Three Forgotten Disney Animated Features

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

One of my worst selling books is Everything I Know I Learned from Disney Animated Feature Films: Advice for Living Happily After. It is not a bad book, and 83% rated it as worthy of five stars.

So people who buy it like it, but people aren't interested in purchasing it in the first place. Why?

Basically it provides a short summary of the movie, fun facts and inspirational quotes from 54 Disney animated feature films from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs through Frozen. I grew up during a time when people were fascinated by Disney animation and bought cels with even more fervor than people now buy Vinylmation and Tsum Tsums. Disney animators were well-known celebrities.

That is not the case today. I bet few if any people reading this column (even those who could talk about the fabled Nine Old Men or Glen Keane or whomever) can identify who the lead animator was on Olaf in Frozen.

Today, Disney fans just seem casually interested in Disney's animated features. In addition, when people do write about the animated features, it is usually about a handful of iconic classics and they ignore the other films where Disney animators still put in a lot of thought and effort.

The choices of the animation team were not casual coincidences, but meant to be seamless support of the storytelling and the characters.

Black Cauldron (1985) was supposed to usher in a new renaissance of Disney animation. It didn't.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) was meant to be a thrilling adventure film in the spirit of the Ray Harryhausen movies and Disneyland's submarine voyage was going to be re-themed to the movie. However, the script and its spectacle scenes were severely "watered-down" by higher executives.

Brother Bear (2003) was expected to be another hit from the Disney Feature Animation Florida, which had just produced Mulan and Lilo and Stitch. Instead it was the beginning of the end for that feature animation annex on the East Coast.

I re-watched all three films to write my book, and I enjoyed all three to different degrees. This week, I have decided to devote short essays to each film to perhaps provide a better appreciation of some of the details in each. Perhaps it might encourage some of you to re-watch these forgotten films.

Black Cauldron: Witches of Morva

Deep in the dreary marshes of Morva, surrounded by sickly mist and twisted, decaying landscaping, sits the ramshackle cottage of the three powerful witches of Morva who live alone in this forsaken place. The cluttered interior is in dusty disarray but hides many of the dark secrets of these sinister sisters.

Black Cauldron was supposed to usher in a new renaissance of Disney animation.

Concealed among a towering pile of rusty kettles and battered pots is the terrifying Black Cauldron. When evil Arawan broke his pledge to return it after creating his army of zombie warriors, he paid a severe price: the angry enchantresses reclaimed it themselves and once again secured it safely in their forest hovel.

In the original book by author Lloyd Alexander, the hideous threesome had an age-worn loom and were meant to resemble the famous Fates of Greek mythology who controlled the destiny of every person alive with the tattered threads on their ancient loom. As one of the Fair Folk says to the heroic Taran, "It's more a question of what they are, not who they are."

"We're neither good nor evil. We are simply interested in things as they are. Care isn't really a feeling we can have," claims the ugly Orddu in the book.

Forceful Orddu, with her straggly crimson hair frantically seeking escape from the prison of her small simple headband, is the dominating leader of this terrible trio. Physically, she is the tallest with a plump torso, but oddly scrawny arms and bony legs that flail wildly as she talks. Her long pointed nose protrudes outward like a warty spike above her toothless grin. She passionately craves Taran's powerful sword and furiously sulks at the end of the film when the other two witches offer it back to the disheartened Taran.

Hunched over Orgorch, wearing the traditional pointed witch's hat, is the most disagreeable of the three mystical hags, constantly at odds with the desires of her siblings. Half as tall as Orddu, Orgorch has the same spiky defined features and unkempt fire red hair, but her physical appearance seems even more evil when combined with her aggressively threatening personality. It is quickly apparent that she has no patience with idle chatter when there is something to be transformed and eaten. With her sharp, pointed teeth, she is ravenously hungry for her favorite snack—fresh juicy tender frog legs.

The voice for Orgorch was actress Billie Hayes, who played a funny but fearful witch character who desperately schemed to steal a magic flute on a popular children's television show nearly a decade earlier when production on the animated feature originally began, and was a favorite of some of the young Disney animators.

That show was Sid and Marty Krofft's H.R. Pufnstuf where she played Witchiepoo. At the age of 85, she still continues to do voice over work for cartoons.

Girlishly plump Orwen, with her huge rolls of flesh cascading over her large body and her annoying giggle, appears to be the youngest of the group. She is the only one to wear make-up, but overdoes the pinkish cheek rouge and blood red lipstick so that it distracts from any natural attractiveness. She is the only sister to wear jewelry, a necklace of oddly shaped asymmetrical blue stones, and frilly purple pantaloons under her dress. Unlike her fellow witches, this flirtatious sorceress is hopelessly and constantly lovestruck and decides her perfect mate is the hapless Fflewddur Fflam, the aged minstrel who is visibly repulsed by her too-abundant charms.

However, like her magical companions, Orwen should be greatly feared. The three of them have turned all humans who have unknowingly offended them into frightened little green frogs, and intend to do the same with the brave Taran and his compatriots for inadvertently releasing dozens of the imprisoned amphibians from a creaky old brown chest in the living room. The three barefooted sisters, clad in loose, bluish colored garments, chatter quite jovially and casually about the most dreadful things—like dining on the transformed frogs—that frightens and unnerves the heroic band.

