content by

Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

A Demoralizing Disaster: Disney’s The Black Cauldron

Ever since Snow White, Disney had been struggling with two separate animation issues: effects sequences and the process of transferring animation art to film without going disastrously over budget. Some film tricks—using cornflakes to create something that more or less looked like snow, for instance—had helped with the first, and the xerographic process introduced in One Hundred and One Dalmatians had been a lifesaver for recent film budgets. But some of those techniques also caused problems: the cornflake technique could often be tricky to film, and the xerographic process generally resulted in characters outlined with thick black lines, and limited the ability of animators to add the subtle color shadings that had been featured in Pinocchio and Fantasia.

But in the 1980s, something new and miraculous entered the picture: computers. They could, animators thought, solve multiple issues: the transfer process; effects shots (Disney animators had been thrilled by the computer animation created by Pixar for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan); and even—possibly—filming. They decided to try to insert computer generated images into their next upcoming film. And, they thought, they could also try out a new animation transfer technique, animation photo transfer (APT) for a few scenes.

Unfortunately, audiences were introduced to both in Disney’s second all time greatest animation flop: The Black Cauldron.

[The demoralizing experience of making a film your new corporate overlords hate]

Forbidden Friendships: Disney’s The Fox and the Hound

By the late 1970s, Disney had proven that it could continue financially without Walt Disney. Both Disneyland and Magic Kingdom were thriving, with Walt Disney World busily building its third park, Epcot (then referred to in large capital letters as EPCOT). The Rescuers had been a hit. Re-releases of previous Disney animated films had proven popular, allowing even the financial failures to move into the black, and the firm was, as always, doing well with merchandise sales.

And, after a four year gap, executives decided it was time to give another nod to the artform that had started this all. Not with anything too innovative, of course, even if innovative animation had been part of Disney since the beginning. No, nothing that would challenge the Disney brand, at least, not until this new group of animators, largely working outside the supervision of the Nine Old Men (the original Disney animators who had worked on the classic films) had proven themselves with a safe film. No, nothing too different. Another animal film, perhaps. Featuring cute little animals, with feel good, family friendly themes of friendship and growing up.

[When friendship gets difficult]

Well, I’m Traumatized: The Fox and the Hound

In a long, colorful life, Daniel P. Mannix worked as a sword swallower, a fire eater, a photographer, a filmmaker, a stage magician, a breeder, a collector of exotic animals for zoos, and occasionally (and more disreputably) as a writer. His nonfiction books and articles covered an equally astonishing range of subjects: gladiators, magicians, torture, hunting, travel, the Atlantic slave trade, the early Oz films (he was an avid fan and early member of the International Wizard of Oz club), occultist Aleister Crowley, and the United States Navy.

And he wrote what may be the so far hands down most depressing book of this reread yet—a list which, let me remind you, has so far included such cheery subjects as puppet torture, probable pedophilia, the inevitability of death, puppy killing, rape, and child abandonment. What I’m saying is, The Fox and the Hound had competition, deep competition, and it still won.

[Major spoilers, and also, a high death toll.]

Rescuing More than Just Small Girls and Teddy Bears: Disney’s The Rescuers

As the 1970s progressed, the mood in the Disney animation department could be best described as glum. The company’s attention had been steadily moving away from animated films since the late 1950s, and the death of Walt Disney had not helped. The beautiful, intricately detailed animated films had been replaced with a series of largely mediocre ones, with even the most entertaining—The Jungle Book—containing nothing even close to the innovative art of Pinocchio or even Alice in Wonderland. Disney’s animation department was no longer making, or even trying to make, great films: they were creating bland kiddie entertainment, and on a tight budget at that—so tight that animators were forced to use multiple recycled sequences and even copied animation cels in Robin Hood. The Nine Old Men—the major Disney animators that had been at the studio since Snow White—were getting close to retirement.

They needed some sort of rescue to even try for a recovery.

They needed The Rescuers.

[I know, but I’ve been waiting for several posts now to make that joke.]

