30 March 2012

Disney Daze: Week 13: Alice in Wonderland

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 longest-gestating story at the Disney Studios during Walt's lifetime was that of an adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In fact Walt's affinity and appropriation of the story coincides with the birth of the studio itself, before the advent of Mickey Mouse or even Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Starting in 1923, Walt made a series of shorts called the Alice comedies, which featured a live action girl interacting with an animated environment, the first one called appropriately Alice's Wonderland. Later, when he had begun toying with the idea of creating a feature-length cartoon, Walt seriously considered Carroll's work before settling on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Immediately after that film's release, he planned on getting to Alice but the story was forestalled when he struggled to settle on a style of telling the story. Attempted versions included another live action hybrid, this time starring Ginger Rogers, and a faithful literary adaptation drawn in the style of original Alice illustrator Sir John Tenniel. It wouldn't be until the end of the 1940s when a more streamlined animation style and a loose interpretation of Carroll's two Alice books were settled upon and the film was put into production.

Alice in Wonderland is closest in narrative structure to 1940's Pinocchio due to its highly episodic nature. The film boasts a record thirteen credited writers, who were responsible for adapting both Carroll's original Alice book and its sequel Through the Looking Glass. The adherence to the source material is - befitting the work's tone - done with little rhyme or reason. While the first third of the film follows the Wonderland book fairly faithfully, it is not long before it deviates rather extensively from the novel. Certainly several integral elements from the books appear in the film but they are more on the periphery, serving as a springboard or window dressing to a fast and loose interpretation. Whole chapters of the book are excised completely and separate plot threads are combined to streamline the story.

While the film relies on the continued use of rotoscoping, it does not suffer nearly as much from the stilted animation of its predecessor Cinderella, thanks in part to the abundance of non-human characters like the Cheshire Cat and White Rabbit, as well as a consistently exaggerated design for the supporting humans like the Queen of Hearts and the Mad Hatter. Even Alice herself - though drawn from live action footage of her voice actor Kathryn Beaumont - has a more stylized design than that of Cinderella and her brethren. Miss Beaumont's Alice is also much more proactive than a lot of the women that fall under the incredibly loose Disney rubric of "princess". She is an adventurous dreamer who activates her own story by setting out on an exploration. Her stubbornness and inquisitive nature make her a more interesting and believable character. Beaumont's voice work helps distinguish Alice's personality and must have impressed Walt because she was immediately signed on to voice Wendy Darling in the studio's forthcoming Peter Pan.

In addition to Beaumont's fine work, the supporting cast of Alice in Wonderland is an absolute hoot, giving the Carrollian insanity the right amount of misplaced hubris and whimsy. The film is a veritable rogue's gallery of great Disney voice artists. After sitting out the last several features, Sterling Holloway returns in a big way, voicing the psycho-socio-pathic conscience the Cheshire Cat, arguably his second most famous role for Disney after Winnie-the-Pooh. Bill Thompson's White Rabbit and Richard Haydn's Caterpillar are equally stellar, but the show is stolen lock, stock and barrel by the great clown Ed Wynn, who so completely embodies the Mad Hatter that his interpretation is - for my money - definitive. Like Beaumont, Wynn was filmed as the basis of the Mad Hatter's mannerisms and despite the exaggerated line work of the animators, the cartoon version is a Wynn caricature through and through. His line readings are stupendous, with a degree of enthusiasm and glee that produces perpetual paroxysms of delight. My favorite line in the entire film comes when the March Hare and Mad Hatter are "repairing" the White Rabbit's watch. (It's two days slow.) The Hare passes condiments aplenty to a cheerful Hatter who proceeds to dump them into the watch's gears. This all comes to roaring halt when the Hatter receives a jar of mustard and with a pitch-perfect intonation of stupefied, gobsmacked indignation, Wynn's Hatter yells:

"Mustard!?! Don't let's be silly!"

The Mad Tea Party might be the single best scene in the entire film, although a close runner-up would be the raucous unbirthday's comparatively sane antidote, the tranquil floral choir that greets the miniaturized Alice with the great tune, "All in the Golden Afternoon". The scene is full of wonderful visual puns, starting with bread-and-butterflies and rocking-horseflies. The best gag showcases tiger lilies courting dandelions. The cast of flowers somehow look exactly like their real life counterparts while moving with intuitive anthropomorphized grace. There are roughly a dozen floral varieties on display, some appearing for just a brief moment, but they all have well-conceived, distinct personalities. The sequence is a master class in caricature, a truly astounding piece of work.

Along with the aforementioned gem, "All in the Golden Afternoon", Alice in Wonderland features the greatest collection of Disney tunes in nearly a decade. While Walt continued to commission the work of outside songwriters (as he did on Cinderella) he cast a wider net for Alice, receiving well over 30 different songs for the film. Many of these tunes, like the Cheshire Cat's "Twas Brillig" were interpretations of Carroll's prose and poetry, serving as something of a tenable link to the literary work as the film's story drifted further and further away from its source material. Most songs in the film appear for incredibly brief periods of time, sometimes just a mere line or snippet of melody. Only a handful of songs like "The Unbirthday Song" and "Painting the Roses Red" getting extended scenes showcasing them.

