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Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]
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Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Forcing a Theme: Disney’s Fun and Fancy Free

What diabolical plot is being hatched in the brain of this poor demented duck?

As the United States emerged from World War II, Walt Disney felt increasingly desperate—and removed from the animation that had previously been his heart and soul. The majority of his films had been box office bombs, and even the cartoon shorts that had helped build the company before Snow White were facing increasing competition, especially from a director/animator called Chuck Jones over at rival Warner Bros. The money earned from producing training films for the Defense Department was gone, and distributor RKO Films refused to let Disney release Snow White and Dumbo on a yearly basis. Walt faced a crisis: his studio still didn’t have enough money to put together a full length animated picture, but the collections of cartoon shorts weren’t doing all that well either, strongly suggesting that the studio needed to return to longer features in order to survive.

What Walt Disney did have was a cartoon loosely based on the fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk, featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy.

[Read more]

Kinda Just Throwing Things Together: Disney’s Make Mine Music

Walt Disney had originally hoped to rerelease Fantasia, his blending of animation and classical music, every few years, adding and subtracting material each time. Abysmal box office receipts and the outbreak of World War II put an abrupt end to that plan. Disney still had stacks of unused concept art both for the original film and for some proposed new pieces, however, and the two package films released after Walt Disney’s goodwill tour to South America—Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros—if not quite box office hits, had done better than Fantasia—suggesting that Disney could find a market for another collection of cartoon shorts.

With the income from World War II training films and propaganda shorts about to come to an end, and still lacking the funds for a full length feature, Disney ordered the shorts put into production towards the end of World War II, to create a third anthology film, Make Mine Music. It wouldn’t be quite the same as Fantasia—the shorts would focus less on classical numbers and more on contemporary music, including some big names—Nelson Eddy, the Andrews Sisters, and Dinah Shore—that Disney hoped would be box office draws. At the least, it would allow the studio to release a film. At best, it could justify Fantasia.

[Instead it made me question why the film isn’t readily available for streaming]

An Aggressive Escape from Reality: The Three Caballeros

“We’re three caballeros,
three gay caballeros,
they say we are birds of a feather!”

Both Walt Disney and his brother Roy were later to describe the World War II years as the creative nadir of Disney animation. Several Disney artists either volunteered or were drafted into the war effort, leaving the studio short on talent, and a series of separate financial disasters—some related to the war, some not—had left Disney completely broke. Wartime realities shuttered movie theatres abroad, cutting any potential box office revenue. The United States Army moved into the new studio that Walt Disney had so proudly built.

Disney was left making various war training films, a few cartoon shorts sponsored by various branches of the United States government, and a propaganda film, Victory Through Air Power, that left its coffers even more drained. The remaining artists felt stifled. Roy Disney was later to describe the period to Disney historian Bob Thomas as “lost years.”

[And yet, those lost years could still produce some great creative work]

Donald Duck’s Goodwill Tour: Saludos Amigos

You might notice that these films are now a little out of order. That’s because I had not originally intended to include the post-war anthology films in this Disney Watch-Watch, since all five are more collections of cartoons than actual shorts.

And then I got a number of emails proving that, if nothing else, a number of you have very passionate feelings about Saludos Amigos and Melody Time—specifically, the bumblebee cartoon in Melody Time. And then I remembered that I have one or two somewhat less passionate feelings about Disney’s recent edits to Melody Time. So. Er. Here we go with the anthology films, starting out with arguably the worst of the lot, Saludos Amigos (1942). Which at least has the bonus of being slightly on topic this week, given that portions of it are set in Rio de Janeiro.

[Though nobody in Saludos Amigos is planning on competing in Olympics events]

Animation as War Propaganda: Disney’s Victory Through Air Power

As the United States entered World War II, Disney was in major financial trouble. A bitter strike had forced the company to raise salaries and make other financial concessions just when the company could least afford it. Three lavishly animated, expensive feature films—Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi—had flopped at the box office. The war had cut off access to most European movie theatres. The decision to make Bambi, based on a book banned by the Nazis, ensured that Disney would not have access to movie theatres in Nazi controlled areas for the foreseeable future. To make ends meet, the company started making training films for the U.S. military, making barely enough money to keep its doors open. The profits from Dumbo swiftly vanished.

