ADAM Beth, I think you should go first.
BETH Because I said I used to like it?
BETH I was thinking about why I liked it so much when I was 13 or 14, and I think it’s because it feels modern, in a way that everything prior to it did not. And I think that’s because the characters are more modern. Merlin, in particular, seems easier to relate to than any prior Disney character, for me.
BROOM Including Pongo and Perdita?
BETH Yes, obviously that’s similarly modern.
ADAM More than the negro crows?
ADAM Well I been done seen ’bout everything.
BETH Also, it’s always active. Even though essentially the same thing happens three times; the same story gets played out when he’s a fish, a bird, and a squirrel. Well, I guess the squirrel one was a little different.
BROOM How do you mean that you can relate to Merlin because he’s “modern”? He just seemed to me like an archetype of the addled, absent-minded professor character.
BETH I think it was something about the dialogue.
ADAM It’s self-referential, in a way that the others aren’t.
BETH Yes — it’s more knowing, and felt more influenced by Warner Brothers. Not that there’s always a lot of dialogue in Warner Brothers cartoons — but the scenarios. The squirrel scenario seemed like a Warner Brothers setup.
ADAM It seemed like a Pepé Le Pew scenario.
BETH And there were two Wile E. Coyote scenarios. The whole thing just felt a little saucier than other Disney movies.
BROOM And how do you feel about that now? When you were 13, your values were: the sassier and the more… what’s a word for what Warner Brothers cartoons are as opposed to Disney?
BROOM … the more wiseacre the better. But how do you feel about that now? The same way?
BETH No. I don’t think that this was a great work, but it was entertaining to me in the same way. I understood why I was entertained by it. It never lapses, I felt.
ADAM It’s striking to me that this is the first explicitly moralistic one. Disney movies today are all about “here’s a theme, and we’re going to hammer on it.” Like Lilo and Stitch, you may recall, is like: “Mahalo means family, and family means no one gets left behind!” Do you remember that?
BROOM I’m impressed! [Ed. “Ohana” means family; “Mahalo” means thank you]
ADAM And this also had a clearly defined moral that carried through from the beginning to the end, and all the episodes were about illustration rather than narration, in a certain way.
BROOM “Develop your intellect and you will go places.”
ADAM Right, which is an odd message for this movie, since he actually becomes king through divine quirk. He displays no kingly qualities whatsoever.
BROOM Did you ever read The Once and Future King, upon which this is based?
BROOM I don’t think I finished it, because it was too long and boring for me as a kid, but because it was the source for this movie I did read a bunch of it.
ADAM Are there squirrels and everything?
BROOM Yeah, he turns into a bunch of things, but it’s not comic like this. He spends a long time as a hawk. His education is an education in the natural ways of the world; he becomes one with everything. It’s this sort of hippie-spiritual idea, that Merlin introduces him to the rhythms of the earthworm and the eagle…
ADAM “The Circle of Life!…”
BROOM Yes, that’s exactly it. [Ed. Actually more like “The Colors of the Wind”] That’s the education he needs to be a true leader of men, to have been to the heights and the depths of everything. Whereas here they just took it as the framework for slapstick.
ADAM The movie claims that book-learning is important, but they don’t actually want to trouble us with more than one sentence of book-learning.
BROOM Well, oddly, Merlin disdains actual book-learning, when Archimedes tells Wart to read a huge pile of books. That’s not the kind of education this movie is espousing.
ADAM But Merlin does put the books in his bag first, and clearly believes in them. He says “You need to learn English! and History! and Geometry!”
BROOM Merlin represents that philosophy, in opposition to the medieval brutes — Sir Kay and his father — but then Archimedes is beyond that, he’s too formal and pedantic. Putting the curlicues on your capital C isn’t the point of education.
ADAM The movie struck me as sort of slipshod, coming to it now.
BROOM That’s how I felt too, but I didn’t want to jump on it right at the top of the conversation.
ADAM For a lot of these others, I have some received childhood imagery that bolsters my impressions, or provides them with some sort of scaffolding, but here I was without that.
BROOM You had really never seen this before.
ADAM I had only seen the last bit, from when Hobbes comes down with mumps through to the end. I think I’d seen Merlin coming down in Bermuda shorts.