The film begins to lag a bit in the final third as Alice finds herself in the tulgey wood where she finally breaks down and longs to return home. The sequence may fail in part due to immediately following the splendid Mad Tea Party, but it also suffers from a lack of identifiable characters, instead filling the screen with a jumble of odd creatures like a bird with a mirror for a face and a family of mome raths, two-legged fuzzy stumps that point Alice on a vanishing path deeper into the wood. Finally the return of the Cheshire Cat ushers in the denouement as Alice heads off to the palace where the Queen of Hearts bellows orders of execution in between croquet games. The best part of this rather rushed climax is the dance of the playing card guards, that owes more than a passing debt to the still-untopped "Pink Elephants on Parade" hallucination in Dumbo. The film's stylized backgrounds, conceived in part by the inimitable Mary Blair, are on muted but effective display at the palace.

Alice in Wonderland is chaotic, episodic, and lacking in that patented brand of good old fashioned Disney warmth. And it's all the better for it. There is nary a trace of romance in the film, an element which has always been the Achilles' heel of most Disney productions. Another interchangeably bland prince would be completely washed away by the relentlessly hysterical shenanigans onscreen. The inclusion of a villain is practically an afterthought, as the Queen of Hearts doesn't turn up until literally the one hour mark in a seventy-five minute feature. This is a story that deviates from the Disney norm of wishes and magic and is more concerned with whimsy and lunacy, the true traditional hallmarks of cartoons. Unfortunately the public failed to appreciate the film's sensibilities and it was ultimately written off as a million dollar loss for the studio. Walt too did not see the merits of his belated attempt at translating Wonderland to the screen. That's a shame because like Fantasia, Alice in Wonderland is a singular film - both in the studio's canon as well as the wider world of cinema itself. It follows its own dream logic and while not all of it works, the film possesses an energy that the studio's output had sorely lacked for quite a number of years.     

25 March 2012

On Secret Sunshine

Never underestimate cinema. Just when I thought that I had finally seen it all, that every story had been told and that all I'm currently watching is pale recreations of former glories, along comes a film to refute me and soundly knock my clock off. True, there is nothing in Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine that has not been explored before a thousand times over, but the brutally honest and wholly organic depiction of two very difficult human feelings - grief and disillusionment - sets the film apart.

In an absolutely astounding performance, for which she won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, Jeon Do-yeon plays a widower who moves with her young son from the bustling metropolis of Seoul to her husband's hometown of Miryang to start a new life. It is not long before a new tragedy strikes and the film follows this woman's intensely harrowing journey through the stages of suffering. In one respect the film feels almost like something Lars von Trier would concoct, what with the amount of misery Do-yeon's Shin-ae is put through (and that we must sit through). Two-thirds of the film is set aside to show this woman's pain and suffering and yet not once are we ever detached or exhausted. From the first frame Jeon Do-yeon's performance draws us subtly and sublimely in and then refuses to let go.

There seems to be an interesting trend in South Korean cinema nowadays that focusses obsessively on the bonds of family. There is of course, Bong Joon-ho's aptly named Mother, as well as Lee Chang-dong's most recent film Poetry, which shares many similarities with Joon-ho's film. A case could even be made for Park Chan-wook's Oldboy but I leave that to your imagination because if I say anything more I could ruin everything. Everything. The strong familial relationships in these films seem all but nonexistent in contemporary American cinema which nowadays is content to use the easy shorthand of the dysfunctional family to pad out its films. What was the last great American film about family, mothers and sons? All I can think of is Ashley Judd or Liam Neeson kicking ass. Ho-hum.

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life deftly depicts the compassion, frustration and jealousies of family in that elliptical, obsessively singular style he alone has mastered. Everyone I know who has a kid told me that I missed an essential element of that film because I myself have not experienced that most primal of bonds. I would assume then that anyone in that position should steer far clear of Secret Sunshine because they may never come back. Another similar quality of both The Tree of Life and Secret Sunshine is their deep desire to explore the limits of spirituality, although the films differ significantly in approach and come to almost opposite conclusions, that is if they come to any conclusions at all.

Shin-ae begins the film uninterested, if not completely dismissive of religion, brushing off her neighborhood pharmacist who tries pushing the good book on her to ease her mourning. Later when she hits rock bottom, she finally finds solace when visiting a nearby church, albeit a solace that is flimsy and ultimately fleeting. Shin-ae's ardent acceptance of faith and the ensuing journey religion provides her is one of the film's most thrilling explorations. Lee Chang-dong's script weaves through the tricky nature of faith from a detached but compassionate stance. He boldly takes us from agnosticism to fervent devotee and back again in a patient and understanding manner. That Shin-ae's suitor and guardian, the mechanic Jong Chan, remains with the church long after Shin-ae has moved on is not lost on the audience. We understand now how one could find happiness there.

This patience that Lee Chang-dong possesses, that allows the audience to pick up on the subtleties and complexities of the characters, their questions and passions, is truly what makes Secret Sunshine an unequivocal success. The considerate construction of the film, that focuses with such intensity on a grieving woman while still allowing time for explorations on the edges with a couple of secondary characters and their own journeys, is remarkable. And while the performances at the center of the aforementioned Mother and Poetry carry their respective pictures, Jeon Do-yeon goes deeper and wider, creating a character that despite the hardships and devastation, manages to live on to the end of the picture, and beyond.

23 March 2012

Disney Daze: Week 12: Cinderella

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

Walt Disney hated repeating himself. Despite the rabid success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he outright refused any attempt at shallowly replicating the film's touchstones, most obviously its fairy tale origins. He longed to tell different types of stories with newer techniques and innovative processes. Why do something over again, especially when it was perfect the first time? One would just be setting themselves up for disappointment. His stubborness won out for nearly a decade and a half before the economic hardships at the studio, brought on in part by the failure of these different types of films, forced his hand. To reclaim his and the studio's good standing in the eyes of both the public and investors, Walt returned to the well that brought about the studio's first feature-length triumph.

