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Mari Ness

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

When Your Dream Project Is A Financial Failure: Disney’s Treasure Planet

Let’s skip back a moment, to 1985:

Writer/directors Ron Clements and John Musker: Pirates! In! Space!

Chairman of Walt Disney Pictures Jeffrey Katzenberg: No.

Ron Clements and John Musker: But! Pirates! In! Space!

Jeffrey Katzenberg: What about this “Great Mouse” thing you’ve been talking about? That sounded cute. And topical!

Or, to another moment, in 1987:

Ron Clements and John Musker: Pirates! In! Space!

Jeffrey Katzenberg: Or mermaids! In water!

[Read more]

Ahoy There, Mateys! Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island

“John Silver,” he said, “you’re a prodigious villain and imposter—a monstrous imposter, sir. I am told I am not to prosecute you. Well then, I will not. But the dead men, sir, hang about your neck like mill-stones.”

“Thank you kindly, sir,” replied Long John, again saluting.

The Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson was born into a family of lighthouse engineers, a heritage that provided him with a solid middle class upbringing. The family’s financial stability proved fortunate, since that meant they could keep the young boy provided with a steady diet of books, necessary since Stevenson was a sickly child, frequently bedridden, which made it difficult for him to fit into school and find friends. He found his comfort in stories, both in those books and in making up his own tales. Despite their not very secret hopes that Stevenson would follow his father into the lighthouse business, his parents encouraged his storytelling, and accepted his later refusal to work as an engineer or in the other field he received training in, law.

[Pirates, matey! Pirates!]

The End of the Disney Renaissance: Tarzan

“I’m in a tree with a man who talks to monkeys.”

As the 1990s drew to a close, the Disney Animation department faced a bit of a problem. The mid 1990s prestige films—Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Mulan—had done decently enough at the box office and award ceremonies, if more unevenly with critics, but somehow not quite as spectacularly well as the films that had started the Disney Renaissance—The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. By “spectacularly well” Disney and I both mean “toys and other merchandise sales.” Pocahontas and Mulan were to make inroads on this later, when their protagonists joined the Disney Princess franchise, but that was still a few years off. Disney needed something huge again. Something popular. Something that could fit in with the new Animal Kingdom theme park about to open at Walt Disney World in Florida.

They settled on Tarzan.

[Why just maybe Tarzan and the gorillas should call it quits]

Heredity, Environment, and a Few Dead Lions: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes

For a naked man to drag a shrieking, clawing man-eater forth from a window by the tail to save a strange white girl, was indeed the last word in heroism.

By his own account, Edgar Rice Burroughs ended up falling into a prolific writer’s career more or less by accident, when, during a spate of boredom and plenty of free time, he found himself with little else to read other than a stack of pulp magazines. He was not impressed, saying later that he immediately dismissing the stories as “rotten.” Anyone, he thought, could write at least that badly. He could write at least that badly. And so, in an optimistic spirit, to try to earn a bit of cash, he did.

[Lions! Elephants! Jungle Abductions! Pirates! And…French lessons!]

Girl Power, A Cricket, and a Dragon: Disney’s Mulan

“You said you’d trust Ping. Why is Mulan any different?”

With a few arguable exceptions—The Jungle Book, Aladdin, and Pocahontas—Disney’s animated films had mostly focused on Western culture. Even those exceptions had been, shall we say, Americanized, especially in the case of The Jungle Book. By the mid-1990s, however, still caught up in the idea of doing serious, high art animation films, Disney decided to try something new: an animated film set in China. And, after some thought, they decided to hand over the idea to their Florida animation studio in Walt Disney World.

[Read more]

Honor and Crossdressing: The Ballad of Mulan

No one is quite sure when the story of Mulan was first told, or even first written down. But at some point—perhaps the 4th century, perhaps the 6th—someone decided to write down the sparse, evocative lines of “Mulan shi,” lines evocative enough to turn Mulan into one of the most popular figures in China: a skilled warrior, devoted family member, and emblem of virtue.

And oh yes, a kickass crossdresser.

[Plus, a camel and rabbits]

I Can Go the Merchandising Route: Disney’s Hercules

If we forget about A Goofy Movie—which I, at least, am willing to forget—the animated films that immediately followed Disney’s The Lion King had been, for want of better words, serious. Ambitious. Thoughtful. Self-consciously artistic. Filled with Serious Messages about the Color of the Wind, and Being Different. If not quite the box office triumphs that Aladdin and The Lion King had been, they did well enough to have Disney plan for three more ambitious films: a film based on the legendary Chinese warrior Hua Mulan; a technically innovative work based on Tarzan, and a second Fantasia film.

And popping up right in the middle of all of this serious, ambitious, beautifully animated work? Hercules.

[The most self-referential film of the Disney Renaissance.]

