27 January 2012

Disney Daze: Week 4: Dumbo

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

With the coffers dangerously low following the box office failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia, Walt Disney knew that his next feature had to be done quickly and inexpensively.  In January 1940, as laborious work continued on a naturalistic story about the life of a deer--a work the studio had been plugging away at since before Snow White's release--Walt optioned the rights to a children's book about an ostracized elephant with enormous ears named Dumbo.  Come summer the film was in storyboards and in the fall of 1941 Dumbo was playing in theatres across the country to enthusiastic audiences and rave reviews.  The film singlehandedly saved the studio from its perilously close brush with bankruptcy.  It was a triumph in every sense of the word, financially, publicly, and most importantly, artistically.

Dumbo, significantly smaller in scale than Pinocchio and less than half the length of Fantasia, is an economical marvel.  Walt trimmed what he could where he could without ever once sacrificing quality.  He passed all of these savings onto us, the audience.  Instead of intricately painted backgrounds with incredible depths of field, he had modest watercolored sets of simple yet effective design.  Unlike his three previous groundbreaking features, Dumbo did not introduce some new, virtuosic special effect.  Naturalism too was out the window, at least for the time being.  Dumbo is by far the most cartoonish picture of the studio's golden age and its magnificence is the ultimate proof that such aspirations can also attain cinematic transcendence.

Dumbo begins with a bang, its title card bursts off the screen before a series of fantastic credits designed like circus posters unfold before us.  The poster colors and typography are excellent examples of big top bombast and serve as a wonderful means of orientation into the film and its setting in lieu of a "traditional" Disney storybook opening, which both Snow White and Pinocchio possess (Fantasia in its roadshow format had no credits).  Dumbo sets the whiz-bang mood from the get-go.  We are then thrust incongruously into the chaos of a storm, thunder cracking and rain gushing down.  The sound of a plane buzzes by but all we see is grey tinged with lightning.  But before we know it the storm passes and the plane is nowhere to be seen.  Instead a flock of storks fill the screen, each carrying a bundle destined for the many animals employed by the circus.  The brief sequence of the mothers meeting their infants for the first time is a gem of pleasing gags.  That is until we stumble upon hopeful Mrs. Jumbo, one of the circus's many elephants, who looks longingly to the skies in anticipation for her expectant child.  

Unfortunately her bundle and carrier are lagging behind, slightly lost.  The stork, voiced by the great Sterling Holloway (Winnie-the-Pooh), is a charming minor character who shines in his brief delivery scene.  I love his obstinate professionalism, refusing to allow the eager Mrs. Jumbo (and the audience) to meet her baby before he recites the requisite poem that is included in the service.  Once the proper protocols are performed, the baby--our pachyderm protagonist---is unveiled.  The other elephants, all spineless gossiping spinsters, coo and coddle the child until it is discovered that he has disproportional ears and these harpies turn on a dime.  They gasp and whisper, shocked at the affront to their inherent dignity.  Amidst the protestations one crony gives little Jumbo Jr. his name, Dumbo. 

Through these first four Disney features, Vladimir "Bill" Tytla has quickly become my favorite character animator.  After giving life to the stubborn dwarf Grumpy, the bombastic Stromboli, and the fearsome Chernabog, Tytla was tasked here with animating our big-eared, mute protagonist, quite possibly the most adorable character in animation history (and the absolute antithesis of his predecessor, Fantasia's demon god).  From the onset Dumbo's innocence and eagerness to please beams from the screen.  Later, after his mother is taken away, the child's loneliness and uncertainty are handled with an intuitive gentleness that is unmatched in animation.  Sadly Dumbo would be Tytla's last major work for the studio.  Shortly after the film's completion, a bitter two-month strike forever changed the studio.  Tytla, one of the highest paid employees at the time, sympathized with the strikers, despite his misgivings with betraying Walt.  Following the standoff, the atmosphere at the studio changed dramatically.  Formerly home to a spirit of intense camaraderie, there was now a seeping, seething hostility.  Tytla managed to create some fine work on lesser films before finally leaving the company in 1943, a decision he would regret for the rest of his life.  And I regret it too, because we missed out on a few more decades of great animation.  Bill Tytla is one of the great unsung artists of the twentieth century.

Shortly after Dumbo's introduction, a scene of heartbreaking torment by local ruffians leads his mother into a raging rampage to protect her son.  Her violence results in a solitary confinement that might as well be death.  In fact, having not seen the film since childhood, my emotional memory was certain of Mrs. Jumbo's demise.  Her release and reunion at the end of the picture was no match in my mind for the trauma of her incarceration.  The scene of Dumbo visiting his mother in her cage, swinging on her trunk to the Oscar-winning "Baby Mine" is one of the most devastating in Disney history.

