The Frida Cinema

Orange County's Year-Round Film Festival

A Different Kind of Magic: Revisiting 4 Offbeat Disney Classics

“Take the serious side of Disney, the Confucian side of Disney. It’s in having taken an ethos … where you have the values of courage and tenderness asserted in a way that everybody can understand. You have got an absolute genius there. You have got a greater correlation of nature than you have had since the time of Alexander the Great.”  – Ezra Pound


If you’re like me and are still processing the bewildering spectacle that is Cats, we’ve got some options to help you make sense of – okay, to help you move on coming up at the Frida’s Drive-In screenings! We’ve got Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire flying in to Zion Lutheran Church on Saturday, December 19th, a Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night double feature coming down the chimney at Tustin’s Mess Hall on Tuesday, December 22nd, and that darkly comedic Christmas classic, Gremlins, creeping in on Thursday, December 24th, also at Mess Hall! Before all that however, we’re in for a special treat in the form of Disney’s The Jungle Book, screening at Tustin Mess Hall in celebration of outgoing Frida Board member Tish Leon on Friday, December 18th! Based on the enduringly-popular children’s books by Rudyard Kipling, the film follows the adventures of feral boy Mowgli as he tries to navigate the travails of jungle life and find his place in the world. Hailed by critics and audiences alike upon its release in the 60’s, The Jungle Book is an animated masterwork that inspires warmth and cheer among children and adults to this day.

In some ways, it’s funny that The Jungle Book should remain as popular as it does considering how unusual it is for a classic Disney movie. Aside from the Indian setting and princess-less plot, the whole film basically revolves around a young boy facing and overcoming the dangers of the jungle, kind of a child endangerment-heavy set-up for a company that has long been caricatured as churning out G-rated, people-pleasing pap where nothing really bad or scary happens and they all live happily ever after. This caricature, of course, relies on selective memories of Disney’s princess films, the main source of such misconceptions: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, for example, has an extremely frightening sequence early on where she gets lost in the woods and perceives the trees as monstrous apparitions, and Sleeping Beauty has that one X-rated part where the devil-horned Maleficent claims to conjure “all the powers of Hell” before turning into a dragon and trying to kill Prince Phillip. If you’re curious enough to look past the fanciful animation and sing-along-ready songs, you’re likely to find something – shocking, profound, maybe even both – lying beneath them.

This isn’t to demystify the magic of Disney the way many try and (often fail) to do. If anything, it’s to argue that there’s more to these movies we watched and loved as wide-eyed kids than meets the eye – a different kind of magic, if you will. And so through the power of writing (that darkest of dark arts), I’d like to you take back to a time before The Force Awakens and Avengers when you could see elephants fly, orangutans scat sing, and fairies and demons alike frolic to Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. With any luck, I’ll be able to not only make you look at these movies differently but also fall in love with them all over again!


The Jungle Book (1967)

The last Disney film to be produced by Walt himself, he tragically succumbed to a circulatory collapse in the midst of production and died before it was completed. Having shepherded the project from its earliest days as a dramatic, more straightforward adaptation of Kipling’s dark-minded stories and overseeing it to a far greater extent than the studio’s last few movies, Walt’s passing must have hit the members of the production team all the harder. Out of this great sadness however, director Wolfgang Reitherman and his colleagues were able to make one of the cheeriest and most widely-loved films in the Disney canon. 

With a cast of characters who remain beloved to this day, it can’t be overstated how completely and utterly perfect each actor is in their respective role. The sloth bear Baloo is remembered as fondly as he is thanks to the smoothly avuncular intonations of Southern songman Phil Harris, but Sebastian Cabot (a British gent who would go on to narrate Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh) is just as commendable as Bagheera, bringing a breathy, fatherly quality to the paternalistic panther. The supporting players knock it out of the park as well: Sterling Holloway (Winnie the Pooh himself) schemes as the mewling python Kaa, All About Eve’s George Sanders commands attention and fear as the affably evil tiger Shere Khan, and jazz legend Louis Prima steals the show as the oobee dooing-orangutan King Louie, among other pitch-perfect performances.

Often praised for the high quality of its animation, the film features lush, hand-painted backgrounds that establish the size and majesty of the Indian rainforest. With enough diversity of scenery to create unique locations for each scene, viewers get a good sense of movement as the story moves forward and our heroes make their way through the jungle. Equally diverse is the Sherman Brothers’ soundtrack, a timeless staple of Disney musical fare that delves into everything from jazz with King Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You” to barbershop quartet with the mop-topped vultures’ “That’s What Friends Are For”. George Bruns’ instrumental, reed-heavy score is similarly masterful, with the overture in particular casting a strange but wonderfully enigmatic shadow (perhaps a holdover from the project’s early, darker days?) over the good-natured frivolity that is to follow.


