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.

 

 

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March to Disney: The Jungle Book – Beyond the Bare Necessities

Introduction

Last year to coincide with a trip to Walt Disney World in March, I decided to have a month-long focus on Disney fare. Their vaults are vast and varied enough such that this is a theme that could recur annually. Below you will find links to the inaugural posts written for the theme.

The Jungle Book: Beyond the Bare Necessities

The Jungle Book (1967, Disney)

I won’t speak for others in this regard, but I know to me, even though I’ve seen this movie a number of times; I typically struggle to put my finger on other scenes in The Jungle Book beside “The Bare Necessities” without racking my brain. I found that this happened with some of the late-’60s and ’70s titles and this is not because I don’t find them up to snuff with other Disney animated fare. I think what it is, as I noted after having also re-watching The Sword in the Stone (which I will cover here shortly), is that there’s a more sketch-like approach to the storytelling.

Previously on film the Korda brothers with Sabu in the lead brought this tale to life. However, with Disney’s penchant for anthropomorphism it was clear this was a candidate for a new treatment for a new generation. This title is yet another, of many, that is cited as being Disney’s last. I’ve heard this so many times I don’t even know which one is true anymore.

The voice cast features many legends from the Disney stable who made their presence known in other Disney films, many in the Winnie the Pooh shorts/feature: Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Bruce Reitherman and Sterling Holloway.

In some ways the standout nature of the music in this film is an example of the double-edged sword that is the incredible talent of the Sherman Brothers. I always hum the songs and then have to remind myself of the voice talent that was assembled for this film.

The Jungle Book (1967, Disney)

The talent in general all around is there for at this point Disney animated features were a well-oiled machine with Wolfgang Reitherman at the helm directing.

What struck me upon this viewing of the film was that there is a certain subtlety to the approach of this story. There is an ongoing antagonist, Shere Khan, in this tale, he’s not omnipresent, but much like the Gmork in The Neverending Story many years later; he’s always lurking about. He’s less present here than in the live action. However, the thrust of this tale being can Mowgli continue to survive in the jungle as we slowly try to convince him to go to the man village, it is still important as Mowgli must learn man-like ways to adapt and survive. As sparse as Khan’s appearances are, he still nearly takes out a deer and immediately draws a dangerous parallel to Bambi heightening his fear factor.

Another subtle touch is the way in which the passage of time is indicated from when Mowgli is a baby to the present day: “10 times the rains had come and gone,” indicative of years seeing as how the rains refer to monsoon season. Lastly, there’s an underlying indicator (at least to a younger viewer) of the coming-of-age struggle in this tale when Baloo responds to Bagheera’s assertion that he to to the man village: “The man village. That’s awful, they’ll make a man out of him.”

The tale is narrated by Bagheera, a panther, the one who puts Mowgli with wolves in the first place. In terms of segments there’s Bagheera’s finding him, his being raised by wolves, and then his time with Baloo being the third segment.

The Jungle Book (1967, Disney)

There are also in these segmented tales difficulty in recalling that there is an ulterior motive in long song sequences. For example, King Louis is after something in “I Wan’na Be Like You’ it just takes a bulk of that song for it to come to the fore.

Brisker storytelling is found when the elephants are introduced by their marching song. Another Pooh alumni is found here as Clint Howard voices the young elephant and he was the first voice of Roo.

An interesting aspect of this film, and one that likely captures the imagination of the young to this very day, is here you have a boy who gets to roam the jungle and live with and be like animals; he tries to become them. It’s a whimsical tale that falls short of the horror of children becoming animals in Pinocchio.

One of the better elements of the film is that Baloo’s sense of responsibility in getting Mowgli to the safety of his own kind comes just as Mowgli learns he wants to be with Baloo. It’s a perfect midpoint. Mowgli has his own understanding of his belonging, Baloo’s eyes have opened and he has another entirely.

The Jungle Book (1967, Disney)

Another thing that really does work, and lends itself to a feeling of “looseness” about the structure of this film is that characters are often introduced as silly or caricatures, but end up serving a vital purpose. Mowgli is missing which brings the elephants back to search for him. The vultures who seem like nothing more than the Disney writers and animators riffing on The Beatles, and maybe a reactionary attempt to create non-controversial comic relief birds (see Dumbo) also factor into the finale.

Furthermore, I was reminded that a musical moment in this film provides one of its better jolts as Khan jumps in at the end of a song and gets the ball rolling on the climactic events of the story.