Walt Disney himself actually had very little to do with the day-to-day production of Cinderella. He remained in his capacity as expert storyteller, coming in with great last-minute suggestions to tighten up or strengthen sequences, and he continued to have final say on almost all aspects of production, but his contributions for the film were rather few and far between. On an earlier film such as Snow White, Walt was onboard every step of the way, working tirelessly day in and day out alongside his animators, composers and writers to shape every piece of the film. In contrast, he could go several weeks without visiting certain departments on Cinderella. Animators who in the past had found consistent inspiration in Walt's enthusiasm would not see the boss for nearly a month. At this point in his life and by extension that of the studio, Walt's attentions were being diverted in a number of conflicting directions. By the end of the 1940s, the studio's pioneering nature documentaries, dubbed True Life Adventures, had begun playing to rapturous crowds. Work had also begun on the studio's first ever live-action feature, Treasure Island, and Walt was voyaging over to the production in England often. 

Beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Walt would often use footage of live action actors to block and set a scene. While the animators would occasionally trace over these actors to give the sequences more realistic movement, more often than not these shots would be used solely as guides and for educational purposes. However by the time of Cinderella, this method - known as rotoscoping - would become increasingly prevalent in the actual production of a film. Almost every shot of Cinderella in the film is composed of rotoscoping, as are shots of the step-mother, sisters and the prince. And it shows. There is a stilted presentation to these scenes. The characters feel confined and restrained in their movements. The more cartoonish designs, saved for secondary creations like the blustery King and his Grand Duke, are entirely more satisfying. The best piece of animation in the whole film occurs in the third act when the King attempts to decapitate the Grand Duke for letting Cinderella leave the ball. The two characters parry and eventually end up bouncing on the King's bed, the King randomly swinging his sword while the Duke ducks and weaves, their elastic frames bouncing with energetic delight. It is impossible to imagine such a staid design as that of Cinderella moving with as much fluidity and ease.

Besides rotoscoping, another way of trimming production costs on Cinderella included spending less time and attention on backgrounds. Gone were the deep planes of scenery integral to Bambi or the intricately painted nooks and crannies of the dwarfs' cottage in Snow White. Cinderella leaves a lot of the background sparse with often just one hue to fill the space in close-ups. Despite the limitations there are some effectively evocative moments of design and animation in the film. A few times early in the picture, Cinderella is framed with bars over her, including her first encounter with her step-mother when a window frame's long shadow plays out across the room; and when she meets a new mouse friend who has been trapped in a cage. The view of Cinderella is from inside the cage out but it definitely feels the other way around.

The film could easily be called Cat and Mouse with no fear of leading the viewer astray. Roughly half of the film's screen time is reserved for the antagonistic antics of Cinderella's menagerie of mice and their sinister rival, Lucifer, feline companion of the evil step-mother. Lucifer resembles a proto-Cheshire Cat, with bulbous belly and the occasional hint of a sly grin. These sequences, while bereft of any real emotional anxiety (we always know the mice will triumph) are most definitely the more engaging parts of the film. Here the animators get to actually animate and the results are more fluid and cinematic than the uncanny stiffness present in the rotoscoped human scenes. The best of these sequences is the first, when the mice led by Jaq outwit Lucifer in an attempt to get some breakfast. The tables quickly turn when the newest mouse Gus is seen and must hide under a teacup that ever more precariously comes closer to Lucifer's clutches. Cinderella brings the teacup on a tray to her sister and Gus is almost ensnared before Cinderella loses a slipper on the stairwell (nice foreshadowing) and the cups get turned around.

Cinderella was the first Disney feature to look to the music factory of Tin Pan Alley for its songs. The studio commissioned Mack David, Jerry Livingston and Al Hoffman to come up with tunes for the film and while the trio were no Frank Churchill or lyricist Larry Morey, they did manage to write a couple of memorable numbers, most notably "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo", which was nominated for a Best Song Oscar, while the complete soundtrack got a Best Original Score nod. Some of the film's other tunes are less successful, with both "So This is Love" and "Sing, Sweet Nightingale" leaving very little impression. Even the iconic "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" could not hold a candle to "Some Day My Prince Will Come".

With Cinderella Walt Disney finally gave the public what it had been clamoring for. A return to the charming fairytale world of princesses pining away for love. Unfortunately he did not give them anything more. Not that it mattered. Cinderella was a smashing success both critically and commercially, grossing four times its budget at the box office, and bringing the company back to a solid state of solvency. The film's receipts would go on to fund much of the nascent decade's slate of features, including the long-gestating Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Cinderella is the textbook example of a Walt Disney animated feature, it just didn't write any new chapters. The film plays it safe at almost every turn and while the studio may have needed something tried and true at that particular moment, Cinderella feels more than a bit like a wasted opportunity.

16 March 2012

Disney Daze: Week 11: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

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 Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad shares many of the traits possessed by its six package forbearers. As with Fun and Fancy Free, Walt once again combined two shelved attempts at narrative features to appease exhibitors. Here the thread that ties the two shorts together is their vaunted stature within British and American fiction respectively. While arguably a rather tenuous and convenient connection, the conceit actually works really well as the two stories complement one another handsomely. The film's first half, based on a portion of Kenneth Grahame's novel The Wind and the Willows, was almost entirely animated by the end of 1941 but lingered on the shelf at the studio as other productions and the war took precedence. The film's second half, an adaptation of Washington Irving's story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was begun in 1946 but it too was eventually sidelined when the studio realized there was not nearly enough story to fill a feature length running time.