But Dumbo isn't all longing, mockery, and loneliness.  It also contains the most joyous, avant garde spectacle ever concocted by the studio.  After Dumbo and his wise-cracking Jiminy Cricket surrogate Timothy Q. Mouse accidentally become intoxicated (damn clowns), we are treated to the exquisite piece of pure animation, "Pink Elephants on Parade", a kaleidoscopic tour-de-force that manages to out-Fantasia Fantasia.  Perspectives skew, stretch and switch, forms explode themselves and dissolve into hallucinatory parts.  The vibrancy and audacity of this scene show a studio brash enough to try just about anything.  They were far from playing it safe.  There were plenty of trippy interludes to come from the Disney studio--from Heffalumps and Woozles to the whole of Alice in Wonderland--but none of them were as perfect as "Pink Elephants on Parade".  

Hungover the next morning, Timothy and Dumbo meet a ragtag group of wisecracking crows who ultimately allow Dumbo to realize his full potential.  Although there is a nothing in Dumbo as blatantly offensive as the character Sunflower in Fantasia, there are indeed some uncomfortable elements.  Most people harp on the characterization of the crows, which is understandable if blown a bit out of proportion.  While the characters are admittedly broad caricatures that reinforce black stereotypes, I don't actually find much to get upset about.  The crows are the coolest, most interesting and intelligent characters in the whole film.  They are the key to Dumbo's ultimate success, giving him the means to become something truly special.  Despite their initial mockery, they are sympathetic and compassionate, which no one else in the film is.  Besides Timothy, they are the only ones who give Dumbo a chance.  Their antics and appearance are outlandish but they're never treated demeaningly.   

Unfortunately that cannot be said for the black human characters in the film who are portrayed as faceless laborers with no intelligence and apparently less indignation.  As they hoist up the tents in a driving rain for the circus's next performance, the laborers sing a little ditty called "Song of the Roustabouts" that features such choice lines as "we work all day, we work all night / we never learned to read or write / we're happy hearted roustabouts."  These poor men toil away, or according to the lyric "slave till we're almost dead" with no interest in financial compensation.  No, in fact they throw their money away because the real pay comes with watching the children happy at the circus.  How quaint.  "Grab that rope, you hairy ape!" they shout to one another during the one serious blight in an otherwise flawless feature.   

After discovering that the hidden potential of his humungous ears is the ability to fly, Dumbo returns to the circus and his gig as a clown.  The film's penultimate scene mirrors Dumbo's inaugural appearance with the clowns, wherein he was put in peril only to be mocked and jeered for laughs.  This time though Dumbo turns the tables, flying by and wreaking havoc on the performers, finally asserting himself after a life of passive timidity.  The crowd loves the spectacle, anointing Dumbo a star, his newfound fame precipitating his mother's freedom.  The final moments of the film are of the Casey, Jr circus train chugging along into the sunset as Mrs. Jumbo watches her son and his friends Timothy and the crows fly beside her.

Dumbo is breathlessly paced but it's a confident rhythm that never once falters.  Both Snow White and Pinocchio start off leisurely, taking their sweet time establishing mood and relationships before jump-starting the story and ramping up to ultimately chaotic third acts.  If there is a fault with the pacing of those masterpieces it's that the endings arrive unexpectedly and are over far too soon.  While Dumbo's resolution too comes within the final five minutes of the film it goes down smoother because the whole film never slowed down.  Not that it's ever rushed, in fact quite the contrary.  Dumbo makes every minute count without ever stuffing itself or glossing things over.  It is a streamlined piece of artistic engineering, constructed with care and built to last.  

20 January 2012

Disney Daze: Week 3: Fantasia

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

The film that ultimately became Fantasia grew out of a desire to reintroduce Mickey Mouse to a public whose affinity for the character was on the wane. By the mid-1930s other Disney creations, including Donald Duck and Goofy, were consistently upstaging the studio's mascot.  Walt vowed to rectify this, putting his alter ego--whom he had voiced himself--back into the spotlight.  He knew that this could not be achieved with just another Mickey Mouse-brand short.  He needed to make Mickey's return special.  Walt ultimately struck upon the idea of setting a cartoon to a beloved piece of classical music, conducted by a superstar.  This would be a melding of the character-driven antics typical of the Donald Duck shorts with the more elegant animation found in the studio's more experimental Silly Symphonies.  When the cost of the resultant short became entirely too exorbitant to be recouped alone, Disney decided to bundle the film as one of many in a feature-length program of classical pieces, animated in a variety of styles.