While the wicked inhabitants of the scary home retain some of the horrible whimsy of their literary counterparts, the adapted story in the animated feature, according to animation historian Brian Sibley, allowed "little or no time for them to be adequately established, let alone fully developed…it results in an almost lack of involvement [by the audience] with these delightful characters."

One of the most important aspects that remained about these Morvaian mystics was their love of negotiating. Crafty Orddu pridefully exclaims, "We never give anything away. What we do is bargain. Trade." The two trades they arrange for the Black Cauldron are key pivotal moments in the final animated feature and, strangely, favor the heroes and what they need to live happily ever after.

Being supernatural, the trio also inhabit an ethereal plane high in the clouds where they casually lounge while observing the affairs of humans. They await the proper moment to exercise their mischief by projecting crackling blue light magical sparkles from their tapered white fingertips.

In the original book, the witches could transform themselves into beautiful maidens and, in fact, trade identities with each other—although none of them ever wanted to transform into disgusting Orgorch, who always had intestinal problems from eating too many toads.

The energetic sorcery of these exuberant crones supplies an element of dark humor that reminds audiences of the overwhelming forces that ill-equipped Taran and his friends will ultimately confront in their final battle with the Horned King. Avoid the Witches of Morva or you may end up croaking in more ways than one.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire: When Milo Met Kida

Can a white-haired 8,000-year-old warrior princess find true happiness and discover the solution to the biggest mystery of her people with the help of a skinny, bespectacled 20-something cartographer and linguist?

Atlantis was planned to spawn a redesign of the Submarine Voyage.

That unusual question is answered in Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) when Atlantean Princess Kidagakash Nedakh, better known as Kida, meets unexpected hero Milo Thatch in the slowly decaying underground world of Atlantis.

One of the abiding themes in many Disney animated films is the enormous growth of character that happens when two people of different cultures interact. This theme is shown in Disney movies from a prepubescent little native Hawaiian girl confronting a living experiment from outer space in Lilo and Stitch (2002), to the historical tale of a British adventurer learning about the importance of the colors of the wind from a strong-willed Native American woman in Pocahontas (1995).

In Atlantis, the emotionally charged relationship between Kida and Milo eventually propels them to painful individual sacrifice to save an entire civilization. Strangely, this heroic transformation began with their first tentative encounters.

After a blazing underground inferno, the eclectic Whitmore expedition members are separated, and a wounded Milo lies unconscious in a darkened corner of the cavern. Frightening Atlantean masked warriors surround helpless Milo and are about to kill him when their fierce leader halts them with "he doesn't appear hostile."

Slowly awakening, Milo finds himself perilously face to face with the intimidating leader who lifts her elaborate mask to reveal the beautiful tattooed visage of Princess Kida. In a seemingly endless moment of uncomfortable silence, they stare quizzically at each other in amazement. Cautious Kida uses the glowing blue crystal shard around her neck to heal Milo's jagged cut on his chest. As she and her agile warriors leap away into the darkness, Milo is unaware that is the first time in a 1,000 years that Kida has not immediately killed a surface dweller. Unexpectedly, this instant physical chemistry between the two of them has superseded the ancient Atlantean law that "no outsiders may see the city and live."

Composer James Newton Howard's score for the film has been described as "quiet and mysterious" by one reviewer. However, Howard used chimes, flutes and a chorus on one of his favorite tracks, "Milo meets Kida," to create "a feeling of cuteness and humor" for the moment. The playful music alerts the audience of the strong connection between these two major characters.

Mere moments later, confused Milo, as well as the rest of the entire expedition crew, are confronted by Kida again. She sternly questions them in Atlantean and is stunned when Milo is able to parrot back what she has asked. Milo then attempts to tell her that he is a friendly traveler and she disdainfully corrects his grammar.

Cree Summer, the original voice of Kida, remarked, "Milo annoys her a little bit at first and that fascinates her. Of course, that fascination leads to something much more."

"Kida is strong willed and knows what she wants. She is tough, but cute. Her words can seem harsh so you have to look at what's behind her words. She has a playful side and it only comes out when she's with Milo," said Kida animator Randy Haycock.

The respect and affection between Kida and Milo continues to grow as she tours him through the industrious city, including the bustling marketplace. They hesitantly share information about each other's lives and it is clear that an emotional bond has been created during this colorful journey.

Concerned Kida hopes that this preoccupied scholar can help unlock the mysteries of Atlantis' past and perhaps save its future. Having Milo translate a sunken mural is the key to revealing the long lost secret.

As Kida and Milo unashamedly peel off their clothing to swim to a sunken mural, the film's directors stated that the characters are at the same time symbolically peeling off emotional layers that make them more vulnerable to each other. Producer Don Hahn claims that this pivotal moment in the film not only reveals important information but firmly establishes the relationship.

