s these sections that will most test the patience of children. This is particularly true of the opening sequence, which is extremely abstract. It helps that the music is excellent and that Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” is instantly recognizable to anyone who has heard even half a dozen pieces of classical music (a theme that will be repeated throughout). Various pieces from The Nutcracker follow, with animated flowers, mushrooms, and evidently naked fairies.

Things get more familiar when we get Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice with its endless marching brooms. This time, I’m not sure about the familiarity of the music. It’s a piece everyone knows, but in this case, I’m pretty sure that everyone knows it because of this film. This is a highpoint in what our narrator (Deems Taylor) calls “the Fantasia Program.”

“Rites of Spring” comes next, and features the beginnings of the Earth and life, showing something like evolutionary history with creatures climbing up onto land and turning into dinosaurs. We get a dino battle and eventually we see the extinction of the dinosaurs, posited here as being the result of a massive drought rather than an extinction event like a meteor. Funny that this was no big think when Fantasia was created, but would certainly be controversial now.

Next is Beethoven’s Pastoral Sixth Symphony, and the most unaccountably strange sequence in the film. Instead of a typical pastoral setting, we get naked cherubs giving way to mostly naked centaurs who are evidently very horny, since we see all but the mating. This is one of the more controversial sequences not because of the naked cherub butts or the mostly nude female centaurs, but because of the stereotypically African-looking, specifically unattractive centaur acting as a servant to the otherwise generally lily-white females, a sequence that has been completely removed from virtually every copy of the film. We also get an obviously drunk Bacchus/Dionysus who gets attacked by Jupiter/Zeus, who comes off as sort of a dick. This sequence comes off as sort of racy, almost perverse, suggesting rampant centaur mating and uncontrolled boozing.

The penultimate sequence is the classic Dance of the Hours, arguably more famous than Mickey’s berserk broom. Yes, this is the dancing hippos. Everyone remembers the dancing hippos, and everyone knows the music. Not everyone remembers that it opens with dancing ostriches, or that the hippos are followed by bubble-blowing elephants, who are in turn followed by alligators. This is a comic sequence, and is very funny, memorable for a reason.

The film ends with a sort of primitive mash-up of Night on Bald Mountain with Ave Maria. A massive demon summons spirits and skeletons to perform mischief, a great moment of real Disney-quality darkness, but everything is banished by the coming dawn and the holy music of a choir.

Ultimately, I’m torn. Much of Fantasia is the best of animation from the era. Much of it is stultifyingly dull. It’s worth seeing, but there are large sequences that can be missed without too much worry. It helps that most of the music is well known, and that it’s performed beautifully under the direction of conductor Leopold Stokowski.

I realize now that I’ve left out the short sequence where we are introduced to the soundtrack, an animated line that does impressions of the various instruments. I suppose the fact that I forgot it completely speaks volumes of what I thought about it.

This brings us to Dumbo, the third Disney film from the early years of film that remained on the list for me. I knew when Dumbo suddenly showed up available streaming, and seeing that the oldest three films I had left were all animated Disney films, it seemed natural that I’d try to watch all three in the same day. Dumbo is very much the shortest of these three films. In a day that includes the dark transformation sequence of Pinocchio and the bizarre moments of Fantasia, who would have thought that this film would have by far the strangest sequence.

Dumbo is a story that you know even if you haven’t seen it. I say that, because it’s in many ways the “Ugly Duckling” story, or, since it’s close to Christmas, a pachydermic version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Just like Rudy, our title character has a strange physical defect—he has massive ears. Like Rudolph, Dumbo learns to turn this apparent drawback that makes him a social outcast into something that makes him truly special and wonderful. I know this sounds like a spoiler, but there’s no way that you wouldn’t know where this was going after the first quarter of the film.