BROOM Hard to shake that image.
BETH It reminds me of Back to the Future.
BROOM You’re right, it is like Back to the Future. So much so that it’s almost like the end of Back to the Future is a reference to this. And Doc Brown basically is the Merlin from this movie.
BETH Yeah. Which maybe is part of why I liked it. Because it reminded me of Back to the Future.
BROOM In terms of things that show up elsewhere: the “oh no here comes a pike to eat us!” scene happens exactly like this, underwater with fish, in Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo, and possibly in other movies. I guess it sort of happened in Pinocchio already, but it wasn’t quite the same. There was something specifically familiar about the particular way this scene played out. “Here comes the bad guy animal from this region of the world! Get it stuck trying to go through a small hole! Now put a spike between its jaws!” Is this the first place where that sequence of stuff happened? I guess Popeye must have been doing stuff like that back to the 30s.
BETH Yeah, it must be in other cartoons.
ADAM There are only so many ways to disable a predator animal that aren’t gruesome. I mean, he could have put the arrow in its eye! That’s what I was hoping he would do.
BROOM Luke Skywalker puts a spike between the jaws of the Rancor in Return of the Jedi.
ADAM That wouldn’t actually work in real life, would it?
BROOM You think it could flick it away with its tongue? I don’t know.
BETH I think it would work.
ADAM If the spike were actually lodged in the roof of its mouth, that would be different.
BROOM I think if a fish with long jaws had something wedged in there vertically, it would probably have some trouble with that.
ADAM I had a children’s book in which Madam Mim featured. But it had nothing to do with the story of Arthur, as far as I could discern. She was just a stand-alone character. I forget how they defeat her in the end, in the children’s book. Truly, that was not something I had thought about in years and years until that image came on screen.
BETH I found the wizard’s duel sequence really funny.
BROOM As a child and now?
ADAM Why didn’t Merlin just go straight for the germ thing? That’s obviously a dominant strategy.
BETH I think it hadn’t occurred to him.
BROOM I think he had ideals about playing fair and was trying to do it the way it was meant to be done.
BETH He was also a little slow to come up with ideas.
ADAM He should have become a fatal virus.
BROOM I knew, when he was a crab and snapping at her snake popping out of the hole, that eventually something else was going to come out of the hole, but I couldn’t remember what, and that sense of foreboding was exciting. Even as a kid, after you see the head keep popping out, you know that they’re going to change it up on you.
ADAM Sir Kay is pretty brutish in a way that is not appealing.
BROOM I’m glad that you feel that way. I really am.
ADAM That I’m not attracted to him?
BROOM Yeah. You’re pretty much always attracted to the Gaston character.
ADAM Even for me, Kay is a little too loutish.
BETH I thought they did a nice job maintaining the characters when they changed into different creatures. All the Mim creatures looked like her.
BROOM That was well done in that it wasn’t overdone. The fish didn’t look like Wart’s face on a fish.
BETH No, but it had his personality.
BROOM He basically looked just like Nemo.
ADAM The idea that they would resolve the kingship with a tournament — or that it would have lain open for so many years that they could have forgotten about the sword — although obviously they didn’t forget about it…
BETH The stone was pretty cleaned up, when he got there, from how it looked at the beginning.
BROOM Yeah, Adam pointed out that the vines had been taken away.
ADAM … that all seems historically implausible to me. It’s more likely that a brutal civil war would have come about.
BROOM In Robin Hood — at least in the Disney Robin Hood, coming up shortly — a tournament like that is held for the hand of the king’s daughter, right? Is that less historically absurd?
ADAM I don’t know.
BROOM Oh, but it’s a trick, isn’t it? It’s a way of luring Robin Hood.
ADAM I can’t wait for that!
BROOM It’s two or three from now.
ADAM What’s next, Jungle Book?
BROOM Yes. The Jungle Book is the last one during Walt Disney’s lifetime. Though, honestly, the rhythms and feeling of this one…
ADAM It’s as if he’s already dead.
BROOM It really is.
BETH It is. It’s the new style of animation — of children’s entertainment in general.
BROOM 101 Dalmatians felt like, “wow, look what we came up with! It’s great! The movie doesn’t totally hang together — but look at this new look and style and attitude we came up with!” And here it immediately already felt like, “the formula is in place, let’s turn out another one.”
