content by

Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

An Expensive Adventure: Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Disney executives could not help but notice a few things during the 1990s. One: even accounting for inflation, science fiction films continued to do very well at the box office, if not quite grossing the same amounts as the original Star Wars trilogy. And two, many of the fans who flocked to Disney animated films, theme parks and the newly opened Disney Cruise Line were teenagers. Why not, executives asked, try an animated science fiction or adventure film aimed at teenagers? It would be a bit of a risk—the company’s previous PG animated film, The Black Cauldron, had been a complete flop. But they could bring in directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, whose Beauty and the Beast had been a spectacular success, and who had also added more mature elements to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It was worth a try.

In theory.

[A film unsafe for linguists to watch]

When Chaos Leads to Comedy: The Emperor’s New Groove

That is the last time we take directions from a squirrel.

In the early 1990s, the Disney animation department was flying high, after a series of remarkable films that had restored the studio’s critical reputation and—perhaps more importantly—its funding. The success led Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and the animators and directors to brainstorm even more ambitious prestige projects: an adaptation of a Victor Hugo novel, a continuation—finally—of the 1940 Fantasia, and a film about space pirates that its directors simply would not shut up about. Oh, as a nice follow-up to films set in Africa and China, something set in South America. About, perhaps, the Incas. Featuring songs by no less than singer-songwriter Sting himself.

The film—with the grandiose title The Kingdom of the Sun—had all the elements of a guaranteed Disney hit: romance, comedy, hit songs, and cute llamas. And, its directors promised, it would remain just serious enough to be recognized—like its Disney Renaissance predecessors—as Real Art.

You might notice that The Kingdom of the Sun is not in the title of this post.

[Read more]

Who knew Dinosaurs Could Be This Boring? Disney’s Dinosaur

Until relatively recently—well after its initial release—Dinosaur was not considered part of the official Disney canon of animated films. Oh, certainly, it had been released under the Disney name. It opened with the Walt Disney logo. It contained several typical Disney elements and themes—celebrity name those voices, adorable animals, a young protagonist trying to find a place where he could fit in, and a focus on accepting people who look different. The Disney theme parks sold Dinosaur related merchandise, especially at the Animal Kingdom park, which had an entire dinosaur section. And the film featured then-state of the art animation.

And yet, Disney executives initially claimed, this was not—no matter what it looked or sounded like—part of the official canon. It was something completely different.

[In which we learn that dinosaurs can be surprisingly boring]

Experiments in Animation: Disney’s Fantasia 2000

World War II and subsequent budget cuts brought Walt Disney’s original plans to release the 1940 Fantasia every year as an evolving project to an abrupt end. Even after Cinderella brought the studio back to profitability, Disney still did not have money—and theatres did not have the sound equipment—to plunge back into Fantasia again, partly because those profits were instead invested in the Disneyland theme park and partly because the studio had shifted to a simpler, cheaper animation style. Only one more film in the Walt Disney years—Sleeping Beauty—came anywhere near to Fantasia’s detailed, lavish animation style, and when it flopped at the box office, Walt Disney gave up all hopes of continuing Fantasia.

But as Disney animation joyfully returned to quality and—above all—profitability in the early years of the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s, Roy Disney, nephew of Walt Disney, and arguably the single person at Disney most interested in preserving his uncle’s legacy, had an idea: why not finally fulfill Walt Disney’s vision and create new segments for Fantasia? Perhaps even an entirely new Fantasia?

[A work of art that also helped create new computer animation processes]

Treading Ink: Disney’s Robin Hood

Disney animators faced the 1970s in a glum mood. After Walt Disney’s death in 1966, it seemed more than possible that the storied animation department would be closed down completely as the company moved on to focus on other, more profitable things such as family friendly live action films, theme parks, and merchandise. The Aristocats had earned back its costs, but not much more than that, and critics had noted—or claimed to have noted—the lack of the distinct Walt Disney touch. The animation studio’s budget was slashed. About all the animators really had on their side was company history, which virtually identified “Disney” with “animation.” To continue the success of the Disney brand, they argued, the animation studios needed to continue to produce full length films. Disney executives were not quite persuaded, but did release just enough—just barely enough—money to let the animators cobble together another full length film, Robin Hood.

[Read more]

Everybody Wants To Be a Cat: Disney’s The Aristocats

After Walt Disney’s death, a pallor hung over the Disney animation studios, with animators and executives alike unsure of whether they should continue creating animated films—or even if they could. Almost all of the greatest Disney animated films had benefited from Walt Disney’s close—occasionally too close—supervision. The least successful film, The Sword in the Stone, was the film that he’d had the least involvement with. And although the last film he’d supervised, The Jungle Book, had been a hit, the animation studio was still on a restricted budget, with no chance of recreating the lavish animation of the prewar films, or even the simpler beauty of something like Lady and the Tramp.

On the other hand, the animated films continued to bring in money for Disney during every theatrical re-release, animation was proving to be increasingly popular on television, and the company had built its reputation on animation. Disney decided to go ahead with another animated film. But they also decided to play it very safe, choosing The Aristocats—a project originally planned for television, not film, but which had the advantage of having the seal of Walt Disney’s approval.

[Safe to the point where very little happens.]

The First True Disney Romance: Lady and the Tramp

Walt Disney started the 1950s in a delighted mood. Cinderella wasn’t just a hit—it was doing so well that he finally had funds to start up his next dream project, a little thing he called Disneyland. And possibly start shifting his movie studio towards making live action films, since the joint cartoon/live action experiments had, for the most part, done decently at the box office.

Alas, the films that immediately followed Cinderella did not do quite as well at the box office. This wasn’t just the usual revenue problem: Walt Disney needed a film to keep up the interest in his company and build the Disney brand as he started to build Disneyland. Disney did have another animated film in production, the lavishly animated Sleeping Beauty, but for multiple reasons, that film was mired in production delays. Disney needed a new animated film relatively quickly—something easy to animate, with clear popular appeal. Those little mice had unexpectedly become the showstoppers of Cinderella, and Disney had generally—Bambi aside—done well with cartoon animals. Why not something about dogs?

[Plus, he also had to create this film just as film technologies were changing]

One Last Package of Disney Shorts: Melody Time

As the 1940s continued, Walt Disney did not—could not—dare to hope too much. His recent animated films had all ranged from complete box office failures to at best modest successes. The modest successes had nearly all included live action footage, suggesting that viewers might be more interested in Disney’s live action films than in Disney’s continued experiments with animation. Still, the studio was surviving—if barely—financially. Perhaps—just perhaps—the studio could start working on another full length animated film again. Nothing as elaborate as the pre-war films, of course, but something that would let the studio tell a full story again and possibly show off the character animation the studio had still been developing. Maybe something about princesses. With cute mice.

In the meantime, however, Walt Disney still needed to keep the studio’s doors open and give RKO Films a full length film. Still lacking the money—and the artists—for a full length film, he ordered the animators to produce yet another series of cartoon shorts. This particular collection would, like Fantasia, focus on combining animation with music—in this case, mostly cheerful songs. It would also, Walt Disney decided, showcase a couple of American folk heroes, to celebrate—and take advantage of—the postwar surge in American patriotism. And just to ensure that film audiences would flock to what would be a comparatively thin and short selection of cartoons, Melody Time would also feature a cameo from popular cowboy star Roy Rogers and his arguably even more popular horse, Trigger. Roy Rogers’ band, the Sons of the Pioneers, would sing.

[Not that Roy Rogers and Trigger ended up being in much of the film.]

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.]