Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Famous Firsts - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Part Two


When we last saw her, Snow White was enjoying cleaning up the mysterious cottage where she hoped to take shelter. The queen...well, we really don't know what the queen is up to since her trusted huntsman was unwilling to carry out her fiendish plot to be rid of her rival. We will find out how she reacts to Humbert's betrayal, but not just yet. Right now, we're going to meet the film's other protagonists, who are much more active than the little princess.

The film goes straight from one song into another, another two if you count “We Dig” and “Heigh-Ho” as two separate songs. These songs here have a clear purpose: to introduce the seven dwarfs. We still don’t know any of their names, but we can learn more about them by watching them. As both visuals and song make clear, the dwarfs are miners, digging away in a mine brimming with enough sparkling gems to make the dwarfs very wealthy indeed. Their industrious nature combined with the long white beards most of them have would seem to indicate that they are nothing like the children Snow White is expecting. But for once, the song provides a clue to what’s really going on:

“We dig up diamonds by the score.
A thousand rubies, sometimes more.
Though we don’t know what we dig ‘em for,
We dig, dig, dig-a, dig, dig.”

The idea that the dwarfs don’t really know what to do with the gems they unearth is repeated a few more times. Before heading home, the dwarfs toss sackfuls of the gems they’ve dug up into a clearly labeled vault located near the mine. The key to this vault is placed on a hook on the mine’s doorframe, so the mine’s security must not be a concern for the dwarfs. (Though the dwarf who puts the key there is the one named “Dopey,” so it could just be his idea that the key should be left at the vault.) The dwarfs’ cottage, while beautifully decorated with wood carvings and little knickknacks, is nowhere near as opulent as the Queen’s throne room and does not indicate that the dwarfs are using their gems or selling them to enrich themselves. Are the dwarfs really digging up precious gems just for something to do? They may not actually be children, but perhaps they’re more childlike than they look.


Giving the dwarfs individual personalities is perhaps Disey’s biggest contribution to the story of Snow White. Up to this point, the film has been a largely straight retelling of the fairy tale. But in the original, the dwarfs were completely interchangeable. Now each one is distinct from the others and we begin to see that even in this early scene. There’s the one dwarf with glasses who tests the gems for quality while the others dig them up or haul them out of the mine. He’s also the one who starts off the “Heigh-Ho” song, telling the other dwarves it’s time to head home. When the dwarfs march back to their cottage, he is at the head of the line. Then there’s the little bald dwarf, the only one of the seven without a beard. He’s charged with sweeping up the dud gems and tossing them away, giving us an idea of what kind of work he is and isn’t capable of. His lack of hair makes him look much younger than the rest of the dwarfs, which fits in with his silly, playful, demeanor. Watching the lead dwarf inspect gems with a jeweler’s loupe, he picks up two diamonds and puts them over his eyes to imitate him. He seems almost permanently happy; whether he’s being knocked over the head or accidentally throwing himself into the vault with the sack of gems he’s carrying, he always comes up smiling. He’s the last in line when the dwarfs leave the mine for the day, and constantly falling behind. Aside from these two, we may also notice a permanently scowling dwarf and a dwarf whose eyelids are always at half-mast.

Back at the cottage, Snow White and the animals decide to see what’s upstairs. They discover seven little beds, each with a name carved into the footboard. So now we know the dwarfs’ names: Doc, Happy, Sneezy, Dopey, Grumpy, Bashful, and Sleepy. We’ll get a formal introduction shortly, but even now we can probably start to guess which name goes with which dwarf. Snow White does comment that they are “funny names for children,” though I guess they’re perfectly ordinary names for dwarfs. After reading Sleepy’s name, she realizes that she’s feeling rather sleepy herself. She lies down across three of the beds and falls asleep while the birds cover her with a blanket. The animals start to settle in, but bolt awake when they hear the dwarfs singing and clear out of the cottage speedily.

The lead dwarf, who we may have guessed by now is “Doc”, is the first to notice the light is on in their cottage. He starts mixing up his words, a character trait that comes up whenever he’s excited or distracted. The dwarfs all creep closer to get a better look and exclaim, weirdly enough, “Jiminy Crickets!” (Pinocchio would not be released in theaters for three more years.) Wielding their pickaxes, the dwarfs decide to investigate, and we begin another mini-drama. Snow White was presented with the mystery of who lives in the little cottage and now the dwarfs have to figure out who or what is in their house and what that individual has done to the place. The dwarfs enter their home and search for the intruder while the bluebird family, who stayed inside, watches from the rafters. As they investigate, the dwarfs react with shock and confusion to the cleaning that’s been done in their absence. One dwarf notes that “our cobwebs are missing.” Another points out that the sink is empty, concluding that their dishes have been stolen. A third dwarf discovers the dishes have actually been “hid” in the cupboard. A fourth laments that his cup has been washed and the “sugar’s gone.” If the mess Snow White found upon entering the cottage didn’t convince us that the dwarfs need someone to take care of them, their reactions to finding their house clean and items put away correctly certainly do. Two of the dwarfs are happy to discover a tasty smell coming from a pot on the fire, but the irritable dwarf, “Grumpy”, keeps them from trying any, declaring that the steaming concoction is “witch’s brew.”

Right now we’re just making educated guesses at which dwarf has what name, but one of the seven makes it unmistakable. When another dwarf shoves a bouquet of goldenrod under his nose, he reacts with a stuffy “My hay fever!” before letting loose a gale force sneeze that sends the other dwarfs and various objects flying across the room. If the dwarfs’ names mean anything, then this has to be Sneezy.

Noticing the dwarfs’ nervousness, the bluebird family taps on the rafter they’re perched on, then lets out as bloodcurdling a shriek as three small birds can mange. I’m not quite sure what their intention is. Do they want to scare the dwarfs out of the cottage? Lure them upstairs so they’ll discover Snow White? Or are they just having fun at the dwarfs’ expense? Whatever the birds’ reasoning, the noise causes the dwarfs to run for various hiding places. Once they come out, they conclude that whatever is in their house is upstairs in the bedroom and someone needs to go up there and chase it down. Dopey is given the task, which briefly erases his usually happy expression, though he’s smiling again as Doc tries to hand him a candle. “Don’t be nervous,” he tells the grinning Dopey as his own hand shakes violently. Dopey cautiously enters the bedroom. Still asleep Snow White moans and stretches under the blanket. Dopey yells and runs in terror from the “monster.” His yell is one of the few places in the movie where I feel a voice performance falls flat. It’s not even that Dopey is otherwise mute; the voice is just too low for a character whose design and behavior are so childlike.

After briefly mistaking Dopey for the monster, the other dwarfs pepper him with questions about what he saw. Dopey hasn’t said a word up to this point but it’s only when he pantomimes his answers that we realize he is actually mute. Although he only saw Snow White under a sheet, Dopey confirms every one of the dwarfs’ suspicions: the monster is a giant, horned, drooling, fire-breathing dragon. The only accurate piece of information he relates is that the “monster” is asleep in their beds.

The dwarfs decide that they have to attack while the monster is sleeping and now the real tension begins. We know that there’s no monster, only a sleeping princess. But the dwarfs don’t know that and in their fear and confusion, they may attack Snow White. They may be little more than children jumping at shadows, but their pickaxes and clubs are capable of doing real harm and their calls of “Off with its head!” “Break its bones!” and “We’ll kill it dead!” show that they are serious.


Doc leads the dwarfs upstairs and over to the beds where they surround the “monster”, weapons at the ready. Doc pulls back the blanket and they stop mid-swing as the “monster” is revealed. Snow White is introduced to them with sparkling music, her chest gently rising and falling as she sleeps on unaware of the latest brush with death she’s had.

Further pushing the idea that the dwarfs don’t quite possess full adult intelligence, one of them asks upon seeing Snow White “What is it?” Doc may not be quite as smart as he thinks he is, but he can at least recognize that “it’s a girl.”

Most of the dwarfs are delighted at the discovery of their unexpected visitor, calling her “might purty” and “just like an angel,” but Grumpy is anything but. The intruder, he announces, is a female and “all females is poison” and “full of wicked wiles.” When asked to explain what “wicked wiles” are, Grumpy admits that he has no idea but is nonetheless against them, suggesting that his misogyny has no basis in experience or reality. Snow White begins to stir and is soon face to face with the occupants of the cottage. She introduces herself with a polite “how do you do?” The dwarfs, as lacking in knowledge of manners as they are in housekeeping ability, look at each other in confusion and when she repeats herself, Grumpy responds with a surly “How do you do what?”

Snow White insists that the dwarfs let her guess their names and we finally get a formal introduction to each of the seven. She first identifies Doc, the pompous leader of the group. Next is the dwarf who called her an “angel” before. He starts to turn away and play with his beard the second Snow White turns her attention to him and she guesses that he is Bashful, which he confirms by turning beet red and tying his beard into a knot. Sleepy’s yawn gives him away, as does Sneezy’s hay fever.

Snow White starts to identify a fifth dwarf, but trails off and he introduces himself as Happy. Of all the dwarfs, Happy is the least distinct, having little in the way of physical or personality traits to differentiate him from the others. All seven dwarfs – except for Grumpy – are usually pretty happy, so being happy is not enough to make Happy unique. Happy goes on to introduce Dopey and explain that “he don’t talk none.” Even Dopey is unaware of whether he can talk or not; he’s simply never tried to. This keeps Dopey’s muteness comedic rather than tragic and ensures that we’ll continue to see him as a funny character.


There’s only one dwarf left, the one regarding Snow White with folded arms and a nasty scowl. Dropping her voice to the lowest register it can reach and folding her own arms, she says, “Ohhhh, you must be Grumpy.” Grumpy looks shocked and even a little hurt by her teasing. Quickly changing the subject, he demands that Doc ask the girl who she is and why she’s here. Doc does so, initially imitating Grumpy’s irritated tone of voice. Grumpy is particularly adept at throwing Doc off his train of thought and getting him to say things he doesn’t mean. When Snow White introduces herself, Grumpy gets Doc to go from trying to express how honored they are to have her in their home to saying that they’re “mad as hornets.” It’s Doc’s eagerness to be a good leader and say the right thing in any given situation that leads to him becoming flustered and mixing up words.