Spy Mice: Margery Sharp’s The Rescuers

Friendly mice—both talking and non-talking—had become a staple of children’s fiction by the 1950s, featuring in everything from historical parodies (Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me), wistful and mildly irritating stories of contemporary New York City (E.B. White’s Stuart Little), secondary fantasy worlds (the Narnia series), and even films (Cinderella). Friendly, comforting, non-talking rats and mice were also a staple of fictional prisons and solitary confinement, played with even in novels where the prisoners are not exactly prisoners (Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess). In The Rescuers, Margery Sharp decided to combine both ideas, taking a look at friendly prison mice from the mouse point of view.

Talking mice, of course.

[In which a mouse must choose: love, or a career? Spoilers.]

A Bear of Very Little Brain But a Lot of Money: Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

Originally, Walt Disney planned to make a full length feature film featuring Winnie the Pooh but found himself confronting a serious problem: even taken together, the books didn’t create a single story, except—and this is very arguable—the story of Christopher Robin finally growing up, which for the most part is contained in the final chapter of The House on Pooh Corner and hardly qualifies as an overreaching storyline. Character development, again with the exception of Christopher Robin, was also non-existent: the basic point of that final chapter in The House on Pooh Corner is that the One Hundred Acre Forest will always exist, unchanged, and that someplace on that hill, a boy and his bear are still playing.

Faced with this, Walt Disney ordered a new approach: a series of cartoon shorts, strongly based on the stories in the original two books. Initially appearing between 1966 and 1974, the cartoon shorts were bundled together with a connecting animation and a short epilogue to form the 1977 feature The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, with Christopher Robin’s voice re-recorded (he was voiced by three different children in the original shorts) to maintain consistency.

[In which Constant Reviewer makes no claims to neutrality]

A Bear with Little Brain: Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner

In August 1921, author A.A. Milne bought his one year old son, Christopher Robin, a teddy bear. This did not, perhaps, seem all that momentous at the time either for literary history or for large media conglomerate companies that used a mouse and a fairy as corporate logos. But a few years later, Milne found himself telling stories about his son and the teddy bear, now called “Winnie-the-Pooh,” or, on some pages, “Winnie-ther-Pooh.” Gradually, these turned into stories that Milne was able to sell to Punch Magazine.

[A bear with very little brain, and a fondness for honey]

Walt Disney Supervises His Last Film: The Jungle Book

As the 1960s marched on, Walt Disney finally began to tire out, beset by work with animated and live action films, television, and theme parks—both the known, open park in California, by now open for ten years, and the still top secret park in central Florida, slowly grabbing up land and legal rights. But the mixed critical response to the Sword in the Stone—a film he had little involvement in—worried him, and he decided to take a more active role in the next animated film. This included agreeing with the suggestion of story artist Bill Peet that Disney’s next film should focus on one of the studio’s clear strengths—funny animals—and also once again taking an direct role in story development as the artists started working on The Jungle Book.

[When you’d just rather swing in the jungle]

Hunting for a Home After Destruction and Loss: Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book

These two things fight together in me as the snakes fight in the spring. The water comes out of my eyes; but I laugh while it falls. Why?

–Mowgli in The Jungle Book

Unlike most of the other works covered in this Read-Watch, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is not one work or story, but rather a collection of short stories and poems first published in the late 19th century. The first half of the book contains stories about Mowgli, a young boy raised by wolves, a bear and a panther in the jungle, and his great enemy Shere Khan the Tiger. The second, better half of the book tells tales about a fur seal searching for an island free from hunters; a fighting mongoose; a young boy who witnesses an elephant dance; and a story that involves a lot of horses complaining about their riders. Only two things connect the stories: all of them include animals, and all focus on the struggle to find a place to belong. [Fur seals, displacement, and racism]

In Need of a Villain: Disney’s The Sword in the Stone

By the early 1960s, Disney had kicked into high gear, with a popular television show running every week on ABC (in the days before Disney owned ABC), and several successful live action films. Its popular theme park, Disneyland, was finally turning solid profits after the first couple of shaky years, with merchandise flying off shelves. These successful ventures turned animation—both for full length and shorts—into a decided sideline, especially after just a few too many disasters. But Walt Disney was reluctant to completely abandon the company’s roots—and One Hundred and One Dalmatians had shown that at least some Disney animated films could make money. And least on the surface, The Sword in the Stone seemed to offer several elements associated with Disney’s full length animated successes: British (Peter Pan; One Hundred and One Dalmatians), talking animals (One Hundred and One Dalmatians again; Lady in the Tramp), and a touch of magic (Cinderella; Peter Pan.) It seemed a surefire bet.