“…it can’t be overstated how completely and utterly perfect each actor is in their respective role. The sloth bear Baloo is remembered as fondly as he is thanks to the smoothly avuncular intonations of Southern songman Phil Harris, but Sebastian Cabot (a British gent who would go on to narrate Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh) is just as commendable as Bagheera, bringing a breathy, fatherly quality to the paternalistic panther.”


Though the movie departs from Kipling’s source material in many ways, it retains its thematic preoccupation with questions of identity and belonging. Mowgli is a “mancub” and thus pressed by Bagheera to go live with other humans even though he wishes to stay in the jungle, the only world he has ever known. The threat of Shere Khan is invoked by the panther and others to impress upon him the urgency of rejoining his kind, but it’s ultimately a chance encounter with a girl from the nearby village that convinces Mowgli to leave his old life behind. Some interpret this as the logical conclusion of a reactionary conservatism said to be at the heart of the story, with its apparent implication that he had no choice but to accept a predetermined place in the world for himself. Yet crucially, Mowgli leaves the jungle not because Bagheera forced him or because Shere Khan drove him to do so, but because he chose to, an expression of free will very much in line with the freewheeling, hippy-dippy outlook of Baloo’s “Bare Necessities”.

Delightfully exotic with songs that are always a joy to hear, The Jungle Book is an unbeatably happy note for Walt Disney to end his inspiring, nigh-mythic career on.


Dumbo (1941)

Based on the children’s book of the same name by Helen Aberson-Mayer, Dumbo might have ended up as just a short film had Walt not decided that Mayer’s story required feature-length treatment. This couldn’t have been an easy decision for the up-and-coming studio head to make: the company’s last two movies, Pinocchio and Fantasia, had both flopped, putting extra pressure on the next feature to perform well. But Walt’s faith in the story about the little elephant with the big ears ultimately paid off for not only did it prove to be at the box office, it still remains regarded as one of Disney’s most heartrending films and one of its most heartwarming as well!

With supervising director Ben Sharpsteen specifically instructed to keep production costs down, the film’s restrained budget shows in the simpler, rushed style of animation. Characters like the Ringmaster and clowns look more cartoony compared to the relatively “realistic” humans of Snow White, and the watercolor-painted backgrounds – a technique rarely used in Disney movies – include less detail in their depictions of circus tents and countrysides. This isn’t to suggest that the animation is bad or uninspired. With its carnivalesque color palette and eye-catching character designs, the movie is undeniably stimulating on an aesthetic level. This is even without taking the “Pink Elephants on Parade” scene, the artistic highpoint of the film’s animation, into account. A fever dream experienced by Dumbo after accidentally imbibing alcohol (drinking? In a Disney movie? It’s more likely than you think!), the sequence is a Daliesque mix of shifting shapes, Latin-inflected jazz, and creepy pachyderms that alternately haunts and entrances viewers to this day.

The first Disney feature to take place in the US, Dumbo retains the distinction of being one of the few to have an American setting. From the distinct, regional accents of such characters as Timothy Q. Mouse and the crows to familiar imagery like trains and circus Big Tops, the film proudly wears its American identity on its sleeve. It is especially pronounced in Oliver Wallace and Frank Churchill’s score, the lively brass and percussion of which evoke jazz – that quintessentially American artform – as much as they do circus music. The songs show range as well, with the crows’ amusingly uplifting “When I See An Elephant Fly”, the inexplicably intense “Song of the Roustabouts”, and “Baby Mine”, the heartful lullaby heard while Mrs. Jumbo cradles Dumbo to sleep, demonstrating the variety of emotions conjured over the course of the film. If I may lift from the name of the exuberant piece that plays during Dumbo’s successful flight at the circus, the music here is nothing less than a “triumph” of spirit and structure.


“The first Disney feature to take place in the US, Dumbo retains the distinction of being one of the few to have an American setting. From the distinct, regional accents of such characters as Timothy Q. Mouse and the crows to familiar imagery like trains and circus Big Tops, the film proudly wears its American identity on its sleeve.”