Despite living out in the woods, the dwarfs do know that Snow White is the princess. They’re also well aware that the Queen a wicked, mean person and Grumpy even calls her “an old witch,” a term he means in the literal sense. Grumpy sees this as all the more reason to kick Snow White out. If the Queen find out the dwarfs have been hiding Snow White from her, she could take vengeance on all of them. Snow White pleads her case, promising that if they let her stay, she’ll wash, sew, sweep, and cook for them. The dwarfs obviously haven’t missed most of these services, but cooking catches their attention at once. The way to their hearts is clearly through their stomachs. Doc gets particularly excited over the possibility of what he ends up calling “crapple dumpkins.” When Snow White mentions that she can make gooseberry pie, the dwarfs are sold and decide their guest will stay, Grumpy’s objections non-withstanding.

Snow White runs downstairs to take the soup pot off the fire. The dwarfs smell the tasty aroma and rush downstairs. Grumpy may be a woman-hater and earlier wrote the soup off as witch’s brew, but he’s no going to let any of that stand between him and a hot meal. The dwarfs table manners predictably atrocious. They descend upon the table in a mob, leaning over to grab at bread rolls and fighting over who gets what. In the same gentle tone she used with the animals, Snow White informs the squabbling dwarfs that supper isn’t yet ready, so they’ll have just enough time to wash up.

Though the dwarfs know what washing is, the idea of washing before a meal is foreign to them. Grumpy snarls that he “knew there was a catch.” As they try to unravel the mystery of washing, Snow White sweetly asks if perhaps they’ve already washed and Doc, seeing an out, suggests that, yes, perhaps they have. “But when?” Snow White counters, hand on hips, clearly not buying it. Doc, after sputtering through progressively longer periods of time suggests that they’ve washed “recently” and the others back him up. Naïve as she may be, Snow White still isn’t fooled and asks to see the dwarfs’ hands. The dwarfs immediately put their hands behind them and start backing away. Ages aside, the roles are clear here: Snow White is the all-knowing, no-nonsense “mother” while the dwarfs are guilty-faced little children. Their hands are, of course, filthy and Snow White sends them out to wash, or no supper. Grumpy stays on the sidelines, scowling at the whole drama. He does, however, pull one hand out from his folded arms at glance at it before tucking it back behind his elbow. I wonder what he might have done if his hands were actually clean. After the others have marched themselves outside, Snow White confronts Grumpy. When he doesn’t respond to her, she teasingly asks, “Cat got your tongue?” Flustered, Grumpy sticks out his tongue at her and stomps off, nose in the air, crashing right into the open door. Snow White laughs before asking sweetly, if a little condescendingly, “Oh, did you hurt yourself?” With a final “Hmph!” Grumpy storms out the door, hoists himself up onto a barrel, and chews on the end of a cattail. “Hah, women!” he grunts, at the height of masculine rebellion. To his shock and dismay, the others don’t share his view and are nervously approaching the water trough.


How long has it been since the dwarfs last washed? Their observations that the water is not only “cold” but also “wet” show that it’s been quite some time. Doc reminds the frighten dwarfs that if they wash, it will make Snow White happy, which is incentive enough to brave the cold, wet water. Grumpy points out from his seat on the barrel that, as he predicted, “her wiles are beginning to work.” And though Doc dismisses him, Grumpy isn’t entirely wrong. Snow White may not have a wicked wile in her but her feminine charms are certainly having an effect on the dwarfs, convincing them to do something they normally wouldn’t.

“Bluddle-Uddle-Um-Dum,” also known as “The Dwarfs' Washing Song,” is mainly an explanation song. The dwarfs clearly don’t know how to wash, so Doc explains it to them in song form. It’s not introducing a character or highlighting a moment of high emotion, but it has a little more reason for existence than “With a Smile and a Song.” It’s also another gag sequence, with plenty of jokes as the dwarfs work through the process of washing.

Grumpy continues to sit on the sidelines, warning the others that before they know it, Snow White fill be decorating their beards in pink ribbons and spraying them with “per-foom.” While the others go through the ordeal of washing in order to please the princess, he remains unswayed. Or does he? Having insulted the other dwarfs throughout the whole procedure, he loudly declares “I’d like to see anybody make ME wash, if I didn’t wanna.” Now Grumpy does put up a huge struggle and protest vehemently when the dwarfs take him up on his “suggestion” and drag him over to the tub. But what did he expect after teasing the others and all but suggesting that they force him to wash? And why add on the qualifying statement “if I didn’t wanna,” indicating that it’s not so much that he would never wash as that he doesn’t want to right now? Grumpy, it seems, is faced with a dilemma. He wants to eat the delicious soup that Snow White has made, but she has made it clear that there will be no supper for anyone who doesn’t wash his hands. Grumpy does not want to wash his hands. He’s made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t want to wash his hands and that he thinks that Snow White making them wash their hands proves everything he has said about her. But if he doesn’t wash, he doesn’t eat. And maybe on some level, he does actually want to please the princess. As we’ll se later on he isn’t immune to her charms. But if he washes, he’s admitting that he was wrong and he’s not being grumpy, which is literally who he is. So perhaps his inner conflict between wanting to have supper and wanting to protest the “washing” rule leads him to goad the other dwarfs into making him wash, but still protest all the way.


After enduring his taunts while they washed, the other dwarfs can’t resist having some fun at Grumpy’s expense. They don’t have any pink ribbons or “per-foom”, so blue ones and a flower wreath will have to suffice. Snow White calls them in for supper and the dwarfs, in their rush to go eat, “accidentally” drop Grumpy back in the tub.

Snow White has become aware of her stepmother’s desire to kill her and found a safe haven. The dwarfs, while they may not have been actively looking for a housekeeper, are certainly happy to have Snow White staying with them and cooking for them. So once again, the story leaves our passive protagonist and turns to the lady with the ability to make things happen.


It’s a cloudy, moonlit night and the castle is a dark silhouette against the sky. Snow White no longer lives her and nothing but wickedness remains in this place as the camera zooms towards the same window we saw at the start of the film. Before anything else, we see a familiar box with a dagger-through-the-heart clasp in the hands of the Queen. We know that Snow White’s heart is still safely in her own chest, so what’s going on here? The phrasing of the Queen’s question – “Who now is the fairest one of all?” – tells us right away that even though Humbert didn’t kill Snow White, she believes he did. She is so certain that her stepdaughter is dead that she doubts the mirror when it tells her otherwise and even opens the box to show her grisly trophy. (The box is kept at a height and angle that prevents the audience from seeing inside.) But the mirror reveals the truth to her. Humbert has presented her with the heart of a slaughtered pig instead (and, we would hope, gathered up whatever family he may have and got the heck out of Dodge.) But whatever the Queen had planned for Humbert is going to have to wait. Her first priority is to finish off Snow White, which she now realizes she will have to do herself.

The only other living creature in the Queen’s lair beneath the castle is a raven. Though we might guess that the bird is the Queen’s familiar, that doesn’t seem to be the case. It is not her faithful servant like Maleficent’s raven in the much later Sleeping Beauty. Rather, the bird seems wary of the Queen, even frightened. It is there primarily to give the Queen someone to talk and to reflect the terror that the audience feels as her sinister plan is revealed.

Up to this point, the only magic we’ve seen the Queen perform is to summon the spirit in the magic mirror. But now, we get to see the full extent of her abilities. Now only can she mix magical potions, she can capture and use strange ingredients like the night’s darkness, an old woman’s sinister cackle, and a frightened scream to serve as ingredients. Even the weather itself seems to bend to her will, providing her with wind and lightning as she needs them. When she drinks the potion, we see not only the physical result of her transformation, but also what the experience feels like to the Queen. She drops the goblet from her hand and grasps at her throat, gasping for air as the room around her dissolves into a swirl of colors and bubbles. Lightning flashes as her dark hair streams out from her head and turns to white. “Look! My hands!” she cries, as her delicate fingers grow long and gnarled. A wave of bubbling green liquid and a formless tangle of darkness flash across the screen. We see the shadows of the Queen’s now spindly hands against the wall as she croaks “My voice! My voice!” She cackles wickedly as the camera pans down to show a figure shrouded in a black cloak and the Queen’s new face is revealed. With her scraggly white hair, hooked nose, and round, bulging eyes, she could hardly look less like the regal figure she was but moments ago


If as Santayana says, fanatics are those who redouble their efforts while losing sight of their goals, then the Queen belongs in the same category as Wile E. Coyote. All through the film, the Queen wanted is to be the most beautiful of all women. Yet she has become so fixated on eliminating the competition that she has turned herself into an ugly old hag, the exact opposite of what she wishes to be. We can assume that her plan is to turn herself back into her true form once she no longer needs her disguise, but the fact is that she will live and die as the hideous peddler woman and the irony is inescapable.

Again, the scene ends with a reminder of the threat the Queen poses to Snow White. Looking through her book of spells, she selects “a special sort of death” for her intended victim: a poisoned apple that will cause whoever takes a bite to suffer an affliction known as the Sleeping Death. A close-up shot of the Queen’s horrifying, grinning visage is the last thing we see before the screen fades into darkness.

To be concluded...

All images in this article are copyright Disney.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Out of Town

I've been away on vacation for the past couple of days and won't be getting home until late Monday night. I was hoping to have the second installment of Snow White ready ahead of time, but I didn't get around to the screencaps before I left. So the next post will be showing up on Tuesday or Wednesday more than likely. Sorry for the delay.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Famous Firsts - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Part One


The story of how Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came to be is almost as famous as the story of the movie itself. All these years later though, it does seem hard to believe that the very idea of an animated fairy tale musical was once considered a colossal risk, if not a guaranteed failure. It was the first animated feature film in the United States (though not in the world). Hollywood pundits predicted disaster for Disney, citing everything from the expected broad slapstick humor getting dull after more than five minutes to the bright colors becoming painful to the audience’s eyes. But as we all know, “Disney’s Folly” became Disney’s First and set the tone for much of the studio’s work to come.