Anyway, Dumbo is born to a circus elephant, but it is revealed that his ears are massive, to the point where they trip him. Over the course of the film, he is taken under the wing of Timothy Q. Mouse (Edward Brophy), who believes in him despite the fact that the other elephants have shunned him. Timothy stands by him even when Dumbo is forced to become a clown, the lowest rung of the circus ladder. Of course, by the end of the film, Dumbo learns exactly what about his ears makes him special, and he is able to use that for his own benefit.

As with the other Disney films I watched today, there’s a good deal of darkness here. At one point, a collection of humans start to tease Dumbo because of his ears. It seems to me that the circus is really negligent here, because the humans are able to actually enter his pen and pull on his ears. When this happens, his mother goes berserk and ends up being chained and penned. It’s really rather terrible and sobering, and I imagine upsetting for kids who see it as completely unfair. Similarly, the treatment of Dumbo by the other elephants is cruel and heartless, and very dark for a kids’ movie.

None of this compares with the pink elephant sequence, though. Through a series of events, Dumbo and Timothy manages to drink some champagne, getting horribly drunk. This triggers a hallucinatory sequence of marching pink elephants that look less like the delirium tremens and more like someone slipped psylocybin into a couple of peanuts. The animation style reminded me a great deal of Ralph Bakshi. However, since Bakshi was about four when Dumbo was released, I can only imagine that it influenced him greatly.

What follows is the other weird sequence here: the crows. There’s a lot of talk about the racist nature of the black feathered crows all speaking with an African-American patois (and all were, in fact, voiced by black actors). For once when it comes to a racism/sexism question with Disney, I side with Disney on this one. Sure, the crows are portrayed as minorities, but their teasing is reserved for Timothy, not Dumbo. More importantly, they quickly become Dumbo’s biggest supporters.

Dumbo is a strange film. It’s ridiculously short; at 64 minutes, it’s barely long enough to qualify as a feature. It also feels strange for a Disney feature. It feels instead like simply an extended cartoon. There are a lot of vague figures working and not a ton of dialogue for long stretches. It’s oddly impressionist and feels like a more typical, 6-8 minute carton. Dumbo and some of the other characters are fully realized, but this comes at a cost of reinforcing some ugly stereotypes.

My biggest issue here is the direction it took right away; Any story that features a protagonist in Dumbo’s position is really telegraphing the end. This isn’t a bad film by any stretch, and the pink elephant sequence is truly inspired in a twisted way. But this is a story that gets told over and over, and really not that exceptionally here.

Why to watch Pinocchio: In many ways, the best of the earliest Disney.
Why not to watch: It’s darker than you remember.

Why to watch Fantasia: Some sequences are some of the best in animation history.
Why not to watch: Some sequences are really dull.

Why to watch Dumbo: Some truly inspired sequences.
Why not to watch: You absolutely already know the story, even if you’ve never seen it.


  1. I was blown away by Fantasia. So ballsy and out there.

    Dumbo is one of the most depressing films I have seen in my life.

    1. I agree that Fantasia is ballsy. We aren't likely to see something similar in a long time, if ever again (and yes, I know there was a Fantasia 2000, but it's not the same.

      Dumbo is pretty harsh. I guess one of my biggest issues with it is how suddenly it ends. It should have been 30 minutes longer or condensed into an eight-minute cartoon.

  2. I agree that Disney was many times dark and even trippy. These films, Alice in Wonderland is like a giant LSD trip, and even Winnie the Pooh has a bizarre scary (for little kids) dream.

  3. Disney before outrageous marketing took over. I haven't seen Pinocchio in years, but I'm looking forward to re-evaluating it precisely because it IS so dark. Disney couldn't get away with that kind of threatening atmosphere nowadays. No way, no how.

    Fantasia is one of those incredibly special movies from my childhood, made more so because of how important classical music is in my life. I agree, however, that some segments are more successful than others. I don't care, though, because it's one of *those* movies for me.

    1. @Robert--current Disney still has some darkness, but not nearly at the level of the classic stuff.