If Disney had learned anything from its previous films, however, it should have been this: surefire bets are not, alas, always surefire.

[Also, problem squirrels]

The Young Future King: T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone

Like his fellow author Rudyard Kipling (coming up shortly in this reread), T.H. White was born of two worlds: Great Britain and India. White’s early home life was miserable—his father was an alcoholic reportedly prone to violence, and his parents divorced when he was a child. White was sent back to live with grandparents in England, losing his early home. As an adult, he never married or formed any lasting relationships, except with Brownie, an Irish setter. By his own admission, the dog was his family; he was devastated when she died. Some critics have speculated that he might have been gay, and had difficulty accepting that identity, but the evidence for this is ambiguous.

In any case, until the dog, like many lonely, miserable children, he ended up finding his solace in books. Among these: Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which White used first as a subject for his university thesis, and later as a subject for a series of novellas finally collected in The Once and Future King, by far his most popular work. It can be read as an epic, or as an individual work: in this post I’m going to focus on the first novella: The Sword in the Stone.

[King Arthur as a boy and as an explorer of twentieth century political systems.]

The Advent of Xerography: Disney’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians

After the expensive financial flop that was Sleeping Beauty, Walt Disney seriously considered shutting down his studio’s animation division.  Fewer than half of his animated films had been financial successes, after all, and although World War II could certainly be blamed for some of that, it could not be blamed for the financial failures of the post war Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty, or the only middling financial success of Lady and the Tramp, which for technical reasons had been issued in two versions, adding greatly to the film’s budget—and cutting into profits.

But Walt Disney had also picked up Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians and loved it. It had everything needed for a major Disney hit: a grandiose, over the top villain, a tight, simple plot, adorable puppies, and a happy ending. Oh, a few things would need changing – that almost but not quite doggie threesome between Pongo, Missus and Perdita would just not work for a children’s film aimed at an American audience, in his opinion, and some of the characters would have to go.  And the final scenes needed something more. Maybe a car chase. An over the top car chase. That could work.

That left just one problem: how to animate 99 puppies. With spots. Without repeating the financial issues of Lady and the Tramp and the outright disaster that was the gloriously detailed work of Sleeping Beauty.

[Hello, Xerox.]

Introducing Cruella de Vil: The Hundred and One Dalmatians

Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians wastes no time in explaining a fundamental truth that a certain segment of dog lovers have already known for quite some time: Dogs are not, as it happens, pets. Rather, humans are the real pets—of dogs. And the occasional cat. It’s a completely understandable misunderstanding: after all, although many dogs can understand Human—or at least most of it—they can’t speak Human, which creates difficulties. And alas, Humans are not quite clever enough to understand Dog.

Although these linguistic barriers and misunderstandings are not always a bad thing—especially if you are two dogs who need to rescue a lot of puppies. And I do mean a lot. 97 of them, to be exact.

[Why Cruella de Vil is awesome, even just in text form]

The Last of the Classic Disney Greats: Sleeping Beauty

Walt Disney had never hesitated to tweak his source material while developing animated films. He and his animators happily added and subtracted characters and events, tinkered with characters and character development, and to a certain extent even played with the settings and backgrounds, especially in Cinderella. In some cases, as in Pinocchio, this was in part to ensure that the original source material could be squeezed into a 75 minute adaptation. In other cases, as in Bambi, this was to add plot to what was otherwise a mostly introspective, philosophical work. And in still other cases, as in Cinderella, this was to flesh out a very short story into a 75 minute adaptation. But even in these adaptations, Disney had, for the most part, been true to the main plot and building blocks of the story.

This was to greatly change with Sleeping Beauty, so transformed that in many ways it’s not even the same story at all. And I’m not just talking about taking out the uncomfortable, quasi-rape bits and the ogre. That willingness to completely transform the original story was to fundamentally change the direction of Disney animation.

[Changing the antagonist to a dragon. Also, the headaches of trying to animate a film after the guy who painted your background art went completely overboard.]