After the opening titles and credits, the film starts with a live-action storybook opening. The book sets up the idea that we are going to be told a story, specifically a classic fairy tale. Making a direct connection between the film and a physical book would further cement the blending of the familiar classic fairy tale and the new format of feature-length animation in the minds of the audience. Connecting something new to something well-known is a tried and true method for getting the public comfortable with a new concept. The image of a book also invokes the concept of a narrative, which was important to let moviegoers know that “Snow White” was going to focus on story and not just gags loosely tied together by a simple plot, as many short cartoons of the time did.

Looking at it today, the book feels like a somewhat clunky start to the film. The rest of the movie does wonders conveying ideas visually, so it’s odd to start off with a prologue that relies on text. But we aren’t completely denied visual information. The little animals nestled in the scrollwork around the crowned “O” introduce the idea that the creatures of the forest love the little princess we’re reading about. At the bottom of the page, a crown rests atop a scrub-brush, highlighting the plight of the princess reduced to a scullery maid by her jealous stepmother. The Queen herself is just barely visible behind the initial “E” on the next page. In case we aren’t clear about what sort of woman she is, a peacock perches in the scrollwork beneath the letter. The text hints that Snow White’s well-being is dependant on the mirror identifying the Queen as the fairest one of all, but it’s the dagger at the bottom of the page that tells us that “the Queen’s cruel jealousy” makes her capable of far worse things than dressing her stepdaughter in rags.

The animation begins with a lovely castle on a beautiful day, but what we’ve learned from the book and the creepy music as the camera zooms in on a particular window make it clear that we’re not going meet Snow White just yet. The large mirror and the crown, long regal robes, and stately bearing of the woman we see next all tell us that this is the Queen. As the villain of the film, the Queen is responsible for driving most of the plot and the action. Her motivations are clear – she wants to be the most beautiful woman of all and is willing to kill anyone deemed lovelier – but we never learn why the Queen is so obsessed with beauty. She wields great power as queen of the land, with no king even mentioned. On top of that, she has the power of magic, carefully established early in the film so her later use of it doesn’t come as a surprise. So why is she so fixated on being beautiful when surely no one but her own magic mirror would dare to call her anything else?

It’s interesting that the film begins by introducing us to the antagonist rather than the protagonist. We learn about a character through other characters talking about her. Before we even meet her, we know that Snow White is beautiful and that she is in great danger because a very vain and powerful woman has her in her sights. So even though Snow White has yet to appear on screen,
we’re interested in her and sympathetic to her. The Queen is one of the more active characters in the movie, and therefore better equipped to get the story rolling. She is someone capable of setting events into motion. Snow White, we will learn, is not.

As we’ve been told, Snow White is a lovely maiden reduced to wearing tattered clothes and scrubbing the palace steps. She’s not completely alone in the world as she’s surrounded by a flock of doves who are more than just the reason she has to scrub the stairs. She’s humming to herself as she works and looks reasonably happy. But right before she gets up, she pauses, looks up at nothing we can see, and sighs. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but it hints at something that we rarely be seen in this movie. One of the virtues of many of the classic Disney princesses is how they remain virtuous despite the horrible injustices they suffer. They may not be happy about it, but they almost never complain, get angry, or mope. They find ways to remain “ever gentle and kind” as Cinderella will be describe over a decade after Snow White. But Snow White sighs and as small a thing as it is, it suggests a hint of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. It shows that she is capable of realizing the unfairness of her stepmother robbing her of her birthright, demoting her to a lowly servant, and making her dreams seem almost impossible. It makes her human. But it doesn’t last and the idea is never touched on again. Snow White is 99% sweetness and compliance, but it’s nice to see another side of her, if only briefly.

As Snow White draws water from the well, she talks to the doves, who nod and coo in response. This makes two important points. One, Snow White is friends with animals, a concept that will be explored further later in the film. This is a commonly used device in animation – not just Disney – to give characters someone to talk to and relate to who is not quite on the level of an actual human companion. Two, the animals in the movie may be smarter than average, but they are largely realistic animals. They don’t talk, wear clothes, or ride bicycles. Their anatomy is handled relatively realistically; birds cannot use their wings as hands and deer cannot stand up on their hind legs and walk around. As with the Queen’s use of magic, it is important to establish the boundaries of a fantasy world early on so that the audience isn’t confused about what is and isn’t possible.

This scene includes the film’s first song, “I’m Wishing” which leads into “One Song.” The songs are something I keep going back and forth on. On the one hand, the score contains a number of catchy and memorable tunes. I’m sure you can hum or sing at least one of them. And they are generally well integrated, partly because so much of the movie’s dialogue is in verse. Since the characters are frequently speaking in rhythm and rhyme already whether there’s a song coming or not, it feels natural when they slip into singing. But “Snow White” is a musical and songs in a musical should support and enhance the story, not bring it to an abrupt stop. By that measure, the success of the songs in “Snow White” is varied. “I’m Wishing” is extremely light on content, but it is one of the main character’s two “I Want” songs, which highlight her major goals in the story.

At this point, Snow White wants to find true love. So what does she do about it? She tells a wishing well her wish. Snow White doesn’t do much other than wishing to get what she wants because Snow White is an extremely passive character. Her actions are almost entirely determined by other characters. She has dreams, but circumstances and personality combine to keep her from doing anything about them. Life as a servant and her stepmother’s determination to conceal Snow White’s beauty reduce the young princess’s chances of meeting anyone she could fall in love with and she’s simply not the type to try to sneak out or escape her plight altogether until someone else actively tells her to. So other characters act while Snow White wishes. Unlike the later Cinderella, the movie never says outright that having faith in your dreams against all odds is a path to making them reality. Aside from antidotes to evil spells, there is no “good magic” in the movie.” Snow White wishes and for whatever reason, things fall into place for her, eventually.

Snow White’s first goal – to find true love – is accomplished in about five seconds without her doing anything other than singing her desires. As luck (or the wishing well?) would have it, a handsome prince is riding by and happens to hear Snow White singing. He climbs the castle wall and instantly falls in love. Snow White is initially startled, but is quickly won over. Most of the early Disney fairy tales follow this pattern. Love happens instantaneously and the drama comes from the outside forces that keep the two lovers apart rather than internal conflict.

If Snow White is a passive perfect princess, the Prince is almost a nonentity. He appears only twice in the film, once when he first meets Snow White, and again at the end. He has only a few lines of dialogue and a single song – appropriately entitled “One Song.” We’re given no hint as to his whereabouts during the rest of the film, beyond a brief mention in the book towards the end. His role in the film never goes beyond “love interest.”

The meeting of the two lovers provides an interesting clue about one of the other characters. As the Prince sings his song of undying devotion to Snow White, the Queen silently watches from her window. Glaring at the scene below, she angrily pulls her curtains shut. So what’s on her mind? Has the Prince’s arrival merely confirmed what she already knows: that Snow White’s beauty surpasses her own and dressing her in rags can’t hide that fact? Or is this what the Queen really fears: that Snow White’s beauty will prevent the Queen from being able to attract men?

In an earlier draft of Snow White, the young princess decides that the only way she can meet a handsome prince is to make one. She uses some rags and a bucket with a face painted on it to create a scarecrow of sorts, which she dubs “Prince Buckethead.” While she talks to her ersatz prince, the real Prince happens upon the charming scene and is instantly smitten. He slips inside of the scarecrow while Snow White plays at preparing for an imaginary ball. Snow White is shocked to hear “Prince Buckethead” respond when she speaks to him again. The real Prince reveals himself and confesses his love to her. Rather than telling her his real name, he says he likes the one she’s given him: Prince Buckethead.

Unfortunately, the Prince’s arrival does not go unnoticed, and the Queen has the Prince seized and thrown into the palace dungeons. Despite his plight, the Prince is still overjoyed at having found his true love, but Snow White weeps over the cruel fate that has befallen her poor Prince Buckethead.

Much as I like the film as it is, I can’t help but wonder if it would have been stronger if these scenes had been included. It gives both Snow White and the Prince a little more character. Snow White gets to actually do something about her dreams, even if it is just make-believe. It accounts for the Prince’s absence from the rest of the film. Later scenes allow the Queen and the Prince to interact, which they never do in the final film. In early concepts for the movie, it was even suggested that the Queen wanted to marry the Prince herself, which would give her a clear motivation for wanting Snow White out of the way.

Alas, the scenes were abandoned, primarily due to animation problems. Animating realistic humans was still a very new thing for the Disney artists and the Prince was particularly troublesome for them. Rather than go forward with a major character who just didn’t look very good, the filmmakers decided to cut the Prince’s role back. These “lost” scenes were never animated, but they did make it in to a comic book adaptation of the movie and Disney fans sometimes refer to Snow White’s prince as “Prince Buckethead” for lack of a better name.

As it stands, the Prince’s courtship of Snow White ends suddenly and without any clear reason. He sings to her of his love. She sends one of her doves down with a kiss for him, draws back behind the curtains and…that’s it. We see no further contact between the lovers, nor do we learn what either of them does after finding true love. Does the Prince go to the Queen to ask for her servant’s hand in marriage? (No one has told him that she’s a princess.) Does he head home to tell his parents that he’s in love with a scullery maid? Is there some issue he needs to attend to before he can marry Snow White? We never find out; he just disappears.

Snow White wanted true love and no sooner do we meet her than it finds her. Her only goal has been fulfilled without her really having to do anything. If the story is going to keep going, we need someone who still has unfulfilled desires and the will to realize them to make a move.

