Monday, October 26, 2009

Boo! Animation for Halloween

Ah, Halloween. Once again, it’s time to put your pumpkin carving skills to the test, stock up a candy before all the good stuff sells out, and curl up with some appropriately themed animation. If you’re puzzling over what spooky toons you should be checking out, fear not! The Ink and Pixel Club has got you covered. Here, in the usual no particular order, are some scary scenes, spooky specials, and other spine-tingling animated goodies to get you in the Halloween spirit.

Pinocchio - Lampwick Turns Into A Donkey


Pinocchio is certainly among Disney’s most frightening films. The film’s puppet protagonist faces a cruel world of characters set on either exploiting or destroying him, none of whom receive any kind of comeuppance. One of the scariest moments in this or any Disney film comes as Pinocchio and his delinquent pal Lampwick discover the price of their misbehavior. The audience has already discovered along with Jiminy Cricket that Pleasure Island is designed to encourage little boys to act so badly that they turn into donkeys. So the scares in this scene come not from the surprise of seeing Lampwick and Pinocchio start to transform, but the terrified reactions of the characters themselves. Lampwick is first tipped off by his own braying laugh. He feels around his face and the realization that his features have changed starts to sink in. When he looks in the mirror and finds his head is now a donkey’s head, the formerly cocky Lampwick goes into full panic mode. He begs Pinocchio to help as, to Pinocchio’s horror and our own, his hands turn into hooves pawing at Pinocchio’s chest. As with many scary scenes, the most frightening elements here are the ones we don’t see. All we get of Lampwick’s final transformation is his shadow on the wall turning from boy to donkey, accompanied by his terrified screams of “Maaaa-maaaaaa!” The last time we see Lampwick, the transformation is complete and he is a panic-stricken donkey, braying and kicking over furniture. It’s a grim reminder of the fate that awaits Pinocchio if he doesn’t escape from Pleasure Island and a scene that gives me chills to this day.

It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown


While unlikely to scare anyone and not as tight a story as A Charlie Brown Christmas, this perennial Halloween favorite has everything you would want from a “Peanuts” special: appealing limited animation, charmingly awkward child voice actors, a jazzy Vince Guaraldi score, and a heaping helping of disappointment. Sally’s ending diatribe where she demonstrates “the fury of a woman who’s been cheated out of trick-or-treats,” culminating in a furious “You owe me restitution!”, is still a joy to behold.

Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island


The Mystery Inc. gang and their cowardly Great Dane have starred in numerous direct-to-video and DVD movies, but the first one remains the best. The film reunites the five characters as they try to track down a real monster after years of chasing crooks in costumes. A trip to the Louisiana bayou puts our heroes face to face with real zombies as they try to solve the mystery of Moonscar Island. The movie combines an entertaining story, some in-jokes for fans of the franchise, and something previous unknown to the world of Scooby-Doo: interesting shot composition and camera angles. With some genuine scares Zombie Island is arguably the most frightening Scooby-Doo story ever (unless you count episodes where Scooby’s extended family shows up.)

The Nightmare Before Christmas


Like the intro to Thundercats in my list of the best animated TV show intros, this one almost goes without saying. The story of the year Jack Skellington and the citizens of Halloweentown decided to take over Christmas has become a cult classic. The movie successfully brought the world of Tim Burton’s mind to life with just the right balance of creepiness, humor, and heart and prioed that puppet animation could still attract an audience. Every shot is so packed with detail that you can literally watch the movie dozens of times and keep noticing something you missed before.

The Tell-Tale Heart


Again? Yes. This is one of the scariest animated shorts I’ve ever seen. Visuals, music, and narration combine perfectly to trap the audience inside the mind of a murderer more effectively than any film before or since.

The Great Mouse Detective - Ratigan Loses It


During the climax of this film, which takes place in and around London’s Big Ben, the heroic Basil has his final confrontation with his archnemesis, Professor Ratigan. As Basil escapes after having foiled Ratigan’s scheme to become king of the mice of England, Ratigan’s mind snaps, as we see in three quick cuts that go in closer and closer on his eyes blazing with rage. He leaps between the clocks massive gears in pursuit of his enemy. His clothes, symbols of his civility are torn in the process and by the time he lunges at Basil, much of his fur is visible and standing on end, reflecting his anger. Throughout the movie, Ratigan has been denying that he is a rat, claiming instead that he is a rather large mouse. Ratigan seems to associate his identifying as a mouse with civility and the upper class privilege he feels himself entitled to. Like many good frightening moments, a lot of the fear here comes from the psychological implications of the moment: Ratigan has finally become the savage animal he so adamantly claimed not to be.

The Adventures of Mark Twain - The Mysterious Stranger


Will Vinton’s nearly forgotten clay animated feature film follows the titular writer and his creations Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Fin, and Becky Thatcher as they pursue Haley’s Comet. Along the way, they witness and interact with various scenes from Twain’s works, including his unfinished novel, The Mysterious Stranger. Tom, Huck, and Becky encounter an “angel” named Satan, a figure with a lower body former from the clay of the floating island he lives on, a fully-formed upper body, and a shapeshifting talking mask on a stick in place of a head. Satan invites the children to make little clay people and then brings them to life. Satan quickly grown agitated when two of the little figures start squabbling over an ox and kills them both. He then destroys the entire village and its inhabitants through natural disasters. The little people are barely more than clay blobs and their dialogue is gibberish, but their beautifully animated body language clearly communicates their terror and despair as they perish. Satan’s claim that “I can do no wrong, for I do not know what it is” makes for a truly horrifying take on the nature of evil.

Hellboy Animated: Blood and Iron - “Upstairs With The Baby”

There hasn’t yet been a perfect translation of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics to film. But in my opinion, the direct-to-DVD Hellboy Animated movies come much closer to the source material than the live-action ones do. This second of two films produced has the agents of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense investigating a house that is being haunted by the ghosts of the victims of Erzsebet Ondrushko, a vampire who bathed in the blood of her victims in order to stay young. (She is based on the historical Countess Elizabeth Báthory, a serial killer who later stories and legends linked with the fictional Count Dracula.) Professor Bruttenholm, Hellboy’s mentor and father figure, has battled Erzsebet before, as we see in a series of flashbacks. One of the film’s most frightening moments comes in one of these flashbacks, where Erzsebet meets her next victim at the dress shop where the young woman has come to claim her wedding gown. To explain the absence of the dressmaker, Erzsebet tells the woman that she is “upstairs with the baby.” Oh, that’s nice.


Oh wait, no. No, it isn’t.

As with the scene from Pinocchio, what isn’t shown is even more terrifying than what is. Marie the seamstress is clearly dead; we’ve seen the same blank eyes on Erzsebet’s other victims. But just what happened to the baby is left up to the viewer imagination, which is always far scarier than anything the animators could actually show.

The Night of the Headless Horseman

The Disney version of Washington Irving’s classic tale – originally shown as half of the feature The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad - is more well known than this one and a few friends mentioned it to me as something that scared them as kids that still holds up well today. But this 1999 computer animated version is just as scary, if not more so. It isn’t so much that it does a better job of telling the story. What’s truly frightening about this version of the tale is the animation itself, which remains some of the ugliest I have ever seen.


Horrible character design and stiff animation that looked terrible even ten years ago make this movie a true nightmare for any animation fan. Some of the voice work, provided by the likes of Clancy Brown, Mark Hamill, and William H. Macy, is actually pretty decent, so if you close your eyes and ignore the visuals, you may be able to enjoy it as a radio play. The whole movie is available on Hulu, so you can go ahead and watch it, if you dare.

So that’s my list of animated treats (and one rather ugly trick). If I left out any of your favorites, feel free to share. Happy Halloween!

All images are copyright their respective owners.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

We're On Facebook!