ADAM It felt like budget cuts. It was so drab.
BROOM And so many repeated bits of animation. Even as a kid, it’s a drag to see him drop the plates twice in exactly the same way. Or when he’s goggle-eyed at Merlin at the beginning: the first time, it’s funny, but then a minute later when they use it again to fill time, it’s depressing. The whole movie gave me the impression that there was no big picture for any of the artists anymore. I thought the directing was weak, and there were a lot of places where scenes fell flat, or dragged, moments that weren’t worth anything to anyone.
BETH There was a lot of drag.
BROOM Real care seemed to have been put into it only on the scale where a single person was working on his own — like in the backgrounds. Each background, created by an individual artist, was interesting. Or the animation evaluated on a really small scale; like, when he scratches his head or something, the quality of the animation of an individual action was always good, but it didn’t necessarily play into any larger value, any pacing that would make it worth anything to the audience.
BROOM I was reminded of something that I think I showed you, Beth — I saw an interview with John Williams recently, when I was looking through his movie score stuff online, and someone asked him how he thought his style had changed over the forty years of his career, or whatever it’s been, and he said, “I think that now I know more, but it’s less durable.” And I felt like that’s what we were seeing here. All kinds of technical things had been learned; they had polished and worked all kinds of stuff that would have been sloppier back in the Pinocchio days — I criticized how Geppetto looked, and I stand by that — here the people didn’t have any of those problems; they were really solid; they rotate through space and always look perfect. But…
ADAM To what end?
BROOM They know more… and it’s less durable.
ADAM Is this squirrel scene the first time we’ve seen the “amorous fat lady” as a joke?
BROOM No, of course not. In Sleepy Hollow there was the amorous fat lady who wanted to dance with Ichabod Crane, who was exactly like that.
ADAM I forgot all about that. The character of course is in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the ride. So I was curious.
BROOM It seemed a little unnecessarily rough that they gave her black whiskers and a gap between her front teeth.
ADAM The matronly squirrel?
BROOM She looked like a man.
BETH Yeah, she was ugly.
BROOM She didn’t need to be that ugly for it to be funny.
ADAM What are we to make of the lesson that love consists of, you know, misdirected obsession? That’s only a little piece of love!
BROOM I remembered feeling very bad for the squirrels when I was a kid… and now I see that they totally want you to. The end of the scene is all sad violins and the weeping squirrel. And I don’t know why! It’s a very weird emotion they’re nursing there. I don’t know what they were going for.
BETH What is anyone learning from that?
BROOM Adam, you were cowering behind the pillow through the whole sequence; do you want to say something about it?
ADAM It was really uncomfortable!
BETH And extended. They just keep going and going with it.
ADAM He’s kind of a jerk to her, and she still saves him from the wolf. And it’s just creepy! Maybe I see it as a metaphor for being in the closet.
BROOM Howso? Oh, that she can’t understand why she means nothing to him, and he’s saying “you don’t understand what I really am”…?
ADAM Yeah. I’m joking. Not totally. I’m mostly joking. But it’s just the creepy mismatch of it that makes it uncomfortable.
BROOM I wasn’t thinking of it as a metaphor for being in the closet, but…
ADAM I wasn’t either, to be honest.
BROOM … but just as male-female relations. I mean, obviously it wasn’t about human-squirrel relations; it was about male-female relations, and the females were the ones who had no idea what the men really were. And then when the men pop out of the bushes in their true forms, the women scream in uncomprehending terror. And the men say, “Now do you understand?” What does that translate to? It doesn’t mean anything, hopefully! Other than that if you turn into a squirrel, squirrels will be upset.
ADAM I call attention to the fact that the only women in this movie are those squirrels and Madam Mim and the dishwasher woman. But of course there are no sympathetic males either. Everyone’s unpleasant, really.
BETH Well, Arthur.
ADAM Except for Merlin and Arthur.
BROOM And you’re supposed to be okay with Archimedes and his curmudgeonly ways.
BETH I am.
BROOM And of course the deep-voiced man at the tournament!
ADAM “Give the boy a chance!”