Originally released in thirteen US cities with a lavish roadshow production, Fantasia was the event film of its day, akin to today's popularity with IMAX screenings.  Exhibitors showing Fantasia were outfitted with state-of-the-art Fantasound, which as the name implies was created specifically for the feature.  The film comprises seven distinct shorts animated in accordance to a veritable greatest hits of classical music conducted by the venerable Leopold Stokowski.  Stokowski, who offered to work for free on the project, was the first person to suggest the feature-length version of the work, and was also the one who gave the film its name.  In between animated segments, the audience is given some background on the pieces along with an idea of what the animation is portraying.

The first piece of Fantasia, Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" is the most abstract and experimental work.  The silhouettes of the musicians slowly dissolve into floating strings, rolling hills, and pastel monoliths.  I consider this section one of the most invigorating in the film.  The animation may not truly convey what one imagines when they listen to music but the dream logic flows smoothly and beautifully.  There are moments in this section that are direct precursors to some of the avant garde styles of lysergic 60s films like Yellow Submarine.  (It comes as no surprise that the film was re-released in 1969 with the tagline, "The Ultimate Trip".)  To come as the initial segment of a Walt Disney Studios production in 1940 must have been quite a shock.  It still is today, in fact maybe even more so.  I wonder how synesthetes like this section.  Do the colors and shapes match up with the ones in their mind's eye?

The second segment, animated to "the Nutcracker Suite", is the most gorgeous section of the whole feature.  Depicting the changing of seasons with all manner of flora, fish, and fairies, the level of artistry on display is unparalleled.  Time and again, Disney historians like to single out the work of certain animators who created a particularly flawless piece of art, but I want to give a shout out to the ink-and-paint department here.  Unfortunately we have no way of singling out the fine (mostly) women who worked so hard on this feature.  The vibrant colors in the Nutcracker section are utterly exquisite, particularly on the Blu-ray.  They pop off the screen like a confectionary kaleidoscope.  The gentle shadings on the mushroom heads and dying leaves contribute just as much to this pastel pastoral as the admittedly fine line drawings.

Next up is "the Sorcerer's Apprentice", Mickey's triumphant return to center stage.  The segment certainly is a wonderful showcase for Mickey and it's great to see him playing a scamp closer in spirit to his original reckless self, than the neutered face of a corporation he ultimately became.  Here Mickey is lazy and foolish and boy, is that more fun than watching him play Bob Cratchit.  While his appearance here was the whole reason for Fantasia coming into being and on it's own I find the short thoroughly worthwhile, the last several times I've seen the film, "the Sorcerer's Apprentice" has left me decidedly underwhelmed.  It's distracting seeing Mickey in the middle of this buffet of animation, it feels a bit like a guest appearance shoe-horned in.  Ultimately his persona and the more cartoonish qualities don't fit with the overall feel of Fantasia.  That being said, there are some lovely moments in this section, particularly the slaying in the shadows of the rogue broom and the subsequent brief flashes of black-and-white before the broom's multiplying resurrection.

The least successful section of the film follows, the attempt to tie Stravinsky's "the Rite of Spring" with the creation of life on earth.  While I applaud the use of a relatively contemporary composer with Stravinsky, less than thirty years after this very work caused riots at its premiere, and the use of a scientific depiction of the beginning of life, the segment generally falls flat.  There are flashes of brilliance in the animation, the opening shot of the galaxy being a particular standout, but the dinosaurs are poorly conceived (admittedly due in part to flawed scientific conceptions at the time) and the rest of the scene is rather ugly.  It overstays its welcome long before its completion.  Despite the segment's flaws, it does contain my favorite line in any Disney film when our host, music critic Deems Taylor (overdubbed by Corey Burton for re-release when the original masters were lost) introduces the scene with: "So now imagine yourselves out in space billions and billions of years ago looking down on this lonely, tormented little planet spinning through an empty sea of nothingness."  Will do!

The second half of Fantasia is much stronger than the first.  After the intermission, which during the original roadshow lasted fifteen minutes, we are treated to a gorgeous companion to "the Nutcracker Suite", Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony".  Although the ancient Greek setting of centaurs, fauns, and gods was not the original inspiration of Beethoven's work, this segment succeeds much better than the equally incongruent "Rite of Spring" section preceding.  The animation here runs the gamut from whimsical, harrowing, and romantic.  From Bacchus's drunken shenanigans to the exquisite rainbow cresting through the sky, "The Pastoral Symphony" has something for everybody.