The Ink and Pixel Club now has its own Facebook page. This page will announce when the newest articles go up and include occasional updates about the site. Show your support and become a fan today!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Why I Love Animation: Gargoyles - "The Edge"


I admit that I have been hesitant to start writing about animated TV shows. While there are plenty of excellent ones that I want to discuss, covering an entire animated series is a much more daunting task than analyzing a single movie or short film. I find it challenging to try to sum up an whole series without getting bogged down in individual episodes and their varying strengths and weaknesses. In order to keep myself sane, I’ve decided to limit my focus to a single episode of each show. I will be selecting episodes that I feel are particularly good examples of what the shows are all about. I intend to stay away from multiparters, at least for now. I will do my best to pick episodes that require the least possible amount of prior knowledge of the show so that those of you who haven’t seen it before don’t feel hopelessly lost and I don’t have to spend paragraphs just trying to get you up to speed. And I reserve the right to revisit the same show in the future and discuss a different episode.

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s get started!

The Show:


By the 1990s, Disney had already established itself in the field of television animation, with popular series like Adventures of the Gummi Bears, DuckTales, and Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers created in the preceding decade. In the fall of 1990, the syndicated “Disney Afternoon” programming block began airing, featuring the aforementioned three shows and the new series TaleSpin. Disney continued to offer this two-hour block through 1997, altering the lineup every year to cycle in new shows. In 1994, Disney introduced a new show that marked the biggest departure yet from their previous Disney Afternoon offerings: Gargoyles.

As the show explains, gargoyles are creatures that turn to stone during the day and become flesh and blood warriors when the sun goes down. A thousand years ago, a clan of gargoyles defended a Scottish castle and its human inhabitants from danger. One morning, both humans and gargoyles were betrayed and a group of invading Vikings was able to sack the castle. All but six of the gargoyles are smashed in their sleep. The surviving gargoyles pursued the Vikings and liberated their Scottish prisoners, but were blamed unfairly for the apparent death of the castle’s princess. The castle’s sorcerer cast a spell on the gargoyles, condemning them to sleep in stone until the castle rises above the clouds.

Centuries passed and the gargoyles remain cursed. Finally, in 1994, the castle was purchased by wealthy businessman David Xanatos and moved – gargoyles included – to the top of his Manhattan skyscraper. This fulfilled the conditions of the spell and the gargoyles awoke in a strange new world.

The year 1994 proves no less exciting or dangerous for the gargoyles than the year 994. They explore their new home and realize that most humans are just as frightened of gargoyles as they were in the tenth century, maybe even more so. They befriend a police detective named Elisa Maza and discover that their benefactor Xanatos is not someone they can trust. Eventually, they are forced to leave their castle home for fear of what Xanatos may do to them while they are helpless during they daylight hours.

Because of the series’ urban nighttime setting and action-adventure focus, some viewers saw Gargoyles as Disney’s answer to Batman. While the success of Batman probably did pave the way for Gargoyles, the show was very much its own thing. Rather than simply aping the successful formula of Batman, Gargoyles built its own world, which eventually referenced everything from Scottish history to the works of Shakespeare. Smart writing that never talked down to the show’s target audience and continuing story arcs at a time when few shows were using the device kept fans of the series coming back for more.

Gargoyles ran for two seasons totaling sixty-five episodes on the Disney Afternoon. A third season known as Gargoyles: The Goliath Chronicles aired as part of Disney’s “One Saturday Morning” block on ABC in 1997. Unfortunately, the third season episodes were created almost entirely without the involvement of former series co-producer Greg Weisman, who was instrumental in setting the direction and tone of the show. (The one exception was the season premiere “The Journey,” which Weisman wrote.) With Weisman gone, much of what had made Gargoyles special was lost. Complex characters and continuing storylines gave way to clichéd stories that never had any future repercussions. The third season ended up being the last. Many years later, comics publisher Slave Labor Graphics produced new Gargoyles comics written by Weisman. The comics took place after the second season of the show and reflected Weisman’s original plans for the third season and possible Gargoyles spin-offs.

The Episode:

With a series like Gargoyles where continuity is so important, selecting just one episode to discuss is no easy task. Like most Disney television series of the time, Gargoyles started off with a five episode origin story, so beginning at the beginning is out. Since Gargoyles is an ensemble show, many of the first season episodes are centered around one particular character as a way of exploring that character’s personality, setting up story arcs for the character, and avoiding a scenario where every episode is trying to cram in a good moment with every character. What makes the episode I have chosen particularly interesting is that it focuses on one of the series’ main villains: David Xanatos. It’s also a very well animated episode, which isn’t always a given on a TV series where multiple studios may take on the animation chores. The title – “The Edge” – might initially seem like it would refer to the edges of buildings where the gargoyles typically perch, or an individual’s breaking point, as in “over the edge.” But in fact, “the edge” is the advantage in a conflict, that one thing that can mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Pretend that you have never seen an episode of Gargoyles before. (This will be easier for some of you than others.) You don’t know who the characters are, what they want, how they relate to one another. All you know is what you can see in the first scene. Based on that, what can you tell about the people you’re watching?


There are two men, one a tan brunette with a ponytail and goatee, the other pale and blonde. They’re both clothed in karate gis and the room their in has a mat on the floor and weight lifting equipment. So you can probably guess that this is not a serious life-or-death battle. Indeed, the “fight” is over in mere seconds, as the blonde man kicks the brunette and knocks him to the ground. The dark haired man, who we will shortly learn is David Xanatos, seems more surprised than angered at losing. As he mentions, he has never lost a match to the other man before. When his opponent, who respectfully refers to him as “Mr. Xanatos,” asks if Xanatos would prefer that he lose on purpose, Xanatos replies, with no hint of joking, that he would fire him if he did. Wanting to put the loss behind him, Xanatos tells his assistant to tell a certain emir he’s scheduled to meet with to be there an hour earlier.

So what do we know about David Xanatos, just from that scene? We know that he is the guy in charge. The other man – Owen Burnett – is his employee. He commands enough power to be meeting with emirs. But he isn’t the kind of boss – or the kind of villain – who sends his minions off to fight his battles for his while he watches from a safe distance. Even if what we’ve seen here is just some harmless sparring, he clearly isn’t afraid to get into the fray himself if he sees the need, a point that will be important later on. He also isn’t the sort of person who needs to have his ego stroked constantly. He doesn’t want to be told how strong or smart or wonderful he is, especially when it’s not true. He would rather lose the match and deal with the consequences than have his opponents pretend to lose to him. That isn’t to say that Xanatos isn’t troubled by this development. His problem throughout the episode will be his fear that he is losing his edge, his ability to stay on top. So what does he do to deal with his frustration? Throw a tantrum? Take it out on his underlings? Hardly. If Xanatos is going to push anyone around to reassert his dominance, it’s not going to be assistants who already respect him. David Xanatos pushes emirs around. He is not the stereotypical “Curses! Foiled again!” kind of villain. He is an entirely different animal.

But enough about Xanatos, for now. The next part of the story deals with Elisa Maza, the gargoyles’ only human friend. And what do you know; Elisa’s “edge” is under threat too! To Elisa’s mind, her ability to function as a cop – and to keep the existence of the gargoyles a secret – depends on being able to work alone. But her boss has just decided that Elisa needs a partner. Why? Because Elisa has been recuperating after being shot and, despite her protests that the shooting was accidental, her boss thinks she needs someone to watch her back. (The shooting really was accidental; the result of one of the gargoyles failing to understand how dangerous a loaded gun can be.) This is one of the greatest strengths of Gargoyles and other shows which use continuity to their advantage: actions have repercussions. Whether she likes it or not, Elisa now has to deal with her new partner, Matt Bluestone. To make matters worse, the guy is a conspiracy theorist, just the sort of person who might take notice of a couple of gargoyles flying around overhead.


Oh that’s right, there are gargoyles in this show! The series may be named after them, but in this episode, they’re the last to show up to the party. Even when the episode in question focuses mainly on one character, managing a large cast is still a balancing act. In this case, the gargoyles and their concerns get introduced last. This particular story has so much going on that we don’t even see the gargoyles awakening from their stone sleep. Previous episodes made a point of showing this, since it is a very important part of what makes the gargoyles unique. But “The Edge” is already a jam-packed show with little time to devote to something that loyal viewers have already seen several times. So when Elisa manages to ditch her new partner to go and visit the gargoyles, they’re already up and about.