Perhaps this one of the things my subconscious decides to block out, but there is one of the more effective near deaths in the Disney canon. That and the dialogue-free execution of Mowgli’s decision is some of the finest animation and direction that they did. Everything is apparent, but nothing is painfully obvious. It’s sensitively and beautifully rendered and it’s something I recalled as soon as the film started. As many times as I’ve seen it it still gives me chills. It’s wonderful.

So, yes, the structure is a bit episodic and the songs are infectiously memorable. However, that ought not obscure some of the truly gorgeous and wonderful things that occur in this movie.

The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, 1944: Carmen Miranda, The Three Caballeros and the Good Neighbor Policy

Introduction and Approach

With the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon it was always my feeling that there was, and is, only so much of any given time period that one can truly discuss given the confines of a blog post. Truly if you’re looking at an artform such as film one that was so fruitful at this time, and already a global enterprise, then it becomes doubly impossible to accurately encompass the landscape at the time.

Therefore, I felt that the best way to tackle this year was to find an entry point. An entry that would allow me to discuss the topic I chose to focus on through the guise of one film. The Good Neighbor Policy, due to my being a dual citizen of the United States and Brazil, was always a topic that fascinated me. Therefore, I found my “in” in 1944’s (due to its premiere date in Mexico) The Three Caballeros.

Ideally, I would’ve loved to have taken in more retrospective viewings of various artists leading up to this post. As fate would have it, this blogathon fell around a time where the blog was very busy and my viewings are slight. Therefore, I hope it will inspire future viewings. In the meantime, however, there are insights one can glean from this title, and some things I do know to be true about how a pacifist, isolationist policy of non-interference did open up Hollywood to new names, voices and cultures.

Political Background

FDR Inauguration 1933

The film that is the centerpiece of this article is one that comes towards the end of The Good Neighbor Policy’s era. An era commonly defined as ending in 1945 with the threat of the Cold War looming following the end of the World War.

The policy was intimated at Roosevelt’s inaugural address in 1933:

“In the field of World policy, I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor, the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others, the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a World of neighbors.”

This policy was later formalized as any number of occupations and treaties were altered to reflect said intention, and later the formation of the Office of the Coordinator Inter-American Affairs (CIAA) in August of 1940 and appointed Nelson Rockefeller to head the organization. The Great Depression’s necessities aside, it was a policy a long time coming, whereas two such examples of US involvement in Brazil were attempts to free the Amazon waterways for trade and siding with Bolivia with politically, and with additional kinds of support if necessary, in a dispute over a piece of land that now forms the state of Acre.

The Policy’s Impact on Hollywood

carmen1702

It was the CIAA that pushed the Good Neighbor Policy into the entertainment field. Walt Disney Studios and 20th Century Fox participated; RKO can be said to (though Welles never finished his documentary, and his being sent to Brazil has been generally cited as an excuse to wrest control of the edit of The Magnificent Ambersons away from him).

The question of how much influence entertainment has is always something open to debate, however, there’s no question that when seeking to improve an image in the American consciousness the World’s Fair of 1939 was one step, but the motion picture would reach many more hearts and minds.

With regards to Carmen Miranda, who representing Brazil, rose to stardom earlier than Disney could get their efforts to the screen; it illustrates the double-edged sword of a nation being brought out of its shell and into the consciousness of another for the first time.

Miranda received lavish praise and early stardom here in the US and eventual backlash in Brazil that was ultimately rescinded, just prior to, and upon her untimely passing. Essentially, the difficulty, and the issue is, that no one person is a monolith. She is not a monolith, she is not “The Brazilian bombshell,” but a Brazilian; one Brazilian. While the studio system of the 1940s was the perfect time to bring about some stars generated from these policies due to the amount of films generated and the star-specific packaging many titles employed, it was also a time sure illustrate some issues in the way global figures were handled in pre-globalized world.

Now I grant that I’ve seen footage of Miranda but not the films, but I know her playing an Argentine in Down Argentine Way is a stretch, so I take some of the same issues with that concept as they did.

Essentially, I view Miranda as a unique personality and persona that seemed to have been shoehorned into almost anything Latin in her time at Fox. The failure of Fox is a lack of specificity, which is where Disney excels in their treatment of Brazilian subject matter.

