Video reviews: We’s been done seein’ about everything, including an elephant fly.

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1992:

Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.
FoxVideo Inc., 1992. $24.98.
Dumbo
Beauty And The Beast
The Sword In The Stone
101 Dalmatians
The Jungle Book
Mary Poppins
Robin Hood
Walt Disney Home Video, 1992;
$24.95 each.

For all the determined efforts of
humane educators, both inside and outside
the public schools, it’s a fact that humane
values have been most effectively transmit-
ted over the past 40 years or so by televi-
sion and movies––the same media most
responsible for promulgating the idea that
makebelieve mayhem is entertainment.
And it’s a fact, too, that the most
unabashedly commercialistic of studios,
Walt Disney Co., has been infinitely more
effective in transmitting humane values
than the whole of public television com-
bined. Consider that Bambi has had
hunters apoplectic for generations.
Consider as well the impact of 101
Dalmatians, first released in movie the-
atres in 1959, when U.S. retail fur sales
were soaring and pet theft had yet to attract
more than passing attention even from lead-
ing humane organizations. Featuring the
ruthless Cruella DeVille’s attempt to make
fur coats out of stolen puppies, 101
Dalmatians became the most popular ani-
mated cartoon of all time. Perhaps it wasn’t
the whole reason the fur trade collapsed in
the early 1960s, not to recover for 20 years,
and perhaps it wasn’t the spark, either, that
produced a national furor over pet theft,
building steadily until passage of the
Laboratory Animal Protection Act in 1966.
Maybe it didn’t even have anything to do
with the steep slump in fur sales after it was
re-released in 1991. But furriers regard it
with evident terror; protest over the re-
release filled the front pages of Fur Age
Weekly for months.
The Walt Disney animated clas-
sics make no pretense to political correct-
ness––Anita, the good woman in 101
Dalmatians, even allows that she might
like a fur coat herself, though she maybe
was just being polite to Cruella. The
Disney objective is simply entertainment.
But for all of that, as Mary Poppins sings,
“A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go
down, in a most delightful way,” and
there’s medicine aplenty for what ails
human relationships with animals in each of
the current Walt Disney Home Video offer-
ings. Though Poppins actually wins a horse
race, aboard a magically propelled merry-
go-round horse, she may be forgiven any
faux pas in that for her part in sabotaging a
fox hunt along the way. Filmed in 1964,
this may be the first screen depiction of a
hunt sab. A leading theme in The Sword in
the Stone is the need for humans to learn
from animals; the wizard Merlin teaches
the young Wart what he needs to know to
mature into the legendary King Arthur by
transforming him into a fish, a squirrel,
and a bird. The Jungle Book, very loosely
adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle
Book, reprises that theme while neatly walk-
ing a thematic razor’s edge. When Louie
Prima sings “I Wanna Be Like You,” as the
voice of a be-bopping orangutan, with a
chorus of jive-talking monkeys, racist
stereotyping is as overt as it could be. But
the message, that it’s time to recognize and
share with our kin, is a direct and still time-
ly challenge to both racism and speciesism.
Worth noting, too, is that though the man-
eating tiger Shere Khan is still the hero
Mowgli’s mortal enemy, the script makes
plain that Shere Khan’s motivation is simply
self-defense. Always on the run from
hunters, he doesn’t care to risk the chance
that Mowgli will grow up into a hunter
too––an exceptionally
deadly hunter,
because of his intimate knowledge of the
forest. Robin Hood deftly avoids the prob-
lem inherent in having a hero who is a
bowhunter by showing him avoiding the use
of weapons whenever possible, while the
bow-happy forces of Prince John and the
Sheriff of Nottingham shoot recklessly at
everything that moves. All of the characters
are animals: Robin Hood himself is a fox,
Little John a bear, Alan-a-dale a minstrel
cock. Both Prince John and King Richard
are lions, while the Sheriff is a wolf. Some
may object to stereotypical and speciesist
characterizations, especially of Prince John’s
advisor, a snake, but you’ll see a lot worse
on regular network programming.