Unfortunately some of those somebodies are racists.  While the Asian mushrooms and the fanning African centaurettes are retained on the Blu-ray edition of Fantasia, the original theatrical release and all subsequent releases until the mid-1960s featured snippets of some truly racist imagery.  A black centaurette named Sunflower, who is drawn as an extremely outlandish Sambo-esque caricature, is seen attending to the more fair-skinned ladies, polishing their hooves and braiding their tails.  She is the only centaurette left single at the end of the sequence and is obviously only there to serve her masters.  While it is blatantly obvious why Disney has tried to excise the character from history, I wish that we could have a completely unedited copy of the film for the very sake of historical study.  Washing this character away won't solve anything.  On the lush Complete Black-and-White Mickey Mouse collections, cartoons with offensive imagery or subject matter are prefaced with disclaimers to appease the lawyers, but the films are still available for viewing.  Disney needs to create similar releases for the likes of Fantasia and the unavailable Song of the South.  We need to learn from past generation's bigotry, not pretend like it never happened.  It too makes me uncomfortable seeing the stills of Sunflower but in a way that's a good thing.  That kind of flippant racism in mainstream society is thankfully now a complete relic.

The funniest and most consistently enjoyable section of Fantasia is the penultimate "Dance of the Hours" sequence which depicts the score's ballet performed by ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators.  The animation here is one of the greatest showcases of character animation in history.  Without words we are treated to fully realized performers like the prima donna and her ravenous Lothario.  The way the animators portray the unconscious dignity of these animals makes the sequence side-splittingly hilarious.  There is the calm grace of an elephant floating on a bubble and the modesty of a hippo pulling her tutu down as she lounges on a bench.  This segment in particular would work wonderfully next to Chuck Jones's phenomenal Warner Bros. short What's Opera, Doc?

A notebook was recently discovered near the old Disney Studios featuring an exhaustively detailed description of all of the special effects contained in Fantasia.  It was created by a man named Walter Schultheis who used to work for the studio.  Every single effect shot is described, diagrammed and depicted in this priceless artifact.  Some of the book can be seen on the Fantasia Blu-ray, but to really get a chance to delve into the work, one must visit the fantastic Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco which has digitized the important volume.  Many of the greatest effects shots are found in the dark doom of the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence that, juxtaposed with the peaceful procession of "Ave Maria", concludes Fantasia.  "Bald Mountain" features translucent spirits rising from their graves and ascending to a mountain's peak where the evil Chernabog commands ghouls to dance before he drops them into a fiery pit.  Like the Pleasure Island sequence in Pinocchio, "Night on Bald Mountain" tapped into a dark recess of my consciousness as a kid and has never let go.  Late at night I can still see the curious and demented visage of Chernabog as he studies the demons dancing in the palm of his hand.

After the adolescent scarring comes a denouement so muted that as a kid I probably didn't even notice it onscreen.  Now it has become my favorite piece of the film and one whose subtle power is undeniably strong.  The "Ave Maria" sequence contains the longest tracking shot in multi-plane history as we follow a candlelit procession through a dark forest and out into a glorious dawn.  That's it.  Nothing more to it.  Seven full minutes of a uniform pilgrimage marching slowly to the strains of a timeless hymn.  But contained in this section, deep within the frame, is an unyielding sense of righteousness, dignity, and dare I say it, love.  "Ave Maria, along with the opening "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor", are the two pieces in Fantasia that hint at where Walt Disney was hoping to usher animation.  Neither sequence has identifiable personalities, which put them at defiant odds with the dictionary definition of a cartoon.  They are more like moving paintings exhibited extravagantly in a grand concert hall.  They are full of deft line work, glorious color, and a soundtrack for the ages.


Fantasia is a phenomenal, fascinating, and occasionally frustrating work of art.  It is truly a film like no other and a reminder that the medium of cinema can aspire to something much more than what we normally expect.  Unfortunately, audiences tend to pay for things that they can safely anticipate so Fantasia failed to recoup its production cost during its initial run.  For the most part the masses who preferred their cartoons short, sweet and full of gags stayed away, accusing Disney of going highbrow.  The expensive costs of running the roadshow did not help matters, nor did the war raging in Europe.  It is a shame that this film, certainly the most artistically audacious and ambitious film Walt Disney ever produced, was not initially embraced as the grand experiment that it was.  While Walt would continue to work on expanding his artistic horizons and that of the studios, films like Destino--his surreal collaboration with Salvador Dali--were put on the back burner indefinitely.  Walt called Fantasia a mistake, but if anything it was a mistake in timing, nothing more.  The Catch-22 of Fantasia is that at no other time in cinema history could a visionary like Walt Disney mount such an original project with all the money and resources he required, even though no one at that moment in time was there to appreciate it.

13 January 2012

Disney Daze: Week 2: Pinocchio

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released, feature-length animated films, one per week.

