The Reluctant Dragon

Walt Disney was on an upward projection as the success of Snow White allowed for his studio to relocate and become a haven for Walt. The idea was to make the best environment for all of his staff with living arrangements, entertainment, gymnasiums and anything that Walt found would be endearing to everyone. The problem is that the amazing facilities were not available to everyone, it was a faulty system based on hierarchy. Before Snow White, the studio offered bonuses to the staff when the animated shorts proved successful, but these bonuses went out the door to allow for the development of the new studio. Staff at the top were awarded wages as high as $200-$300 per week, while at the bottom staff were earning $12 per week. The staff at the top could get their meals provided for free throughout the day, while the rest had to pay absurd prices. It’s no surprise that after the successful unionization of other animated studios that Disney would be next.

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Disney was the best-animated studio to work for before every other studio became unionized, but times were changing. From within, employees started becoming disgruntled and went on strike. After five weeks Disney had to give in to them. Walt felt betrayed as he spent so long creating what he thought was an idealistic career path for his company that he thought he knew better. Even after things began to settle Walt would always remember that his people turned on him, and he would always carry that from then on and seek to slowly remove those that fought for it in the strike. Walt would go so far as saying that the strikers were communists and some of who would be blacklisted. During the strike Disney released The Reluctant Dragon, and the entire film is essentially an advert for the amazing way of life and work for the Disney studios. In the end, The Reluctant Dragon was slightly profitable, although it probably did more damage than good releasing it in the middle of the strike.

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The Reluctant Dragon starts with a husband and wife that come up with an idea that they think is a great idea for an animated feature after reading a book entitled The Reluctant Dragon. The movie then follows the husband as he travels to the Disney studios to pitch the idea. Along the way, he experiences nearly all manners of production to create animation at Disney. Between that, we get to see various animated shorts such as the animated work-in-progress “Baby Weems,” followed by a Goofy short, and finally “The Reluctant Dragon.” All the animated shorts are entirely mediocre, even for the time. It’s the live-action segments that become charming the longer you spend going through the Disney studios that make the film watchable.

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Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this feature. It was clearly made as a way to generate some income to keep the studio afloat after experiencing financial losses with Pinocchio and Fantasia. The Reluctant Dragon segment is the most boring segment of the entire thing. The live-action components seem to be the seed that generated plenty of straight to television live-action features, that Disney would produce after the second world war. This feature, however, would have worked much better as a prime time feature on television. It must have been a great disappointment for many going to see this at the cinema after seeing such wonderful productions in Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia.

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I don’t even know if hardcore Disney fans would enjoy this feature in its entirety. I recommend skipping it or checking it out on Disney Plus for a few minutes.

Previously Fantasia

Next Dumbo

Robert Ring

The Simpsons: Season 2

It’s fair for people to have been unaware of The Simpsons during its first season, however by its second the show was inescapable. There was merchandising, Butterfinger commercials, a music video, and The Simpsons even appeared at the Emmys that year. The show really had a sense of what it could do in the second season and the potential of what it already had. It didn’t seem like a cartoon anymore, it was now a sitcom that had more to say than any other sitcom on television. This was no longer a show with a core group of characters, what The Simpsons found was that they had a town full of core characters with plenty of stories to tell.

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Season 2 contains twenty-two episodes. Here are the highlights:

Bart Gets an F

I always love the spirt of Christmas episodes on sitcoms, they’re always about a lesson to be learned, and they are at the last moment with a wink of divine intervention. This episode is exactly that minus the Christmas setting. Bart is failing all his classes but doesn’t care until he is told he will need to repeat the school year and fall behind his fellow classmates. It’s an episode that we all relate to as school children. We see Bart actually trying to study and everything is trying to distract him from it. There’s a lot of emotion from Bart this episode that we don’t normally see that sets this one out from the rest in what becomes a rather moving episode.

Bart the Daredevil

If there’s an episode of The Simpsons I can recall being repeated on tv time and time again it’s this one. The Simpsons go to a monster truck rally where there are daredevils pulling wild stunts, which leads Bart on a quest to do the same. Bart keeps upping the danger to appeal to the growing fans he’s gathering, which eventually leads him to an impossible jump across a canyon. It’s at this point we see Bart and Homer’s relationship at its best as Homer is willing to do the jump in place of Bart so he won’t hurt himself. It’s an incredibly heartfelt moment followed by one of the funniest bits of the show to date as Homer misses the jump and tumbles down over and over again down the cliffside.