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad begins in one of those wonderful Disney libraries, where books pull themselves off of the shelf, magically unfolding a timeless story of delight. The great Basil Rathbone intones of the deep treasure trove of literary British characters as we pass by tomes on Robin Hood and King Arthur before resting upon the infectious pomposity of J. Thaddeus Toad, standing tall and proud with his monocle held high. We are then eased into the animation by a simple but highly effective transition that begins with etchings from inside the book depicting Toad's previous adventures, followed by illustrations of the supporting characters, animated against sketched backgrounds, before finally entering a fully-realized animated world. We meet Toad as he and his new pal, the happy horse Cyril, plow through the English countryside belting out the fabulous anthem, "the Merrily Song" which glorifies the benefits of riding off to "nowhere in particular" on roads that "are perpendicular". The rollicking tune accompanied by the great turns of phrase, is the perfect introduction to Mr. Toad. 

What makes the Mr. Toad section of the film most successful is the characterization of J. Thaddeus Toad himself. He is a mercurial dreamer, instantly obsessed with the latest fad and perpetually giddy with enthusiasm, to the detriment of his estate and the frustration of his friends, MacBadger, Ratty, and Mole. In a way, the Mr. Toad segment is a wonderful complement to another piece of British literature that Disney had been toying with for decades. In Disney's eventual adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, the titular star is the only sane character in a world of madness. Mr. Toad on the other hand is the mad one in the prim and proper world of British rule. The swirling onset of mania in Mr. Toad's eyes as he espies his first motorcar is an invocation of joy and unbridled excitement. Truly he is the personification of being fun and fancy free.

Toad's obsession with the newfangled motorcar leads his protective friends to lock him in a room in the grand estate of Toad Hall (echoes of Downton Abbey abound). Of course, nothing will get in the way of Toad and his dreams, so he makes a hasty escape out the window and into the night. The next morning the headlines exclaim that Toad has been arrested for grand theft auto. A trial ensues wherein a shady barkeep named Winky lies to the judge, putting Toad away indefinitely to the Tower of London. To clear his name, Toad escapes from the tower with the help of Cyril and heads off to Toad Hall now overrun by Winky and his weasels. (The weasels by the bye, are the spitting image of Judge Doom's henchmen in Robert Zemeckis's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a film that also includes a blink-and-you'll-miss it cameo of Toad and Cyril.) Along with Mole, Ratty, and MacBadger, Toad sneaks into Toad Hall and after a crashing chase of cat and mouse, or better yet toad and weasel, Toad retrieves the deed to his estate and exonerates his name in the eyes of the law.

This climax is a stirring sequence of animation with a wealth of ingenuity, gags, and top-notch action. First, Mole is tasked with lowering himself from a balcony to a sleeping Winky, in a scene very reminiscent of Mickey and Willie the Giant, in Mickey and the Beanstalk. Once discovered by the weasels, Mole runs off towards what he thinks is a long stretch of hall that surprises us by shattering and revealing itself as a mirror. Of course, if we were given a moment to think we would wonder why Mole's reflection was not present to warn him of his folly, but happily the rhythm is too frenetic and joyous for such trivialities. The deed of sale flies back and forth between heroes and villains at such a quick pace that it is impossible to keep up, especially when Toad begins throwing hundreds of paper airplanes through the damaged estate to confuse the weasels. Of course Toad wins and is exonerated in the eyes of the law but the coda informs us that he has learned little from his exploits as we see him and Cyril flying a biplane off into the sunset.

One of the reasons the prospect of a full-length Wind in the Willows feature was nixed fell in part to the cheaper form of animation the studio was producing throughout much of the decade. While it is evident that the animation is not nearly as lavish as Bambi or Pinocchio, particularly in its occasionally plain backgrounds, the cheap approach works well for the story. A fast and loose character such as Toad would be stifled by an animated world as intricate as Snow White, or better yet the film that closes out the studio's next decade, Sleeping Beauty

As Basil Rathbone closes out the chapter on the rambunctious Mr. Toad, the gentle tones of Mr. Bing Crosby take over to tell the colonies' side of this literary symposium. A pretty cool tracking shot in the magical Disney library takes us from the spine of Mr. Toad to an adjacent bookcase which the camera zooms through to a nearby shelf with a collection of cherished American tales on it. We then get a pretty faithful introduction to Washington Irving's tale as the book unfolds on a map of New York, passing through Tarry-Town on the way to Sleepy Hollow. Here we meet the star of the picture, the lanky bookworm Ichabod Crane who saunters into town as the new school teacher. Here Bing Crosby does triple duty, narrating the tale, voicing Ichabod, and singing a number of tunes, including a few that act as themes for the characters. 

Speaking of characters, Ichabod is a refreshingly multi-faceted person. When one first lays eyes on the gangly fellow with the prodigious proboscis, his face buried in a book, we expect him to fit the bill of the clumsy, shy type. Instead Ichabod proves himself both a ladies' man and a bit of a freeloader, mooching food and hospitality off of the housewives of Sleepy Hollow. This nature does not endear Mr. Crane to the town beefcake, Brom Blood, who now must vie for the coveted affection of the gorgeous Katrina with the newly smitten Ichabod. The majority of the short is taken up with the competition between these two suitors for the hand of the fair maiden. The ballad that Bing sings of Katrina is one of the film's highlights. It feels akin to something Stephin Merritt would have tucked away somewhere on his three-disk opus "69 Love Songs". With a lyric that echoes the style of Mr. Merritt's gem "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" the tune is playful, hummable, and wonderful. 

