Disney has used mythology, historical characters, fairy tales and fables as the foundation for some amazing animated films. But, curiously for such an American icon, its also drawn on the diverse world of English literature for some of its most successful projects.
Alice In Wonderland (1951)
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland became the first animated Disney feature to use classic English literature as a bedrock. In the Disney version, elements from both the original Alice adventure and the sequel Through The Looking-Glass were combined to give a strong flavour of the Carroll’s perversely warped universe.
Unfortunately, UK reviewers weren’t kind to it, and it was one of the first Disney productions to be accused of ‘Americanising’ a literary classic.
In retrospect, Alice In Wonderland represents some amazing work in animation, but also in art direction by Mary Blair. Where it slightly fails is in harnessing the frenetic action sequences into solid story telling.
Given how rich the source material is, it’s not a surprise that Disney has been tempted back to Carroll’s wildest imagination with their recent Tim Burton directed live action version, Alice In Wonderland.
Peter Pan (1953)
The second animated Disney feature to use a classic British book as its inspiration took J. M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, and made is accessible to a much wider audience.
It’s actually worth pointing out that Barrie originally wrote this as a play, but the novelisation which first appeared in 1911 was entitled Peter & Wendy.
While most of the elements from Barrie’s Pan transfer well to the Disney version, there are some darker overtones in the novel which are left out, probably for good reason.
I’ve tried to forget the sequel Return To Neverland, and the prequel Tinker Bell, but the 1953 animated Pan is an animated classic that stands the test of time marvellously.
One Hundred And One Dalmatians (1961)
Whenever a villain isn’t quite threatening enough, many reviewers will refer to Cruella De Vil as the model of how it should really be done. That’s an accolade to this inspired conversion of the work of novelist and playwright Dodie Smith, and the amazing skills of animator Ub Iwerks and his Disney team, who put this movie together.
It was the first to use cell Xeroxing, and this gave the production an entirely different visual impact to the animated features that came before it. Forget the live action versions with Glenn Close and talking animals, this is the best Dalmatians movie by a country mile.
The Sword In The Stone (1963)
As a child, I enjoyed this Arthurian animated romp without ever realising that it was based on the T. H. White’s The Once And Future King (yes, the same book that Charles Xavier talks about, and Magneto is reading in X2!).
The book is divided into four parts, of which The Sword In The Stone is actually just the first part, and covers Arthur’s early mentoring by Merlin.
The Disney version is light, bright and mixes magic, humour and adventure in equally large helpings. But, given how dark the later chapters in the book become, I can see why they stopped at The Sword In The Stone.
Winnie The Pooh (1966 onwards)
Pooh first appeared in a series of sixties short animated movies after Disney licensed certain rights to characters and stories by A. A. Milne. What made these productions so endearing was the stylised illustration look and the unique voice talent of Sterling Holloway as Pooh.
The original illustrations by E. H. Shepard inspired the Disney artists, and the charm of the original stories of Christopher Robin, Pooh, Piglet and friends are now timeless classics in their own right.
Since then, Disney has been tempted to stray away from the Hundred Acre Wood and Milne’s source material, introducing a Gopher (not indigenous to the UK), and more recently replacing Christopher Robin with a girl, no less!
But we’re promised that Pooh is going back to his roots when Disney releases an all-new Winnie The Pooh feature film next year. Not bad for a bear of very little brain…
The Jungle Book (1967)
Okay, I accept that Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay, but he’s generally accepted to be a British author, and so I’ve included his classic animated movie as one of those that should be here.
What most people don’t realise is that The Jungle Book in print contains fourteen stories in all, about which only some are about Mowgli and his unorthodox upbringing.
Those responsible for converting this into a movie did an exceptional job, tuning into the very modern vibes about man in harmony with nature, while working in lots of visual gags and even some memorable musical numbers.
The inclusion of songs wasn’t purely a Disney invention, the Ripling original has some, but not The Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You in it.
The other highlights of this film are the numerous exceptional voice talents, including Phil Harris as Baloo, George Sanders as Shere Khan and Sterling Holloway (Pooh) as Kaa the Python.
Walt Disney, sadly, died during the making of The Jungle Book, so it marks the end of an era in that respect.Bedknobs And Broomsticks (1971)
Yes, I accept this is essentially a live action movie, but it does have plenty of animation in it also, so I thought I’d include it.
The source material here was two books by English author Mary Norton, entitled The Magic Bed Knob, Or, How To Become A Witch In Ten Easy Lessons and Bonfires And Broomsticks. It features the pre-investigative Angela Lansbury and quintessential Brit David Tomlinson.
In many respects this movie is a soul mate to Mary Poppins (1964), having a very similar feel and ingredients. It’s all tons of fun, and who can’t love a Disney movie that has Nazis in it getting a kicking from a British museum collection?
I often wonder if Angela still has that bedknob somewhere?
The Rescuers (1977)
I wasn’t anticipating including this until I realised that Margery Sharp, writer of children’s novels The Rescuers (1959) and Miss Bianca (1962), from which this movie took its inspiration, was English.
Margery Sharp went on to write many books involving the Rescuers, the last being published a year after the movie was released.
What I love about this production is that, while the animal characters are attempting to rescue the abducted child, Penny, she’s not remotely compliant with Madame Medusa and her henchmen, especially the alligators, Brutus and Nero.
This movie came at an important time for Disney animation when it’d had a difficult period adapting to the changing tastes of seventies children. It doesn’t have the technical wonder of earlier movies, but it’s jolly entertaining all the same.
The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Eve Titus, the author whose book was the trigger for this movie, was a New Yorker, but she was happy to cite the works of Conan Doyle, and Sherlock Holmes is at the heart of what The Great Mouse Detective is all about.
What’s important about this production is that it was an important steppingstone to an animation revival. The first film directed by animator Ron Clements, he then went on to deliver The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and most recently The Princess And The Frog.
In the UK, it was released as Basil The Great Mouse Detective, if I recall correctly. If, or rather when this gets a Blu-ray release I know at least one contributor here who’d give an aging relative or two to own a HD copy of this movie.
The Lion King has many parallels with Hamlet, by William Shakespeare.The Black Cauldron is based on Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles Of Prydain, which borrows in turn from Welsh mythology.Treasure Planet, an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure novel Treasure Island.Oliver & Company is a reworking of Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens.
Alice In Wonderland is on Disney DVD and Blu-ray from Friday 4th June.