Russia in Classic Film Blogathon: Peter and the Wolf (1946)

Intorduction
This post is my first contribution to the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon.

I have always wanted to sit down and define what to me were the “Great Stories.” By great stories what I mean is those stories where I can watch many different adaptations of it without tiring. This particular story, like many that would be on that as of yet un-drafted list, is one I’ve enjoyed since childhood. This 1946 Disney produced version is the one I first saw.

Since discovering and re-discovering it several times over I have since sought out other versions of the story, including: A ballet produced by the Royal Ballet School; a live action/animation hybrid with characterizations by Chuck Jones and a Soviet stop-motion animation film from the ‘50s (this version will soon be featured on a Short Film Saturday post. As well as crafting my own version for the stage for young actors and musicians to perform.

What I believe draws many to this story is, of course, Prokofiev’s music, but also the inherent humor many have found to counterbalance the true scares the plot points can offer.

Peter and the Wolf (1946)

Peter and the Wolf (1946, Disney)

For the purposes of this blogathon, and to mesh with my March to Disney theme, I will focus solely on Disney’s 1946 version created for inclusion in the anthology film Make Mine Music. This version was also later siphoned off as its own short and released on video (once with the original Sterling Holloway narration, and one time now) and it also accompanied a theatrical re-release of Fantasia, which is rather a perfect pair.

Make Mine Music, I recently discovered is yet another title that has been subject to Disney’s self-censorship having lost an entire segment in all subsequent releases due to concerns over racial insensitivity. However, that is but a compelling footnote here. What compels here is the treatment of Peter and the Wolf within the longer piece.

It’s interesting to consider that this short film was fashioned just 10 years after Prokofiev’s opus debuted, a debut he himself cited as being inauspicious. So in many ways this animation truly is largely responsible for popularizing and immortalizing the piece; at least in the west. Like many lasting works it wasn’t an instant success.

Much like Disney did with the Seven Dwarfs (who had no names in Grimm’s version) he named Peter’s animal friends (Sasha – Bird; Sonja – Duck and Ivan – Cat) and the hunters were also named (Misha, Yasha and Vladimir).

I have written extensively on divorcing oneself from a prior incarnation of a narrative when watching the film. However, when discussing different versions of a work noting changes matters. The introduction of the representative instruments remains, yet the situation with the Duck’s fate is slightly changed from the original.

Peter and the Wolf (1946, Disney)

The short balances real scares like the wolf’s appearance in general, his threatening the duck and other’s are balanced with humorous touches, like Peter’s pop-gun, pantomime action and voice-over dialogue. This follows through to the ending with Peter’s presumed fate and his heroic reveal.

It truly is a fairy tale set to music that also includes some of Disney’s didactic proclivities by having signs in Cyrillic then dissolve to translated versions after being misunderstood. This helps indicate to even the youngest audience members that the story is foreign in origin, but allows them to relate to it through the narrative storytelling technique.

The main action sequence of the film is very well and dramatically rendered. Furthermore, at 13 minutes there’s a more grandiose sprawl to this tale than standard six-to-eight minute shorts allow. Yet, with the musical score usually clocking in around 25 minutes in length it moves more briskly apace than that. Add to that the typical deep, intricate backgrounds, and fanciful setting that Disney can create, and you get a world that is fully realized and dimensional. A narrative landscape that seems much larger than indicated and seems to belie the modesty of budget likely implemented (I hypothesize somewhere between pre-War opulence and wartime belt-tightening).

It’s a rendition that has stood the test of time, and like much classic animation, has come to define pieces of classical music in the minds of those who know it. Whether individually or as part of the underrated Make Mine Music it’s a short that is worth knowing whether you’re a Disney enthusiast or not.

 

 

March to Disney: From Snow White to Cinderella

This is a series of posts this month wherein I will focus on Disney films. For more on my background with Disney films and about the timing of this focus please read the introductory post here.

It’s interesting to note that Cinderella was released in 1950. If you count the hybrid films (Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart) and the package films (Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros) it was the 12th animated feature that Disney had released. In a way it was like the circle closing after having started with a princess tale and embedded Silly Symphonies, Disney’s name for their early musically-inclined shorts.

In both the case of Cinderella and Snow White the anthropomorphism of the animals manifests itself by their interaction and communication, non-verbal in the former and verbal in the latter, that the protagonist shares with them. What Snow White possesses is much of what would become staples of Disney fare such as the great heightened moments. The innovation of technique in Snow White to an extent masquerades the embedding of familiar, albeit more defenestrated, tropes of earlier shorts. If you compare the narrative movement of Snow White to the films that follow, the progenitor of the Disney films ends up feeling like a cozy, quaint dream that, aside from the inherent value of the story and its bolder moments, isn’t tremendously riveting on a purely narrative level.

Cinderella is not entirely dissimilar with its asides to the mouse subplots, but is differentiated by having more parallel action. The ball is introduced early on and the Stepmother is a terrifying, yet very real, and down-to-earth villainess. The witch’s transformation and magic mirror are bold, tremendous images that stand out more than does anything in Cinderella. Cinderella’s coach, and, of course, the iconic castle are the standout visuals there.

This isn’t really to knock either of the two films. Of course, I still enjoy them both. Between the films I think Cinderella may work better and definitely has a slightly more forward pre-feminist-movement Disney princess.

The experiments that Disney went on after Snow White and before Cinderella, were highly interesting and for the most part wildly successful. In 1940 there was both Pinocchio and Fantasia. In narrative terms on opposite ends of the spectrum, but both really push the frontiers of what they could do with visuals.

While the Silly Symphony aspect of these films stands out, the musicality of Dumbo is well-embeded. Not only that but in terms of narrative it can’t move fast enough, the tempo of the music pushes the pace of the edits and allows the story to flow perfectly. There are many beats, and much emotion wrenched out of just barely an hour in Dumbo, which makes it even more staggering.

Bambi created a world devoid of humans, allowed real fears and traumas to sneak in still managed to tell a charming uplifting story with very little dialogue and not a lot of fat either.

The last untouched upon films pre-1950 that are all-animated would be the aforementioned package films, which are a pastiche of shorts so it by definition they have a more storybook, anthology feel to them. The sensibility is overgrown, related shorts.

So between 1937 and 1950 Disney about ran the gamut of what could be done at the time, and with Cinderella seemed to be consciously setting down a milestone with a similar tale. As if to say, “Thirteen years ago we were there, now we’re here and moving upward and onward.”