As Brom gets evermore jealous by the advances of Ichabod on the coquettish Katrina, he begins to plot serious revenge. The opportunity for retribution arrives at a Halloween party hosted by Katrina's father. Discovering that Ichabod possesses a superstitious and fearful disposition, Brom regales the revelers with a tale of the Headless Horseman who stalks the woods on dark and lonely nights. Ichabod, who earlier in the evening danced effortlessly with the vixen Katrina, quickly becomes an aching, quaking spooked-out soul. As he leaves the party on his horse, his fears take over. 

The evocative design in the film's fearsome finale is superb. Blues and greys of gnarled trees and foggy skies set the tone as Ichabod - finally playing the part of the ineffectual weakling - trepidatiously traverses the terrible terrain. Clouds form gloved hands that envelope and consume the moon, shrouding the forest into deeper darkness. Ichabod's mind begins playing increasingly demented tricks on him. The flora and fauna of the forest look and sound like haunted spirits. Some reeds banging on a log break the spell and Ichabod breathes an ever-so temporary sigh of relief before the Headless Horseman himself appears out of nowhere upon his black steed, his flaming jack-o'-lantern skull in one hand, a swinging sword in the other!

While the cartoonish elements of the chase that ensues (replete with goofy antics and reactions from Ichabod) tempers the scene, the depiction of the Headless Horseman is truly terrifying. He is framed from low angles which accentuate his already imposing stature. One shot shows him as he leaps from a cliff and up into the sky, the moon soon blotted out by his hulk. The red eyes of his black stallion burn bright through the darkness of the forest. The hysteria of the climax as the flaming pumpkin is thrown directly at the camera sends a solid chill out of the frame. 

The Walt Disney Studios closed out the 1940s with their final package film, and also their best (Fantasia excepted). The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is the most sustained bit of entertainment the studio had cranked out since the high-flying peak of Dumbo some eight years prior. While one still longs for a sustained narrative with lavish production values and the driving perfectionism of the earliest features, the best of these smaller films have plenty to offer the discerning viewer, not least of all, a rollicking good time.

09 March 2012

Disney Daze: Week 10: Melody Time

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

It was evident by the latter half of the 1940s that the package films the studio had been churning out were never going to be as profitable as a full length narrative feature. While Saludos Amigos made double its production budget at the box office (partially due to the fact that the film is a mere 42 minutes in length), The Three Caballeros was a bomb, and both Make Mine Music and Fun and Fancy Free did mediocre business, generating just a bit more than their production expense in receipts. At the beginning of 1948 as the studio was over three million dollars in debt, Walt, ever the artistic dreamer and his brother Roy, the more prudent, level-headed business-minded man, had one of their biggest arguments. Walt wanted desperately to return to the lavish world of features which would require time and money that Roy argued the company did not have. The two butted heads but eventually as was often the case, Walt prevailed, getting the okay to begin work on another fairy tale adaptation. Unfortunately production time for such a feature would require at least two years of attention. Meanwhile the studio needed to remain somewhat solvent and so the final two package films were lined up to close out the decade. The first of these films, originally entitled All in Fun, saw release in 1948 under the new name Melody Time

While Melody Time most resembles the structure of 1946's Make Mine Music, which tied several disparate musical vignettes together, the film is a bit like a sampling of all of the package films Walt Disney had released up to this point. In addition to animation set to popular song, the film features a short tone poem, a couple of longer narratives, and even a return of some Caballeros. The film begins with a conceit borrowed from both the tail end of Saludos Amigos and the "All the Cats Join In" segment of Make Mine Music, as we see a dripping paintbrush animating the titles onscreen. The brush draws a curtain, stage and dramatic masks that sing the titular song before introducing the first short, "Once Upon a Wintertime". This paintbrush will be the only form of segue between Melody Time's seven sections.

"Once Upon a Wintertime" is a charming little short showing the courtship between two couples, one human, the other rabbit, during a picturesque winter afternoon. A boy and girl all bundled up and traveling in a sleigh, make their way out to a frozen lake for ice skating and pitching woo. Once there they are teamed up with their leporid counterparts. The male rabbit mimics the moves of his human surrogate, making heart shapes in the snow after the boy skates them in the ice. The scene is most notable for some elegantly fluid animation and some fantastic color choices. Frigid blues melt into flaming reds as the love and lust of the couples ebb and flow. The romantic tableau is shattered when the girls spurn the hapless gents and become trapped on thin ice that quickly breaks into fragments and rushes towards (of course) the edge of a hitherto unforeseen cliff. The boys try and save their loves but fail miserably. Luckily the other forest creatures and the sleigh-pulling steeds manage a last-minute rescue that the boy and rabbit ultimately take credit for, their girlfriend's none the wiser. The whole segment is a nice self-contained world, and the action, romance and drama are all well played. The characterizations of the forest creatures are a little more exaggerated than what we usually see from Disney, and at least here are a welcome contrast to the more naturalistic styles portrayed in films like Bambi.

Melody Time's second segment is its shortest, strangest and strongest. Set to a swinging variation on "Flight of the Bumblebee" by Freddy Martin and his Orchestra, "Bumble Boogie" showcases the whimsical, stunning and surreal effects of the Disney artisans. Over the course of a mere three minutes we watch as a bumblebee frantically winds its way through a world of plant-like musical instruments. Flowers turn into blaring trumpets and piano keys embody a gigantic caterpillar stalking a Dali-esque land. Much of the segment's success is thanks to the wonderful music. A lot of these package films feature rather forgettable pop hits of the 1940s, plenty of them so innocuous they leave nary a trace, but Mr. Martin's ensemble, highlighted by the virtuosic piano-playing of Jack Fina, certifiably rock. Like Make Mine Music's "All the Cats Join In", the music's energy really elevated the work of the animators who throw everything at the screen with the help of some vibrant colors in this action-packed and inventive cartoon.