Cannibalism and Other Nightmarish Things: Sleeping Beauty

Stories of enchanted sleepers stretch well back into ancient times. In European mythology, they appear in multiple forms: stories of fabled warriors resting under mountains or on enchanted isles until it is time for them to return to serve their city or country in the time of greatest need—though if England hasn’t actually faced its greatest need yet, I shudder to think what it would take to bring King Arthur back to its shores. Stories of sleeping saints. Stories of women sleeping in caves, in mountains, and in towers.

Unchanged. Static. Beautiful. Waiting, perhaps, for a kiss from a prince.

[Let’s ruin some more childhoods!]

Using Tinker Bell To Shake Magic Into Everything: Disney’s Peter Pan

Back when he was a boy, Walt Disney caught a traveling production of Peter Pan, and was instantly captivated. A few critics even later claimed that Walt Disney had been a little too captivated, creating a life that focused more on childhood than on growing up—even if this life and artistic choice ended up working to his financial benefit. Regardless, Disney planned very early on to do a full length animated feature film for Peter Pan. It would, he thought, be his second film after Snow White. Or perhaps his third film, after Snow White and Pinocchio. Or—as the film continued to linger in development hell—his fourth? After Fantasia?

Or, well, as it turned out, the 14th, not released until 1953.

[Eventually it flew. Eventually.]

The Unpleasant Side Effects of Never Growing Up: J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan

The late Victorians loved their fairy tales, and playwright James Barrie, who had recently impressed London audiences with his plays Quality Street and The Admirable Crichton, thought he could take a risk on a particularly expensive play featuring a fairy, based on a character from his 1902 novel, The Little White Bird. He quite agreed with producer Charles Frohman that, given the elaborate staging Barrie had in mind, it would be quite a risk. But he had a second play standing by just in case. And, well, the neighbor children he’d been spending quite a bit of time with—sons of friends Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies—seemed to quite like his stories about Peter Pan.

The play was an immediate success, making Barrie wealthy for the rest of his life. (If not, alas, for one of those neighbor children, Peter Llewelyn Davies, who smarted under the dual burden of getting called Peter Pan for the rest of his life while having no money to show for it.) Barrie went on to write an equally popular novelization, Peter and Wendy, and others created various musical versions of the play—mostly retaining the original dialogue, but adding songs and the opportunity to watch Captain Hook do the tango. Barrie, everyone seemed to agree, had not just created something popular: he had created an icon.

If a somewhat disturbing one.

[Pirates, fairies, Peter Pan, and oh, yes, some racism.]

An Intriguing Failure: Disney’s Alice in Wonderland

Years later, Walt Disney tried to avoid responsibility for Alice in Wonderland (1951) by claiming he’d never wanted to make it. This was at best disingenuous: Disney had actually started development of the film back in 1933, and before that, he had made two short films inspired by the Lewis Carroll classic. (My previous review of the book here.) Clearly, the idea of a child falling into Wonderland had a strong hold on him. So after his firm’s fortunes slowly began to climb back from the nadir of the postwar years, he set his animators on Alice in Wonderland, developing the film right along with Cinderella, creating a race to see which could be completed first.

Alice in Wonderland lost, on more than one level.

[A commercial failure—but an interesting one]

Go, Little Mice, GO! Disney’s Cinderella

“A pretty plot for fairy tales, sire, but in real life, oh, no. No, it was foredoomed to failure.”

–The Grand Duke, about to be proved wrong in Cinderella (1951)

War training films, anthology movies, and plenty of bank loans had just barely allowed Walt Disney to scrape through the 1940s intact. With finances finally a little less shaky, Disney set his animators to work on two films he’d been planning to do since before the war: Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland.  Not that he could quite afford to return to the lush animation of Pinocchio and Fantasia, or even the simpler animation of Dumbo, something even the most superficial look at Cinderella shows, but he could at least create full length films again. Disney’s top nine animators were all assigned to Cinderella and asked to help out with Alice, with the two films competing to see which would be the first to be Disney’s first full length animated film release since Bambi, signaling a return to the grand days of Disney animation.

[Fortunately for Disney history, the winner turned out to be Cinderella.]

A Pair of Magical Shoes: Variations on “Cinderella”

What do you do when you find yourself downtrodden, turned into a servant by trusted family members, dressed in mud and rags, without, apparently, a friend in the world? Get some magical footwear—and go dancing.

It’s the sort of tale that could easily seize a world. And for the most part, has.

[Social climbing in elegant footwear]