Viewers who have been keeping up with the series know the gargoyles well by now. Most of them have already had their own feature episodes. But even newcomers can pick up a little bit about who these characters are by observing what they’re doing. Senior gargoyle Hudson is napping in his chair. (Except for Goliath, the leader of the clan, none of the gargoyles had names in the tenth century. They chose names relating to locations around the city after they awoke in the present day.) Broadway, the food lover of the group, is working on some culinary concoction. He pauses to help Elisa with the television she has brought as a gift for the gargoyles, hinting at a sensitivity towards others that we’ll see more of in future episodes. Lexington, the clan’s resident technophile, is playing with a remote controlled toy car.

Elisa heads over to the library, where Goliath is catching up on some of the books that have been published in the last thousand years. Goliath’s idea of a little light reading? Dostoyevsky. This, along with Goliath’s rather formal diction (as heard in the deep, rumbling vocals of the incredibly talented Keith David), clearly tells new viewers that Goliath is no uncouth barbarian. He’s smart, surprisingly well educated for someone from his time.


The next part of this scene is a good example of storytelling problem solving. Goliath and Elisa are discussing Goliath’s choice of reading material. But for the story to progress the conversation needs to move on to Xanatos and the clan’s current situation. How to get from here to there without just changing the subject abruptly? A large window in the library provides a convenient view of the castle atop a skyscraper that was, until very recently, the gargoyles’ home. But why would Goliath take notice of this view now and not earlier? The solution is to get Goliath and Elisa’s attention with the sound of a helicopter passing by. This gives them a reason to look out the window, see the castle, and get Goliath thinking and talking about what’s bothering him. It’s a small and seemingly simple moment, but a good story requires dozens of clever solutions like this that make the character’s action feel natural and not merely driven by the needs of the plot.

If any of the characters has real cause to feel like he has lost “the edge,” it’s Goliath. In the previous episode, he was forced to realize that the battle for control of the castle was not a fight he could win in this day and age. He and the rest of his clan reluctantly abandoned the home that was all they had left of their former life and took up residence in the clock tower at the top of a building housing both a library and the police station where Elisa works. Goliath is still unhappy about this turn of events, particularly the fact that he was powerless to stop it from happening. Xanatos seems to have every advantage and even Elisa and the law she serves are unable to stop him. He is a master at the game while the gargoyles are just figuring out the rules. Goliath wishes aloud that he could make Xanatos feel as Goliath feels now, not realizing that Xanatos is actually going through some very similar feelings.

It has been previously established that television is a twentieth century invention that the gargoyles like, so Elisa’s gift of a TV set for their new home makes sense. But like most TVs in television shows, this one has a knack for broadcasting important information at just the right time. In this case, it’s a news story about Xanatos donating a priceless gem called the Eye of Odin to the Museum of Modern Art. This only confirms Goliath’s feeling that Xanatos had all the power in this world. Seeing Xanatos looking happy and comfortable while the media fawns over his generosity is too much for Goliath to bear. He roars in frustration and runs off.

But mere seconds later, Xanatos is having a much tougher time than Goliath would ever suspect. The reporter who’s interviewing him turns to talking about his conviction for receiving stolen property, a result of the events of the series’ first five episodes. This is the closest Xanatos ever gets to seeming angry or flustered. He never loses his cool or his TV friendly smile. But he’s clearly not happy that his prison time is still hanging over him. “Would you rather I kept the Eye?” he asks before leaving with Owen for his next engagement. While he wasn’t exactly grilled, Xanatos is likely used to having the press wrapped around his little finger. To him, this is just another sign that he is losing the edge.


Now that all of the characters’ problems have been laid out, it’s time to up the ante. Elisa’s issues with her new partner come to a head when they are called to investigate a robbery in progress at the Museum of Modern Art. They arrive just in time to see a large, bat-winged figure leap from one of the museum’s windows into the night sky. Before Elisa can stop him, Matt pulls his gun and fires.

Fortunately, the bullet bounces off the figure’s side with a metallic “ping,” revealing to Elisa that the culprit is not a gargoyle. Elisa thinks fast enough to tell Matt that she tried to stop him because whatever it was he shot at might have exploded. But the problem that having a new partner poses for Elisa is clear. She isn’t willing to reveal the gargoyles’ existence to anyone else, partly since it’s not her call to make. But if she doesn’t trust Matt with her secret, he could end up killing one of her friends. If Elisa is going to work alongside Matt and protect the gargoyles, it’s going to require her to come up with many such excuses for her actions.

But Elisa and her friends have bigger problems. The museum’s security cameras caught a shadowy winged figure making off with the Eye of Odin. Now reports of “gargoyle” sightings are coming in from all over the city. Fake gargoyles committing brazen crimes could make it very difficult for the real gargoyles to avoid public attention, which is one of their main goals right now. One of the interesting aspects of the show is that the gargoyles don’t immediately set themselves up as the city’s new protectors after waking up in Manhattan and getting out from under Xanatos’s thumb. That decision won’t be made until later. For now, the gargoyles aren’t really heroes; they’re survivors, battling whatever life throws at them and trying to stay alive.

Based on the fact that Elisa heard Matt’s bullet hit metal, the gargoyles figure out that the thief was probably a “Steel Clan” robot, one of the mechanical gargoyles that Xanatos had built when it became clear that the gargoyles weren’t going to take orders from him. Hudson points out that the heist doesn’t make sense; why would Xanatos want to steal the Eye of Odin when he himself donated it to the museum? Goliath is past caring. Xanatos’s plan means trouble for the gargoyles. That’s all Goliath needs to know. As we learned before, Goliath’s inability to keep the gargoyles from losing their home weighs heavy on him. He’s not going to let Xanatos push his clan any further. It’s time for a direct confrontation.


Xanatos got a little bit shaken up by the reporter who mentioned his criminal record. So how is he going to deal with a very large, very angry Goliath getting right in his face? Exceedingly well, actually. The series often contrasts Goliath appearance and the expectations that come with it with his actual character. Goliath looks like a huge hulking monster, but he’s sitting in the library reading a book. Here, the show plays on our expectations of how heroes and villains act. Instead of the hero remaining calm and in control while the villain rants and raves, Goliath roars and breaks light fixtures while Xanatos keeps his cool and talks like the calm voice of reason. Scenes like this also make the characters that much more believable. Even if Goliath has every right to be angry, his ability to lose his temper is one of his flaws. Xanatos may not be someone you’d trust with…well, anything, but you still can’t help but admire his smarts and his grace under pressure.

We’ve seen how the Gargoyles crew handles minor story problems, like getting Goliath talking about losing the castle to Xanatos. Now we get a glimpse of how they deal with a much bigger issue, a whole series problem: how do you make both the heroes and villains of your show seem strong and competent? In some TV series, it’s a given that the heroes will always triumph and the villain never will. This can work; the show can cycle in new villains or make the drama how the heroes will defeat the villain’s evil scheme this time around. But Gargoyles needs Xanatos to be a constant, credible threat who viewers won’t write off as someone the gargoyles will stop at every turn. He may not be in every episode, but he is one of the series’ main villains. What keeps him from looking like a permanent loser? His goals.

In many animated TV series, the villains have one or two simple goals: kill the heroes, take over the world, control the ultimate power, etc. For the most part, these are goals that can never be attained because they would mean the end of the show. So the villains end up losing all the time. Most of Xanatos’s goals do not pose such a threat to the continuation of the series. Xanatos never really wanted to kill the gargoyles. He wants to have control of the gargoyles. While Xanatos achieving this goal certainly wouldn’t be good for our heroes, it wouldn’t be nearly as final as their deaths. There would still be the possibility that the gargoyles could regain their freedom. This particular goal is both something the audience could see Xanatos achieving and an explanation for why he doesn’t simply kill the gargoyles to keep them from interfering with his schemes. It also explains the existence of the Steel Clan. If Xanatos can’t have the real gargoyles working for him, he can make his own.

Xanatos’s current plan to regain control of the gargoyles is to use his robots to draw attention to them. The sightings and crimes will eventually lead to the real gargoyles being discovered and hunted down. As an alternative, Xanatos offers to house the clan at a facility of his upstate. The gargoyles escape from a panicked Manhattan and Xanatos has power over them once again.