[Naturally, Walt Disney figured that this would be a GREAT time to release another film with limited popular appeal!]

Animation on a Budget: Disney’s Dumbo

But Technicolor pachyderms is really too much for me.

As work progressed on the fabulously beautiful, fabulously labor intensive and fabulously expensive Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi, Roy E. Disney—always the practical member of the Disney family—told his brother Walt that above all, the next film had to be cheap. Very cheap. The profits from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the cartoon shorts had been spent. The outbreak of World War II had closed European markets and cut off a significant part of the studio income from both features and cartoons. And although the United States had yet to enter World War II, Roy Disney correctly feared that war was inevitable. And those were just the external and financial issues. The studio also faced an increasingly hostile workforce of artists unhappy with their working conditions, Walt Disney’s ongoing interference with their work, and, above all, their pay.

[A flying elephant to the rescue!]

Fusing Music to Moving Paint: Disney’s Fantasia

Welcome to the Disney Watch-Watch, where I cover most of the Disney animated films left out of the Disney Read-Watch, starting with one of Disney’s most extraordinary works, Fantasia (1940).

Perhaps more than any other film discussed in this Read-Watch/Watch-Watch, Fantasia was a labor of pure love, a lavishly animated work of over one thousand artists, technicians and musicians. In making it, Walt Disney was determined to prove that animation could be more than just silly cartoons: it could also be high art. High art that included, not always successfully, dinosaurs, centaurs, elephant ballerinas, and terrifying demons. The result was a strange yet almost always beautiful film, arguably the studio’s greatest accomplishment, and certainly its greatest technical accomplishment until the advent of the CAPS system and computer animation in the 1990s.

It’s hard to remember now that it started off as a little Mickey Mouse cartoon.

[Entire books can and have been written about this film. This is just one post.]

Exploring Other Disney Franchises: Big Hero 6

It wasn’t that Disney executives were nervous, exactly. True, the most recent Winnie the Pooh film (the 2011 one) had bombed, but Winnie the Pooh merchandise was still selling, and the film still had a chance to earn back its costs through DVD and Blu-Ray sales. Tangled and Wreck-It-Ralph had both been box office hits, and the Disney Princess franchise was a wild success with small girls.

Still, since the next upcoming film was a severely behind schedule princess film that Disney had been struggling with for decades, maybe—just maybe—it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the animation studio to release a film aimed at boys. Luckily, the animation studio just happened to have another franchise on hand—the recently acquired Marvel Studios. The popular Marvel characters, of course, were already licensed to other studios, or would shortly be sucked into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Disney CEO Bob Iger felt that the Disney animation studio could exploit some of the lesser known characters. As it turned out, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would also be exploiting some of the lesser known characters, but fortunately enough, the Marvel Comics universe is large, and after flipping through a number of comics, animators found something the live action films had no plans to touch: Big Hero 6, a Japanese superhero team created by Steven Seagle and Duncan Rouleau, with additional characters created by Chris Claremont and David Nakayama for the team’s later five issue miniseries.

Having found Big Hero 6, the story developers proceeded to almost completely ignore the comic. One of the three screenwriters never even read it.

[Better than many live action superhero films]

Let It Make a Lot of Cash: Disney’s Frozen

According to the expert opinions of the kids next door, Frozen is not just the best Disney movie ever, but the best movie ever ever ever.

EVER.

Which is one reason why I hesitated to include it in this Read-Watch: that expert opinion has also led the kids next door to play the English and Spanish soundtracks from Frozen at high volume on a regular basis, and, far worse, sing along with both. By the fifth rendition of “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman/Si Hacemos un Muñeco” during a Florida August, I was ready to hunt down the songwriters and bury them in snowmen myself. Plus, I had the excuse that Frozen, despite a credit that reads “inspired by” Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, departs so far from that novella that the film is usually credited as a Disney original.