Flush with cash and confidence following the huge financial and critical success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney doubled down on ambitious projects.  After building his animators a state-of-the-Art Deco campus, Walt dumped the remainder of Snow White's profits into a number of diverse films.  Refusing to rest on his laurels or take the safe route, Walt looked for fresh, innovative stories and ideas for his next work.  Ever the innovator, Walt flat out refused to follow up Snow White with another princess story and managed to hold out for almost a decade and a half before the studio's continued financial straits brought about by these risky chances forced his hand, and Cinderella was put into production.  Two such gambles saw release in 1940, the first of which was Pinocchio.

Based on a 19th-century novel by the Italian author Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio was a riskier bet than Snow White from the get-go.  While popular, particularly in its native country, Pinocchio was nowhere near as recognizable or beloved as the timeless fairy tales the studio later mined for feature film gold.  The story of a puppet who is tested with temptation on his journey to becoming a real boy, the work is a series of morality tales designed to scare kids straight.  While these elements remain intact in Disney's version, a lot of the darker themes have been eliminated.  For example, the original serialized work sees the puppet hanged for his many transgressions.

After a brief prologue, Pinocchio begins at night as transient cricket Jiminy Cricket stumbles through a small Italian village looking for a warm place to stay the night.  He happens upon the workshop of woodworker Geppetto, a kindly old man living with his cat and fish, who is just finishing up work on his latest creation, a puppet he names Pinocchio.  Geppetto goes to sleep wishing that his puppet will become a real boy.  Shortly thereafter the Blue Fairy arrives granting Pinocchio life and deputizing Jiminy Cricket as the puppet's conscience.

I mentioned last week how audacious it is that Snow White spends so much screen time on a small domestic scene at the dwarfs' cottage.  Little did I know that a similar sequence happens in Pinocchio and plays out for a similarly long period of time.  The opening section, which besides the opening credits and prologue, all takes place in Geppetto's workshop, unfolds over twenty-seven minutes, one full third of the film.  It is so sure of itself, in its storytelling, jokes and characters that we the audience barely notice the passage of time.  It's easy to forget how wonderful this low-key section of the film is because so much action and plot occurs afterward, but upon this most recent viewing, this opening segment has become my favorite section of the entire movie.  We get the lovely interplay of Figaro the grumpy cat (beautifully animated by Eric Larson) and Cleo the flirtatious fish.  We also get wonderfully creative cuckoo clocks, my two favorite being the dunking duck duo and the hiccuping wino (also, there's Geppetto's hilarious reaction to all of the synchronized chiming, "I wonder what time it is").  This cozy section of the film works almost as well as a stand alone short film but as a prelude for the series of mishaps about to ensue, it is marvelous.  Like the dwarf's cottage, we spend enough time with these characters to get a bead on them, learn of their relationships, hopes and dreams.  By scene's end we are sufficiently swept up in the emotional turmoil of separation that drives the rest of the film.

Immediately following this scene comes that glorious tracking shot I mentioned in last week's post.  It is the next morning and we descend upon the quaint village through multiple planes of scenery, panning to the right and pausing periodically to see children leaving home for school, their mothers wishing them well.  We move past foliage and through stone archways before resting on Pinocchio, eager to join the kids.  I mentioned at the time that the shot, though beautiful, is a little too flashy, and I stand by my assessment but dear god, how beautiful it is.  The technical achievement on display here--and later on in the film--is giddily exciting.  You can still feel the rush of exhilaration that the animators must have felt upon completing such a virtuosic and elegant shot.  Their audacity for achieving the unknown is utterly infectious.

Despite his best intentions, Pinocchio is quickly whisked away off his path to school by the grifters Honest John and Gideon, a feline pair of mischievous scoundrels who quickly sell Pinocchio to the greedy puppeteer Stromboli who imprisons Pinocchio, after his initial success with the rousing "I've Got No Strings" musical number.  After the arrival of the Blue Fairy and the unforgettable nose-growing scene, Pinocchio is set free only to run into Honest John and Gideon again who convince him to join a cavalcade of rowdy boys on an excursion to Pleasure Island, where they can brawl, smoke and break stuff to their hearts' content.  That is before they get turned into donkeys and are sent to work in circuses and salt mines.  Even as a full grown man (or as full grown as one can be whilst writing lengthy essays about cartoons) I must confess that fellow delinquent Lampwick's transformation into a jackass is still one of the most terrifying moments in cinema history.  His comeuppance is at first cathartic since he is such a nuisance, but once he discovers the extent of his transformation and begins pleading with Pinocchio for help--his hands that grip Pinocchio's shirt turning to hooves and his cries into whines--all frivolity is lost and we are frozen with horror.  The sequence is one of the most effective in the film, if not the entire Disney canon.  Ask anyone who has seen the film what they remember most and chances are it's Lampwick becoming a donkey.