      @Sio--I get that. Everyone has a few movies that they like more than they "should" because of particular associations, and really, you could do worse than Fantasia.

  4. Three Disney classics back to back! That is a massive dose of Disney.
    I too was surprised by the level of darkness in Pinocchio, which is way above what I would expect to find in a cartoon and especially a Disney one, today. Since I saw it a few weeks ago it has been on heavy rotation here in the house. My son loves it. He takes the dark themes in stride and is much impressed with the whale.

    He is also nuts about Fantasia and that is a little more surprising considering the many "dull" parts. He seems not to care and neither do I. I would be curious to see the black centaur. It was edited out of my version.

    Disney sugarcoating and darkness is such an odd mix. I wonder if that was just a product of the times or something inherently Disney.

    1. It is a lot of Disney. My wife in particular was amused by my sudden "interest" in old animation. I knew I had to do this when I realized that the earliest three films I had left were all Disney animation.

  5. I had noticed that your three oldest movies were Disney and I was wondering if you were going to review them all together.

    I only saw Pinocchio for the first time a few months ago. I was amused by the smoking, but the boys being turned into donkeys and sold into slavery was disturbing to me, precisely because there is no redemption or safety for them. They never appear again.

    I agree with you and Disney on the crows in Dumbo. And if people want to complain about stereotypes, why doesn't anyone have an issue with the adult elephants, most of whom were portrayed as gossipy old white women and who were not presented as very nice characters?

    I liked both Fantasia and Fantasia 2000. Originally Disney planned to release versions of Fantasia every few years, swapping out some sequences for new ones, but he never did. It was his way of showing that animation could be just as high class as any other kind of movie. I wish he would have because then maybe animation wouldn't be seen by most Americans as something only for kids; that it could be for adults, too.

    1. Fantasia, for as much as it is lauded now, was a financial disaster, which is why it took 60 years for another one to show up.

      It's a good point about the other elephants, too, and one that I didn't think of. They are vicious and cruel--it's they who name him "Dumbo," since his real name is Jumbo, Jr.

      As for Pinocchio, the boys turning into donkeys is pretty intense. For me, the most upsetting part of that is the one who can still talk, still knows his name, and just wants his mom. I can imagine a kid being scarred by that.

  6. Pinocchio is partly nightmarish, which might be why I like it so much

    1. Agreed. It's my favorite of the early Disney by a long way.

  7. I have watched several versions of Pinocchio, and none have come near the darkness of Disney's. This is one of the few animated films that they truly capture the darkness of life itself and not just an evil character - Toy Story 3 is probably the most recent to touch on the darkness that dwells within and around us. The other versions swerve around the darkness and concentrate more on Pinocchio's moral dilemmas. The creepiest thing about these other versions is the real life puppets.

    All three of these movies touch one main point to children - another lost Disney art - and I find that it is not coincidental that these 3 movies are in this list. It is that actions have consequences, and to weigh out those options before reacting.

    Great review on these 3 Steve.

    1. Good point about actions and consequences--in the case of Pinocchio, though, it's almost unfair. Pinocchio is such a naive character that he really doesn't understand right from wrong--they're just words for him. More or less, the film is about him discovering this truth.

  8. On that point - Jiminy was a horrible conscience. He never described the good vs. bad aspect of choices put in front of Pinocchio. He probably wouldn't have understood anyway, but the godmother was horrible at her job too. Why not at least give Pinocchio a bird for a conscience (not to make a bad pun of a little bird told me or the birdie on my shoulder...), but at least birds see more than a cricket hiding in a house.

    1. That's a good point, but it wasn't an easy job for Jiminy. Imagine having to instruct someone who is physically old enough to get into really serious trouble with no clue as to any morality--it would be like playing foster parent to a six-year-old raised by wolves.

    2. Hah! I guess he did only have the bear necessities.

    3. You should be beaten for that one.