Though he may be smart, Xanatos is a little lacking in the empathy department. From his perspective, Goliath is now faced with a logical choice: keep his clan in the city and risk eventual capture and death, or take Xanatos up on his offer. He considers the fact that he himself caused the public panic over gargoyles to be irrelevant. When Goliath angrily points this out, Xanatos calmly responds, “If you want to be picky, we won’t get anywhere. Let’s try to focus on the big picture.” Xanatos’s arguments do nothing to sway Goliath. His anger, his pride, and his general distrust of Xanatos will not allow him to accept the offer of a safe haven. After losing the castle to Xanatos, Goliath is not about to be forced into choosing between two bad options again.

As the gargoyles leave the castle, Goliath is at a pretty low point. As Goliath sees it, Xanatos clearly has the edge and is about to force him into giving up the clan’s freedom just as he was forced to give up the castle. He’s in such a foul mood that he even snaps at Brooklyn, one of the three adolescent gargoyles who accompanied him to the castle, when he asks Goliath what happened. And things are about to get worse from our heroes. They are soon under attack by three Steel Clan robots, two standard grey ones and one red one, seemingly a new model. Goliath gets blasted out of the sky and the fight is on.

If Xanatos has his own gargoyle robots, why does he still want to bother with the real gargoyles? The Steel Clan was originally intended as a replacement for Goliath and his clan. But Xanatos is only going to be satisfied if he knows that his “clan” is superior to Goliath’s. As we saw way back in the first scene with the karate match, Xanatos isn’t going to lie to himself and pretend that his metal gargoyles are better than the real thing if the facts say otherwise. Since the gargoyles destroyed the original Steel Clan robots in battle, the facts say otherwise. Throughout the course of the series, Xanatos will continue trying to build a better clan through various methods, none of which turn out quite as he expects.


One of the reasons I decided to discuss “The Edge” is because of its high quality animation and the fight scenes with the Steel Clan are among the best in the series. The characters all stay on model, even as they swoop and dive around in combat. The well-rendered reflections on the Steel Clan’s metal bodies make it clear that they’re robots, but you can tell which characters are living creatures and which are machines simply by the way they move. The Steel Clan mostly fly in straight paths with their metal wings rigid and motionless. The gargoyles’ movements, such as Broadway flailing through the air as he dodges the laser blasts aimed at him, are far more organic. They change direction faster and more frequently than the robots and the movement of their wings reflects these aerial maneuvers.


If we didn’t already know that Xanatos isn’t trying to kill the gargoyles, it becomes clear when the three robots just hover above the gargoyles after literally dropping a ton of bricks on them. Goliath admits what he was unwilling to tell Brooklyn earlier: that Xanatos wants to dominate the clan. So why bother attacking them at all? Why not just wait and let the public hunt down the gargoyles until Goliath has no choice but to accept Xanatos’s offer of sanctuary? Goliath figures that Xanatos has sent the robots to discover the clan’s new home, which would give him even more of an advantage over them. This is another aspect of Xanatos that makes him a formidable adversary: he almost never has just one plan in mind. If Goliath won’t play ball, Xanatos can find out where the gargoyles are spending their days and either cart them off in their sleep or use the information to force Goliath’s hand. And in the meantime, all the laser fire up in the clouds is attracting a lot of attention on the street level, increasing the locals fears about gargoyles and the danger they pose.


Arriving on the scene are Matt and Elisa, who has not been having a good day. She couldn’t convince Goliath to lie low instead of taking off to confront Xanatos. Her new partner insists on coming with her while she tries to follow the gargoyles to Xanatos’s skyscraper. Owen Burnett, who had previously allowed her to enter the building and visit the gargoyles whenever she pleased, turns her away for lack of a warrant. It certainly fits with the episode’s central theme of losing your edge, but why is it necessary to keep cutting back to Elisa and Matt following the gargoyles? One reason is so that Matt can have an opportunity to look through a pedestrian’s binoculars and see two groups of gargoyles flying away. The other reason comes later.

Once again, Goliath’s options are not looking good. The Steel Clan robots are far tougher than the ones the gargoyles battled before, particularly the red leader. They can’t return to their new home without giving its location away to Xanatos. They can’t continue the fight here; the top of a building in the middle of Manhattan is far too public and a crowd is already gathering down below. On top of all this, dawn is not far off, meaning the gargoyles will soon turn to stone and be helpless against any adversary. Goliath decides that the only solution is to move the fight to a more secluded location. He and the other gargoyles lead the robots out to the Statue of Liberty. (If you’re writing a story about heroes based in New York City, you’re pretty much required to have a fight there.)


If there is a hero of this next fight scene, it’s Broadway. In so many cartoon shows, a big, heavyset character like Broadway would be slow, dumb as a post, and mainly used for comedy relief. While Broadway and his brothers do provide some of the comedy in the series, all three of them are shown to be capable warriors, though for some reason, this battle is Broadway’s time to shine. He is fast enough to outfly one of the robots and pull up at the last second while the robot crashes into Lady Liberty’s tablet and smart enough to grab a claw from the destroyed robot and throw it at the other one, causing its electronics to short out.

The three younger gargoyles rejoin Goliath, who has been battling the robot leader. Realizing that the other two robots have been destroyed and the odds are now four against one, the red Steel Clan robot flies off in retreat. Before the real gargoyles can decide whether or not to pursue their foe, a helicopter arrives on the scene. The gargoyles depart before they can be discovered.

Why was it important that we know that Elisa and Matt were following the gargoyles? So that there appearance in the helicopter that arrives after the battle doesn’t come as a surprise. The only evidence left at the scene of any gargoyles, real or robotic, is the remains of the two Steel Clan robots. The two cops have brought the reporter who interviewed Xanatos earlier along with them. Elisa later tells Goliath that the public has been reassured that the “gargoyles” were actually robots. The reporter’s presence on the helicopter answers the question of how that happened.

The wrap up portion of the episode switches from showing how various characters feel they have lost their edge to showing how they get it back. The battle with the Steel Clan has restored Goliath’s self-confidence. It isn’t just that he and his clan were able to destroy the two robots. Far more importantly, Goliath was able to stop Xanatos from discovering his clan’s new home and foil his plan to force the gargoyles to return to him. It may be a small victory and it doesn’t mean that the long-term safety of the gargoyles is assured. But it’s just the reminder Goliath needs that he is not helpless to protect his family and that Xanatos is not an invincible foe. As Goliath reasons, they bested Xanatos once and they can do it again.

Not everyone’s problems are resolved though. Though most of the locals are now convinced that all of the gargoyles they saw were robots of unknown origin, Matt isn’t buying it. He maintains that he saw living creatures through the binoculars and he’s determined to find out exactly what they were. Even if no one else believes Matt, it’s clear that Elisa will have her hands full keeping the gargoyles a secret from her new partner. This is one of many story arcs that will play out over the course of many episodes. It isn’t always the main focus of the story, but the bits and pieces of this and other arcs we see from episodes to episode help to enhance the feeling of a large, interconnected world and keep fans of the show tuning in regularly.


But this is a Xanatos spotlight episode. So how is Xanatos taking his failure to either force the gargoyles to accept his hospitality once more or learn where they’ve been spending their days since leaving him? Quite well, even more remarkably so when you consider the fight he’s just been through. The episode’s big reveal is that that red Steel Clan robot is not a robot at all, but a robot suit worn by none other than David Xanatos. Far from being upset at his losses, Xanatos considers the day a win for him. He has the Eye of Odin back, but still retains all of the public relations benefits of donating it, since no one know that he was the one who stole it. The test of the suit – which he calls a “prototype battle exoframe” – was successful. And like Goliath, he has his confidence back. He may not have won the fight, but simply being able to go wing-to-wing with Goliath – who he acknowledges as “the greatest warrior alive” – and hold his own proves to Xanatos that he hasn’t lost his edge.