So we're back to the Queen, seated on her ornate throne. (I could easily write pages about the background detail in this movie. If I handed you a background from this scene, no characters, you could tell plenty about the person who lives in this room just by looking at the stunning carved peacock on the back of the throne, the scepter resting on a cushion nearby, and the overall richness of the decor.) She orders her faithful huntsman to take Snow White out to some secluded spot and kill her. In that moment, everything the movie has been building up to regarding the Queen comes to a head. This woman wants to be the most beautiful woman of all so badly that she’s willing to kill anyone who stands in her way, though without dirtying her own hands.

The huntsman is never named during the film, but internal Disney documents refer to him as “Humbert.” We see right away that Humbert is no cold-blooded killer. He is so horrified by the idea of slaying the little princess that he dares to protest. But the Queen silences him, reminding him that he knows the penalty should he fail to carry out her orders. We don’t know what this penalty might be, but Humbert certainly does and it’s enough to make him reluctantly consent. The Queen also commands Humbert to bring her Snow White’s heart in a box she provides him with. To put an extra visual emphasis on the seriousness of the threat to the young princess’s life, the clasp of the box is a dagger piercing an iconic heart.

Earlier versions of the movie had the Queen explicitly stating that if Humbert failed her, she would have his own children executed. Fortunately for audiences who find the movie scary enough as is, this element was dropped in favor of the more vague threat.

Humbert follows the Queen’s orders and takes Snow White out to pick wildflowers. Oddly, Snow White is out of her tattered scullery maid clothes and wearing a dress more suited to a princess, the one she wears through the rest of the movie. I have no idea why the Queen would allow her to go back to dressing like a princess right before having her killed. Maybe she’s concerned about people outside of the castle seeing the princess dressed in rags and knowing that she’s being mistreated, but isn’t the point of Humbert taking her somewhere secluded to ensure that no one sees her or what’s about to happen?

Snow White is happily picking flowers, singing her Prince’s song, still filled with the joy of true love. The sad chirping of a baby bluebird catches her attention. Setting aside her flowers, she scoops him up in her hands and comforts him. This is our first look at a big part of Snow White’s personality: her maternal nature. She is the mothering type and is ready and willing to take care of anyone who needs it. She quickly calms the little lost bird and helps him to find his parents.

Seeing his chance, Humbert glances around to make sure no one is watching. The reflection of light off the metal blade ensures that we don’t miss seeing him draw his knife. Snow White is shown from the back noticing the baby bird’s parents (off-screen, in case we had any ideas about them coming to her rescue), emphasizing her vulnerability, while the large rock in front of her shows that she has nowhere to run. Humbert approaches, taking up most of the screen as he draws closer. The bird flies off to join its parents, leaving Snow White completely alone. Since Snow White is in front of Humbert and he’s behind the camera, we see his shadow enveloping her rather than coming up behind her on the rock. At the last second, she turns around and screams. Passive even if the face of death, she does nothing more than cover her face with her arms.

Instead of trying to show Humbert’s split-second realization that he can’t bring himself to murder the princess through his facial expression, the Disney artists cut to his trembling hand holding the knife and finally dropping it as he sobs “I can’t do it!” Snow White seems completely unaware of how deep her stepmother’s hatred of her runs. When Humbert explains the reason for his actions by telling the princess “She’s mad! Jealous of you! She’ll stop at nothing!” Snow White replies with a puzzled “But who?” Humbert all but commands Snow White to run away and hide, as if the thought might not occur to her otherwise. Now that she has mostly accomplished her first goal, Snow White is given a new one: to escape from the stepmother who wants her dead. Or, more generally, to survive.

There is a very abrupt transition from the sunlit glade to the shadowy nightmare forest Snow White flees into. Whether this reflects the actual nature of the wood or how Snow White sees it in her frightened state is unclear. Fear does quickly cause her imagination to run away with her. To her terrified eyes, the forest becomes a den of monsters. Tree branches catching her skirt become clawed hands grabbing at her. A dead tree sprouts glaring eyes. A hole in the ground that she falls through becomes a gaping maw. Frightened out of her wits and thinking herself surrounded by monsters, Snow White collapses in a sobbing heap.

The darkness recedes, suggesting that it, like the monsters, was all in Snow White’s head. The eyes surrounding her go from fearsome and menacing to round and curious and are revealed to belong to the adorable little animals of the forest. Though they’re drawn in a cute and cartoony style, like the doves, their movement and behavior is fairly realistic. They approach the newcomer cautiously and immediately scatter when she notices them and exclaims “Oh!” They do, however, slowly return when she ask them please not to run off and apologizes for being so foolishly frightened. Among the animals is a family of three bluebirds, presumably the same one Snow White helped to reunite just minutes before. They likely know that she is a nice person and poses no threat to them, but the other animals don’t. Yet they still warm up to her remarkably fast. The doves may have known her for a long time and the baby bluebird was lost and crying, but these animals have no need or reason to trust her. Again, there is no explicit “good magic” in the movie, but Snow White does appear to have a power, born of her sweetness and gentleness, to win over almost anyone, human or animal. The little forest creatures are still initially wary enough to be believable. A chipmunk darts off when Snow White brings her hand down towards him and a little fawn shies away when she reaches out to him. But seconds later, the chipmunk is back at he side and the fawn is nuzzling her arm.

The scene of Snow White befriending the animals is accompanied by “With a Smile and a Song,” which is one of the film’s weaker musical numbers. Rather than highlighting an emotionally charged moment in the story, this song comes directly after a big emotional scene. It’s not about feeling excited, but about calming down and feeling OK. It could be said to be introducing the forest animals, who do play an important role in the story, but the song itself says nothing about them. The story doesn’t come to a complete stop while it’s going on, but it is still nothing more than a song.

Feeling much better, Snow White asks her newfound friends if they know where she could spend the night. The birds take the lead in bringing her to a little cottage nestled in the woods. Since none of the animals can talk, we don’t know their exact reasoning for choosing the cottage. It could just be the closest dwelling for people that they know of, or maybe the animals are familiar with the dwarfs and are certain that they will allow Snow White to stay.

After determining that no one is home, Snow White opens the unlocked door and starts to explore the cottage. Now Snow White has somewhere to stay – for the moment at least – and the Queen is not going to re-enter the narrative for a while yet. So with no threat from the Queen and no immediate goals for our heroine, what is there to keep the story interesting? The film solves this problem by doling out little mini-dramas, events that are not life and death matters, but interesting enough to keep the audience engaged. The first of these is Snow White entering a house without knowing who lives there. She and her animal friends are cautious entering the darkened house and the animals race out the door when Snow White again exclaims “Oh!” before they realize she’s just commenting on a cute little chair she’s discovered.

Just as we learned about Snow White before actually meeting her, we and Snow White are now learning about the dwarfs before they show up. Snow White notices that there are seven small chairs and a distinct lack of housekeeping, leading her to conclude that this is the home of “seven untidy little children.” (What she thinks children are doing with a pickaxe I don’t know.) Looking over the mess, Snow White starts to remark “You’d think their mother would….” before stopping herself and realizing that they may have no mother which would makes them orphans, though they could well still have a father. She never brings up the fact that she herself is an orphan, with no family aside from a stepmother who just tried to have her killed. She just sympathetically laments, “That’s too bad.”

We already know that Snow White is wrong about who lives in the cottage; the film isn’t called “Snow White and the Seven Untidy Little Children.” But looking around the piles of dishes, scattered clothing, and dusty mantle, we do see that the place is in need of some serious housekeeping, what 1930s audiences would have called “a woman’s touch.” So when Snow White suggests that they should clean up the cottage to surprise the “children” and that doing so might convince them to let her stay, it makes sense, even as it seems more than a little sexist. You would think that after being forced to scrub the castle steps for who knows how long, the last thing Snow White would want to do is clean. But her maternal instinct is her main feature and she and the animals are soon at work tidying up.

Famous as it is, “Whistle While You Work” does little beyond relating what’s obviously happening in the scene. The characters are cleaning up and they’re happy about it. The song’s main purpose is to highlight the series of gags based around the idea of animals doing housework. Since the Disney artists had only worked on short cartoons up to this point, it’s not surprising that parts of Snow White are filled out with entertaining visual humor, sort of shorts within the film. The animals serve as comic relief until the real comic relief shows up and this sequence features some of their best gags. Considering that they are wild animals, they do a shockingly good job cleaning. But they’re still animals and some of the funniest jokes come from them not really understanding the right way to clean up. Two squirrels sweep a pile of dust into a convenient mouse hole, where it is quickly kicked back out by the angry resident mouse. A group of squirrels, chipmunk and the baby fawn clean of dishes by licking them and the fawn even pauses between dishes to lick his own back. Snow White never does more than gently scold them and correct them and the animals seem perfectly happy to use soap and water instead.

To be continued...

All images in this article are copyright Disney.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Thoughts on "9"


My husband and I caught an evening showing of 9 (not to be confused with District 9, the upcoming Nine, or this) on Thursday. I've had a couple of days to think about it, but I'm still torn. I like what 9 represents, but I'm not sure I like the actual film quite as much.

I had already seen and liked the original short film by Shane Acker that 9 is based on. I like how the character design feels informed by stop-motion, from the small scale of the characters to the real world object and textures that they're made of. The short has a beginning, a middle, and an end and gets its ideas across without the aid of dialogue. It's a very solid and enjoyable student film.

What was - and in some ways, still is - exciting to me about the movie 9 is that it retains that same stop-motion inspired aesthetic. There are no other CG films that look like 9. Additionally, (and my husband really deserves the credit for bringing this up) 9 is a heavily promoted animated action-adventure film in wide release that is neither aimed at young kids and their families nor a serious meditation on the horrors of war that is totally inappropriate for children. While I've certainly loved films that fall into both of these categories, it seems like most animated films today fall at the most extreme ends of the spectrum. There's a huge area in the middle that theatrical animation, particularly in the US, has left largely unexplored. The idea that 9, which was number two at the box office on its opening weekend, could kick off a new interest in animated entertainment for adults and older teens is pretty exciting.