"Bumble Boogie" is followed by the first of the film's two tales of American legend, the story of Johnny Appleseed. The section is a pretty straightforward account of a young man who longs to be a rough and tumble pioneer but lacks the courage and wherewithal to proceed, until he meets his guardian angel who tells him to set his own path, planting apple trees for the nation. So basically a psychotic man who is overcome with hallucinations is the reason we are stuck with the terrible Red Delicious. The section unfortunately is fairly rote with only glimmers of wit and ingenuity. The best moments by far star a dopey little skunk who braves a confrontation with the mysterious man, whom all the other forest critters are frightened of. The skunk's indignant expression as he prepares to spray Johnny is a highlight. What makes the segment interesting is the fact that it's the most overtly religious short Disney had released. With the constant refrain of "the Lord is Good to Me" and the Bible prominently displayed alongside Johnny's seed bag and cooking pot hat as tools of his success, Christianity is evident throughout. Interestingly Walt himself, while acknowledging a belief in God, had no time for religion. He never went to church and took his daughter Diane out of Catholic school after the girl announced that she wanted to become a nun. It was public school from there on out.

At the halfway point, Melody Time presents the story of a little tugboat called Little Toot who is rambunctious and gets into all sorts of trouble until he is banished from the harbor in shame. Adrift at sea, Little Toot comes upon a stranded ocean liner and through a horrendous storm singlehandedly brings the ship into harbor, subsequently restoring his honor. The short, like the preceding "Legend of Johnny Appleseed", adheres to the Disney formula without providing much more to single it out. There are a couple of really nice touches contained within, such as the angry buoys with creeping waves acting as arms, and the well-conceived action climax, but compared to something like the "Bumble Boogie", the short does not transcend its medium. It is another run-of-the-mill Disney short, with top notch style and production but nothing to differentiate it from any number of its Silly Symphony brethren.

The muted "Trees" that follows certainly gets points for attempting something different with its stylish evocation of nature set to a musical adaptation of the famous Alfred Joyce Kilmer poem. Unfortunately the segment is more akin to the failed highbrow attempt of Make Mine Music's ballet number "Two Silhouettes" than that earlier film's sumptuous "Blue Bayou" sequence, let alone anything from Fantasia. While not as clunky as "Two Silhouettes", there isn't enough grandeur or emotion in "Trees" to make it truly memorable. The four-minute sequence's two strengths are its wonderful use of color (which is turning out to be a strength throughout the entirety of Melody Time) and a series of incredibly inventive transitions, as towering trees turn out to be reflections in tiny beads of water connected to another tree that itself is a thin imprint on a falling leaf. 

The penultimate section in Disney's penultimate package film sees a return of two of the Three Caballeros, Donald Duck and José Carioca. Where their friend Panchito has run off to is anybody's guess. The two pals are forlorn (perhaps longing to reunite with their fun-loving, gun-toting Mexican friend?), as they walk through a monochrome setting before stumbling upon Caballeros resident troublemaker, the aracuan bird, who teaches them the joys of the samba. This is odd because the final segment of Saludos Amigos, which introduced José to Donald, involved the parrot teaching the duck the exact same dance. Whither continuity? Regardless, here the boys are joined by live-action pianist Ethel Smith who is donned up in attire similar to Aurora Miranda, which makes the whole sequence feel even more familiar than it already is. On top of that we get some Caballeros-patented frenetic, psychedelic transitions as the troupe find themselves dancing inside a giant cocktail stirred by the aracuan. While it is nice to see the anarchic aracuan again who here rides a quarter note like a bicycle and showers from a hole he popped in the film's frame, there is little to warrant a return to this world, especially when we've seen it all before.

Melody Time concludes with a bookend of sorts to the American tale of Johnny Appleseed by having Roy Rogers sing and narrate the life and times of Texas cowboy Pecos Bill. The sequence begins in live-action as Rogers, who sits around a campfire with the band, the Sons of the Pioneers, and recounts the legend to two kids, one of whom is portrayed by Luana Patten, Edgar Bergen's little lady friend and party invitee from Fun and Fancy Free. As Rogers tells it, Pecos Bill was an orphan raised by desert coyotes who grew up to be the epitome of the brash, cocky cowboy. Along with his trusty steed Widowmaker, Bill built the Rio Grande and shot out all of the stars in the sky save one for the Lone Star State. One day things came to abrupt change when Bill met the exquisite Slue-Foot Sue who swept him off of his feet and curbed some of his more rambunctious ways, much to the dismay of Widowmaker. On the day of their wedding, Sue requested to ride the jealous horse who bucks her into the air, where she eventually lands on the moon. From that day forth, as he pined away for his long-distant love, Bill howled a painful whine that was echoed by coyotes far and wide.

This closing segment most definitely has some worthwhile fun to recommend it. Disney's rendition of the dry desert plains is interesting to see since today we're much more familiar with the Chuck Jones style immortalized in the magnificent Roadrunner shorts. Disney's style is as to be expected less abstract but still a very evocative landscape, where one can feel the omnipresent heat and pervasive desperation. Salivating vultures circle overhead and dust clogs the air. The elastic animation in Bill and Widowmaker's movements is a treasure to behold. Their rough and tumble nature is as effortless as Slue-Foot Sue's elegance and grace. The way all of these elements come together makes for a fully realized environment and a thoroughly engaging story.