Another characteristic of Xanatos that makes him such a strong villain is that he doesn’t just have multiple plans for any given scenario; he has multiple goals. Because of this, the show can have stories where the gargoyles may stop Xanatos on one front, but Xanatos claims victory on another that our protagonists may be completely unaware of. Returning the Eye of Odin to the museum was never a priority for the gargoyles. Remember, they aren’t true heroes yet. The exoframe test? The gargoyles never even realized that it was Xanatos and not another robot. Goliath had even less way of knowing that he was inadvertently helping Xanatos through a crisis of confidence and even if he had somehow known, I doubt he would have avoided or thrown the fight simply to keep from giving his enemy an ego boost. Throughout the series, Xanatos has scenes like this last one where he claims victory even as it seems that the gargoyles have won. This episode is crucial in letting the audience know that Xanatos isn’t the type of person to just convince himself that he has gained something just to avoid having to admit defeat. We now know that Xanatos will not lie to himself that way. If he can find success in what looks like failure, it’s genuine.

Who is David Xanatos? He is an extremely wealthy man and a very smart on as well. He is accustomed to getting what he wants, but he isn’t the type to lose his cool when things aren’t going his way. He’s a man with a plan, and a backup plan, and probably an additional plan in case the backup fails. He can appreciate his successes even if he has failed in other areas, but he’s no hopeless optimist. Even if he isn’t quick to admit them to others, he takes what he sees as his personal failings and won’t stoop to soothing his wounded pride by belittling his foes or underlings. He is more than willing to fight his own battles, but he’ll take the necessary steps to insure that he comes out on top. Great adversaries forge great heroes and with Xanatos as a foe, the gargoyles repeatedly rise to the occasion whenever they clash with him. Thanks in no small part to Xanatos, Gargoyles can easily claim its place as one of the greatest animated series of all time.

All images in this article are copyright Disney.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Short Takes - Simon's Cat

I'm running behind on the latest article and feeling a bit under the weather to boot. (It's nothing serious and nothing related to the flu or pigs.) So while I rest up until I'm feeling well enough to finish the latest article, please enjoy the latest Simon's Cat cartoon, or the whole lot of them if you've never seen them before. These entertaining shorts go beyond just "the cute/funny/annoying things cats do" with appealingly simple drawings and excellent comic timing.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Upcoming Animation - Toy Story 3

Perhaps you already know, but there is a trailer for Toy Story 3. Not the teaser with the toys building the logo that's been kicking around since Up came out, an honest-to-goodness footage from the movie trailer.

(If you want to see a higher definition version, The Animation Blog has some links.

It seems that all the rumors are true. A teenaged Andy is about to leave for college and the toys end up at the daycare from hell. (An odd turn of events, considering that very early drafts of the original Toy Story protayed just such a place as the ideal home for toys where they would be played with and loved forever.) There's clearly plenty of comedy, but Rnady Newman's melancholy vocal and Woody looking out at an Andy's room that has seen much change make it clear that there is a lot of sadness at the heart of this tale.

So what do you think? Are you excited or disappointed? Will Pixar's big gamble mean another hit for the studio? Or is this the equivalent of having Christopher Robin sell Pooh and Tigger for money to buy an XBox?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Lost Animation - The Swan Princess


For a good chunk of the 1990s, Disney was the undisputed king of the American animated feature film. With huge hits like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, the studio seemed to have a lock on its audience that no other animation studio could break. But that doesn’t mean that no one tried.

Animator Richard Rich worked at the Disney Studios from the late 1970s into the mid-80s. After serving as co-director on The Fox and the Hound and the infamous The Black Cauldron, Rich left Disney to strike out on his own. He founded Rich Animation Studios and began producing a series of animated videos based on Bible stories. In 1994, when Disney was enjoying huge success with features based on classic tales, Rich Animation Studios released The Swan Princess, a feature film based on the ballet “Swan Lake.”

The studio’s first movie was not a financial success. Disney asserted its dominance once again, bringing its enormous blockbuster The Lion King back into theaters the weekend that The Swan Princess debuted. Swan Princess grossed just under $10 million domestically. Rich Animation Studios went on to produce a few more animated features and two direct-to-video sequels to The Swan Princess. They were eventually taken over by Crest Animation Studios of India after going bankrupt. The Swan Princess became little more than a footnote in the history of American animated films. But does it deserve to be more?

Visually, The Swan Princess is not a bad film, though it isn’t stunning either. There are good moments, but also parts where the characters’ movements feel stiff and the drawings are weak. The overall style feels very much like “Disney Lite,” lacking the level of craft and polish you would find in a Disney feature. The animation seldom rises above the level of merely okay, but it never gets distractingly bad either. The story, unfortunately, has bigger problems.

What’s really disappointing is that the plot actually gets off to a pretty good start. The monarchs of two neighboring kingdoms decide to fulfill their dream of uniting their realms by fostering a romance between their two children. (I don’t understood why the seemingly unattached King William and Queen Uberta can’t marry each other instead of messing around with their kids’ love lives.) The prince and princess are brought together every summer in the hopes that they will eventually fall in love. As young kids, they are both disgusted by this arrangement and each other. They spend more time tormenting each other than sowing the seeds of romance. Finally, the two of them go through puberty and when their annual meeting rolls around, they are each struck by the other’s beauty. Derek is so completely smitten that he wants to get married immediately. But Odette isn’t so sure. She asks Derek why he wants to get married to her and when he can’t come up with anything other than her appearance, she walks out on him.

Okay, so it isn’t the greatest premise in the world. But it does provide a twist on the standard fairy tale formula. It sets the audience up for a movie in which these two characters will learn to really love one another, not just appreciate one another’s outer beauty. If The Swan Princess is going to mimic the Disney films, at least it’s also going to copy the other studio’s formula for a more modern romance. Or so it would seem.

Shortly after leaving Derek’s castle, Odette’s carriage is attacked. Derek races to the rescue, but arrives too late. Odette’s father gives Derek a cryptic and unhelpful bit of information before dying. Odette herself is missing, and presumed dead by everyone but Derek. In reality, Odette has been abducted by the evil enchanter Rothbart, who plans to marry Odette in order to rule her kingdom. When Odette refuses him, he casts a spell on her into a swan except for when she’s on the lake where Rothbart is keeping her during a moonlit night.

For all of its initial good intentions, the movie seems to be punishing Odette for refusing Derek’s proposal. If she had decided to marry him and work on getting him to notice her other good qualities later, she would have been fine. But because she turned him down, she was returning home, which led to the attack on her carriage, her father getting killed, and Odette being imprisoned and turned into a swan. It’s a little unsettling and it only gets more so.

Some time passes. Derek is still convinced that Odette is alive and Odette is still stuck at the lake spending most of her time as a swan. Like most animated princesses, she has animal friends to tell her troubles to. She explains her predicament to Puffin, the new bird on the lake, simultaneously letting the audience in on the terms of her enchantment. The spell she’s under can only be broken by her one true love: Derek.

I was so surprised by this turn of events that I literally checked the DVD to make sure it hadn’t somehow skipped a scene. But no, Odette sees nothing wrong with singing a long distance duet with Derek about how their love will last “far longer than forever,” even though the last time she saw him she was refusing to marry him. It’s as if the movie started out with the idea of being about the process of these two people falling in love, then suddenly decided to just fall back on the traditional animated fairy tale plot, where the lovers are always in love and the drama comes from the outside forces that keep them apart. Odette’s insistence that Derek must love her for who she is – the most interesting thing about the film so far– seems to have been little more than a minor bump on the road to true love.

The movie goes on like this, dancing around the idea that its two protagonists have to learn what love is really about, but never actually having them learn anything. Odette is convinced that her suddenly beloved Derek will still recognize her in her swan form, which I guess make sense since they have known each other since childhood. Then she’s understandably miffed when he not only doesn’t recognize her, but tries to shoot her. Yet once they make it to the lake where Odette’s true identity is revealed, she seems nothing but happy to see her prince. I’m not sure whether she’s decided that she really does love him and the whole “love me for something other than my looks” thing was just bad judgment on her part or she’s so desperate to be permanently human again that her standards have dropped to the point where she’s not even mad at the guy for nearly killing her. The movie doesn’t seem to know either.