Itchy & Scratchy & Marge

This episode is striking for the fact that this episode is about Marge fighting for censorship against the violence in Itchy and Scratchy. The moral at the end of the episode is that it doesn’t really work because where do you stop and for her it was when people wanted to rally against the nudity shown on the statue of David. The hypocrisy of this episode comes in the form of next season’s episode Stark Raving Dad when a mental patient calls himself Michael Jackson and Michael Jackson did sing, but because of allegations against the man and having been thirty years since airing the episode has been pulled from broadcast. I’m for the original message of this episode and it’s a great episode that is relevant in today’s culture, but maybe the producers of the show should rewatch it too.

One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish

Homer decides to eat everything on the menu at a Sushi bar and unbeknownst to him, he orders a fatal fish that if prepared wrong could kill him. The doctor says he has a day left and we watch Homer deal with his mortality as he makes a checklist of everything he wants to resolve before he dies. It’s a terribly sweet episode that even today feels dire even with the knowledge that he won’t die.

Treehouse of Horror

Most children have probably first experienced the horror genre in the popular Treehouse of Horror segments. This is the first of what became an annual special that shows three spooky tales. At first, these specials are a little jarring because the characters become very different over the course of the episode. The very first segment, for example, has the Simpsons move into a haunted house that tries to get them to murder each other. And in the next segment they are abducted by aliens. This segment is particularly good as the aliens are showing hospitality to the Simpsons, who in turn think they are trying to fatten them up for eating. Finally, the episode ends with a segment recreating the famous Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.

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These five episodes are the standouts of season two for me, yet I could go on because Season 2 is jam-packed with so many other great episodes that you may have in here over my own selections. There are a ton of memorable moments like the naked portrait of Mr. Burns, Homer meeting his rich brother, the marriage counseling trip where Homer gives up the legendary fish for Marge, and so much more.

The Simpsons: Season 2 overall is fantastic.

Previously The Simpsons: Season 1

Next time The Simpsons: Season 3

Robert Ring

Fantasia (1940)

Disney made a smash hit with Snow White that gave them the funding to expand their studios and work output. While the profits of the first feature film went straight back into the business the budget of the next animated feature, Pinocchio was double that of Snow White. Sadly Pinocchio would only make back just over half of its budget. It’s clear by the sheer work that was going into these productions that Walt Disney was getting them as near to perfection as possible regardless of the money required. After Pinnochio was a financial failure at the time, it was but a blip on Disney as they had made one of the biggest films before that, and while Pinocchio was made at a loss, it was still a masterpiece. However, it was imperative for Disney to make money on the next animated feature because there were now higher stakes as the studio had moved to a bigger location and employed much more staff.

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Fantasia would have performed better on release if it could get into more theaters. Disney instead required the theaters to upgrade their sound systems to Stereophonic sound for Fantasia to run in them. Basically, it brought sound into modern times, and sound was only rather new in theaters back then. This sounds similar to when James Cameron basically did the same for 3D when Avatar came out and most theaters had a refurbish in at least one cinema to allow for audiences to have a slightly more immersive experience. That’s all Walt wanted, he wanted his films to be seen in the best possible way they could be. For Fantasia, it was to recreate the opera experience in an animated spectacle. Fantasia would also lose money at the time although it did play in select theaters nearly all year round. Between Fantasia and Dumbo, there would be a union strike from inside Disney that could have ended the company completely and would change Walt forever forward.

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To describe Fantasia, for the most part, is to describe a poem. Without knowing the context we draw our own emotions however close or far from the meaning they may be. Overall, what we get is the feeling of a mood. Fantasia has a fascinating opening. Deems Taylor, our narrator, walks forward and gives us a formal introduction to the different types of imagery we are about to watch. That could be music that follows a narrative, or just imagery that comes to the mind like a fever dream without a sense of direction. From here we are given some beautiful images of the orchestra being silhouetted against interchanging colored backgrounds. The music and imagery seamlessly transition to animation and we are carried along without question. There are eight segments that are self-contained and follow along to a piece of music. The most notable is before the midway mark is The Sorceror’s Apprentice, the one where Mickey wears the big sorcerer’s hat and animates a broom to do his chore. It’s still a splendid segment. It was originally the inspiration for Fantasia in the first place as it was created as a Silly Symphony, but came to cost way too much to be profitable in the short format. Now it’s the centerpiece of Fantasia, and the thing that I would say propelled Mickey into the icon he is today.

