Wolfgang Reitherman is the definition of an unsung hero. He is not widely known and yet hast directed six of the biggest-grossing, most popular movies of the 1960s and 1970s, not to mention working on dozens of other classics. He was one of Walt Disney’s fabled Nine Old Men, the animators who defined, and refined, the company’s animation style.
Reitherman worked on all of the Golden Age animations of the 1940s and 50’s Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Lady and The Tramp. He then went on to direct several Disney animated feature films including, Sleeping Beauty (1959) One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Jungle Book (1967), The Aristocats (1970), Robin Hood (1973) and The Rescuers (1977).
You can tell a Reitherman film , both for its visual style and its tongue-in-cheek tone. By the time he was promoted to Chief Animation Director, times were changing and the detailed textures of the early days were becoming too expensive to justify, even for a money-making machine like Disney. And Reitherman pioneered a punchy, graphical style. Something about the improved speed and efficiency of the filmmaking altered the storytelling, too. Gone were the fastidious, arty adaptations of folk and fairy tales. 101 Dalmations for example 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. Straddling 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. 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, plus the amazing Robin Hood.
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 Tennessee twang of The Aristocats‘bloodhounds Napoleon and Lafayette.
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.
Reitherman died in 1985, aged 75 and 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.
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 will want to show your kids.
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Richard Ng (1939-2023)