content by

Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Production Changes: Disney’s Oliver and Company

As work started on Oliver and Company, the Disney animation studio was, to put it mildly, in a depressed mood. Roy Disney had returned to head the animation department—a plus—but the animation department was still dealing with newly arrived Disney CEO Michael Eisner and newly arrived chairman of Walt Disney Pictures, Jeffrey Katzenberg. The animation department had a particularly tense relationship with Katzenberg, who had not liked The Black Cauldron at all and done something the animators considered unforgivable: personally cut the film. The glory and success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit was still in production and had not yet appeared on screen, and the entire animation department was now glumly working in a warehouse instead of their nice animation studios.

Yet, despite all this, an unsympathetic Jeffrey Katzenberg ordered the animation department to produce one film per year. This was an ambitious order for a department that had barely managed to do this under Walt Disney’s direction, and not at all in the years since his death, and for a department that was understaffed and—despite The Rescuers and The Black Cauldron—not trained to the rigors of the old days.

It was probably the perfect time to focus on adapting Charles Dickens’ mercilessly cheerful work, Oliver Twist.

[Or something that used the character names from Oliver Twist, at least…]

Fairy Tale Structure and Social Criticism: Dickens’ Oliver Twist

You don’t mind sleeping among the coffins, I suppose? But it doesn’t much matter whether you do or don’t, for you can’t sleep anywhere else.

–One of the kindlier statements addressed to Oliver Twist at the beginning of the novel

I like to think of Charles Dickens as the Joss Whedon of his day—a popular storyteller who churned out episodic adventure after episodic adventure, keeping viewers—er, that is, readers—hooked with cliffhanger after cliffhanger, rarely allowing his love interests to have more than a moment’s true happiness, and constantly killing off beloved characters just to twist all of the knives in the hearts of his fans a little bit deeper.

Oliver Twist, his second novel, epitomizes every aspect of this.

[In which everybody has a terrible, terrible no good time, because they are in a Dickens novel, plus, the connections between this and Disney films]

When You’re Just Drawn That Way: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

In 1981, Walt Disney Productions faced a major issue: with the exception of The Rescuers, all of its recent films, including the live action, family friendly films, had been underperforming for years. Walt Disney’s son-in-law, Ron Miller, who had worked as a producer on multiple live action films prior to becoming the president of Walt Disney Productions in 1978, believed he had a solution: Disney needed to start producing films aimed at an adult audience. The eventual result of this was Touchstone Pictures, Ron Miller’s major positive legacy to Disney. (His less positive legacies, less spoken of, included attempted corporate takeovers and his eventual ousting.) Meanwhile, Miller let people know that he was deliberately searching for “different” stuff, which is reportedly one reason why the galley proofs from Who Censored Roger Rabbit? ended up on his desk. Not to mention that the book name drops multiple Disney characters, and a small part of the plot references Disney’s Alice in Wonderland.

Ron Miller liked the concept, thinking it would fit into other Disney films that had combined live action film with animation. He optioned the book over the objections of his then boss Card Walker, and put the film into pre-production. At that point, things started going wrong.

[Getting Bugs Bunny into a Disney cartoon, plus, Jessica Rabbit]

When Toons Go Bad: Who Censored Roger Rabbit?

What had I ever done to deserve this? Other detectives get the Maltese Falcon. I get a paranoid rabbit.

Ok, technically, I’m cheating here. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the next up in the Disney lineup, is not exactly a Disney animated classic film—it’s a Steven Spielberg production, and it’s not even fully animated. But it does have a text source, unlike some of the films actually in the Disney Animated Classics collection, and it did, as we’ll see, have a tremendous impact on Disney animation, even if most of the animated bits were not done by Disney animators.

We’ll get there. First, a bit about the book that inspired the film.

[When cartoon characters have no choice but to start a career in porn]

This, Too, Started With a Mouse: The Great Mouse Detective

It’s safe to say that as production started on The Great Mouse Detective (1986), no one at Disney’s Animation Department was very happy. The Fox and the Hound had done decently, but not well enough to encourage Disney executives to send money to the animation department, especially since the conventional wisdom was that the glory days of Disney animation had died along with Walt Disney. Animation itself seemed more of a former craze, something relegated to kiddie cartoons on Saturday mornings—no matter what might be happening over in Japan. Disney itself was undergoing a major corporate shakeup, which left two executives with limited experience in animation—Michael Eisner as CEO and Jeffrey Katzenberg as the head of the film division—in charge of directing and approving future animated films. The Black Cauldron, released in the midst of this, was an artistic and financial disaster, exiling the entire animation department out of their nice animation studio and into a much less nice warehouse. The animation department could only watch the skyrocketing careers of two former Disney animators—Don Bluth and Tim Burton—with envy and dismay.

In a crowning touch, after seeing the storyboards for The Great Mouse Detective, Michael Eisner slashed the film’s budget in half.

[And the film even featured adorable mice!]

It’s Elementary, My Dear Mice: Basil of Baker Street

You may be under the mistaken impression that only humans are aware of the superior intellect of a certain Mr. Sherlock Holmes, of Baker Street. You would be wrong, indeed, since just below the apartments of Mr. Holmes at 221B Baker Street—specifically, in the basement—live mice so impressed by the achievements of Mr. Holmes that they have chosen to live this dwelling just so they can watch and learn from his cases.

The mice—Basil of Baker Street (named for actor Basil Rathbone, renowned for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes) and Dr. David Q. Dawson, who bears a rather suspicious resemblance to a certain Dr. John Watson—not only make regular trips upstairs to listen to Sherlock Holmes, but have convinced 44 local mice families to build a little mouse town in the basement—Holmestead. And, of course, like their hero, they solve crimes—mouse crimes, you understand, not human crimes.

[Read more]

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]