So skipping Frozen was the original plan—until, that is, I happened to reread The Snow Queen for other reasons, and realized that, in spirit, Frozen may be probably closer to its original source material than anything we’ve seen so far in this reread.

Really.

[A sympathetic monster, a questionable prince, and a major box office take]

Fairy Tale Subversion: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”

By the time he sat down to pen “The Snow Queen” in the early 1840s, Hans Christian Andersen had already published two collections of fairy tales, along with several poems that had achieved critical recognition. Fame and fortune still eluded him, however, and would until his fairy tales began to be translated into other languages.

“The Snow Queen” was his most ambitious fairy tale yet, a novella-length work that rivaled some of the early French salon fairy tales for its intricacy. Andersen, inspired by the versions of The One Thousand and One Nights that he’d encountered, worked with their tale-within-a-tale format, carefully and delicately using images and metaphor to explore the contrasts between intellect and love, reality and dream; he also gently critiqued both stories. The result was to be lauded as one of Andersen’s masterpieces.

[The struggle between love and reason, in this story, feels rather cold]

Magic and Choices: Disney’s Tangled

Glen Keane, animator of Ariel, the Beast, and Aladdin, found himself at a bit of a loss after finishing work on Tarzan. He was assigned to work on Treasure Planet, where he was responsible for the innovative animation used for John Silver, but he was not entirely happy with the project. He felt that Treasure Planet was yet another example of stepping away from what, in his opinion, Disney did best—fairy tales. Keane began putting together ideas for one of the few remaining “major” fairy tales that Disney had not yet animated—Rapunzel.

His plans for a Rapunzel feature ran into just a few small snags.

[Spoilery, since this is a film I can’t really discuss without discussing the ending]

Forbidden Desire and Locked Doors: “Rapunzel”

Stories of maidens locked into towers or behind walls litter European folklore, appearing in fairy tales, saints’ lives, and dubious histories and chronicles. In part, these tales echoed the real life experiences of women locked behind walls for one reason or another. Some women went willingly. Convent life, for instance, could offer not just a religious experience and spiritual comfort, but educational and artistic opportunities for many women. Other women did not.

But even the strictest convents and prisons did not completely remove these women from the world of men. Not even in the case of arguably the most famous fictional woman to be trapped in a tower, Rapunzel.

[A fairy tale partly inspired by real life events]

The End of an Era: Disney’s The Princess and the Frog

In the late 1990s, Disney executive Andy Mooney noticed something: small girls at Disney events and theme parks often showed up dressed as princesses. But not, alas, Disney princesses, since official Disney costumes weren’t available. Inspired, in January 2000 he ordered his division to start developing Disney Princesses, a franchise that included very sparkly clothing, plastic tiaras, very sparkly plastic Princess jewelry, dolls, and other merchandise. The franchise proved wildly successful, and Disney soon expanded the market, featuring the Disney Princesses in various theme park attractions and on Disney Cruise Ships, creating Disney Princess Dining, Disney Princess Meet and Greets, Disney Princess Makeovers, and an assortment of other Disney Princess items.

The franchise had, however, one major problem: none of the original Disney Princesses were black. It was time, Disney thought, for Disney’s Animation department to create another fairy tale.

[Read more]

Wait. What Happened to the KISSING Part? “The Frog King, or Iron Henry”

You probably think you know the story: the girl, the well, the golden ball, the frog, and that kiss.

You’ve almost certainly heard the saying: “You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you can find your prince.”

What you might not know is that in the original German versions, and even the first English translations, the princess doesn’t kiss the frog at all.

And it’s not exactly clear when the two of them managed to make things, well, legal.

[Read more]

When Even Dinosaur Fights Aren’t Enough: Disney’s Meet the Robinsons

“It’s been a long hard day full of emotional turmoil and dinosaur fights.”

For their next foray into computer animation, Disney decided to back away from trying to create something similar in tone to Shrek, and instead, recapture some of the sweetness at least associated with many Disney films, along with the occasional zaniness and attention to detail that was a highlight of the Pixar films.

The result was somewhat of a mess.

[A dinosaur, and an evil hat.]