Focus Friday #1 – Wolfgang Reitherman
Yeah, yeah, so I’m totally ripping off ‘Follow Friday,’ but can you think of a better way to put the spotlight on unsung heroes of the movies?
Wolfgang Reitherman is virtually unknown, yet directed six of the biggest-grossing, most popular movies of the 1960s and 1970s, not to mention working on dozens of other classics. Who is he? Disney’s one-time head director, and one of Walt’s fabled Nine Old Men, the animators who defined, and refined, the house style.
Even today, it’s the ‘brand’ that holds sway at Disney, and we generally view the films in terms of their cohesive identity rather than as the works of auteurs. But, almost uniquely, you can tell a Reitherman film a mile away, both for its visual style and its tongue-in-cheek tone.
Arguably, the reason why he isn’t perhaps better known is because, aesthetically, his films lack the grandeur and ambition of the Golden Age flicks of the 1940s. Reitherman worked on all of them as an animator, but by the time he was promoted to Chief Animation Directors, the times they were a-changing and the detailed textures of the past were becoming too expensive to justify, even for a money-making machine like Disney.
Enter animator Ub Iwerks, who pioneered the use of xerography (an early, primitive form of photocopying) to eliminate the time-consuming hand-drawn backgrounds by simply feeding the master sheet through a machine and generating hundreds of facsimilies. The catch? Back then, only black-and-white was possible, leading to the death of those rich, burnished colours of Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty. Instead, there was suddenly a punchy, graphical style reminiscent of newspaper cartoon strips. Aptly, as if to underline the change with a joke, the first film to use the process (and Reitherman’s first directorial credit) had monochrome heroes – 101 Dalmations.
Reitherman kept faith with the cost-cutting and speed of xerography, which means that the animation style of his era is crude and a little bit tacky. There is blatant recycling of backgrounds and character designs from film to film; what else is Reitherman’s Little John but Baloo redressed in Lincoln green? Still, something about the improved speed and efficiency of the filmmaking altered the storytelling, too. Gone are the fastidious, arty adaptations of folk and fairy tales. 101 Dalmations is altogether breezier and modern, and its storytelling revolution would quickly feed back into legendary tales and literary classics alike.
The hallmark of Reitherman’s era is fun. Stradding the 60s and 70s, there’s a rebel verve and subversive wit to the films he directed that’s notably lacking in earlier, more strait-laced Disney features. For a career animator, he proved surprisingly adept to giving the writers free rein to indulge. The results are some the most iconic characters in Disney history. Look at the villains: Cruella De Vil, Shere Khan, Kaa, Prince John… then add in the delightful heroes, Perdita and Pongo, Baloo and Bagheera, the foxiest Robin Hood this side of Errol Flynn.
Reitherman had one hell of an ear for voice casting, too. Phil Harris’ unmistakable tones brought warmth to a host of loveable rogues from Baloo onwards, but there’s also room for heavyweight actors and stars like George Sanders, Peter Ustinov and Bob Newhart. Check out the pitch-perfect cameos, too, from the Beatles-esque vultures in The Jungle Book to the dopey Tennesee twang of The Aristocats‘ bloodhounds Napoleon and Lafayette.
But weren’t those dogs meant to be French? Well, yes – and there’s another aspect of Reitherman’s films worth mentioning. Though German-born, Reitherman’s films are American to the core, and nothing was sacred enough to avoid being Yankified by his treatment. Strangely, it works. You can argue all you like about the imperialism of recasting Robin Hood as a proto-Smokey and the Bandit Country & Western farce, but the translation is so thorough and entertaining it’s a genuine piece of post-modern theft. Similarly, there’s something almost anarchic about taking Rudyard Kipling and creating something that could be read as a wry commentary on the Civil Rights Movement.
It wasn’t all spark and satire; this is Disney, after all. Yet even the soft centres are marked by genuine warmth rather than saccharine sentimentality. In particular, there’s something impossibly endearing about the fact that Mowgli, Christopher Robin and Wart are voiced by Reitherman’s three sons. Fast-forward to Pixar, and note that Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird, amongst others, have returned to Reitherman’s all-in-the-family traditions by casting their kids.
Reitherman died in 1985, aged 75 – a long innings, but since he was killed in a car crash we’ll never know how much longer he might have lived. Within years, Disney was undergoing a “renaissance,” but the hits of the 1990s – notably Aladdin and everything Pixar has released under the Disney banner – are pure Reitherman in their whiplash pace, character-based comedy and overall sense of fun.
So visuals be damned. Reitherman’s six films (101 Dalmations, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood and The Rescuers) are a sustained body of work, unified by wit and exhilaration. More than any other era of Disney, these are the ones you’d want to show your kids.