There were definitely things I enjoyed about 9. The interesting and unique design from the short is still there, the same little sackcloth heroes and bone-machine hybrid monsters. The story begins with the end of all human life - and possibly all organic life - on Earth, a subject you won't find in most animated films for the kiddie set. I particularly liked the twins 3 and 4, mute characters with fluttery moth-like movements and eyes that flicker like film projectors. They act as librarians, gathering information left behind by the extinct human species and the details of the world around them. They keep a picture catalog of the various subjects they've researched. Each image is attached to a string leading to the spot where the information on that subject is stored, sort of a "low-tech Wikipedia." (My husband came up with that term. I should probably give him a co-writer credit for this article.) It's fun to watch and and interesting take on how information might survive in a post-apocalyptic society.

Unfortunately, 9 also has a number of big problems in both story and, surprisingly, visuals. Quite a few critics have commented on how thin the movie's plot is, so I went in expecting that. But I was still disappointed with how weak the story ended up being. Much of the action falls into a cycle of "run, then fight," to the point where the battle scenes start to feel repetitive. Despite the plot not being terribly complex, there are still ideas and explanations that make no sense when given even a moment's thought. Some of the films key concepts feel woefully underexplained. The end result is a string of action sequences that frequently fail to stand out from one another held together by exposition that is never quite enough to answer all the questions the film raises.

What really surprised me was that the visuals were not as good as I had hoped they would be. The film's protagonists all have protruding metal eyes that resemble small lenses. Their pupils can dilate and contract, but that's about all the expression the the animators can get out of their eyes. They do have brows, but since their eyes are rigid metal, the brows just move around without changing the shape of the eyes, which leads to weak expressions. It's not impossible to design a character with mechanical parts and an expressive face. Look at the title character in The Iron Giant, whose whole body is designed to allow a wide range of poses and expressions while still being convincing as a robot made of metal.

The lack of strong facial expressions in the main characters might not have been and insurmountable problem. But the character's body language is equally weak. From the first few scenes, I was noticing poses that were not conveying the action and emotion as well as they could have if the poses had been stronger. Combined with the lack of strong facial expressions and celebrity voice performances that seldom rise above a satisfactory level, it made for characters I didn't feel invested in, which is why I spent my time noticing flaws like weak poses and statements that don't make sense instead of worrying about the characters and their plight.

In spite of all my problems with 9, I honestly hope it does well. I can't recommend it unconditionally. If you were completely blown away by the original short, you may well enjoy the movie. If you only liked the short or found it just "OK," then you can probably wait and rent it when it comes out on DVD. But the potential for 9's success to open the door for other - hopefully better - animated films for adults with big studio backing and a mission to entertain is still very exciting for me. So even if 9 was not a film I enjoyed all the way through, I still wish it well because of the possible future it represents for animation.

Image is copyright Focus Features.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Why I Love Animation: The Tell-Tale Heart


The world of animation is an ever-changing one, with long held assumptions about the medium constantly being challenged by new generations of artists. Sometimes these changes take effect gradually, the new idea passing through many hands and many different projects before finally taking hold with the general public. Computer animation, for example, did not begin with Pixar any more than hand-drawn animation began at Disney, but it took Toy Story to convince the world that a computer animated film could be both a critical and commercial success. But in some cases, an entire movement or concept in animation really can be traced back to one individual or studio. UPA is one such studio. Though their name and work may not be well known to the modern public, UPA was almost solely responsible for creating a graphic style of animation that still influences the medium to this day.

Founded in the early 1940s, UPA was born in part from the 1941 Disney animators’ strike. In addition to their dissatisfaction with Disney’s labor practices, some of these artists felt that Disney’s dedication to naturalism in animation was too restrictive and too pervasive in the industry. Former Disney layout artist John Hubley and other several other ex-Disney artists founded Industrial Film & Poster Service, which was later renamed United Productions of America. At their new studio, these animators pursued a radically different graphic style of animation that drew more inspiration from modern art of the time than from real life. Taking inspiration from Chuck Jones’s groundbreaking short The Dover Boys, UPA also pioneered the “limited animation” style, which uses a more limited number of movements, fewer drawings per movement, and more animation cycles that “full” animation. The UPA style had a huge influence on studio animation throughout the 50s and 60s and limited animation became an invaluable tool for studios trying their hand at producing animation for television, which requires a much smaller budget and faster production schedule that theatrical films or shorts.

(Please note that the terms “full” and “limited” animation are not quality judgments. Limited animation can be used to amazing effect while full animation can be absolutely terrible if the execution is poor. These are not “good” and “bad” animation styles, merely different approaches to animation. To learn more about limited animation and its history, check out parts one and two of an essay on the subject from Between The Frames, the TallGrassRadio Studios production blog.)

Today, UPA’s most well known works are the Mr. Magoo cartoons and Gerald McBoing-Boing - the story of a boy who speaks in sound effects instead of words based on a story by Dr. Seuss. Gerald McBoing-Boing and several of the Mr. Magoo shorts are excellent cartoons and still hold up well today. The only thing that has changed is how surprising the graphic imagery and limited animation feel. Since these cartoons were made, several generations have grown up with TV animation and are comfortable with the style of flat drawings and reduced movement that UPA pioneered. The only way to understand now how new and revelatory cartoons like Gerald must have seemed to audiences of 1951 is to imagine yourself in that time, when the cartoons of Disney and Warner Brothers set the standard and all other studios pretty much followed suit. Since then, the UPA style has been adapted or outright copied by everyone from Hanna-Barbera to Disney and Warner Brothers themselves and what was once new and challenging now feels familiar and inviting. But there is still at least one UPA short which manages to remain surprising and shocking, because is it both unlike any other UPA cartoon and unlike any cartoon I have ever seen, even to this day.

I was already familiar with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart," a story of murder, guilt, and madness. I knew from a couple of animation books that UPA had made an animated short based on Poe’s classic tale. But until a few years ago, I had never seen it. All I had were a few still images, none of which really prepared me for what the film itself would be like. I came across the short almost by accident. My husband and I had picked up the special edition of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy and were surprised and delighted to find that it included four UPA cartoons which the title character watches during the film. The included shorts were Gerald McBoing-Boing, two later Gerald McBoing-Boing, cartoons, and The Tell-Tale Heart. I still can’t think of a better way to see this film – except for maybe projected on a big screen in a theater – than coming across it unexpectedly and watching it with all the lights turned off and barely a clue as to what we were about to see.

I was stunned. I was amazed. I was completely in love with this film.


Even were it not for the opening text – almost a warning explaining the film’s origins in the Poe short story and introducing it as the tale of a madman who “like all of us” thought himself perfectly sane, the film’s dark nature would be clear from its first frame. A tall house sits completely alone on an impossibly low and otherwise empty horizon line against an ominously darkened sky. In the foreground is an ornamental urn atop a pedestal, almost like a grave marker. As the credits begin, the camera draws back and house and statuary are shown in an empty picture frame sitting on an easel, perhaps a nod to Magritte. The soundtracks starts with the distant tolling of a bell, then gives way to discordant music, completing the feeling of foreboding.

The story begins with a man’s voice, a human shadow against a dark blue background, and a bright white moth fluttering around. The moth flies up close to the camera. A human hand, rendered in stark white highlights and black shadow, snatched the moth from the air. This first scene establishes a number of the film’s key concepts. Obviously it introduces our narrator the madman, and the idea that he does not understand that he is insane or why anyone else would think so. It also introduces the theme of light and shadow, which will be present throughout the film. There are several scenes in which there are no moving characters, only shadows and light. Here we have a white moth and a man who is seen almost exclusively as a shadow who snatches the moth from the air. The final point this opening scene makes is that the entire film is shown directly from the madman’s point of view. All that we see of our narrator is his shadow and his hand coming out to seize the moth after it flies into the camera, his eyes. This is one of the most chilling alterations from the original story. Poe puts the reader in the role of someone the madman is speaking to, giving readers a view into the madman’s twisted mind, yet keeping them at a comfortable distance. In the film, we still get the impression that the madman is speaking to someone. He starts out admitting that he is quite nervous, then asks “But why will you say that I am mad?” But “you” here is not the audience. We never see the madman’s face, or anything other than what he sees. “You” could be the moth for all we know. In the film, there is no safe distance from which to observe this man and his insanity. We are the madman.


The madman then introduces us to his victim, the old man with whom he lived. By the madman’s admission, he did not kill the old man over any slight – real or imagined – or any desire to possess whatever wealth the old man had. His only quarrel was with the man’s one strange, discolored eye. The actual movement of the character is minimal. The old man is briefly shown walking, but he doesn’t turn his head to reveal the offending eye. Instead, the light shifts from one side of his face to the other.


Seeing what the madman sees also gives us access to his subjective view of the world around him. Thin white tendrils grow out from the eye and branch across the screen like cracks in glass. A full moon decays into a crescent in a series of still images that fade into one another. Juxtaposition or cross-fading of still images is another technique the film uses again and again. From the moon, we go to an inky black and white vision of the old man and his horrible eye as the madman sees them, then to a white pitcher sitting on a dresser in skewed perspective. As the madman tells us how the eye was inescapable, “everywhere, in everything,” the camera zooms in on the pitcher, which lies broken on the floor in the next frame. When the madman concludes “Of course, I had to get rid of the eye,” we may not agree with him, but we can understand how he came to that conclusion, having seen the way he views the world.

The madman’s belief that he is not mad rests largely on his perception of what qualities madmen do and do not possess. Madmen are easily agitated and often hysterical, but he insists that he can tell his story calmly, even though it soon becomes clear that he cannot. Madmen have no patience, but he waited for seven nights after deciding upon his plan before putting it into action. The very fact that he had a plan seems to be an argument against his madness, if madmen act on wild impulse.