Hahn pointed out that "When they are in the underwater dome air pocket, it forces the two of them together so that we just see two faces next to each other and the lighting gives it a nice romantic quality."

"The exploration of the mural not only satisfies the necessary exposition of the Atlantean history but there is also an element of a subtextual romance as they solve a mystery together," added director Kirk Wise.

Usually in these stories, one person shares their culture with the other person and the reasons behind those traditions. In Atlantis, it is Milo who must explain to Kida her own history and why her civilization is dying. Together, they discover the truth of the Crystal Chamber. In the process, they are challenged to the highest level of personal courage to save Atlantis, something they would never have been able to do individually if they had never met.

Brother Bear: Koda and His Mother

A caring mother offering loving support and protection can be a boy's best friend, as shown in many of the classic Disney animated features, often inspiring her child to greater heights like in Dumbo (1941). However, sometimes that vital encouraging role is missing from the final story except as a precious memory.

Brother Bear ended up being one of the last pieces of animation produced by the East Coast animation team.

"There are mothers missing from some of the animated features, because Walt felt that a family was like a three legged stool. Each individual leg represented a father, a mother and a child. There is no story there because it is complete and whole. If you remove a leg, like the mother, then the other two have to struggle to regain balance and make things whole again," recalled legendary Disney animator Frank Thomas. "That makes an interesting story. It worked in films from Bambi [1942] to the more recent ones with Ariel and Aladdin where they don't have the comfort and guidance of a mother."

That intriguing concept is one of the major elements in Brother Bear (2003), where a young cub named Koda is separated from his mother by the foolishness of a native warrior named Kenai, who has been changed into an uncoordinated bear for his heinous act of killing Koda's mother.

A mother bear is always a single parent, and her dedication to her young cubs results in much of her time and energy spent teaching them to survive out on their own. A mother bear frequently travels by herself during her daily routine, especially when investigating new food sources or unfamiliar territory, so it is not unusual for a mother and a cub to be separated for periods of time, just as Koda is separated from his mother.

Throughout his adventures with the transformed Kenai, scrappy Koda constantly rattles off the many lessons his mother has diligently tried to teach him, from how the mighty spirits make all the magical changes in the world, to how to spot and avoid deadly traps to the necessity of staying away from the frightening two-legged monsters with killing sticks.

"Despite his ready-for-the world fearlessness, Koda is terrified of man—something he hasn't learned about firsthand, only from his mother's teaching," shared producer Chuck Williams

The repeating of all these important lessons to the awkward Kenai helps lonely Koda keep the memory of his mother alive until they will be reunited at the fabled Salmon Run. Koda does not suspect that his mother will not be there this year, because she has been killed by a vengeful Kenai, and that he will be left with only fond memories of her.

Seventy percent of the deaths of humans by grizzly bears are by mothers defending their helpless cubs, as demonstrated in a pivotal scene in the movie that provides Koda with his strongest memory of his brave mother protecting him from a trio of unrelenting human hunters.

At the annual gathering of all the bears for the legendary Salmon Run, each beastly bruin must share the most memorable thing that happened during the previous year. While these stories are generally more mundane than interesting, Koda's account of last seeing his mother alive captures the rapt attention of the entire slew of bears.

According to Koda, it all took place on the fifth or sixth coldest day of his entire life. High atop a lofty glacier, little Koda and his mother were happily enjoying a feast of fresh fish when she suddenly pushed him roughly into the nearby bushes. She had sensed danger in the air and she was right. Hiding quietly in the foliage by a large fallen tree limb, Koda can only stare wide-eyed as his mother is attacked by the hunter Kenai and his two brothers. She is too quick for these human monsters even though, at one point, she is backed up against the side of the glacier. Standing tall to her full height she howls at them to "go away," but the hunters only hear a threatening growl and increase their efforts.

Koda admits that he never felt more scared in his entire life than when he saw his affectionate mother topple from the precarious heights of the shattered glacier into the icy waters far below. Fortunately, a relieved Koda also saw her successfully struggle against the current and make it safely to shore where she was able to wearily trudge off in the direction of the Salmon Run.

It is Koda's vivid recounting of this epic memory that has held his listeners spellbound, and has scared Kenai into the heartbreaking revelation that he has murdered the mother of his new bear brother. While Kenai's memory of the situation had been a noble son trying to regain his honor and helping his brothers against a fearsome, murderous creature, Koda's impression of the same incident is of a desperate and brave mother protecting her small cub from thoughtless killers with spears.

"The film is a story of transformation…not just the main character of Kenai, but the other characters, as well, who are transformed physically or emotionally or both through their journey," Williams said. "With the absence of his mother, Koda ironically assumes that same role as a mentor to Kenai, teaching him the rules of the forest he learned from his mother…"

One final transformation awaits Koda as he must accept the loss of his mother as his next step on his pathway to being an adult. His love for his mother is so strong that she appears briefly to him in her illuminated spirit form. As she warmly cuddles him one last time, it reassures the tender cub that while he may only have the memories of her to take with him through the rest of his life, that they will be enough to sustain him—especially his strongest image of how she safeguarded him on that fateful day he will never forget.