Derek isn’t doing much better. He does promise Odette that he will make “a vow of everlasting love” to her and “prove it to the world,” which will break the spell. Since Odette no longer cares why Derek is in love with her, she agrees to meet him at the palace the next night so he can announce his love during the ball being held there. But the evil Rothbart has overheard their plan and comes up with a scheme to transform his underling into an Odette look-alike and send her to the ball to trick Derek. This sounds like the perfect opportunity for Derek to prove that he’s no longer the shallow oaf who seemed shocked that Odette would want to be loved for anything other than her appearance by recognizing that the imposter is not his true love. But Derek hasn’t actually learned anything. He’s only spent something like five minutes with Odette since the two of them were reunited, which is not enough time for him to see all of the good qualities in her that he somehow missed previously. So when the imposter shows up in Odette’s place, Derek is stuck in the role of clueless victim. He has a vague inkling that there’s something different about Odette, but he goes ahead and makes his vow of love to the wrong woman. Only when the villains are openly gloating over the success of their plan does Derek realize his mistake. He still manages to break the spell, telling Odette that he loves her for her courage and her kindness. But even if it’s not too late to save Odette, it’s too late to believably show that Derek has grown and changed. The movie has apparently forgotten that while the audience has seen Odette acting courageous and kind, Derek wasn’t around for these scenes. He doesn’t know Odette any better than he did when he wanted to marry her solely for her beauty. He says the right thing in the end, but there’s no sense that the events of the movie have caused him to change and his declaration of love rings hollow.

The rest of the film does little to distract from the problems with the central love story. Rothbart is a decent enough villain, I guess. He is voiced by the late Jack Palance, which explains why he starts doing one-armed pushups partway through the movie. He gives a fine performance, but there’s not enough meat in the role for him to really create something memorable. Jean-Bob the frog who believes he is an enchanted prince is the only standout in the supporting cast and, despite being voiced by John Cleese, he is only mildly funny. The songs are mostly unmemorable and never come near Menken and Ashman’s best work. One or two of them manage to have pretty tunes or the occasional entertaining lyric, but they’re mostly just filler.

The Swan Princess is not a lost classic. It’s a movie that never really settles on what it wants to be. The film’s beginning promises the audience something fresh and new, but the movie never delivers on that promise. Instead it settles for old, tired clichés that seemed woefully outdated even fifteen years ago. Without a strong story or clear central theme, it’s no surprise that this particular challenge to Disney’s supremacy ultimately failed.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Great Sites - Animation Backgrounds

I'm very happy to report that Rob Richards is once again updating his fantastic blog Animation Backgrounds. It's a wonderful collection of images from various films, shorts, and TV shows carefully composited together to remove the characters from the backgrounds. The art of background painting is often overshadowed by character animation, so it's a real treat to get to enjoy these amazing works of art on their own.

If you don't know where to start, take a look at the backgrounds from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As I mentioned in my analysis, the backgrounds from this film are stunning and well worth checking out.

Monday, October 5, 2009

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


It’s the same night and another lighted window, but the music accompanying this shot is celebratory and Snow White’s animal friends are crowded around, their heads and tails swaying in time with the happy music. The song here is called “The Dwarfs’ Yodel Song” or “The Silly Song.” Like the washing song before it, it has a reasonably solid plot reason for existing: the dwarfs wish to entertain Snow White. But the actual song doesn’t have anything to do with this sentiment, and even the song’s own chorus amounts to “this song is ridiculous and has no point.” Still, the scene itself is entertaining and does a good job of illustrating how well Snow White and the dwarfs are getting along and that their relationship is not limited to her teaching them good manners. The detail that this film does so well is on full display here, from Grumpy’s beautiful carved pipe organ to Dopey’s drum set. Bashful has a particularly good moment where he is supposed to recite a verse but is so embarrassed to be performing for Snow White that he can’t get past the first word without having to bury is face in his beard. Grumpy is less than thrilled about having to repeatedly start Bashful’s musical introduction over again as the dwarf continues to flub his lines. Snow White is clearly having a good time, joining in the singing and dancing. Dopey, proving that his dopiness does not make him stupid, figures out that standing on top of an obliging Sneezy and wearing a long coat will make him an ideal dance partner for the much taller Snow White. The dwarfs never try to vie for Snow White’s attention. They simply laugh and clap when she spends extra time dancing with suddenly taller Dopey. Beautiful as they may find her, she’s still more of a mother than a romantic interest. If she’s happy, they’re happy.

The dancing comes to an end as Sneezy sneezes. Dopey puts his finger to his own nose right before the sneeze, either in a fruitless attempt to preserve the illusion or in hopes that doing so will somehow prevent Sneezy from sneezing. The force of the sneeze sends Dopey rocketing up to the rafters of the house, though as always, he is completely unharmed.

As the laughter dies down, the dwarfs ask Snow White to tell them a story. Happy wants a true story and Bashful requests a love story. She tells them about how she fell in love with her prince, which leads into one of the film’s best-known songs, “Someday My Prince Will Come.” At first, it may seem like this song doesn’t need to be in the movie. Snow White already had an “I Want” song with “I’m Wishing,” right? But actually, this song expresses a slightly different desire for Snow White. “I’m Wishing,” revealed her hope that she would meet the man of her dreams. Now that she’s met him, what she wants is to be reunited with him, marry him, and live happily ever after. It’s also been a while since Snow White mentioned her original goal of true love. Her dream of a happy life with her prince is going to be very important very soon, so the audience needs to be reminded of how important that goal is to Snow White. On top of that, the song ensures that all of Snow White’s friends know that she is in love and that her fondest wish is to be with her prince. The animals, still at the window, happily nuzzle up to their mates. The dwarfs listen with rapt attention and dreamy eyes. The only person not won over is, predictably, Grumpy, who leans against his organ in a dark corner and denounces the whole thing as “mush.”


Notice that Snow White’s passivity even extends to her song lyrics. In “I’m Wishing,” her wish is for her beloved to find her, not the other way around. Now she sings of her desire for her prince to come to her, with no suggestion that she might actually seek him out herself.

The clock striking eleven snaps Snow White back into “mom” mode. She hurries the dwarfs off to bed, but Doc, taking up the role of leader once again, stops them. Snow White, he insists, will sleep upstairs in their beds. The princess protests, but Doc reassures her that they will all be comfortable downstairs, though Grumpy is again able to derail his train of thought. When Doc has trouble explaining exactly where they will spend the night, Grumpy pipes up with a surly “In a pig’s eye!” which Doc repeats before correcting himself. As the other dwarfs agree that they’ll all be fine, Dopey once again proves that he’s no fool and slips off to lay claim to the only pillow in the whole downstairs room. But the second Snow White is upstairs and has shut the door, the dwarfs’ maturity evaporates and they pounce on Dopey in a tug-of-war over the pillow. Doc attempts to calm them down, but to no avail and the pillows rips. Ever a “glass half full” kind of guy, Dopey is happy to have saved just one large feather for himself, which he fluffs and lays under his head before going to sleep.

Upstairs, with the bedroom all to herself, Snow White says her prayers before bed. She asks for blessings on her newfound friends the dwarfs and that her dreams may come true, adding as an afterthought “and please make Grumpy like me.”

Back downstairs, Grumpy is feeling anything but kindly towards Snow White. He has been reduced to sleeping in a kettle by the fire and has to contend with the snoring of his fellow dwarfs as they snooze away in their various makeshift beds. Meeting Snow White has done nothing to reduce Grumpy’s misogyny and has, in fact, only confirmed his beliefs that women are trouble. Or so it would seem.

From a billowing cloud of steam, the camera pans down to reveal the transformed Queen hunched over her cauldron, dipping an apple into a sinister green brew. As she draws it out, the viscous liquid remains on the upper half of the apple in the shape of a skull, making clear its poisonous nature. The Queen turns the apple from a foreboding greenish-black to a tempting red, which will set it apart from the green and yellow apples the Queen will carry with her. Cackling, the Queen turns to the raven and offers the apple. The bird recoils in horror, backing away and flapping its wings in an attempt to flee. “It’s not for you,” the Queen chides in a mock-sweet voice. “It’s for Snow White!” She goes on to describe in detail the effects of the poisoned apple, first stilling the victim’s breath then congealing her blood. But, the Queen suddenly realizes, there may be an antidote and she goes to check. Sure enough, the victim of the Sleeping Death can be awakened by what is known as “Love’s First Kiss.” The Queen is unconcerned. The dwarfs, she is convinced, will think the princess is dead and bury her alive, a thought which sends her into fits of cackling laughter.

