Sunday, 19 November 2017

Top Five: Favourite Non-Disney Versions of Disney Things

Disney has left an indelible mark on fairy tales, to the point where it is virtually impossible to think of the stories of Grimm and Perrault, of Barrie and Carroll, without thinking of how Disney visualized them. Yet these stories are part of the common heritage of the West and Disney is not the only artist to have approached them. The following is a list of mine and Ashley's favourite non-Disney versions of stories typically considered the be Disney's own property. In some cases, our love for these renditions supersedes that of the Disney version, either from quality or nostalgia. At the very least, they are well worth the time to check out.

#1: The Peter Pan Broadway musical starring Mary Martin
Produced for Broadway a year after Disney released their animated feature film, the Peter Pan musical rode a wave of popularity for J.M. Barrie's story. It was telecast live in 1955, 1956, and 1960, the last of those telecasts becoming Ashley's childhood favourite (it was also recently restaged with Christopher Walken in the role of Hook). When she thinks of Peter Pan, it is less with the melodies of "You Can Fly" and "Second Star to the Right" and more with Mary Martin belting out "I'm Flying" and "I Won't Grow Up." Cyril Ritchard also performs the nearly perfect Captain Hook, part comic but always with a sense of elegantly sneering, British disdain.

"I'm Flying" from the 1960 telecast of Peter Pan.

#2: The Adventures of Mark Twain Claymation feature film
I have already discussed how Disneyland's Tom Sawyer Island and Mark Twain Riverboat helped inspire me to sit down and read the works of America's bard. The other thing that piqued my interest to do so was Will Vinton's Claymation feature film The Adventures of Mark Twain. I first happened across it on TV and was immediately taken with its premise: Mark Twain aboard a dirigible riverboat, seeking his own destiny in the pursuit of Halley's Comet (Twain was born when the comet circled near earth in 1835 and he died when it came next in 1910). That alone appealed to my love for retro-Victorian Science Fiction. Around this framework the film adapts a number of Twain's short stories that examine the human condition with intelligence and sensitivity uncommon in what would be considered a "children's film." Instead of brash, juvenile jokes, we get Twain's incisive wit. Instead of beating and humiliating the bad guy, we get Twain's discourse on the duality of human nature. Instead of happily ever afters we get a meditation on the meaning of life and death. It is a powerful film presented in an unexpected medium and genre.

A modern trailer for The Adventures of Mark Twain.

#3: Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast feature film
I have a great love for classic films from the silent era through the years of the Second World War. One of the best films ever produced in that time was La Belle et la BĂȘte, directed by French auteur Jean Cocteau and released in 1946. Filmed in glorious black and white, it alternates between sumptuous Baroque designs and Expressionist minimalism, vacillating between fairy tale decadence and the eerie, unsettled atmosphere of a Universal Studios horror movie. It is a study, in a single film, of the aesthetics of the sublime and beautiful. Many of its motifs went on to inspire not only Disney's later animated adaptation of Beauty and the Beast but also the Haunted Mansion attraction. It is also a beautiful, atmospheric film in its own right, without comparison, rightly heralded today as one of the classics of French, and World, cinema.

A modern trailer for Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast.

#4: The Wind in the Willows stop-motion animated series
Disney's The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is certainly a wild ride, adapting the more frenetic story of Mr. Toad's misfortunes with a motor car. But when reading Kenneth Grahame's original novel, we find a book that is considerably more genteel and contemplative. The great motorcar robbery is in there, in all of its comic action, but interspersed between those chapters are quaint, thoughtful, sensitive accounts of life along the River Thames. In 1983, Cosgrove Hall Films and Britain's ITV network produced a stop-motion animated film adapting the book, followed by a TV series that ran from 1984 to 1987. This was actually the version of The Wind in the Willows that I grew up with, and now that I have read the book as an adult, I can see how well served it was by its gentility.

An extract from The Wind in the Willows: Mr. Toad's great locomotive chase.

#5: Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre  
Much like Mary Martin's Peter Pan, Ashley's main exposure to fairy tales on the screen was through Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre. This six season series hosted by Duvall starred numerous Hollywood actors in hour-long adaptations of various and sundry fairy tales. Robin Williams starred as the Frog Prince in an episode written and directed by Eric Idle. Mick Jagger played a Chinese Emperor in The Nightingale. Bernadette Peters and Christopher Reeves wooed in Sleeping Beauty. Pee-Wee Herman played Pinocchio and Carrie Fisher played Thumbelina. Tim Burton's first director credit after leaving Disney was the Aladdin episode. Francis Ford Coppola directed Rip Van Winkle. Production values for this mid-Eighties television series perhaps weren't the best, but it is more than made up for by the performances.

Susan Sarandon and Klaus Kinski star in Beauty and the Beast.

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