Having watched all of these package films from the same Gold Collection DVDs, it appears completely arbitrary what elements were censored and what was left in the films. For example, the Pecos Bill section has been edited to remove any instance of Bill smoking a cigarette and yet we get plenty of scenes of him firing his gun, not only at a tribe of painted Indians and the night sky, but directly at us, the audience. With all of this rampant gunplay why then was it deemed necessary to remove the entirety of the "Martins and the Coys" sequence from Make Mine Music? There is little difference between the two when it comes to their depictions of gun violence.

Melody Time on the whole upholds the Disney standard of quality animation and solid storytelling but it was evident that by this juncture the package films were running out of novelty and invention. Walt was biding his time, keeping the animators busy while cooking up the elements for what he hoped would be a triumphant return to feature animation. By the beginning of the 1950s, the package films would be nothing but a thing of the past. They would be looked upon as necessary productions at the time but they were much more means to an end than any sort of truly satisfying artistic statements. Certainly there were gems to be found and the freewheeling nature of their structure allowed for some chances to be taken, but they would never be regarded in the same league as Snow White or whatever princess was waiting on the horizon.

02 March 2012

Disney Daze: Week 9: Fun and Fancy Free

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

Still reeling from the effects the war had wrought on the studio, Walt Disney was adrift by the middle of the 1940s. With several story ideas in various states of production but nothing resembling a full length feature, he decided to use the package film as a piecemeal dumping ground for films that would not otherwise see the light of day. He hoped that the revenue from these somewhat ramshackle releases would provide the necessary production costs to once again mount a true narrative feature in the spirit and style of the studio's early triumphs. Two such orphaned projects, both begun in 1941: a tale of a circus bear who escapes captivity and relocates to the forest, and a retelling of "Jack and the Beanstalk" with Mickey Mouse in the title role; were deemed worthwhile enough to splice together and be projected as Fun and Fancy Free.

Fun and Fancy Free begins with a chorus singing the titular song over the title card and credits. It is an innocuous and rather unmemorable tune that espouses the sentiment that life may be sad, difficult, and lonesome but you would be a fool not to be happy despite it all. Following the credits the song bleeds into the tune "Happy-Go-Lucky Fellow", a similar number originally written for - but ultimately cut - from Pinocchio, and lo and behold, we see that film's conscience Jiminy Cricket paddling a leaf through a stream. Jiminy will be serving as our guide in these wraparound segments tying the otherwise disparate short films together. Disney really lays on the gaiety in these opening few minutes but for once it doesn't really stick. The emotions feel labored. It is as if Walt was trying to convince himself that he was happy. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but knowing the troubled state of the studio during this time, the mantras oozing out of these songs feels like forms of personal positive reinforcement. It is easy to see the legion of Disney detractors showing the opening of Fun and Fancy Free as an example of Disney's hollow promises of happy endings, all saccharine and empty. 

Admittedly there are some funny little touches in this opening sequence, which follows Jiminy out of his leaf and onto dry land, which it turns out is not a densely forested marsh but simply a houseplant sitting on a table. He climbs a nearby bookcase as the song and dance routine plays on, passing tomes with such austere and scholarly titles as Misery for the Masses. Jiminy then swoops in on a goldfish that bears an awfully close resemblance to his Pinocchio co-star Cleo. But this can't be Cleo can it? If so, did Geppetto move the family from Italy to a suburb of 1940s Hollywood? Is Geppetto the reader of Misery for the Masses? Is the sleepy grey feline that chases Jiminy into an adolescent girl's bedroom a replacement for Figaro? Did Figaro die? And who is this little girl anyway? So many questions!

Before we have time to ponder such tantalizing puzzles, Jiminy leads us into the film's first short as he attempts to teach two of the little girl's forlorn dolls to lose their blues and laugh at life by playing a recording of the story of the circus bear "Bongo" read by Dinah Shore. Shore, whom we last heard singing in Make Mine Music's least successful segment, "Two Silhouettes", plays the dual role of narrator and songstress as she punctuates her telling of the Sinclair Lewis tale with more forgettable b-side melodies cranked out by the Disney studio. Oh how Frank Churchill or the yet-to-be-discovered Sherman brothers could have livened up these song breaks!

With its circus setting "Bongo" was originally conceived as a sequel of sorts to the rousing box-office success Dumbo, and had it been deemed worthy of a full theatrical release, would have included several of the same characters. In the story Bongo is the star of the circus, riding his unicycle, juggling while standing on his head, and surviving death-defying leaps. The crowds clamor and cheer but once the lights go down, Bongo is chained and imprisoned by his faceless masters. The emotions wrung from Bongo's captivity are expertly handled and prove Disney's narrative bite is still intact as the bear looks out from behind his train car's bars and dreams of freedom. One would be hard pressed to turn a blind eye to Ringling Brothers' practices after witnessing poor Bongo's plight.

One day Bongo manages to escape from the moving train, using his unicycle to make a safe getaway. He ends up in the forest where he meets all manner of creatures who laugh as the domesticated bear tries to assimilate into the wild. Two of these animals are the early incarnations of Chip and Dale who were introduced as Pluto's antagonists just a few years prior and would not receive either their names or distinctive characteristics until a Donald Duck short released the same year as Fun and Fancy Free. Regardless, the duo's sped-up voices and rascally nature are readily apparent even at this early stage. Echoes of a Disney feature different than Dumbo take over at this juncture as Bongo's crash course in forest life recalls the early years of the burgeoning prince Bambi some five years before. 

