When people talk about Disney movies, they’re usually referring to a pretty clearly defined golden age that ran between the release of Snow White in 1937 and Sleeping Beauty in ’59. The era of feature-length animated classics. There was the odd one produced here and there in the next three decdes – The Jungle Book, Robin Hood, my personal favourite The Fox and The Hound – but, generally, the period spanning the 60s right through to the 90s, when the studio underwent a renaissance kicking off with Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, is considered a fairly barren one for the studio.
Barren of enduring animated classics, perhaps, but the studio was never less than prodigious in its output. Although they continued to produce animated films, they seemed to opt to turn a faster buck in live action. Bizarrely, for such an iconic studio, very few of this vast catalogue of releases are considered anything even close to resembling a classic. The reason for this is, simply, that the quality threshold on these films was generally pretty low. Stories have emerged from filmmakers that there was a heavy executive hand at play in the post-production of these films and generally they emerged not representing anyone’s vision or best hope for what the finished product might have been. There are some interesting artifacts from this era – both Jodie Foster and Kurt Russell owe their film acting breaks to the studio at this time. Creepily, the last thing Walt Disney did before he dropped dead was write ‘KURT RUSSELL’ on a piece of paper. Nobody knows why he did that. There are even some oddly wonderful films – The Black Hole, a strangely boring yet fascinating sci-fi flick that seemed keen to cash in on the success but not the charm of Star Wars. Condorman, which managed to throw away both a great superhero concept and the undeniable appeal of Michael Crawford. There are some legitimately brilliant films – Tron was a Disney film, as was the fantastic, yet seldom remembered, The Rocketeer. Mainly, however, this era is characterised by saccharine sunshiney films of innocent youths in polyester getting up to hijinks in their summer holidays. Most of these films were pretty disposable and bear little regard (I’ve always been far more enchanted by the grittier, far less polished UK versions of such fare which were produced by the Children’s Film Foundation and are currently being archived on DVD by the BFI). There’s a few that are worth a look, though…
THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS (1980)
The Watcher in The Woods has a very special place in my heart as it was the very first horror film I ever saw. Yes, it’s a Disney horror film and, impressively, it manages to be creepy, haunting and even has a couple of great jumps, all under the auspices of a PG rating. Of course, horror was a different affair back then and this has all of those wonderful tropes you don’t see so much of now – creepy kids writing words backwards and being a bit possessed, big scary imposing buildings, suggestions of significant past events that nobody wants to talk about, windows breaking, visions of young blindfolded girls in mirrors, point-of-view shots from unseen entities gliding through the creepy forest. It still retains a pretty effective atmosphere. It stars Bette Davis as the creepy old woman who owns the house, deep in the British countryside that a predictably annoying American family have decided to rent for a summer. Quickly, the arrival of the daughters seems to whip up a flurry of unexplainable creepy occurrences. It transpires that, 30 years previously, during a strange initiation ceremony with her group of friends, Davis’ young daughter died in a fire in the chapel. No body was ever found. Oldest daughter Jen takes it upon herself to not only work out what actually happened that night but to see if things might be put right. The tension builds nicely and the young cast are supported by a fantastic bevy of seasoned older actors. The ending is anything but predictable and, bizarrely, it turns out that three completely different endings were actually shot for this film. The most conservative one is the one which made the cut but the alternatives are worth a squizz on sheer weirdness alone. I guess what most impresses me, to this day, is the notion that you can make an effective horror film with a PG rating. That real fear and menace doesn’t necessarily come from gore or images of torture or depravity.
The film was directed by John Hough, an established director from the Hammer stable who spent a career genre-hopping, notably he also directed the pulpy Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and the should-have-been-good lost 80s big screen Biggles misfire.
THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY (1963):
The Incredible Journey is a strange little film. There’s a fine tradition of animals being front and centre of kids films but it’s a rarity that they be real animals and there not be a human counterpart hogging their screentime. It does what it says on the tin insofar as telling a story of three housepets – a bull terrier, a labrador and a siamese cat – who, being looked after by a kindly bachelor, whilst their family are away (visiting Oxford, no less!), decide to set out for home. Home is 250 miles away across the wilderness of Northern Canada. The film is narrated, in that deep yet chipper Orson Welles kind of a way, throughout and the furry trio certainly cross paths with the occasional human being but this is very much their film. Despite being a scripted, narrative piece (based on a novel) it has the feel of those fantastic old nature documentaries that cropped up on TV as filler in the summer holidays. I have a minor obsession with a Canadian filmmaker called Bill Mason who produced a slew of them, most beautifully a narrative piece called Paddle To The Sea (you can watch that here: http://www.nfb.ca/film/paddle_to_the_sea/) – and this fits right into that genre. Part narrative but also, somehow, part documentary in that it documents a landscape, a time and animals doing what animals will do. I try not to dwell on how they achieved certain performances from their animal cast. The dogs, for the most part, seem to be having a riot, dancing through the wilderness. The cat, however, does seem to have drawn the short straw, spending a lot of the film in various scrapes including getting chased by a lynx (it’s ok, the lynx gets shot in the face by a heavily armed 7 year old boy), spending a long time in a dangerously fast flowing river (even the labrador looks traumatised by his time in there), having a fight with a massive brown bear and generally being asked to endure rainy and snowy conditions.
It’s a great film, it’s by no means a classic but it’s a lovely time capsule of a landscape and culture presumably erased and an era in kids films which was more about letting the kids explore the wonder of nature than having animated animals talking like surfer dudes. Disney did, in fact, remake the film in the early 90s and, of course, felt the need to give the animals voices this time round. As much as I love Michael J. Fox, Sally Field and the late great Don Ameche, I can’t see their voices bringing any more charm to the film than the original had in spades already.
There are some films that it amazes me people don’t discuss regularly. Popeye is one of them. On paper, it is perhaps the strangest cinematic venture ever to have emerged. As a character, I think Popeye has now been lost to the past. He is one of the classic cartoons which just hasn’t transferred to the current generation. He was still a big icon when I was a kid and they were still trying to modernise him up to the 90s when there was some terrible Popeye & Son cartoon on TV. This film was probably the last nail in the coffin, but what a way to go! It should be immediately established that this is not a good film, but it is a fascinating film and, I’d say, for several reasons, still very much worth seeing.
It was directed by Robert Altman. Altman, who died fairly recently, was generally considered an auteur and a guiding light in American cinema. MASH, Nashville, Pret-A-Porter, Short Cuts, The Player, Gosford Park, his films were ensemble pieces that seemed to examine the American condition. I would love to know what drew him to Popeye. Popeye was a bold big-budget comic book adaptation. It’s hard to target exactly why the film doesn’t work but my feeling is something to do with the central performances. It was well cast with Robin Williams in his first big-screen role, supported by Shelly Duvall, clearly grateful to be freshly released from the Overlook Hotel and a bunch of seasoned character actors. Yet, there’s something strange about the dialogue and delivery. Our hero mutters. He only mutters. Even when he takes centre stage and sings – for this is a musical – he kind of half-sings at half-volume. Because he only mutters and that muttering feels improvised, he never really feels like a main character. The same goes for Olive Oyl, she doesn’t mutter so much as fuss and coo but, again, it feels like she improvises this fussing and cooing rather than has any real dialogue. Every other part is the same. The dialogue actually all feels like it was dubbed on later, as if it were a foreign film but… muttered. The effect this all has is that it feels like you’re always watching what’s going on with the extras in the background and that the camera has somehow missed the actual main cast who are presumably having a wonderful romp somewhere just off-screen.
