content by

Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

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.]

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.


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.


[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]