Shadows continue to play an important role. Only the madman’s shadow advances towards the silhouette of the old man over a background that is the barest suggestion of a room, a window, and floorboards, which will feature in the story later on. Other important imagery gets highlighted as well: the old man has a white pitcher identical to the on the madman smashed for its similarity to the eye. We see the old man’s bed, with its particularly shaped footboard and checkered bedspread. The madman relates his nightly ritual of secretly looking in on the old man as he sleeps and for once, his presence is represented not by shadow, but by the light that moves up the stairs and peers through the open door. Time is another major player in the story. The madman says that his nightly observation of the old man took place “in the hour of the slowest clock.” Shadows and time come together as the old man’s shadow spills out across the floorboards in stages to represent the madman’s week of patient waiting passing by. The face of a clock decays much like the full moon compared to the eye earlier, revealing its slowly turning gears as the madman describes the slowness of his movements as time itself grinding to a stop. When the old man is suddenly startled awake by the fluttering of a moth in front of the madman’s lantern and the madman snatching it from the air, the madman remains motionless for a full hour to avoid being seen and talks of being able to “feel the earth turn.”

It is impossible to discuss The Tell-Tale Heart without talking about James Mason in the role of the madman. Mason seems determined to put everything he possibly could into the performance, yet he does so without ever striking a false or hammy tone. The script itself is greatly changed from Poe’s original text, so much so that hardly a sentence remains that is completely intact. I am not sure what the reasoning behind this decision was, but one of the results is that some of Poe’s more archaic and verbose passages are lost, freeing up the visuals to tell their part of the story and Mason to give a tour-de-force performance that feels entirely natural. What Mason gives the story in place of what has been taken out is a tone of voice that brings out aspects of the character not evident in the original. Mason’s madman starts off with the calm retelling of his story that he believes will prove him sane. But as the story unfolds, he not only grows more agitated, but turns from being the narrator of past events to being completely present in the moment he is describing. He goes from describing his slow, careful movements as he enters the old man’s bedroom on that last fateful night to crying out in alarm when the disturbance of the moth threatens to unravel his plans. Neither the visuals of this film nor Mason’s performance can exist without the other. Mason’s narration becomes especially crucial when the madman is waiting silently in the darkness and there is nothing on the screen but black for nearly 20 seconds. It is he who makes clear the madman’s growing sense of dread as he hears the old man’s heartbeat grow louder and louder and begins to suspect that his victim and the entire world are aware of his presence and intentions, while abstract veiny patterns throbbing on the screen in time to the increasingly louder heartbeat give visual emphasis to the madman’s torment.


The actual murder is shown with the most actual animation in the film. The camera leaps past the white pitcher to where the terrified old man is huddles in his checkered bedspread. The distinctive black and yellow pattern not only makes the location – and later, the old man’s corpse wrapped in the bedspread – easy to recognize; it also gives definition and meaning to the swirls of black and yellow punctuated by the thrust of an arm and a ghoulish head that are the murder of the old man. There is no blood or weapon, but the stabbing staccato notes of the soundtrack, followed by a shot of the bedspread falling over a still hand, leaves no doubt of what has happened, even before the madman tells us that the heart was now still and the eye dead.


Numerous fans and critics have compared the style of this short to that of Salvador Dali and I think the resemblance is most striking in this shot. (I’ve reconstructed the complete artwork from the pan so you can see the whole thing.) The old man’s corpse, covered by the checkered bedspread, lies on the wood floor. Nearby are his bed and an overturned black table, both of which we’ll be seeing again. The white bedsheets are strewn over the window shutters, winding around to the top, where the shutters twist and skew strangely. The walls and ceiling are gone, leaving the room fully open to the night sky. “I was free,” says the madman and the absence of the walls could be seen as evidence of that freedom. But the full moon, already associated with the eye in our minds, looks down unimpeded over the whole scene. Even if the madman does not realize it, we know that his deed has not gone unnoticed and his freedom will not last.

No sooner has our narrator concealed the body beneath the floorboards and set the room back in order than a knock on the door draws his attention. “So soon?” he muses, bringing the theme of time back into the narrative. The neighbors heard a scream and called the police to investigate. The madman sounds as calm as we ever hear him as he easily explains both the scream and the old man’s absence. Our only clue to his inner fears is in the visuals, where the policemen turn from realistically rendered figured to rough black and white renderings of fragments of faces, brows drawn low and eyes staring accusingly. His voice does not betray any agitation until the moment the policemen are about to leave and, curiously, the madman asks them to stay for a cup of hot tea. Is he so completely convinced that he has committed the perfect crime that he can’t resist flaunting his success? Or is his reasoning, like his madness, beyond even the madman’s comprehension?


A dropped teacup lying shattered on the floor echoes the shattered white pitcher from earlier in the film and kicks off the madman’s downfall. The return of the heartbeat is represent by the repeated fall of single drops of water, though we never know if this is the real source of the sound. It hardly seems to matter. The madman is convinced that the sound is real, that he knows what it is, and that the policemen can all hear and identify it as well. The madman’s descent is portrayed through a series of nearly still images around the room: the table, the spilled tea on the floorboards, a shot of the whole room with the camera drawing closer and closer, step by step. At last, the madman can take it no longer. He screams out his confession and reveals the body in its checkered shroud to the policemen, now portrayed as dark, seemingly headless figures. They cast long shadows over the newly uncovered corpse as the madman wails “It is the beating of his hideous heart!”

The next shot is of a metal surface with two neat lines of bolts, much like the two neat lines of buttons on the jackets worn by the policemen. We hear the madman repeat his admission from the beginning of the film that he is very dreadfully nervous. The camera pans up and to the left as the madman’s hand slams against the metal surface. A small, barred, window is revealed in what we now realize is a door, just like the other we can see through the window. It is now the madman’s only view of anything or anyone in the world outside of his cell. There is still no clear addressee as he plaintively asks “But why will you say that I am mad?”


The greatest achievement of UPA’s The Tell-Tale Heart is that it sheds a light on the story that even Poe’s original tale never does. The reader of Poe’s work is presented with the horror of conversing with a madman who thinks that he can prove that he is sane and his actions justified. The animated short introduces the new horror of being the madman so thoroughly trapped by his own madness that he cannot see what is wrong with him. Because we have literally experienced the whole series of events through his eyes, we can even sympathize with his predicament, condemned as insane and locked away for reasons he cannot understand. He is still just as frightening as he was when Poe created him, but it is just as frightening to think that our confidence in our own sanity may not reflect reality, that the way we see ourselves could be completely different from how the rest of the world sees us.

The passage of time is not always kind to visual innovation. What was once cutting edge and exciting can become conventional and familiar at best, dated and forgotten at worst. Some animation survives because of its solid story and characters, elements that stand the test of time when state-of-the-art visuals have become commonplace. It is a rare film that retains its power to shock audiences with its visuals and engage them with a compelling story over fifty years after its release. The Tell-Tale Heart is one such film and anyone who makes the effort to track it down is in for a rare treat.

All images in this article are copyright Columbia Pictures Television.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Short Takes - The Beatles: Rock Band

Okay, so you've all seen that amazing trailer for The Beatles: Rock Band by now, right? The one made by Passion Pictures, the studio that also did a bunch of work on Gorillaz? That stylish, beautifully animated trailer (though they seem to be calling it an "intro" now, so I guess it's the beginning of the game) that managed to capture everything that was great and cool and fun about the Beatles in the space of less than three minutes? The piece of animation that was just so great that, had the entire game looked like that, I would have bought it, regardless of the fact that a Rock Band setup in my living room would leave no space for my furniture?

If you have, skip on ahead. If not, stop reading and watch it right now:

So we're all on the same page now? Good.

If you're like me and thought that was fantastic, perhaps you are also wishing there was more.

Well there's more.

Check out the continued rhinophant action in the game's outro, set to the tune of - what else? - "The End."

Thanks to Lineboil, an excellent source for your recommended daily amount of animation, for being the first place I saw this mentioned.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Bluth Factor: Rock-a-Doodle


After my animated movies meme post went up, I got an e-mail from my dad. He mostly wanted to share his reactions to recent animated films he had enjoyed, such as The Incredibles, The Triplets of Belleville, and WALL-E - which Dad thinks should have won Best Picture. (Have I mentioned that I love my dad?) But it wasn’t all praise. Dad also wanted to chide me for awakening his long dormant and thoroughly unpleasant memory of seeing Don Bluth’s Rock-a-Doodle, a movie which he now remembers as being “god awful.”

I’m making it up to Dad by loaning him a couple of Miyazaki films he hasn’t seen yet. But after reading his e-mail, I immediately decided that I had to rewatch Rock-a-Doodle and write about my impressions. This proved more difficult than I had anticipated. Netflix does not actually have any copies of the film. Pretty much all of my local DVD rental stores have gone out of business. So with no other options, I became the cautiously proud owner of a used collection of The Secret of NIMH, Rock-a-Doodle, and All Dogs Go To Heaven. which may be the subject of a future article.

Despite Dad’s strongly negative memories of the film and my own vague recollections of it being less than stellar, I tried to watch it with an open mind. True, I could remember that it was my disappointment with this film that caused me to swear off any animated films that did not bear the Disney name. (It was not a bad strategy at the time, but I clung to it for far too long afterwards.) But I hadn’t seen it in over fifteen years. Had my father and I been unfair? Was this movie actually a flawed gem like NIMH? Or was it really the cinematic disaster that my dad remembered it as?

The short answer? Dad was right.


Rock-a-Doodle kicks off with the story of Chanticleer, who gets his name from the character in the Reynard the Fox fables and in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Chanticleer is a rooster with an appearance and voice reminiscent of Elvis Presley. (His vocals are provided by country singer Glen Campbell, Elvis having left the building over a decade before.) All of the farm animals believe that Chanticleer’s crow is what makes the sun rise, until one morning when Chanticleer misses his morning crow and the sun comes up regardless. Chanticleer’s barnyard pals mock him and label him a fraud and the crestfallen rooster leaves for the city, where he becomes a singing sensation known as “The King.”