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Other than The Sorceror’s Apprentice we are treated to amazing visuals that take us to the heavens and to hell, and to the beginning of time itself. A Night on Bald Mountain is rather chilling and would have come across as terrifying on initial release as we watch this massive gargoyle take havoc over a small township. Or seeing dinosaurs brought to life for what must have been the first time on the big screen in the Rite of Spring. The parts of Fantasia that may seem abstract still keep you entertained. With a lengthy two hour duration, you may start to wiggle around in your seat just because it can be draining to move from narrative to narrative every ten minutes or so.

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Fantasia is a hard sell, and I might’ve rathered that we just jumped in without any introduction or understanding of what was to come. It would feel more like a piece of German expressionism then. All those films are still just as stylistic and memorable even after a hundred years. Walt Disney was putting a lot on the line so it must be assumed he didn’t want to alienate anyone what is, for the most part, an expensive experimental film. It’s hard to see how Snow White would have been a risk today, but Fantasia definitely still is, and Walt had plans for a sequel he wanted to start working on soon after. Walt may not have gotten his sequel in his lifetime but nearly sixty years later we would get Fantasia 2000

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Fantasia is not for all. It’s a film that might be more moving watching by yourself on a Sunday afternoon. I liked it and respect it a lot. I know I’ll get something different out of it when I watch it five years from now or twenty.

Previously Pinocchio

Next time The Reluctant Dragon

Robert Ring

The Simpsons: Season 1

Remember when The Simpsons first aired and it was considered controversial television. Well, time’s have changed, so let’s jump in that time machine and pull back the curtain on the show that changed pop culture for the better.

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You wouldn’t know it, but The Simpsons started off as a series of short skits that played on The Tracy Ullman Show. The creator Matt Groening was at the time primarily known for his comic series Life in Hell. Life in Hell was more mature than The Simpsons and primarily followed a rabbit staring down the absurdities of life. The comic already contained a lot of the DNA that would come to be found in The Simpsons including the art style. They’re worth a read if you enjoy comics like Dilbert. After The Tracy Ulman Show, Fox ordered a season of the show and thus turning those little skits into one of the finest sitcoms ever made.   

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Season 1 contains thirteen episodes. Here are the highlights:

Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire

From the very beginning, the first episode is a representation of the best The Simpsons has to offer. That’s heart and humor. The episode is similar to Christmas Vacation. We see that Homer doesn’t receive his Christmas bonus at work and has to take on a night job as a store Santa so his family can celebrate Christmas. Even with all Homer’s hard work things don’t go as planned. By the end we see Homer may not be the smartest man or the richest but he is the man we admire for trying.

Homer’s Odyssey

Already by episode three, you can tell this is definitely not a children’s show. Why? Well, Homer writes a suicide letter and sets himself in motion to kill himself after losing his job and believing himself to be a failure. Homer changes his mind when his family come out to stop him and are almost killed from a speeding car through a busy intersection. This arc ends with Homer becoming the safety officer of the Nuclear Plant.

Life on the Fast Lane

This is the first episode we see Marge and Homer’s marriage on the rocks, and Marge actually gets close to leaving Homer. There’s a lot of subtlety between Homer and Marge when she’s out every night “bowling” in the acting. When animation typically can become outrageous this episode relies a lot on human emotion… err Simpson emotion. Homer not being able to come straight out and say how much Marge means to him decides to say it in an offhand way by explaining how much the sandwiches Marge makes every day are like no other, essentially saying she’s perfect.

These three episodes are the standouts of season one for me and really go to show why this show became the enduring hit it still stands to be.

Next time The Simpsons: Season 2

Robert Ring

Pinocchio (1940)

After the astounding success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney had the capital to make whatever they wanted, or so they thought. With a budget that almost doubled Snow White, Pinocchio didn’t make nearly as much money at the box-office as its predecessor. It didn’t even earn enough to cover the budget of the production. This was not really the fault of Disney, but things were changing in 1940 as the second world war was incoming. This was only the beginning of Disney’s financial woes as the next animated feature Fantasia later that year would make for an even bigger loss.