What is strange about the Queen’s plan to be rid of her rival is that the method she has chosen will not, by her own admission, actually kill Snow White. The Sleeping Death leaves the victim in a weird in-between state, appearing dead but somehow still alive. The Queen had no compunctions about ordering her huntsman to cut out Snow White’s heart. So why bother with a half-measure instead of using ordinary poison? Perhaps the idea of leaving her foe alive, yet totally helpless appeals to an aspect of the Queens personality that we will see in the next shot: her cruelty.


Still cackling, the Queen descends a staircase with her basket of apples, heading for a boat in an underground waterway. As she goes, she passes by an imprisoned skeleton, one of its arms reaching out for a water pitcher that lies inches out of reach. “Thirsty?” the Queen laughs wickedly. “Have a drink!” She kicks the pitcher over, sending the skeleton’s bones flying and revealing the pitcher to be empty except for a lone spider, which scuttles off into the darkness. It’s likely that this seen replaced one of the Queen taunting the Prince with her plan to murder his love back when he was to have been her prisoner. As it stands, the joy she gets from this pointlessly cruel action only underlines the fact that the Queen is a person completely devoid of compassion or morals. As she steers her boat through the thick fog, we know that Snow White is in real, serious danger.

Morning arrives and the forest animals are still gathered around the seven dwarfs’ cottage, unwilling to leave the little princess even in this safe haven. They rush off as the door opens, but they aren’t scattering in a panic like they did earlier. They are now comfortable around both Snow White and the dwarfs.

Doc is reminding Snow White of the threat the Queen still poses to her. For a moment, their roles are reversed: he is the adult warning the innocent young girl to beware of strangers while he and the other dwarfs are away at the mines. Snow White reassures Doc that she will be fine and kisses him on the top of his head. She is back to being the adult and though the dwarfs are happy to receive a kiss from beautiful Snow White, they are still children, reacting with embarrassed giggles. Dopey’s particular brand of smarts makes another appearance as he staggers off in joy after getting his kiss, then runs around the back of the house, dives through the window, and gets back in line for another one. She humors him the first time, but sends him on his way when he tries for a third.


Grumpy has already declared the whole kissing business disgusting, so you would think he would be sneaking out the back to avoid getting kissed himself. But what’s this? Grumpy is in front of a mirror, rubbing his forehead, setting his cap at a jaunty angle, and straightening his beard. Could the proud woman-hater actually be…primping? He retains his Grumpy scowl, but he removes his cap as he approaches Snow White and clears his throat several times to get her attention. He warns her not to let anyone or anything in the house and she exclaims happily “Why, Grumpy, you DO care!” Despite his clear efforts to get the princess’s attention, he struggles to get away from her and stalks off in a huff after she kisses him. But as he goes, his face softens into an actual smile and he steals a doe-eyes glance back at Snow White with a happy sigh. Snow White kisses her fingertips and sweetly waves at him. Suddenly remembering himself, Grumpy snaps back to his customary scowl and storms off – straight into a tree. Adding insult to injury, his nose gets stuck in a knothole. Once he dislodges it, he stomps off again, only to fall into a stream and hit his head on the footbridge as he stands up. Snow White calls a last cheery goodbye to him as sloshes off angrily to join the other dwarfs.

Of all the characters in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Grumpy is the only one who undergoes real change. Other characters may have a change of circumstances, but he alone is a different person at the end. The change in him can seem somewhat forced; one minute he is totally against Snow White and the next he is all but completely won over by her. But what makes the transition work is Grumpy’s clear struggle with his growing affection for Snow White. Even as her charm and sweetness are having their effect on him, he still fights to remain Grumpy. But as we see in this scene, the effort causes him nothing but pain. He’s so distracted by the need to keep up his image that he runs headlong into everything in his path. Only when he accepts the fact that he really does care about Snow White will he be able to stop being a permanent sourpuss and learn to enjoy life.

As the dwarfs are leaving, the Queen is drawing ever nearer to their home. Two vultures watch her pass by, grin menacingly at one another, and slowly take to the sky, following in her wake. Through some combination of instinct and insight they know that this woman has death on her mind.

Snow White is not totally alone. Her forest friends watch through the window and help out as she makes the gooseberry pies she promised the dwarfs. She sings a reprise of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” keeping the importance of her dreams of love front and center. As with the huntsman before, the Queen’s shadow engulfs Snow White and frightens off the animals before we see her leaning through the window. “All alone, my pet?” she coos with false warmth. Snow White admits that she is. She always seems on the verge of saying something more to the stranger confronting her, explaining perhaps that she is not supposed to let anyone in. But the disguised Queen quickly cuts her off at every turn and Snow White is far too sweet and polite to take a stand.


The animals, though spooked, have not gone far and watch with concern as the old peddler woman talks up her apples to Snow White. They seem suspicious, but it’s not until they notice the vultures perched on a nearby tree that their fears are confirmed. The birds twitter amongst themselves and decide to take action. They can’t do much, being very small. They fly at the Queen and cause her to drop the apple she is offering to Snow White. The princess is saved, but only for the moment.

This is the first time we see the limit to the animals’ abilities. Up to now, they have been able to help Snow White with whatever she needs. But here, their inability to communicate anything but the simplest of ideas proves a terrible handicap. They cannot say to Snow White “Our instincts are telling us that this woman is up to no good,” or even remind her that she must be wary of strangers. All they can do is physically attack the Queen with their very limited strength, a move that ultimately benefits no one but the Queen. Shocked by their behavior, Snow White rushes out of the house and shoos the animals away, scolding them for scaring the “poor old lady.” The animals can only watch as the wily Queen turns the unexpected attack to her advantage. She feigns heart problems and Snow White’s instincts to care for others immediately overwhelm her fears and her promise not to let anyone into the house. The animals gather worriedly at the window and watch the Queen surreptitiously smile over her good fortune while Snow White’s back is turned. With no other options, the animals race into the forest to find the dwarfs and somehow make them understand the terrible danger Snow White is in.

The dwarfs are just arriving at their mine and getting to work when they are set upon by the stampeding creatures. Still unable to explain the situation, the animals desperately grab hold of the dwarfs’ clothing and try to push or pull them into action. Unfortunately, the dwarfs cannot figure out what’s going on. They try to shoo the animals away just as Snow White did, wondering what could be causing them to act so strangely.

Back at the cottage, the Queen has come up with a plan to get Snow White to try the poisoned apple. She was smart enough to exploit her stepdaughter’s kindness to a poor old woman and now she will shrewdly exploit her dreams. Supposedly repaying Snow White’s kindness to her, the Queen reveals that the bright red apple is actually a “wishing apple,” capable of making your dreams come true with a single bite.

We cut back to the dwarfs under siege by the panicked animals. The dwarfs have started to guess that there must be something wrong, but they can’t figure out what. It is Sleepy, too tired to even realize the horrible implications of what he is saying, who at last yawns, “Maybe the old Queen’s got Snow White.” The others immediately realize that this must be what has the animals so upset. So what happens next? Does Doc, the self-appointed leader, take charge and lead the dwarfs into battle? No. Fear has reduced him to stammering and repeating what the others say. He doesn’t mix up words – this is no time for that sort of comedy – but he’s in no shape to lead anyone anywhere. So who is going to get the dwarfs out of their initial panic and into action?



Once the dwarfs realize that Snow White is in danger, is it Grumpy who cries out “The Queen’ll kill her! We gotta save her!” And while the other dwarfs agree but are at a loss for what to do – Doc included, Grumpy is the one who leaps onto the back of a stag, shouts “Come on!” to the other dwarfs, and rides off to rescue the princess. Doc may be capable of taking the lead when the threat is an imagined monster or a trough of water, but in a real crisis, he’s all but useless. Grumpy may be a bad-tempered individual capable of making the most minor issue into a battle. But when his forceful personality is combined with his growing affection for Snow White and a real cause, he rises to the occasion without a moment of hesitation.