Chanticleer could be an interesting character. He has a relatable problem: he believes his friends don’t care about him anymore and that the talent that made him special may have never even been real. His similarities to Elvis could have made for some entertaining and funny moments, but despite a title and movie poster than feature him prominently, Chanticleer is not the protagonist of Rock-a-Doodle. He is more an object of pursuit. The good guys want to bring him back to the farm and the bad guys want to prevent him from returning to the farm. Because as it turns out, Chanticleer’s crow really did keep the sun shining and the farm has been plagued with torrential rainstorms ever since he left. Realizing that they’re up a dell without a pitchfork, the farm animals set out to find Chanticleer and get him to come home, which takes up the majority of the movie. Chanticleer may be the guy with the power to solve the movie’s central problem, but he has so little screen time and character development that his role is almost reduced to that of the story’s Macguffin, more of a problem-solving device than a true character.


The movie’s actual protagonist is a little live-action boy named Edmond. Edmond lives on a live-action farm filmed with bad lighting and shaky camera work. Coincidentally, Edmond’s farm is also plagued by constant rain and his mother is trying to comfort him by reading him the story of Chanticleer. There is very little to like about the live-action segments of the film. As I said, they aren’t shot very well and the scenes that mix live-action and animation never look convincing, all the more disappointing when you consider that Who Framed Roger Rabbit premiered about three years earlier. The actors who play Edmond’s family turn in mediocre performances. And Edmond, sadly, ends up being one of the film’s biggest weaknesses.

The problem with Edmond is that the film makes him such a little “everyboy” that there is nothing distinctive or interesting about him. We don’t know if he likes to play sports or draw or ride horses, whether he is smart or gentle or kind or helpful. His main feature is that he’s cute and even that is a matter of opinion. For me, there is a very fine line between a character being genuinely cute and being an unnatural, fake attempt at cute, especially when the character is a little kid. The characters that I find cute are cute because they behave in a way that is both appealing and very specific to who they are. In the best cases, the character will do something that strikes me as exactly how a young child would act in that situation. This is not the case with Edmond. Edmond is the result of a child actor and a team of animators trying to hit all of the easiest stereotypical indicators for what is “cute.” Edmond has a cute little lisp (though I know I’m not the only person who finds his speech impediment more annoying than adorable). He gets turned into a cute little animated kitten. He has cute little fears and a cute habit of protesting that he isn’t afraid of anything. His supposed problem is that his family think he is too little to help protect the farm from the storm, a very child-specific, “cute” problem. All of this might add up to adorable for some viewers, but I find it about as authentic as Edmond’s pouty insistence “I am…too one of the big boys!”, the pause giving him time to set his book down on his lap on the word “too” for emphasis. Like the entire performance, it feels staged, not real.

Because Edmond’s character is so unspecific, his problems and the skills he has to combat them are equally vague. Edmond’s main problem is the story’s main problem: the storm that threatens Edmond’s farm and Chanticleer’s farm. But the personal issues that Edmond must overcome are not as evident. If they didn’t exist, that would be one thing. Not every good story has to feature a main character with problems within and without. But the movie keeps hinting that Edmond does have a personal goal that he must reach. It just never makes it clear exactly what that goal might be. Does Edmond want to overcome his various fears? To stop believing that he is too small to do anything important? To win the respect of his family? I don’t know and I’m not sure the movie does either. Instead of seeing Edmond gradually move past his mental roadblocks or have a revelation on how to get past them, the audience gets a confusing scene where Edmond retreats into a mental realm, complete with brain columns and nerves strewn about, where he is haunted by faces and voices from the past hour or so (including his own voice declaring “I’m not afraid of anything.”) Edmond yells “No!” and suddenly emerges with the mental strength to turn the car he’s riding in around and go back to rescue one of his animal pals. It is a confusing and awkward metaphor for Edmond conquering his fears, fears that remain unclear.


OK, so the movie has a powerful character who is not the protagonist and is more of a secret weapon than a personality, and a protagonist who is all but devoid of individuality or special strengths. Edmond can fold a paper airplane, knows where the city is, and maintains an undying faith in Chanticleer, which is all the stranger considering that it’s based on the first few pages of a story that – judging from the way Edmond points to a picture of the villain if the tale and asks his mother who that is – he has never heard before. One of the movie’s problems is the lack of any relationship between its two most important characters. In fact when the two finally meet, about ten minutes before the end of the film, a confused Chanticleer asks Edmond “Well who are you?” The result is that the movie feels like two stories loosely connected by a group of farm animals. Chanticleer’s story, which seems like it would be the more interesting of the two, ends up getting squeezed to the point where one of the character’s major problems – the fact that he no longer has the self-confidence to crow – doesn’t come up until mere minutes before it is resolved. Instead of focusing on Chanticleer’s loneliness and lack of confidence in spite of living the life of a famous rock star, the film centers on Edmond and his ill-defined issues. Despite some attempts to draw parallels between their problems, including a scene where Chanticleer is also haunted by voices from his past, Edmond and Chanticleer just don’t feel connected. The movie pushes aside its strongest character to make room for a weaker one.

Edmond’s lack of any real power or skills makes creating a satisfying narrative difficult, but not impossible. There certainly have been films where the protagonist is neither the hero not a terribly strong character, Disney’s earlier “princess” films among them. But these films made up for their passive protagonists by populating the movie with strong and interesting supporting characters who could drive the plot while leaving the protagonist free to wish and hope and dream. But Edmond is not just the protagonist of Rock-a-Doodle; he is also supposed to be the hero. That means that virtually every other character in the movie has to be less capable than Edmond, and you can just imagine how much fun that’s going to be.


After the Grand Duke – the villain from the Chanticleer story - shows up in the live-action world and transforms him into an animated kitten, Edmond meets up with the animals from Chanticleer’s farm. Chief among them is Patou, the old farm dog. Patou is voiced by Phil Harris, who also voiced Baloo from The Jungle Book as well as a couple of other Disney characters. Casting Harris feels very much like an attempt to connect Rock-a-Doodle to the classic Disney films. The name “Patou” even sounds a bit like “Baloo.” But unfortunately, the man who helped to transform what was originally a bit-player bear into the heart and soul of The Jungle Book could not do the same for Patou the dog. It’s not that there’s really anything wrong with Harris’s performance, there just isn’t enough meat to the role. Patou begins the movie by telling the audience that this is a story from “back before I knew how to tie my shoes,” which sounds like a folksy way of saying “when I was young.” But Patou is a pucker-faced old dog when we meet him. The bit about not knowing how to tie his shoes? That’s actually Patou’s entire shtick. Patou is a dog who doesn’t know how to tie his shoes. It’s never presented as a metaphor for anything, given any emotional weight, or made to have any bearing whatsoever on the plot. Patou claims towards the beginning of the movie that he could have attacked the Grand Duke more effectively if his shoes had been tied, but since he doesn’t trip over the laces or anything and actually quite successful in saving Edmond from the Duke, we don’t have any reason to believe that this is true. Patou also gets tied up in his shoelaces towards the end of the film. But that’s it. Since Patou being unable to tie his shoes has no obvious effect on anything, there is no real reason why we should care whether he learns to tie them or not. Why is this detail in the movie at all? Well, Edmond knows how to tie shoes and if Edmond is going to have a prayer of coming across as the hero of this picture, he needs every chance he can get to show why the other characters need him around.

Oh and were you, like Edmond, wondering why Patou wears shoes to begin with? Is it because some of the other animals also have shoes? No. Is it because he’s already wearing pants and socks and shoes just complete the look? No. Patou wears shoes because Patou has bunions, lots and lots of bunions. The shoes help his feet feel better. There, now aren’t you sorry you asked?

Patou also serves as the movie’s narrator, a role that I’m guessing he was given to make sure that the littlest members of the audience didn’t get lost while trying to follow the story. Patou doesn’t just tell the story of Chanticleer and how he ended up leaving the farm; he pops up throughout the film to explain what’s happening. His comments range from obvious to confusing to spoilers within the movie itself. Why for example, when we can clearly see Chanticleer performing on stage in front of throngs of screaming fans, do we need Patou to interrupt the song to inform us that “Chanticleer had become a star”? I still can’t figure out why Patou feels the need to tell us that Chanticleer “maybe wasn’t the smartest bird that ever lived” when Chanticleer never does anything to suggest that he is all that much dumber than the rest of the cast. Patou’s introduction of Goldie, the pheasant chorus girl who becomes Chanticleer’s love interest, is particularly over-informative. Patou not only tells us that Goldie is jealous of “King” Chanticleer’s meteoric rise to fame, but also goes on to make sure we know that Goldie will turn out to be a lot nicer (which we can see for ourselves later on) and smarter (which is never particularly evident) than she initially seems. The impression that I get from the narration is that I am watching a movie that could not be trusted to tell its own story without having one of the characters constantly stepping in to explain everything.


Heading up the movie’s bad guys is the Grand Duke, the leader of the photophobic owls who have been troubling the farm animals ever since the sun stopped shining. It was actually the Duke who caused Chanticleer’s departure in the first place by sending another rooster to stop Chanticleer from crowing. The rooster calls Chanticleer out for a fight, tussles with him briefly, and is never seen again. Why a rooster? Why not an owl who might actually show up again, since the fight takes place just before dawn? Beats me. Anyway, the fight is what causes Chanticleer to miss his regularly scheduled crowing, which leads to the sun coming up without him. In an incredible stroke of good luck for the Duke, once Chanticleer leaves and ceases crowing, the sun stops shining. The whole “rising when Chanticleer didn’t crow” thing was evidently a one-time snafu. As Patou puts it, the sun “took a look around and decided to go back to sleep.“ I consider this a happy accident for the Duke because I can’t see how the Duke could possibly plan for the sun to rise once without Chanticleer crowing, the other animals to mock Chanticleer, Chanticleer to leave the farm, and the sun to cease shining after that.