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The Adventures of Pinocchio was written in 1881 by Carlo Collodi. It was originally published in parts for a children’s magazine before being sold as a book a couple of years later. Many great works of literature were published in a similar fashion like Great Expectations by Charles Dickens was first printed in chapters before being bound into a complete book. Like Snow White, the source material was much darker than the route Walt Disney went down, even with the terrifying transformation. The story was full of moral lessons that are thrust upon Pinocchio, being a naughty boy trying to fulfill good deeds so he can become a real boy. These adventures feed into Disney’s Pinocchio because you can essentially break apart the film into separate sequences.

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Disney’s Pinocchio begins with Jiminy Cricket playing narrator to the story of Pinocchio. Jiminy recounts how he wandered into the comfortable home owned by Geppetto. Geppetto is adding the final touches to the marionette, Pinocchio. As Geppetto lays in bed he sees a star shining bright and wishes that Pinocchio was real. Shortly after the Blue Fairy arrives and makes Pinocchio come to life, she explains that he can become a real boy if he proves to be courageous and good. The Blue Fairy appoints Jiminy Cricket as the conscience to Pinocchio. Up until this point, we have stayed in one scene for the first twenty-seven minutes. That’s a third of the movie, yet it gets us to be emotionally connected to Geppetto as his journey becomes important later on. The next scene is the following morning and already we are seeing that Pinocchio is led astray by Honest John. Honest John is a con man that convinces Pinocchio to skip school and join a traveling circus. The audience loves Pinocchio so the show owner Stromboli decides to kidnap him when he tries returning home to his father, Geppetto. The Blue Fairy comes to the aid of Pinocchio, but when he finally returns home he finds that Gepetto has gone in search of him. Again, Pinocchio has been led astray while searching for Geppetto, however this time he ends up on Pleasure Island. Pleasure Island is a place that instills fear in kids because it’s a place without rules and overindulgence, so there has to be a catch. The catch comes in one of the most terrifying scenes from a Disney film as we see the children turn into donkeys. The scene is Hitchcockian in its execution. Pinocchio escapes Pleasure Island and now heads for Monstro the whale, where he has heard Geppetto was in the belly of. In a scene that outdoes anything from Snow White, we see Pinocchio rescue Geppetto from the angered and charging Monstro. The story ends with Pinocchio having overcome so many personal obstacles that the Blue Fairy makes him a real boy and he lives happily ever after with Geppetto.

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There’s a lot to love in Pinocchio from the many memorable characters to the magnificent animation. In Geppetto’s house, we get to know his cat, Figaro. Personally, I think Figaro is my favorite character in the film, he’s cute and clumsy. Even Honest John is a great villain, particularly so as a fox because I just don’t think they were particularly great at drawing humans. Geppetto is the exception due to the voice actor being the inspiration for the character himself too. You may be surprised to find that on Pleasure Island Pinocchio takes to drinking and smoking. I like that Walt was able to really drum up the darkness of this place with such adult mannerisms. There is no way we would ever find this in a current Disney film, especially since there will never be any smoking seen in a Disney film again. The film as a whole has a Don Bluth feel to it, so I can only imagine he was greatly inspired by these early Disney films. Finally, the most lasting thing about the movie is the theme song When You Wish Upon a Star, which subsequently became the theme song for Disney’s company. The song is timeless and probably in the top ten film songs since the inception of film itself.

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Watching Pinocchio I couldn’t help wonder about a sequel where we got to uncover more about the mystery of Pleasure Island, and I would have liked a sequel where he returned to save the other boys. And maybe that was part of the planned sequel they were toying with in the 2000s. They’ve since moved on and are developing a live-action Pinocchio. There’s no shortage of Pinocchio films as Guillermo del Toro is directing one set for 2021. There is even a Pinocchio coming out this year starring Roberto Benigni as Geppetto, which is interesting because he himself directed a live-action Pinocchio in 2002 with himself playing Pinocchio.

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Overall, I like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs more as it resonates in the simplicity of the story much like The Wizard of Oz. Pinocchio is still a masterpiece that grows more timeless with age.