This means the notion of story evaporates fast and we’re left with a kind of exercise in tone, which is actually quite compelling. The set design on this film is magnificent. The whole port town of Sweethaven was constructed by the sea in Malta and it’s a sight to behold. It retains a heavy comic book aesthetic whilst resisting the urge to push into a garish palate. The stuntwork is exceptional, there’s an air of the Jackie Chan to this film where stuntmen have been given the chance to prove what they can do comically for once and offer some truly impressive physical schtick. And, again, it’s a musical. Bizarrely, the songs were written by heavy drinking ‘Everybody’s Talkin” legend Harry Nilsson. The music bears no resemblance to anything else in his entire body of work and… it’s not really all that good… but… it’s a live action Nilsson musical of Popeye directed by Robert Altman. Produced by Robert Evans, too! How is that not worth seeing?
Altman integrates many cartoony elements – especially in the action and dancing scenes, the characters are not bound by usual live action laws of physics. This element is interesting and almost works but has recently been eclipsed by the rather spiffing live action Asterix films coming out of France, which have used CGI in a very clever and sparing way to enhance the cartoony science of that world. Ultimately, this is not a great film, but like most of Disney’s live action offerings… it’s interesting. It’s worth a look.
SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (1983):
I guess in 1983, we were too tied up in Return of The Jedi, Octopussy and Superman 3 to notice what Disney had to offer us. Of all the live action Disney output, this is perhaps the most curious and almost certainly the most worthy of reappraisal. Adapted by Ray Bradbury from his own novel, this film tells a story of unrelenting darkness. Even though the main protagonists are two young boys, I struggle to see how this film could ever claim to be for kids. When I talk about unrelenting darkness, I mean darkness in all of it’s forms; evil, intensity, fear, crushing melancholy. From the uneasy opening through to the resolution, this film is almost oppresively bleak. It’s also beautiful. Truly beautiful. Lyrical, poetic and thoughtful.
Set in America’s Midwest right around the time of the depression, this is a Norman Rockwell world at Halloween. Autumn, pumpkin fields, lightening rod salesmen, amputee barmen, big bearded barbers, down at heel cigar store owners. A small town filled with people hiding behind their own smiles. Perhaps the only people with their eyes truly open in the town are young best friends Will & Jim. Excited by the midnight arrival of Mr Dark’s Panemonium Carnival, the boys stumble across something sinister in the fairground and watch helplessly as the town is subjected to a reign of supernatural brutality at the hands of Mr Dark.
If anything, this film evokes the brooding creepiness of Night of The Hunter, where a charismatic central antagonist pursues the young heroes relentlessly through the American heartland. It’s a strange, upsetting film with moments of genuine pathos and something strong to say on the subjects of fatherhood, regret and the power of libraries. It features outstanding performances from the bottom to the top. Jonathan Pryce is wide-eyed and menacing as the tattooed Mr Dark. Jason Robards proves his screen acting mettle. Pam Grier makes an impressive genre leap to portray the powerful and seductive witch. The character actor supporting class each get their moments to shine. James Horner’s score is worth the price alone. I can’t help wondering if this one soundtrack hasn’t provided Danny Elfman with a career’s worth of inspiration. I’m somewhat dumbstruck that Tim Burton has yet to remake it with Johnny Depp as Mr Dark.
It defies genre. This has all of the intensity of a horror film but no gore. All the adventure of a kids film but no optimism. The quality of this film is exceptional. It is smart, atmospheric, utterly beguiling.
Here’s the thing; so none of the films I’ve talked about here could be considered classic films but every single one of them is interesting. Every single one of them is, even on paper, a difficult proposition. They all, to some degree, defy genre, none of the could be considered formulaic or even tried-and-tested. None of them have big stars at the centre of them. They’re all from a major studio, though, and they’re all made for children. How long has it been since anything this interesting has been made for kids? Now, kids cinema is completely – completely – formulaic. Not just that, there is very very little made for them which not only steps outside the standard aesthetics but also which treats them with intelligence and respect and as capable of processing quirkier material. Wisdom dictates that it’s better to have tried and failed then never to try at all and Walt Disney Studios did just that for decades. Their live action commissioning may not have weathered the decades but it was bold, progressive, artistic and idiosyncratic and, as a body of work deserves higher regard than it has historically received.