While the dwarfs ride on deerback towards the cottage, the Queen continues to make her pitch to Snow White, suggesting that there must be something she wants, maybe someone who she loves. Snow White is literally backed into a corner. She seems to be aware that she should be afraid of the old woman, but she just doesn’t have the strength of character to act on it. The promise of her dreams coming true is too much for her to resist and she is soon holding the apple and making her wish.

The dwarfs are still speeding to the rescue. The next few scenes will cut rapidly between Snow White and the Queen at the cottage and the dwarfs on their way, heightening the tension as the audience wonders whether the dwarfs will arrive in time. Snow White finishes her wish and the Queen urges her to take a bite of the apple. The dwarfs are still racing home. The Queen tells her victim not to “let the wish grow cold” and watches with bated breath as Snow White takes the fatal bite of the poisoned apple. The camera remains on the Queen’s face as she recites the process of the Sleeping Death taking hold while Snow White gasps for air. The camera pans down and we see Snow White’s arm fall to the floor, the apple with a single bite out of it slipping from her fingers in a great bit of “less is more” storytelling. The Queen’s triumphant laughter is punctuated by a crash of thunder and lightning, indicating that a storm is coming. “Now I’ll be fairest in the land!” she crows, despite still being an old hag with a wart on her nose.


Leaving the cottage, the Queen spots the dwarfs and an army of forest animals racing towards her. She makes a hasty exit. Grumpy pulls his stag to a stop in front of the cottage, but instead of going in, he points in the direction that the Queen fled and urges his comrades to join him in chasing her. For a while, this puzzled me. Why would the dwarfs go after the Queen and not go into the cottage and make sure that Snow White is safe, especially when there are seven of them and they could easily split up? Then I realized that as long as the dwarfs believe that Snow White is still alive, they are pursuing the Queen in order to stop her from harming Snow White. If they had found Snow White seemingly dead and then taken off after the Queen, they would have been chasing her out of a desire for revenge, which would have thrown their status as “good guys” into question.

The Queen flees and becomes briefly tangled in branches, just as Snow White did in her frightening run into the forest. She climbs up a rocky cliff, with the dwarfs not far behind. Reaching the top, she suddenly realizes the there is nothing but a precipitous drop in front of her and the dwarfs closing in at her back. The vultures who began following her earlier settle on a branch overhead. Snow White, not being truly dead, is of no use to them, but their instincts once again tell them that death is near. With the storm growing worse, the Queen grabs a fallen tree branch and shoves one end of it beneath a convenient bolder. She intends to send the bolder down the cliff-side and crush the dwarfs. Grumpy, still in the lead, yells “Look out!” but can the dwarfs get away before the Queen sends the huge rock down upon them?

The Queen’s ultimate demise is something of a deus ex machina. As she laughs, believing herself triumphant, a bolt of lightning, much like the one she seemed to summon before to finish her potion, strikes the ground in front of her. With a horrible scream, she plummets to her doom and the boulder tumbles after her. Even the elements, it seems, have turned on the Queen. Where the lightning once heeded her call, it now saves the lives of her next intended victims and brings about her death. In case there is any doubt remaining about her fate, the vultures’ eyes widen in hungry anticipation before they take wing and circle slowly towards the ground below.


I don’t think I can possibly overstate how much of a risk this next scene is. Nowadays, we are used to characters in animated films crying, mourning, and dealing with very serious matters. But back in the 1930s, animated characters weren’t expected to engage an audience for more than a few minutes at a time. Now Disney is asking audiences not only to watch an animated film over an hour in length, but also to believe that an animated character can die and to feel as strongly as they would if that character were being portrayed by a live actress. Was the outcome of the film ever a mystery to filmgoers? Of course not. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was a classic fairy tale long before it was a classic animated film. Even a person who had never heard the story before could likely guess what is going to happen just by watching the film. In order for audiences to suspend their disbelief, they have to buy into the character of the dwarfs. If the film hasn’t won them over, if the artists and animators and voice actors and everyone else haven’t made the dwarfs into convincing and believable personalities, if the audience isn’t connecting to the characters as real people, then the scene doesn’t work and the whole film falls apart. The fate of the entire Disney studio rested on whether or not moviegoers could be convinced to sympathize with the heartbroken dwarfs, even knowing that Snow White will soon be free of the evil spell and that every last one of the characters is really just ink and paint and a little rouge.

The dwarf’s cottage is dimly lit by two candles, with only the suggestion of rafters and a few furnishings in the background to tell us where we are. Snow White lies motionless on a bed at the center of the room. Soft organ music makes the funerary atmosphere unmistakable. Slowly, the scene becomes bright enough to reveal the dwarfs gathered around her. Tears stream down their faces and none of them says a word. Almost as soon as the camera is on him, Grumpy loses his composure and his grouchy expression. He hides his face in the chair he’s leaning on as he breaks down sobbing. Grumpy has finally learned to truly care about another person, only to have her die and leave him broken-hearted. Even normally joyful Dopey is weeping, burying his head in Doc’s shoulder as the older dwarf gently pats his back to comfort him. The forest animals crowd around the door and window and bow their heads in sorrow, heedless of the rain that gives the sense that all of nature is mourning the death of Snow White.

The next shot is of text, presumably excerpted from the storybook we saw at the beginning, as it starts off mid-sentence. We are told that the dwarfs just could not bring themselves to bury Snow White, saving her from the Queen’s prediction that she would be buried alive. Instead, they make a gold and glass coffin and keep constant watch over her. Behind the text, there is a single tree branch, which is first shedding its last dry leaves, then weighted down with snow. As the branch blossoms, heralding the arrival of spring, the text informs us that the tale of the lovely yet seemingly dead maiden has reached the Prince. (Remember him?) He has apparently been searching for his beloved this entire time and decides to seek out the beautiful girl in the coffin.

Because it’s been so long since we last saw the Prince, we get a reprise of “One Song” before he appears to help remind us who he is. The dwarfs and the forest animals gather around Snow White in her ornate coffin to lay bouquets around her and mourn their loss. Doc and Happy remove the glass coffin lid to place a bouquet in the princess’s hands, but the real purpose is to make it easier for the Prince to deliver the all-important kiss. The Prince says nothing when he arrives; he only continues to sing his song. But the dwarfs move aside to let him by, realizing who he must be. The Prince leans down to kiss Snow White, then kneels at her side and joins the dwarfs and animals in mourning her. None of the characters know that Snow White can be revived by the kiss or anything else, so their reaction is only sadness. Snow White’s prince has found her at last, but too late. But as the Disney Chorus begins singing “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Snow White stirs and stretches as if she had merely been asleep. First the dwarfs and then the animals look up and stare in amazement and joy at the miracle. Though he is the nearest to her, the Prince is the last to notice that Snow White is alive and well. Once he does, he is overjoyed and sweeps her up into his arms. The whole forest breaks out in celebration, with dwarfs and animals alike dancing and leaping about, overcome with happiness.


The Prince, perhaps not wanting to take any chances this time, immediately sets Snow White on the back of his white charger. He lifts each of the dwarfs up to her so she can give them all a goodbye kiss. Grumpy has learned from his experience and not only gladly accepts Snow White’s kiss, but blows her one in return! They all wave a last farewell to her, once again happy that she’s happy, even if they’re losing her. The princess and her prince head off to their happy ending, visually represented by his castle, gleaming in the sunset as it towers over even the clouds. It almost redundant when the book informs us that they, like all good fairy tale couples, lived happily ever after. The book closes and the very first Walt Disney feature film comes to an end.

After over seventy years, does Snow White still hold up? I cannot say that it is a flawless film or that it is indistinguishable from modern animated films. But the visuals remain stunning even today. And although our cultural has changed in the decades since this film was made, there is still plenty in the movie to keep modern audiences entertained. Whether viewers are drawn to the sweetness and innocence of the title character, the power and cruelty of the jealous Queen, the comedy and warmth of the dwarfs, or the artistry that has stood the test of time, they will keep coming back to the one that started it all.

All images in this article are copyright Disney.