Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Black Cauldron (1985)

A taste of Disney’s darker side

With The Black Cauldron, animation at Disney had officially hit rock bottom. “That film was supposed to be our ‘Snow White.’ But we just weren’t ready for it,” Ron Clements reportedly said at the time. But a behind-the-scenes tale of struggle that would ultimately bear triumph was brewing at Walt’s beloved company. And it’s important to recognize this film, not for what it wasn’t, but for what it represented for the studio at the time.

Based on Lloyd Alexander’s award-winning teen lit series The Chronicles of Prydain, the events of the film follow a young assistant pig keeper named Taran, his oracular pig named Hen Wen and a powerful cauldron that could raise a dead army for an evil king. Disney optioned the rights to the whole series in 1971, but the studio’s intense aversion to sequels meant it would try to do all of Prydain’s five volumes justice in just 80 minutes.

The film took seven years to complete, largely because chief executive Ron Miller (Walt’s son-in-law) didn’t feel his new Cal Arts recruits (including the likes of John Lasseter and Tim Burton) were up to the epic challenge. In some ways, Miller was right, but it was the whole company that turned out not to be ready for a film of such scale, and there was still much strife to come before the magic returned to Disney feature animation.

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The Fox and the Hound (1981)

Tod and Copper meet for the first time in what will become a largely-doomed friendship.

Disney made a small mistake with The Fox and the Hound. The idea sounds good on paper: star-crossed friends from opposite sides of life learning each other’s role in the world.

But in reality, the original story upon which the film was based is absurdly dark. The novel of the same name features Tod having children, who are both killed early in the story to spark Tod’s anger towards Copper and the hunter. Tod kills The Old Chief on purpose (rather than accidentally injured, as in the film) and Copper chases him until he dies from exhaustion. Not to be satisfied with this as an ending, Copper is then shot by his master.

The Disney version softens up the story quite a bit. But Tod and Copper still turn against each other and, even at the end of the film, they learn that they are naturally enemies never to reconcile. The moral of the story remains that some people may feel like they can be friends, but the simple way of the world will prevent it.

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The Rescuers (1977)

Bernard and Miss Bianca take flight.

The studio takes a bit of a darker turn with its next few films. Based on a series of books by Margery SharpThe Rescuers centres on mice Bernard and Miss Bianca, members of the international Rescue Aid Society and voiced by legends Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, and their mission to rescue orphan Penny from the evil, diamond-hungry Madame Medusa. The tale is a return to the heartstring-pulling dramas, like Bambi and Dumbo, that gave the studio its reputation.

With The Rescuers, we see Don Bluth’s biggest contribution to Disney during his time at the studio. The film is Bluth’s only as directing animator, and he was working along such legends as Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston for the last time. While a great blend of old and new talent, a real passing-of-the-torch moment, Bluth’s artistic influence on this film is undeniable. One need only follow up this film with one of Bluth’s famous solo efforts,  like The Secret of NIMH or An American Tail to see the similarities. Medusa’s Devil’s Bayou riverboat even bears resemblance to Charlie’s casino in All Dogs Go To Heaven.

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The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)

Tiggers are wonderful things.

Winnie the Pooh has been a childhood classic for generations and always a favourite of both of ours. My coffee cup has Tigger on the side. Danielle’s has Eeyore. We’re fans.

That being said, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is a meaningful point in Disney history in terms of artistry and history.

Actually stitched together from three earlier shorts, with some smaller animation sequences linking them together, the film is truer to the studio’s desperate days of the 1940s than the roaring artistic successes of the 1950s. It was a time of deep change for the studio, as the old guard slowly withered away and a new line of young animators, managers and directors were being asked to take the wheel of a great ship.

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Robin Hood (1973)

Robin Hood explains to Little John how he doesn’t have a shot with Maid Marian. Little John disagrees, and the rest is history.

The story of Robin Hood has been an obvious choice for film studios for years, so it’s no surprise Disney put forth their own version of the Crusades-era tale in the mid-1970s. The story centres around Robin Hood, his loyal pal Little John and their pursuits to right the wrongs of the tyrannical Prince John, who had been overtaxing England to the point of abject poverty while big brother King Richard was away fighting in the Crusades. Of course, there’s also romance, as Robin Hood woos his lady love Maid Marian while he’s not being a hero to the people of Nottingham.

In typical Disney fashion, everyone’s favourite outlaw and his companions were anthropomorphized. Originally, studio writer Ken Anderson wanted to adapt the stories of Reynard the Fox, a sly trickster who could smooth talk his way out of any sticky situation, but the idea was vetoed by Walt himself before his death, claiming Reynard wasn’t a suitable hero. However, the notion of drawing animals did stick with Anderson and the Reynard stories’ main species were emulated in this film with Robin Hood and Maid Marian portrayed as foxes and the Sheriff of Nottingham as a wolf.

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