Being so overtly American in character, it’s perhaps appropriate that much modern discussion about the film revolves around its controversial handling of race. While said discussion mostly revolves around the portrayal of the crows and the roustabouts and the racial stereotypes they invoke, there is a critical, little-discussed subtext to the story that changes the movie and the role of these characters in it. As anyone who loved elephants as a kid can tell you, big ears are not a physical deformity in elephants but rather a natural trait of African ones, in contrast to the small ears of Asian elephants. This means, of course, that Dumbo is an African elephant born and living among Asian elephants, with the abuse and rejection he faces reflecting the horrific discrimination visited upon black people in the US in general and mixed-race children in particular (parallels that writer Nicola Shulman thoroughly elaborates on.) This fact gives a new slant to Dumbo’s interactions with both the crows and roustabouts: while some understandably might still find these characters offensive, they appear to be intended as kindred spirits to our innocent, maltreated protagonist rather than objects of mockery or contempt. 

A surprisingly subversive film for a company widely perceived as sensitive to potential controversy, Dumbo is a creative tour-de-force filled with emotion, ideas, and imagination.


The Three Caballeros (1944)

A sequel of sorts to 1942’s Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros was part of Disney’s effort to aid the Roosevelt administration’s push to lure Latin American countries away from the orbit of Nazi Germany and its allies during World War II. Dubbed the Good Neighbor policy, this background has led some to dismiss the movie as propaganda soft-pedaling the imperialism that America so casually engaged in – and not-so-secretly still does – south of the border. Geopolitical intentions aside, Caballeros has proven to be popular with its target demographic decades after its debut, so much so that Disney still uses Jose Carioca and Panchito Pistoles, Donald’s Latin, Speedy Gonzales-adjacent friends, in its media and parks from time to time (as opposed to the way it seems to have quietly disowned the similarly stereotyped crows from Dumbo.)

Starting off with Donald opening presents from Jose and Panchito on his birthday, the film uses this framing device as an excuse to visit different parts of Latin America and explore various aspects of its cultures and environments. While it opens with fairly conventional short subjects like The Cold-Blooded Penguin and The Flying Gauchito, the movie becomes weirder and weirder as the “plot” (if you can call it that) takes Donald to Jose’s Brazil and Panchito’s Mexico before outright abandoning the framing device and slipping into a strange, hallucinatory state where Donald desperately attempts to woo numerous women only to be denied every single time. It’s a brazenly shameless display of horniness for a Disney movie, but it does build up to a memorable climax (nudge nudge, wink wink) where our hot and bothered hero meets the live-action, charra outfit-wearing girl of his dreams (Golden Age of Mexican cinema star Carmen Molina) but is tragically foiled by some nosy cacti – cactus-blocked, if you will. All this to the accompaniment of a rousing rendition of “Jesusita en Chihuahua”, a Mexican Revolution-era polka and favorite of rebel folk hero Pancho Villa. 

However, the threadbare plot arguably works to the movie’s advantage as it allows it to go in directions that a more straight-laced film wouldn’t be able to. Blending animated and live-action sequences as needed, we’re able to jump back and forth between the two without an elaborate, Who Framed Roger Rabbit-type explanation for how humans and cartoons can coexist with each other. This allows the fictionalized Bahia (or Baia as it spelled in the film) that Aurora Miranda (sister of Carmen) sings and dances through to jump from decently-crafted studio set to dancing, cartoon cityscape, and the caballeros themselves to cruise on a magic serape through documentary footage of Mexican landscapes and beaches. Though it’s decades away from the technical wizardry of Roger Rabbit, the animation itself is astounding in how expressive and downright surreal it can be, as demonstrated by cockfighting roosters turning into real men and then back during the Baia segment and a lovesick Donald dancing on stars of all shapes and colors and trying to pollinate blooming, Dora Luz-faced flowers (goodnight everybody!) in the final third. 


“…a memorable climax (nudge nudge, wink wink) where our hot and bothered hero meets the live-action, charra outfit-wearing girl of his dreams (Golden Age of Mexican cinema star Carmen Molina) but is tragically foiled by some nosy cacti – cactus-blocked, if you will. All this to the accompaniment of a rousing rendition of ‘Jesusita en Chihuahua’, a Mexican Revolution-era polka and favorite of rebel folk hero Pancho Villa.”