Luckliy for our heroes, Pinocchio and Jiminy escape Pleasure Island relatively intact.  From here, the puppet is finally able to prove himself worthy of boyhood as he goes off to save his father, who is trapped in the belly of a whale.  The subsequent aquatic search and rescue of Geppetto is an absolute tour-de-force of animation.  The underwater effects are spectacular, particularly in such moments as when Pinocchio asks a school of fish where Monstro the Whale is and the fish flee in terror.  Their movement forces a blurring of water in the foreground, a sign of the exquisite attention to detail, that in its subtle genius thematically enhances the encroaching danger of Pinocchio's quest.  Sixty years after Pinocchio's release, Pixar released the wonderful Finding Nemo, a similarly heartwarming story of separation and reconciliation between a boy and his father that takes place mostly underwater.  The film was built on banks of expensive high-powered computers but I defy you to make the claim that the underwater animation is of a higher quality than that of the last ten minutes of Pinocchio.

Is it possible to nitpick a masterpiece?  Well, despite my reservations with such an endeavor I'm going to give it a try.  While I consider Pinocchio a supreme achievement, certainly one of the most innovative and rewarding animated works ever released, I am irked by a few minor quibbles that refuse to quiet down.  For one, I find the episodic nature of the second half of the film a little jarring.  There is barely any room for reflection from one escapade before we are thrust right in to a new danger which has little continuity with the preceding proceedings.  This is obviously a flaw inherent in the source material, which started out as a serialized work in Italy before being compiled and expanded into a novel.  A series of adventures piled on top of one another was the best way to keep audiences interested but as a film narrative it feels a little strained, especially after the beautifully contained rhythm of that opening sequence.

The other minor flaw that sticks in my craw is the repeated dei ex machina of the Blue Fairy.  I can get on board with her first rescue when Pinocchio is Stromboli's captive because hey, she's a magical being, she can come and go as she pleases, but at the end of this scene she says to Pinocchio and Jiminy that this is the last time that she will help them.  Of course, shortly after their next misadventure on Pleasure Island, Pinocchio and Jiminy are back at a vacant Geppetto's and are moments away from throwing in the towel, when a magic note descends from the sky telling them where to find Geppetto.  Come on Blue Fairy, make this kid work for it!  You shouldn't guide him every step of the way.  Anyway, a very minor quibble but it never fails to bug me.

Last week I failed to mention the wonderful songs permeating Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While "I'm Wishing", "Whistle While You Work" and "Someday My Prince Will Come" are all gems and the score as a whole may be better than Pinocchio's, nothing can compare to the iconic "When You Wish Upon a Star" that bookends the latter film.  Maybe I've been on Main Street USA one too many times at dusk but within the first few notes of "When You Wish Upon a Star", I'm welling up.  It's no wonder that Disney has continued to use this song as its anthem, seventy years after its release.  The song is a timeless masterpiece, not just from a songwriting perspective, but the film's version sung by Cliff Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket, is peerless.  A quick search shows contemporary versions by the likes of Brian Wilson, Los Lobos, and 'N Sync, but none of them will ever surpass Edwards' inimitable, reassuring croon.

Pinocchio may be the most lavish feature Disney ever released.  Thanks to those aforementioned receipts from Snow White, Walt spared no expense bringing this story to life and it shows in every single frame.  The wonderful characterizations, exquisite backgrounds, and phenomenal special effects are second to none.  Unfortunately the war then raging in Europe cut off a huge portion of potential box office revenue and the film was less-rapturously received than Snow White.  Subsequent Disney features would be constrained by budgets and management.  Who knows what artistic riches we would have reaped had this film and the next few in Disney's line-up been commercial successes.  We are lucky enough that films like Pinocchio were once given every opportunity to be great.

06 January 2012

Disney Daze: Week 1: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released, feature-length animated films, one per week.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is Walt Disney's greatest cinematic achievement. I don't mean to imply that it is the greatest film I will be watching over the course of this year, although there are several arguments to make in favor of such a theory, some of which I will delve into below. No, I simply mean, Snow White is the greatest work of animated art by Mr. Walter Elias Disney, the man, not the studio that bears his name. Snow White was the last animated project that Walt turned every ounce of his creative attention to. Certainly he had a strong hand in the subsequent features released during his lifetime, but all of these were vying for an increasingly splintered attention with other works the studio was simultaneously working on, and later the relentless pull of an amusement park several miles southeast of the studios. Snow White is Walt Disney's purest statement as an auteur, and a damn good one at that.