1944

SaludosAmigosLC

The road to the creation of The Three Caballeros really begins with the release of Saludos Amigos two years prior. Where the Three Caballeros stands out is adding another new character to the mix and expanding the what we knew of one character. And it is worth noting that being ahead of the curve by about 70 years these films premiered in Brazil and in Mexico, as mentioned above, respectively a few months ahead of hitting US theaters.

Saludos Amigos features four segments (Lake Titicaca, Pedro, El Gaucho Goofy and Aquarela do Brasil) the first features Donald in classic form struggling on a journey through the mountains; the second an anthropomorphized airplane on an adventure through Chile; thirdly, as one might expect from the title, it’s Goofy flubbing through the ways of the South American cowboy; then via the newly-introduced José Carioca, or Zé Carioca as he is known colloquially, Donald is given a musical medley, metamorphosing watercolor tour of Brazil.

The Three Caballeros

ThreeCaballerosTheLC3

The Three Caballeros is similarly constructed in a composite style. However, as opposed to Saludos Amigos it gets into full-blown feature film range (71 minutes) as opposed to Saludos Amigos‘ technically-feature-film-but-really-a-short film range (42 min).

This film puts Donald Duck front and center as opposed to just having a segment. Donald not only makes it a humorous film, but is also perhaps the most representatively American character to go on a South/Latin American tour. Not only that but the precedent of bird characters had already been set with José Carioca being introduced last time, and Panchito Pistoles joining the trio this time.

The framing mechanism in this film is birthday presents to Donald. The great thing is that the first segment is going to Bahia, a part of Brazil it turns out Zé only knows by reputation, which is a move I appreciate because it tips its hat to how big and regional a country Brazil is.

Snapshot 2014-01-14 13-50-34

Next there is The Cold-Blooded Penguin segment which is a great way to incorporate going all the way up the Pacific coast of South America. There is a quick interstitial with some rare bird species introduced that it also used to transition, and there’s also a hilarious tongue-in-cheek reference to Professor Holloway voiced by Sterling Holloway.

Whereas the last film there was an Argentine gaucho tale here there is a Uruguayan gaucho one with tale of the flying donkey, The Flying Gauchito. While being influenced by the Good Neighbor Policy and at time didactic by nature there is also a good bit of naturalness where things are sometimes just said and not instantly translated, or translated at all, and just left to incite further curiosity.

With the tour of Bahia there is beautiful scenery, which I’d like to see restored. Implementation of live-action and animation co-exisiting. It also allows the music to speak for itself. Music which for this film, in Portuguese, was written by the famous Brazilian sambista Ary Barroso.

Snapshot 2014-01-14 13-53-28

So in his two-film stint Zé Carioca gets a decent tour of Brazil in. Owing to the fact that Mexico is our neighbor to the south, and that this is Panchito’s lone appearance, I understand how and why Mexico gets a much more thorough tour. It starts with the introduction of the history of the piñata and a Mexican Christmas custom of Posada; continuing with the Story of flag/Mexico City; there’s a song accompanied by montage; a Favorite dance illustrated, a trip to Veracruz for the Lilingo; Acapulco beach; the second live action/animated sequence: “You Belong to My Heart” that leads into a long very Disney, with Berkeley allusions; a metamorphosing montage concluding in literal fireworks, and a trilingual “The End.”

Aftermath

Snapshot 2014-01-14 13-59-50

Zé Carioca still survives, and, in fact, thrives in comics in Brazil. Being an originally by Disney he’s a obviously canonical, but is a testament to the power that the Disney characters have in that medium. In fact, in the Brazilian comics his own universe has expanded to include many supporting characters and cousins that represent different parts of the country. Aside from that he has resurfaced in American comics in stories by Don Rosa; on television, in Mickey Mouse Works and House of Mouse and in film as one of the many cameos in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In the Disney Parks, the addition The Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros reintroduces them to many.

Panchito Pistoles, aside from being a mascot on some Mexican WWII aircraft, he has not had much life outside American-made Disney products.

Funnily enough, while there were mixed feelings about Brazil’s first breakthrough thanks to the Good Neighbor Policy, the cartoon no less, that has had a bit of staying power and seems to have offered a less controversial representation. It’s well documented, even in a documentary that I’ve not yet seen, but want to; that Disney and/or his team spent a bit of time in Latin America therefore they got a good sense of the culture and at least on parts I can attest to didn’t go off half-cocked. and created some lasting, lovely tributes to a people and a culture that have stood the test of time.