The Duke is not a terribly frightening villain to anyone over the age of four. He’s just a pudgy old owl who’s too busy mugging for the camera and enjoying his own sarcastic humor to be truly scary. The Great Owl in NIMH - a supposed “good guy” – is far more terrifying. The one thing the Duke has that makes him a real threat is magic and even that he uses mostly to do things that aren’t really scary, like growing very big or turning Edmond into a kitten or hitting Chanticleer over the head with a magic mallet. In spite of this, test audiences apparently found the red smoke that the Duke emits from his mouth to perform magic too frightening, so in the final film, the smoke is dotted with fluorescent Lucky Charms. (I picked up a copy of Jerry’s Beck’sThe Animated Movie Guide and found that he compared the stars, moons, planet and other symbols that accompany the Duke’s magic smoke to the exact same sugary cereal.) He still maintains a creepy expression in a few shots where he breaths out smoke and he does manage to strangle Edmond before the end of the film, though to some viewers, that may make him more sympathetic than frightening. But for the most part, the Duke is reduced to putting his face very close to the camera in an attempt to elicit the occasional scare.


The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better than the major players. Edmond has two other animal pals aside from Patou who join him in the search for Chanticleer: Peepers the brainy mouse and Snipes the annoying magpie. Peepers is smart, which for the purposes of this film means that she knows how to drive a car, can pilot a helicopter, uses the occasional big word, and wears glasses. What she can’t do is lead the animals to the city, because then Edmond would have nothing useful to do. The movie tries to develop some kind of particular relationship between Edmond and Peepers. It seems like a good idea: Edmond lacks self-confidence (I think) and is feeling even less capable now that he’s been turned into a little kitten, while Peepers is smaller than Edmond but has no doubt about her ability to do whatever she needs to. And they both have lisps, though hers – provided by the voice of Vixey from Disney’s The Fox and the Hound, Sandy Duncan - is less annoying. But their friendship never develops beyond Edmond whining that he’s too little to do something, Peepers pointing out that she’s not too little, and Edmond going ahead and accomplishing his task without any kind of buildup or struggle. And the speech impediment connection is never mentioned. Snipes the magpie is not so much a character as an assortment of quirks, with a new one tossed in whenever the movie requires something funny to happen. In one scene, he’s suffering from claustrophobia. In the next, he’s gushing about his love of food. The problem is that none of these traits ever gel into anything that feels like a fully realized character. His one consistent trait is that he’s kind of a jerk. He’s the only one of the three animals who accompany Edmond who is actually shown making fun of Chanticleer when the sun comes up before the rooster has crowed. He’s also constantly bickering with Peepers, though we never know why, making their eventually reconciliation a hollow one. Snipes never contributes a thing to the plot. His role is strictly comic relief and since he’s not particularly funny either, he could have easily been cut from the movie altogether.


The Grand Duke has his own entourage to combat Edmond’s scrappy band of critters. . Pinky the fox serves as Chanticleer’s Colonel Tom Parker and is also working for the Grand Duke, though I can’t figure out how the business relationship benefits either of them until the plot makes it necessary for them to know each other. If the Duke really wants to ensure that Chanticleer never crows again, wouldn’t he want his henchmen to focus on killing Chanticleer rather than turning him into a successful singer? And what does Pinky need from the Duke when he has Chanticleer to help him rake in profits? Closer to home, the Duke is in command of of several anonymous owls who are little more than his chorus and his diminutive nephew Hunch, a completely incompetent little owl with a habit of spouting “a” words ending in “-ation”: “annihilation,” “abomination,” “aggravation.” This is – needless to say – not funny, nor does it make an ounce of sense. There is a potentially amusing gag where the smoke from the Grand Duke’s mouth changes Hunch into different creatures whenever the Duke gets angry with him, but since it is only used twice and one of the form Hunch ends up with looks like some bizarre cross between an owl and a pickle, the opportunity for comedy is wasted.


You would think that a movie about a rooster who looks and sounds like Elvis would be a great musical just waiting to happen. Rock-a-Doodle gets off to a good start in this department with a pleasant little song called “Sun Do Shine” that introduces us to Chanticleer and his barnyard buddies. With no fewer than twelve songs in the film – thirteen if you count the reprise of “Sun Do Shine” at the end – you would probably expect to hear a lot of Glen Campbell crooning like the King. But that’s actually not the case. Only half of the film’s songs are sung by Chanticleer and of those, there are only three which can really be counted as complete songs. In addition to “Sun Do Shine,” Chanticleer performs the film’s title song and “Treasure Huntin’ Fever.” Neither are great and the latter suffers from such clunky lyrics as “I got treasure-huntin’ fever for love,” but they do make for some of the movie’s better set pieces. Aside from that, you get one Chanticleer song that is cut off just a few lines in and two that are sung in their entirety, but are all but impossible to hear all the way through. Why? Because Patou talks over all of one and much of the other. “Come Back To You” sounds like a genuinely pretty song, but I can’t say for certain because I can only hear a few snippets behind Patou’s gabbing. “Kiss ‘N’ Coo,” Chanticleer and Goldie’s love duet, has the added distraction of Edmond and his friends watching the pair from a far and discussing their situation, drowning out most of the music that Patou hasn’t already talked over.

Most of the remaining songs are short little ditties, lasting a minute or less. Since they are so brief, they do very little to enhance the film and offer virtually no new information. The Grand Duke and his owls get three awful songs including one where the lyrics are literally “Tweedle-lee-dee, tweedle-lee-dee. They’re running out of batteries.” Perhaps the theory was that if the villains’ songs were terrible, Chanticleer’s would sound that much better. But all it does is bog down the film with yet more pointless musical numbers that are outright bad to boot. Poor Goldie only gets to sing two lines of her solo number before it gets cut off. I’m not sure if the decision was made to avoid having three songs right in a row or to cut down on Goldie’s screen time. Another complaint about early cuts of the film from test audiences was that Goldie was too shapely and seductive looking for a character in a kiddie flick. Since the animators had to go back in and tone down her figure and costume, cutting her song may have been a way of saving them some extra work. Chanticleer’s bouncers have an utterly pointless song. And over the end credits, Patou gets a song about – what else? – tying his shoes.

I certainly don’t believe that animated films have to be musicals. But Rock-a-Doodle seems tailor-made for the musical format, which is why it’s so puzzling that most of the songs are treated like an expendable afterthought. Few of them do anything to advance the story, highlight character emotions, or serve any purpose other than taking up space. Though it is baffling why so little care was put into fitting the songs into the movie, it is understandable why so many of the resulting songs were reduced to background music or all but cut from the film.

I think what surprised me most about this movie is how outright dull it is. Oh sure, there are action scenes and chases and the like. And the animators still know how to pull off some visual excitement here and there. The “Rock-a-Doodle” musical number has some fun with Chanticleer performing atop a giant record player and there’s an entertaining shot where the camera goes through the hole in the center of a record that Pinky is spray-painting gold back to Chanticleer’s performance. The opening shot in the movie has the camera dropping down from above the crowds, racing between haystacks and cornstalks and up a hillside before finally coming to rest on Chanticleer’s face as he crows. It’s technically impressive, but I still can’t shake the feeling that something has been lost between Bluth’s earlier films and this one. Maybe there wasn’t enough time, enough money, or enough enthusiasm, but I just don’t see the little extra flourishes that made NIMH such a visual treat. The character designs are frequently unappealing and the colors often read as garish, a far cry from the subtle tones and dozens palettes per character of Bluth movies past. Stronger visuals may not have saved the film from its story problems, but it would have at least made it fun to look at.


I realize I am not the target audience for this movie and I probably wasn’t when this movie first came out either. The story seems designed to appeal to the ten and under set, if not an even younger age range. So is it really fair of me to be so critical of a film that is not really aimed at me? I think so. Some of my very favorite animated films are ostensibly intended for children or “families,” and yet I keep coming back to them as an adult and enjoying them. Nostalgia is probably a part of it, but the best of them are the ones that continue to entertain or amaze me as an adult, whether through visual from animators who were among the best in the business or stories that still hold up even though I’ve grown older. Of course I realize that a lot of animated films I watch will include the requisite happy ending. But that’s where the ideas of suspension of disbelief and the journey being more important than the destination come in. Even if I know on some level that a particular character is probably not going to die or fail to get from point A to point B, I can still be convinced to care about the story if the film can convince me to care about the character and what he or she is experiencing and feeling while getting from point A to point B. Unfortunately, Rock-a-Doodle never convinced me to care about its characters and I ended up way ahead of the movie, well aware that Chanticleer would get back to the farm and crow, the sun would come up again, the owls wouldn’t eat all those cute little farm animals, and Edmond would neither die nor live out his days as a cat. Not only did I know these things would happen, I didn’t really care. It doesn’t matter to me that Goldie comes to live on the farm with Chanticleer when most of her character is explained through Patou’s narration and never advances beyond “stereotypical blonde airhead.” It doesn’t matter to me that Peepers and Snipes become friends because I never knew why they didn’t like each other to begin with. And it certainly never mattered to me whether or not Patou learned to tie his shoes.

It is possible that children could enjoy Rock-a-Doodle, but I see no reason to show it to them. Kids are no less deserving of intelligent movies with well thought out stories and interesting characters as adults are. To simply forgive the flaws in Rock-a-Doodle - as I have seen some of the film’s defenders do – on the grounds that it’s a movie for kids and kids don’t care about plotholes or story structure is both selling kids short and delivering a slap in the face to every movie that is well crafted and enjoyable for kids and adults alike. As my dad helpfully pointed out, parents have to watch these movies too and the films that can truly entertain viewers of every age have a much better chance of becoming beloved classic that can be revisited again and again. The truly sad thing is that Bluth and the animators who worked with him didn’t set out with the intention to make movies for little kids and little kids only. They wanted to bring back the artistry of the older Disney films while simultaneously taking on darker themes that could potentially make animation palatable to an older audience again. Unfortunately, Rock-a-Doodle accomplishes neither of these goals and is one forgotten film that is best left that way.

All images in this article are copyright MGM.