content by

Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

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]

Disney’s Post-War Constraints: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

Walt Disney spent the years after World War II scrambling to recover. Most of his pre-war films had lost money, and World War II had been a particularly hard financial blow for the studio, which survived only by making training films and propaganda shorts featuring Donald Duck. Disney, always ambitious, wanted far more than that: a return, if possible, to the glory days of Pinocchio. Instead, he found himself cobbling together anthologies of cartoon shorts, releasing six between the full length features Bambi and Cinderella.

The last of these was The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. It is, to put it kindly, mixed.

[Or, to put it less kindly, one of the weakest parts of the Disney canon.]

The Challenge of Realistic Animation: Disney’s Bambi

Oh, this film.

This film.

Wait. I can do this. I can put together a reasonable, thoughtful blog post on Walt Disney’s Bambi without interrupting the post every few paragraphs with a KILL THUMPER ALREADY, right? I can put aside my feelings about the jarring pacing and tone of the film and the supposedly romantic twitterpating stuff and write some lovely, touching (KILL THUMPER) words about what even I have to admit is a lovely ice scene involving a bunny and an adorable deer on ice, and comment on the great forest fire bit (KILL THUMPER) and put the film into its historic context, with a few words comparing the film to the book. I can do this. I can.

I think.


Death and Survival: Felix Salten’s Bambi: A Life in the Woods

In his lifetime, author Felix Salten straddled many worlds: as a hanger on to Hapsburg courts, a member of various Viennese literary circles, the author himself of what is reportedly one of the most depressing pornographic novels ever written (tracking down a reliable English translation is tricky), an occasional political activist, and a fierce Zionist. For financial reasons, he was barely able to attend school, much less enter a university program, but he considered himself an intellectual. He loved Vienna, but saved his deepest love for Austria’s mountains and forests, becoming an avid hiker and cyclist.

All of these blended together in his masterpiece, Bambi: A Life in the Woods, a deceptively simple story about a deer named Bambi and the animals he meets in the forest.

[A book about death, defeat, and the slow return of spring. Not recommended for readers who are even slightly depressed. Very spoilery.]

Smoking and Heroism: Disney’s Pinocchio

Buoyed by the success of his first full length animated film, Snow White, Walt Disney decided to plunge ahead with more animated films, despite (justified) concerns about their expense and continued profitability. Far from worrying about tiny issues like budgets—at least at this point—the new movies, he decided, would not merely follow Snow White’s success and innovative filming techniques, but be even more innovative and lavishly detailed. Starting with Pinocchio.

[Heavy smoking and an adorable kitten.]

Arrested for Puppet Assault: Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio

Italian author Carlo Collodi had gained a minor name for himself as a satirist and translator of fairy tales when he was asked to write a serial novel for children. It was a rather odd choice: Collodi, bitter and angry over Italian politics—he fought in two different independence wars, but was unhappy with the resulting unified government, a feeling many of his fellow citizens shared—was perhaps not the first person most would have chosen to write an adorable, child-friendly book, especially since many of the fairy tales he had translated were those aimed at an adult audience. But he needed either the money, or the distraction, or both, and sat down to write a quick story about a puppet.

Somewhere along the way—that is, by page two—it turned into a the sort of story that demonstrated just why Collodi was not the sort of person anyone would hire to write an adorable, child-friendly book, but would hire to write the sort of tale where everyone hits each other a lot, suffers a lot, and dies horribly. With the occasional “Oh, right, I need a moral message for the kiddies.”

[If you hate donkeys, then guys, do I have a book for you. Also, mean things done to puppets.]

It All Started with a Fairy Tale: Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

By the early 1930s Walt Disney faced a dilemma: his popular cartoon shorts about Mickey Mouse were starting to lose money. His competitors could afford to produce cartoons at a loss as lead-ins to their live action films; Disney, who did not have a movie studio, could not.

But he had another idea: he could produce a full-length film of his own. Only, instead of making a live action film, he could produce a full-length cartoon feature, running, say, for about 88 minutes. Good length. Sure, it might cost as much as $500,000. (Cue gasps.) He would need 300 artists. It had never been done before.

It’s safe to say that very few people thought this was a good idea. And that $500,000 turned out to be a very wrong estimate. It’s also very safe to say that this idea is why we have the entertainment megacorporation of Disney as it exists today.

[The very first Disney princess, and the most heartwarming element of the film: a little tortoise.]