It's hard to view Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from outside the telescope of history. How it was the first non-shadow puppet animated feature of all time. How the film was the first of many experiments the press deemed "Disney's Folly", certain that the attempt at achieving the unprecedented would bankrupt and close the studio. How its success literally built the Disney studio that still stands today. How it created the mold that every single Disney princess film from here on out will be cast in. I don't think anyone can honestly separate the legacy from the film, but I went into my most recent viewing determined to try.

On a visual level, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is perfect. The backgrounds are masterpieces in their own right; the mannerisms of every character are fluid and distinctive; the special effects, particularly the few shots of rippling water, are stunning. The use of the multi-plane camera is incredibly effective without ever being distracting. Early on in Pinocchio, there is an establishing shot of the village that goes through several planes and pans to the right. It might be the single greatest shot in any animated film ever, but it is also just a tad too flashy. It is so incredible that it can't help but signal its virtuosity. Snow White's shots always serve the story first and foremost. Originally I had intended on singling out a shot from each feature I end up watching as the perfect moment, the one to frame and hang on the wall, but from the first Snow White slayed me. Every shot is gorgeous.  

Structurally, Snow White is really weird. It all makes sense in the end, but during the film the narrative flow feels slightly wrong. It starts out gorgeously gentle, then settles into a lengthy languid period, followed by a blazingly fast denouement and resolution. Half of the entire film is spent tidying a cottage, washing up for supper, and going to bed. It's like Jeanne Dielman up in this piece. I like it. Of course, the lengthy domestic section is built to allow the Dwarfs time to introduce themselves and develop a strong bond with this strange girl who will be found in a coma on their kitchen floor in less than twelve hours. We need to settle down with these people as they find their common bond through snappy songs and delightful gags.

Speaking briefly of the gags, I was surprised by how often the jokes in the film had me laughing. When I watch old Mickey Mouse cartoons now, I am continually entertained but rarely do the jokes make me chortle. Not so, Snow White. There is such care in every aspect of the filmmaking that the gags were no doubt scrutinized intently to make sure they're effective the hundredth time they're viewed. Most of my favorite comedic moments come from two characters throughout the film and no, they're not Dopey and Grumpy. Doc was actually the dwarf that had my attention the most. His constant stuttering and mangling of phrases leads to several gems, my favorite being the utterance "crooked fanny" because I am immature. I also loved how during the lengthy washing up sequence, he leads the dwarfs to the trough, teaches them the fundamentals of cleaning themselves through song and pantomime, but never actually cleans himself. The closest he gets is shining his spectacles. Even Grumpy, who refuses to participate, eventually gets bathed; but Doc manages to pull a fast one on the other dwarfs and subsequently Snow White.

My other favorite comedian in the film is the lowly turtle who spends all of his time onscreen trying to catch up to everyone. He struggles up the stairs to bed just in time for all of the other forest creatures to come clamoring down in a panic. When they all head off towards the mines to warn the dwarfs of the Queen's evil plot, he makes it about halfway through the woods before the cavalry comes storming back, knocking him down. This guy is like a silly Sisyphus, turning the endless struggle into one big cosmic joke. (How's that for high-falutin' writin'?)

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the tension and terror this film is capable of. The Queen's hysterical machinations drive her first to order Snow White slain, her heart cut out, and placed in a box; then it's on to magic spells to poison her and bury her alive! Can you imagine any film ostensibly aimed at children nowadays that has a hideous witch cackling with devilish delight, "buried alive!" as she exits her dungeon? She's so scary she frightened her own pet crow!

(A brief aside, if the Queen was doing this all out of jealousy over Snow White's ravishing good looks--and might I add, you were right Magic Mirror, she is the fairest of them all; take that Ariel--why doesn't she just task the huntsmen with using that knife to disfigure her, or cast a spell that will turn her permanently into the hag the Queen becomes? Because she's mega evil that's why.)

Detractors complain that Disney's versions of classic fairy tales usurp all other attempts at these works. In certain people's minds the Disney films become the definitive versions solely based upon the ubiquity of Disney's corporate reach and how it is there to coddle children from birth. That may be true to some extent but some of these adaptations, at the very least Snow White, are first and foremost works of peerless art. Snow White was not created with the greedy, cynical ideas of theme park spinoffs, plush dolls, or coloring books in mind; although admittedly all of those ancillary products did come to fruition somewhere down the line. The film was a challenge, a means of proving to the world, not least the orbit of Hollywood, that Disney's creations were achievements as important as those churned out by the other studios. Two new cinematic versions of the Snow White story will be released in 2012 but I can guarantee that neither will be able to hold a candle, nor an apple, to Walt Disney's singular masterpiece.