Conclusion

Kiss of the Spider-Woman (1985, HB Filmes)

It’s pretty interesting to have happened upon this topic now. I recently discussed both the breakthroughs and the lamentations I had about the globalization of casting. My impetus was another, but the discussion of current Brazilian actors and the roles they are afforded in American films for global consumption is oddly not that different that this one.

A progressive governmental impetus was a great breakthrough for Latin culture in the American cinema. Not to be overly-reductive, but it’s sad the Cold War retarded whatever progress could’ve been built off that momentum for a number of years, and when you consider that McCarthyism would soon be in play and careers and lives would be ruined it’s not too far from accurate. As best as I can figure there would not be another Brazilian-born actress breaking through into American films in any significant way until the mid-eighties [Marília Pêra in Mixed Blood (1984) and Sonia Braga in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)].

However, I do have hopes regarding the ever-digitizing and -shrinking world that both the long-overlooked past will not be ignored and that mistakes of the past will be righted in the future. There’s a hilarious Carmen Miranda gag on Family Guy where Carter says: “Am I a singer or a dancer? No one knows, they just remember the fruit.” Which is the sad truth with regards to the past. As for the future, the bottom line is that when you go outside what’s known there are new and interesting stories to be told. The Three Caballeros is testament to that, which is 70 years old. Maybe one day we’ll learn from that.

Review- Winnie the Pooh

Winnie the Pooh (Disney)

Winnie the Pooh is one of those characters and series of stories that I cannot write about without giving you a bit of personal information to help put things in perspective for the reader this way you, the reader, can understand where I’m coming from and you can then gauge what your reaction will likely be. I’ve loved this character and the world he inhabits since I was very young. However, as I grew older, more knowledgeable and perhaps a bit more cynical I cast a leery eye on the modern renditions of Winnie that Disney was creating. However, I recently gave one a chance and while it wasn’t great it was much better than I expected. So I came into the film open-minded and cautiously optimistic.

Immediately, I fell in love with this film because they brought back the live action introduction wherein we see Christopher Robin’s room. It sets the tone for the rest of the film where a new story was being unfurled in a very traditional manner but to a new generation. From there on in all the choices are a very delicate balance between trying to recapture some of the old magic and also advance the narrative in some new directions.

One very clear way in which this was done is in the brilliant job that was done in casting this film. Firstly, you have Jim Cummings not only doing double duty as both Tigger and Pooh but his Pooh is eerily similar to Sterling Holloway’s original version. What’s more stunning is Craig Ferguson’s performance as Owl because I literally had no idea who played Owl but he’s fabulous. The last and most important cog in any of these films is the narrator. John Cleese, of course, does wonderfully and the Narrator is very involved in this tale.

Which brings to mind an interesting point about this film is that the book and the text within that act as interstitials between the occasional scene gets very involved in the telling of the tale. This I’m sure must be fun for kids but it’s a great treat for the parents and adults as it’s a joke that works on a couple of levels.

What’s most refreshing about the film is not even that it manages to be very funny but that most of it stems from a series of misunderstandings. The timing is crisp and the jokes do have variety some are cutesy but some are also rather smart. What’s also fantastic is that the morals of the story fold themselves in very naturally and aren’t overly-apparent when they’re happening and also not overly on the head when told to Pooh at the end.

It also manages to be a genuinely touching and heart-warming film without needing to be cloying or schmaltzy. The characters to those familiar to us are well-established but for those new to them they are quickly and clearly re-established as is their relationship to one another and their search for the “creature” they believe has Christopher Robin and for Eeyore’s tail reflects all that’s great about each of them and it jumps off the screen.

There are used in the film many different techniques that make the film feel more modern such as the chalky animation to describe the mythical “Backson” during the musical number that accompanies it and the fantasy sequences as Pooh through most of the film cannot sate his hunger for honey.

In summation I would not hesitate to call Winnie the Pooh a great film. In little more than an hour you had two searches and two other characters had their own subplots, the songs are all good and well sung and there’s a great bit of comedy and philosophy as per usual. As a post-script I’m saddened that those who were not inclined to see Harry Potter were likely averse to going to the movies that weekend and thus you get the returns for Winnie the Pooh were less than stellar. With that in mind I urge you, if it’s no longer playing at a theatre near you, to see this film on home video please. You won’t regret it.

10/10