Archive for May 13, 2022

On the Trail of the Loathsome Lupine

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on May 13, 2022 by dcairns

Since we’re all so full of affection for Mother Russia right now —

No, what happened is, I sourced some Disney movies in a charity shop — the original FREAKY FRIDAY, and forties compendia THE THREE CABALLEROS, MELODY TIME and MAKE MINE MUSIC, and remembered that as a kid I had always wanted to see certain cartoons I saw pics of in various Disney-affliliated books and comics — the adventures of José Carioca, that tropical troubador who seemed to flourish, bright-feathered for a time, then vanish mysteriously like the Judge Crater of cel animation; and PETER AND THE WOLF, which looked like fun.

I have since then been able to feast my eyes upon the perky parrot’s perigrinations, but had never actually experienced PETER AND THE WOLF, an episode of MAKE MINE MUSIC, in its entirety. This was my opportunity.

MMM is like a (more) middlebrow FANTASIA, with acts such as Nelson Eddy, Dinah Shore and the Benny Goodman Quartet accompanying modestly amusing skits or stories or abstract imagery. Prokofiev’s Peter suite, having a narrator and a narrative, was a natural fit for the programme, except that watching it I could help sense that some liberties had been taken with the text.

Perusing a plot synopsis, I see that they’re not very efficient liberties. But all curiously redolent of the times (1946 release date).

It would I suppose be possible to de-Russianise this story, and Disney have gone some way in this direction by hiring Sterling Holloway to narrate (which he does wittily), crediting one “Serge Prokofiev”, and omitting any reference to Peter being a soviet pioneer. But the names and smocks remain recognizably Russian and a few of the loose-limbed extras in the final celebration have surely been hitting what can only have been vodka. The film appearing in ’46 means they were working on it in wartime and apparently Disney’s government contacts didn’t tell him cold war was scheduled to start as soon as the hot one was extinguished. So, the Russians, like cigar-smoking Brazilian parrots, are our friends.

Prokofiev’s Peter is in lockdown, enforced by his grandfather the bassoon, when he sees animal friends the cat and bird besieged in a tree by the wolf. Disney’s Peter is more proactive, like Poochy, and sneaks from the house to HUNT the wolf — but with a pop gun. This may be proactive but it is also stupid. The drawing style makes Peter a very American-looking kid, whose name ought to be Butch, with maybe Bobby Driscoll or Tommy Rettig playing him.

I have mixed emotions about the rewrite. Wherever I saw images or clips of P&TW (Disney Time or The Wonderful World of Disney must have shown excerpts at some point), it was the hunt that was shown, the characters in lock-step creepalong in the atmospheric wintry wood (I have only once walked in a snowy wood — I can highly recommend the experience). So this part of the film I loved, it lived up to childhood expectations, but the adult brain was undermining it, asking WTF is Peter going to do when he finds the walluff or it finds him? Cork it?

The duck is my favourite, although the cat is also tops. The animators had to create a duck character distinct from Donald, and they do it inventively, concentrating on the WALK rather than the bodily proportions. Sonya (odd name for a duck, somehow) uses his webbed feet practically as wheels, rotating them 360 with every step. He’s also a lurid chlorophyll green unknown to ornithology. The dark, metallic green of a mallard being too tricky for the paint & trace dept, or for most illustrators.

In both Sergei and Walt’s versions of the story, the duck is an apparent fatality, but with differences. Dinsey pull a mercy shot, revealing Sonya alive and uneaten at story’s end, but this is mistimed I think, undercutting Peter’s triumph and also making him seem a bit callous. But the original ending is way weirder: the duck, swallowed whole, can still be heard, a quacking oboe, in the wolf’s innards. That would have freaked me out.

The wolf in Prokofiev survives the tale: Peter’s intention all along was to catch him for the zoo. Despite his anthropomorphism, Disney seems unmoved by ecological concerns here and the wolf is hoisted into town, tongue lolling, alive or dead? Well, the Blitz Wolf had been an animators’ emblem for the spectre of Nazism all through the war, and what’s being portrayed here COULD be a tribute to the heroic Soviet war effort… (in reality, the brave Russian soldier was meat for the grinder, victory achieved by throwing an overwhelming number of bodies in the path of bullets, but they DID win the war…)

The inside-a-mouth shot: see also CITY OF PIRATES, JAWS III and THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS

What a weird piece. Both versions. As time marches one, Disney’s classics, once staples of western entertainment, feel more and more antique and peculiar in their attitudes, and therefore more and more appealing to me for their dark corners of unease and confusion…