BROOM I wanted to talk a little more about Madam Mim. I said “this is like Psycho” because they’re in the middle of a chase and you’re invested in whether he’ll get away, and then suddenly he falls into this evil woman’s lair. It’s also like in Pulp Fiction when they end up in the torture room in the middle of a different story.
BROOM But anyway — is she a type? Is she like people in any way? Or is she just a crazy thing? Her delight in being a hag is just absurd, right? There’s no way for me to align that with any other character in anything.
ADAM She’s a little bit like Hagatha on The Smurfs. Do you remember her? [Ed: internet says “Hogatha“]
BROOM I guess I remember there being a character who was like that.
ADAM Well, she’s actually not like that, because Hagatha — if you don’t remember — wanted to use the Smurfs to make face cream. Because she thinks it will make her beautiful, which is sort of a miserable delusion, and they defeat her by giving her this mud bath that they tell her is going to fix her skin, but the mud hardens on her face and they push her down a hill. Which also has its own gender issues.
BROOM When Madam Mim briefly turned into “beautiful lady,” I was struck by how 60s she looked. She looked like a Jules Feiffer drawing.
BETH She did. Her nose was upturned.
BROOM And she had pointy boobs.
BETH Yeah, exaggerated curves.
BROOM She looked like a Jules Feiffer semi-parody of what a beautiful lady is supposed to look like.
BETH But Arthur seemed a little bit titillated.
BROOM It wasn’t clear to me why he was staring.
ADAM He liked it!
BETH I think he did.
BROOM Maybe, but the animator seemed to be making fun of the whole notion of this “beauty.” But I guess that was so that she would still seem like Madam Mim.
ADAM Did Bill Peet do “The Reluctant Dragon”?
BROOM “The Reluctant Dragon” — you mean the cartoon from the 40s that you didn’t watch? What do you mean?
ADAM Oh. No. Did he?
BROOM I don’t know. He was a story man for a long time.
ADAM I wish I could remember what the Bill Peet book was that I’m trying to think of.
BROOM The Caboose that Got Loose was the one that I had. But there were others. There was one about a moose, maybe?
ADAM Yeah, I don’t know. [Ed.: Droofus the Dragon?] I don’t have much else to say about this movie. It was ramshackle.
BROOM Yeah. It felt like a chintzier product.
BETH It didn’t have as much class as I thought it had.
ADAM Sorry to rub your nose in it as an adult.
BETH So what, though? As kids entertainment it was fine.
BROOM It was definitely kids-ier. In the first section, when it was all about how he meets Merlin and how Merlin comes to his house, I was pretty sad about how lame it was, and how low their standards for storytelling had gotten. But then when it turned into a lot of gimmicks in a row, I thought, “all right, fine” You get to watch him fall, you get to watch someone get clonked on the head. Fine.
ADAM At least it’s not Bongo.
BROOM Right. They’ve done worse.
BETH Oh, it wasn’t that bad, guys.
BROOM It wasn’t.
ADAM It was fine.
BROOM It was just very superficial. And it was the first one where the moral felt, as Adam said, like an ingredient in a formula rather than like part of the conception of the movie.
[we read the original New York Times review]
BETH He really liked it.
BROOM Yeah, he was totally into it.
BROOM An unequivocally positive review. And why not, I guess. But just as we’re saying that the era has turned these films into more of a kids’ thing, the review treats it as more of a kids’ thing. In the 40s, the reviews were all about “what is Disney and his team of artists up to?” That’s stopped.
ADAM It didn’t even get a stand-alone review; it was in a package right under “The Best of Cinerama.”
BROOM I feel like the story of how that happened to Disney and animation, how it got trivialized, is not being told by this survey of just the feature films. We’re watching the features and saying “this one is dumber, how did that happen?” It happened in between. Something about kids’ entertainment, and culture in general.
BETH Well, the Mickey Mouse Club started up in the 50s.
BROOM Yeah, television changed the flavor of these things.
BETH The brand of Disney changed, and the focus changed.
ADAM Now it’s all about, like, Annette Funicello’s boobs.
BROOM The final joke in this movie was almost an acknowledgement that the movies are just secondary to television, now.
BETH It definitely was. Which maybe was a complaint?
BROOM I don’t know. It just seemed to be shrugging and saying, “So whaddaya gonna do? Movies are dumb now. The end!”