Similar to how Dumbo shows its American character through its jazzy score, Caballeros expresses its Latinidad through its soundtrack of then-contemporary Latin American tunes as well as older folk songs. Several compositions like the romantic bolero “Solamente una vez” and the ranchera hit “¡Ay, Jalisco no te rajes!” are given a new, US audience-friendly spin, with the latter being reimagined with English lyrics sung by Donald, Jose, and Panchito over its original Mexican melody as the titular “Three Caballeros”. Others like the Spanish-language “Lilongo” and Brazilian Portuguese “Os Quindins de Yay” remain in their respective tongues however, adding a layer of authenticity to them. “Yaya” particularly stands out, with its addictive, samba-style rhythm and equally-addicting chorus producing a high that nicely complements the scene’s druggier visuals.  

Thin on plot and runtime but rich in atmosphere and imagery, The Three Caballeros is a festive, beautifully bizarre love letter to Latin American culture that might rub some of the woke among us the wrong way but enthrall pretty much everyone else. 


Fantasia (1940)

Only the third movie to be made by Walt Disney Productions, the premise and production of Fantasia are ambitious even by the standards of today. Piggybacking off the idea of the earlier short The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (which, of course, appears in the final film itself), Disney envisioned an experimental, feature-length program of original animation introduced by a live-action host and accompanied by an orchestra playing classical music. With this avant-garde concept – to say nothing of the prodigious costs of setting up theaters to accommodate its revolutionary, stereophonic Fantasound system – it’s sadly no wonder that the film failed to even recoup its budget. Yet like Dumbo, it appears that time has vindicated Walt’s concert feature, with many young viewers getting their first exposure to the power of Western classical music through this one-of-a-kind project.

Disney films, much less animated films, should be engaging to look at as a rule but even so, it’s amazing that Fantasia, with all its stylistic and tonal shifts, is so consistently amazing to watch and take in. From the relatively naturalistic dinosaurs of The Rite of Spring to the more traditionally anthropomorphic hippos and crocodiles of Dance of the Hours, and from the mischievous, magic-wielding Mickey of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to the reveling demons of Night on Bald Mountain, there is always something interesting going on on-screen. Even the live-action segments are visually intriguing, with the superimposed shadows of the musicians and the changing, almost neon-hued lighting of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor proving to be just as arresting as the abstract animated portion that accompanies it. 

It is the music, of course, that drives the picture, and while it’s a far cry from the popular, sing-along-friendly tunes that everybody knows and loves, Leopold Stokowski leads the Philadelphia Orchestra in a command performance of classical music pieces. Opening with the tense strings of Toccata and Fugue, the maestro and his players bring whimsy to the dances of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, mirth to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and a titanic sense of struggle to Stravinsky’s Rite. Their rendition of this last piece is especially impressive given that it was actually a rearranged, slightly-truncated version of Stravinsky’s original ballet. This upset the Russian composer so much that he outright denounced the film, but between their teetering brass, lowing reeds, and rolling drums, the orchestra nevertheless manages to realize the “primitive life” that Stravinsky sought to express.


“…it’s amazing that Fantasia, with all its stylistic and tonal shifts, is so consistently amazing to watch and take in. From the relatively naturalistic dinosaurs of The Rite of Spring to the more traditionally anthropomorphic hippos and crocodiles of Dance of the Hours, and from the mischievous, magic-wielding Mickey of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to the reveling demons of Night on Bald Mountain, there is always something interesting going on on-screen.”


For all Walt Disney’s reputation – warranted and otherwise – as a conservative, Fantasia is startling for how willing it is to entertain decidedly un-conservative subjects. For one thing, the Rite of Spring directly contradicts the creationist account of the origins of life, with host Deems Taylor even claiming “Science, not art, wrote the scenario for this picture,” as if to say “Sorry, them’s the facts,” (Walt originally planned to go even further and show the rise of mammals, but the idea was dropped precisely over concern that it would overly antagonize those skeptical of evolution.) On top of this, we not only get a brief shot of topless female centaurs bathing in The Pastoral Symphony (again, Disney initially intended to go further, leaving them topless the whole segment before censors at the Hays office demanded the animators add garlands to cover their breasts), but also the devilish Chernabog and his impish friends doing their infernal thing in Night on Bald Mountain. The inclusion of the latter over the aforementioned mammal section of Rite is particularly amusing in hindsight, implying as it does that Christian viewers are more likely to take issue with cartoons featuring evolution than ones with pagan Slavic gods.

A daring, visionary project by any measure, Fantasia is a visual and aural marvel that the Marvel-milking, safe-playing Disney of today would never even dream of attempting to make.