01 January 2012

My Top Ten Most Anticipated Films of 2012

Guess what?  The Dark Knight Rises is totally going to suck.  You know how I know?  My eyeballs and ear canals told me.  Between Anne Hathaway's clunky delivery of truly horrible dialogue in the trailer to the downright laughable six-minute mumblecore prologue attached to Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, this one looks like a true turkey.  And what's up with that football scene?

Below is a list of ten tantalizing, thought-provoking cinematic spectacles due out sometime in the next 365 days, all of which look infinitely more interesting than Tom Hardy with a gas mask.  (As a brief aside, if you want some really good contemporary Batman, you should check out Scott Snyder's current run in DC Comics' New 52.  Now that's an interesting Dark Knight!  Bonus: you can understand what everyone's saying!)  You won't find many of the other big blockbuster names here and for that I apologize.  I'm not sure why, but what the hell, I love ya!  What do you say, let's boogie!

10. Untitled Terrence Malick Project

Do I really think that this film starring Ben Affleck as a man who returns to his hometown after the dissolution of his marriage, will be released anytime in the next decade?  No, not really, but we have to tell ourselves lies in order to get through each agonizing day.  A new Malick film is like a golden carrot of destiny guiding us forward through the eternal abyss of time.  I'm writing this list way too late at night.

9. Gangster Squad

So that guy that made Zombieland is apparently directing a film about the L.A.P.D.'s war against organized crime in the 1940s and 50s and he got Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Josh Brolin and Nick Nolte to tag along.  That sounds like a pretty righteous idea.  Let's hope it cleanses Public Enemies from our collective consciousness.

8. Seven Psychopaths

Playwright Martin McDonagh reteams with his In Bruges star Colin Farrell for this, his second feature. The story of a screenwriter who winds up in a dognapping scheme sounds like just the right vehicle for McDonagh's trademark black comedy.  And with co-stars Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Mickey Rourke and Christopher Walken, the potential for shenanigans is at a fever pitch.

7. Wreck-It Ralph

Disney's newest animated feature is about a villain from a classic arcade game who longs to be a hero.  He attempts to do this by sneaking into a new fangled game and unleashing a vicious enemy in hopes of defeating it.  I'm not just plugging this just because I'm already vowing to watch it.  It actually sounds pretty interesting.   Plus, Ralph is voiced by John C. Reilly so you know it's going to be awesome.

6. Casa de mi Padre

Although I rarely find his films enjoyable on the whole, I think Will Ferrell is absolutely hilarious.  I especially like how he has used his fame as of late to do any weird, wacky thing that comes into his brain.  First there was the great appearance of ace reliever Rojo Johnson at a minor league baseball game, then came the Davenport, Iowa Milwaukee's Best commercials, and now comes this Spanish-language epic about two brothers trying to save their father's ranch from a drug lord.  Because, why the hell not?

5. Brave

If you couldn't tell by yesterday's list, Cars 2 really, really hurt.  I actually toyed with the idea of setting up an online campaign to raise funds to buy billboard space around Emeryville begging Pixar to stop making sequels.  Please Brave, prove me right by being original, heartfelt and incredible.  But nothing like the Incredibles.  We've already seen that movie.  Help me Brave, you're my only hope.

4. Lincoln

Steven Spielberg is back suckas and he's taking no prisoners.  His long-gestating tale about Abraham Lincoln navigating the Civil War is filming right now and looks like it should hit theatres right around Christmas.  The film stars Daniel Day-Lewis as the sixteenth president and is based on the work of Doris Kearns Goodwin.  She's a Red Sox fan but don't hold that against her.

3. Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon's contemporary adaptation of the classic Shakespeare comedy was shot at his house during his vacation away from some other movie he directed.  Much Ado features a veritable rogue's gallery of just about every wonderful actor from many of Whedon's beloved television series.  Above all the film stars Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as Beatrice and Benedick which means I can finally stop writing all of that Fred and Wesley Angel fan-fic.

2. Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino describes his latest film as a "Southern", a Western set in the South about a slave, played by Jamie Foxx, who rises up and wreaks vengeance upon his oppressors.  With a stunning supporting cast headed by Leonardo DiCaprio as the plantation owner, Django Unchained sounds like a hell of a bloody good time. 

1. The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the big screen for the first time in five years with this thinly veiled story about the rise of Scientology starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a man who comes home from war and decides to create his own religion.  It's going to be tough topping There Will Be Blood but this sounds like it's got a pretty great shot.

Boy, I can't wait to see how all of these movies let me down!