The most powerful of the Disney
releases, however, are the ageless Dumbo,
first aired in 1951, and the year-old Beauty
And the Beast.
Dumbo affords an astonishingly
frank view of the manners, mores, atti-
tudes, and animal-handling practices of
traveling circuses. Though the story seems
to take place somewhere between 1925 and
1941, only the use of trains instead of
trucks and of course the implausibility of an
elephant flying separate it from current
events––for instance, the episode last spring
in which a female elephant went berserk at a
Great American Circus performance in
Florida. There are a few minor flaws in
depicting animal behavior: female ele-
phants aren’t inclined to reject the offspring
of other elephants, even if they do have big
ears, and hippopotamuses don’t really sleep
underwater. Still, it’s clear that the script
writers were unusually keen, sympathetic
observers.
Beyond the documentary aspects,
Dumbo is noteworthy for being able to keep
both children and adults entranced for as
many as 20 viewings in a week, as the little
ones insist on running the videos over and
over. Both the visuals and the music are at
the apex of animated film achievement.
The makers of Beauty and the
Beast had considerably more technical
options available to them, but interestingly
enough, held closely to the form of Dumbo,
emphasizing the basics––plot, theme, and
characterization––over the computerized
pyrotechnics that substitute for substance in
most other recent films aimed at children.
Once again, the message is that kindness
toward all creatures is the mark of a worthy
person; the Beast begins his transformation
back into the prince he once was by attempt-
ing to feed birds. And as much as the
National Rifle Association et al hate Bambi,
they probably prefer it to the portrayal of
Gaston, the mighty hunter who pursues
Beauty (Belle) while convincingly exuding
every offensive characteristic familiar to
anyone who’s ever had to chase his ilk off of
posted land: he’s brutal, arrogant,
unscrupulous, half-tanked on beer, an unre-
pentent chauvinist, a braggart, careless
with his weapons, and he stinks.
Ferngully, a 1991 20th Century
Fox release now available on video, sets
out forthrightly to compete with the Disney
classics, but the makers still have some
lessons to learn. There’s nothing wrong
with the visuals: breathtaking scenes of the
Australian rainforest, in color patterns
much more subtle and complex than Disney
has yet attempted, and Disney-quality ani-
mation. The problem is the script. The
motif, the destruction of the rainforest by
commercial logging, is crushed beneath a
plot as blunt and unthinking as a bulldozer
tread: destroy the machines, throw down a
few seeds, and everything’s going to be all
right. This Earth First version of how to
prevent ecological destruction utterly
neglects the reasons and pressures behind
rainforest logging, as well as oversimplify-
ing what can be done about it. The
Ferngully makers may insist that a more
considered approach to the subject matter
would lose the attention of the young audi-
ence, but the reviewer has had the experi-
ence of showing a quite complex hour-long
documentary about actual rainforest logging
in Australia to several classrooms of rural
fourth, fifth, and sixth-graders, most of
whom paid rapt attention.
Combine a simplistic script with
insipid characterization, and the result is a
storyline Disney would have discarded
(Disney is notorious for repeatedly rewriting
scripts to bring them up to par with other
elements of animated pictures,) As a whole,
Ferngully is a lost opportunity: instead of
developing unique characters from creatures
genuinely native to the rainforest, as Disney
would, the makers give us Caucasian fairies
straight from Peter Pan. (One could argue
that they’re really insects, since with the
usual quotient of arms and legs plus wings,
they have six limbs each, but this aspect
isn’t explored or developed, either.)
Ferngully isn’t without value
Children will watch Ferngully repeatedly,
just not as often as the Disney classics, and
for all the effort it makes to promote
humane and ecological values, the message
it imparts won’t take as deeply. It will,
unfortunately, sell enough copies that 20th
Century Fox won’t do the right thing by the
visuals and intent of it, and withdraw it for
rescripting.
––Merritt Clifton
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