Following this early introduction to the forest is a terrifying night where rain and lightning expose the harsh realities of life in the wild. There are some great gags and animation in this sequence. The mounting hysteria caused by a whimsically drawn slug munching on a leaf is perfectly timed and executed. In fact the more overtly cartoonish quality of all of the nocturnal creatures in this brief scene is uniformly excellent. At the end of a sleepless night and stressful dawn, Bongo stumbles upon a fetching female named Lulubelle who immediately sends him into a glassy-eyed reverie more than faintly reminiscent of a certain twitterpating. This is followed by an airborne daydream echoing Donald Duck's insane exuberance following his kiss at the end of the Three Caballeros. Two adorable cupid bears pluck bows, build clouds, and send Bongo and his paramour through Roman columns on heavenly plains.

Once the lovers get back down to earth, there is a misunderstanding as Lulubelle gives Bongo a slap, which all of the wild bears know is a true sign of affection but Bongo mistakes as hostility (I'm with you Bongo). Conflict ensues when the biggest brute of a bear appears and steals away Bongo's love. To reclaim his girl Bongo must use his circus skills to taunt, thwart and ultimately defeat his rival. From here on out the story pretty much follows the template of most any early Mickey short. The villain is even modeled on Pegleg Pete's ample frame. That's not to say that the story of Bongo is unenjoyable, in fact it is on the whole the better of the two shorts comprising the feature. There are some great comical moments and the titular character, although a far cry from his mute circus counterpart Dumbo, wins our sympathy with his pluck and vivacity. 

As the tale of Bongo draws to a close, we return to the little girl's bedroom and Jiminy Cricket who espies on the girl's desk an invitation to a party hosted by Edgar Bergen and his puppets Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Being the unrepentant freeloader that he is, Jiminy decides to crash said shindig which is happening just down the street. Here we get a truly terrible bit of live action as Bergen and his dolls entertain this poor little girl, who it turns out is the only one that showed up for the party or maybe even worse, was the only one invited. Why would a grown man who lives alone save for his puppets, invite a little girl over for a late night party? Whose parents would let that one slide? 

I had no idea how awful Edgar Bergen is at his stock and trade. Whether voicing Charlie, Mortimer, or the hastily drawn "Ophelia" on his hand (what's up with that?), one can always see his lips moving with what appears to be almost no effort to hide it. How did this guy get famous? The cavalcade of questions continue to mount. Meanwhile after tedious, stultifying dialogues with his wooden companion, Edgar begins telling the little girl, Luana (I checked the invitation) the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Most of us that are familiar with the Mickey-starring version of Jack and the Beanstalk might be surprised that in Fun and Fancy Free the story is narrated by Bergen, with intermittent snide remarks from the unfunny Charlie McCarthy. The short has been released many times in the ensuing decades, as a standalone story both on television and home video. For these releases the narration was re-dubbed first by the great Ludwig Von Drake and later by the now omnipresent Sterling Holloway. Both subsequent versions are significant improvements, as the Bergen version does nothing but detract from the onscreen action. This is a shame because "Mickey and the Beanstalk" is a great showcase for Mickey and his co-stars Donald and Goofy. It would be the last time Walt himself would voice the mouse for a theatrical release and the story as it stands is well-constructed and a genuine joy to watch. 

Mickey, Donald and Goofy all live together in a pitiful state of squalor, hungry and desperate. After Mickey sells their friend the cow for some magic beans (Two more questions: One, if the cow is their friend why can't he hang out in the house with the dog, duck, and mouse instead of being left outside in the barren wasteland? Two, Mickey stops a famished Donald from slaughtering the cow because again, they are "friends" but then he turns around and sells the cow to what we can only believe is a total stranger who plans to do god-knows-what with the bovine, maybe even eat him.) That night the magic beans sprout into a giant stalk that carries the three stars up into the clouds. The two minute sequence of unconscious ballet is the film's best. As Mickey, Donald, and Goofy sleep soundly, oblivious to the movement of the house and their beds, they are flung hither and thither by the sinuous stalk. The effortless display of physics displayed as the unconscious bodies sway to and fro is a splendid achievement. It is nothing new - how many Goofy shorts were predicated on an unconscious Goof staggering around unforeseen peril? - but it is executed exquisitely.

At dawn the trio find themselves at a gigantic kingdom outfitted with an abundance of oversized food. Still famished, the guys feast on cheese, peas and Jell-o before Mickey discovers the singing harp - whose absence in their town led to the drought and decay - imprisoned in a box. At this moment of heightened drama what do we do? Cut to the live action Edgar Bergen party for some reason! I for one could sure use more antics from that rapscallion Chas McCarthy! Oh boy! After that intolerable interlude we return to the safe confines of animation and are introduced to the man of the castle, Willie the Giant, who is drawn and portrayed wonderfully as an indignant galoot. Once he finds our three heroes, he imprisons them in the box but Mickey escapes and with the help of the singing harp who serenades Willie to sleep, frees Goofy and Donald. A chase ensues and Willie is defeated once the beanstalk is chopped down. The less said about the return of Edgar Bergen at the conclusion the better. 

Fun and Fancy Free for all of its shortcoming is a generally entertaining film. Both disparate halves amply display the merit that warranted their production in the first place, while giving us solid proof that they were far from strong enough to carry their own features. Subpar songs and misguided celebrity cameos are offset by the occasional flight of fancy and the efficient, streamlined mode of storytelling that the Disney studios built its name upon. The package film was an economic necessity at the time and while it never completely tarnished the studio's image, rarely did it ever improve upon it.