Previously Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Next time Fantasia

Robert Ring

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

In 1937 audiences flocked to the theatres to see the first-ever feature-length animation. What was at first famously reported as “Disney’s Folly”, turned out to be the beginning of the Disney empire we know today. Walt Disney was already a known name before he started making this celebrated feature film. He first became a prominent figure in Hollywood for making short films that would play before features. These would include some of the first shorts to include Mickey Mouse in things like Steamboat Willie. The success of the animated shorts led Walt to expand his business and employ hundreds of people. As cinema was in its infancy Walt Disney saw an opportunity to take what his company had learned from making animated shorts and move into a long-form narrative that could match the quality of live-action films. More than eighty years later Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is very much still a part of pop culture.

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs starts with the literal opening of the fairytale book as we watch this live-action scene bring us into the animated tale. We are taken into this harmonious world where Snow White is cheery to her life even as a princess dressed as a maiden in rags. She conducts the chores of the castle seemingly set by the Queen, her evil stepmother. The first song comes minutes into the film as the Prince stumbles upon Snow White singing, and what a song it is. The song I’m Wishing/One Song is such a great love song that you would have been satisfied with the two having their happily ever after then and there, but then there would be no adventure. After the Queen spies the two lovebirds she asks the mirror, “who is the fairest of them all?” to find out it is, in fact, Snow White. Considering that the queen would ask this often I’m led to wonder if it the change in fairest happened when Snow White found her true love or if it was the Queen’s jealousy in Snow White’s happiness. Regardless, the Queen sends the Huntsman to kill Snow White, which really kills the mood for the young princess, doesn’t it? The Huntsman finds it in himself not to kill Snow White and he instead banishes her, so she flees into the forest. The forest scene is probably the most striking scene to me, it’s terrifying as a kid. The forest begins to personify into abstract faces and shows how the young mind can exaggerate their fears of the unknown into physical manifestations. Through it, she finds that there was nothing to fear from the forest after all, but cute little critters. Next Snow White comes upon the home of the seven dwarfs. Those little men are in for a shock when they come home to discover the place has been cleaned. Each little men named after the trait they embody open their home and their hearts to Snow White. For the most part, the dwarfs have more personality and character than Snow White. It’s with them that we grow attached to emotionally, so when the Queen poisons Snow White with the apple, we also cry with the dwarfs at Snow White’s grave.

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So how does Snow White stack up to the source material? Well, Snow White was written by The Brothers Grimm as one of their many collected stories in 1812. The Brothers Grimm updated their stories over time as they became popular with children, so the evil Queen was originally Snow White’s biological mother and thus changed to an evil stepmother. If the story stayed with the original intentions it wouldn’t have resonated for generations. Walt Disney follows the narrative similarly, but it’s rather short so he extrapolates on it by realizing the characters, adding musical numbers and embellishing in the look of the world. The Grimm story was much darker in tone as the Queen ate what she thought was Snow White’s liver and lungs. The Queen also visited Snow White multiple times to kill her; first time in disguise she stitched Snow White up tight in a lace dress so she couldn’t breathe, next the Queen made a poisoned comb that administered itself into Snow White as it was combed through her hair, finally after two unsuccessful attempts the Queen gave her a poisoned apple. Snow White was thought to be dead and her body was placed in a glass coffin. Later a prince finds her and pleas to take the coffin because he must always lay eyes upon her. As the prince’s servants carried the coffin one trips and the poisoned apple lodged in Snow White’s throat becomes unlodged and she awakens. The tale turns incredibly dark in the end as the Queen is invited to Snow White’s wedding and is forced into iron shoes that were pulled off burning coals. She must dance in them until she finally dies. If you compare the source material to Disney’s feature you can see where Walt has turned a harrowing tale into a family film and continues to steer in that direction with each subsequent feature film.

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has stood the test of time for a few reasons. Aesthetically, it has a very European style, especially in the backgrounds that draw audiences into this world of fantasy. There is also Snow White’s animation, which has a softness to the colors overall. This helps invoke the joyfulness in the atmospheres involving Snow White and the dwarfs. It also juxtaposes perfectly with the darkness when we’re with the Queen and in the forest. The songs are all memorable from I’m Wishing/One Song, Whistle While You Work, and Heigh Ho. Every character is endearing, with each dwarf full of individual personality. So there really isn’t one thing that makes the movie memorable. It’s an accomplishment to Walt Disney that his first film stands against any Disney film ever since, and there have been some great ones.

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Next time Pinocchio.

Robert Ring