The Ancient Superhero: the Myths of Herakles

It’s impossible to know exactly when stories of Herakles (Greek)/Hercules (Latin) began to be told. If we are to believe the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, and we probably shouldn’t, Herakles lived more or less around 1300 B.C.E., founding various city states and royal lines in between fighting monsters, killing his children, taking away a tasty food source of divine liver from kindhearted, hungry eagles under the guise of “freeing” minor gods from unjust punishments, cross-dressing, and wrestling Death. This was the sort of thing that made for great stories, and by Herodotus’ time (5th century B.C.E.) the stories were widely told, not just in words, but in pottery, paint, mosaic, sculpture and stone—including the great temples raised in his honor, since by that time, Herakles was regarded as a god. [Gaining eternal popularity through monster killing and plenty of sex]

When Gargoyles Interrupt Your High Concept Film: Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame

By 1993, the Disney Animation department was finally—finally—flying high. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin had all been solid hits, leading to talk of a “Disney Renaissance,” a term that would later be used to include all of the films from The Little Mermaid to Tarzan, or, for some Disney scholars, all of the films from The Great Mouse Detective to Fantasia 2000 except Oliver and Company. The Rescuers Down Under, if not exactly a hit, had at least allowed animators to develop and play with computer software that allowed for stunning new animated techniques, now being used for the finishing touches on a movie about a little lion that, ok, was just filler until the real prestige movie, Pocahontas, could be completed.

Still, the opening segment of that filler movie—a little scene involving a bird’s eye view of animals running across an African safari—and the sheer beauty of the initial background work and some of the storyboards for Pocahontas started giving directors Gary Trousdale and Alan Wise ideas. Their film, Beauty and the Beast, had often taken a serious approach, in between the sillier moments featuring a singing candlestick and a chipped tea cup, and been lauded as high art. What if they were to follow that success with another high concept, serious film—like, say, an animated adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris?

[Reading the book should have told them why not, but we’ve all made mistakes before.]

Architecture, Fire, Melodrama, and a Goat: Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris

…seeing that I was good for nothing, of my own free will I became a poet and a rhymester. That is a trade which one can always adopt when one is a vagabond.

–Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was born in turbulent times. His father, a not always successful officer with Napoleon’s army, also fought frequently with his wife. The combined marital and martial strife meant that Hugo spent his early years almost constantly on the move, with little stability until 1815, when Napoleon fell from power. Hugo converted to his mother’s royalist views—his political opinions would later greatly change on this point—and agreed to study law. His real love, however, was always for poetry. He had a talent: on the strength of his first book of poems alone, Odes et poesies diverses (1822), the restored Bourbon king granted him a pension.

[My VERY spoilery post on this 19th C. book…]

The Uneasy Mix of Prestige and a Cute Raccoon: Disney’s Pocahontas

Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of Walt Disney Studios in the early 1990s, could never quite manage to forget that the 1991 Beauty and the Beast had almost—almost—won an Academy Award for Best Picture, losing out to a film about a cannibal. A cannibal. On the bright side, Katzenberg figured that the nomination meant that finally, Oscar voters were ready to recognize a Disney animated film as the Best Picture of the Year. If, that is, it was serious enough. Meaningful enough. Full of the sort of Oscar bait that had earned Gandhi, The Last Emperor, and Dances With Wolves the Academy Award for Best Picture. Katzenberg considered the studio’s available options. It was far too late to transform Aladdin into that sort of serious film, and clearly, that little lion movie wasn’t going to be much more than cute animals. On a more promising note, a few animators were talking about developing a work by, all of people, that cheerful French novelist Victor Hugo, especially after the success of the musical version of his Les Miserables. But developing that work would clearly take some time.

No, the best bet, Katzenberg decided, was Pocahontas—a film that its early developers had pitched as a sorta blend between American legend and Romeo and Juliet. With a few tweaks, he figured, Disney could transform the film into a serious, sweeping, romantic contender that was perfect Oscar bait.

Unfortunately for Katzenberg, this film still had to be a Disney animated feature.

The problems just got worse from there.

[This film would be so much better if it just focused on the raccoon]

Felicity Smoak: Arrow’s IT Tech Turned Badass Wheelchair User

When I first heard back in late December that the CW’s Arrow would be putting charmingly awkward IT girl turned CEO Felicity Smoak into a wheelchair I was a bit dismayed. No, not because Arrow was ripping off er, that is, finding inspiration in the Batman mythos again instead of, I don’t know, finding its own plots. And not because something terrible was happening to one of my favorite characters. Something terrible is always happening to someone on Arrow. I just make sure that I always have something alcoholic on hand.

No. It was because, as a wheelchair user, I cringed at the thought of how Arrow, with its checkered history with characters from marginalized groups, might handle this plot.

As it turns out, as a wheelchair user, I’ve loved almost every minute of it.

[Spoilery up through season 4, episode 13, “Sins of the Fathers.”]

When Historical Pirates Did PR: The Writings of Captain John Smith

A Generall Historie of Virginia, or, to give it its correct title, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles: With the Names of the Adventurers, Planters, and Governours from Their First Beginning, Ano: 1584. To This Present 1624. With the Procedings of Those Several Colonies and the Accidents That Befell Them in All Their Journyes and Discoveries. Also the Maps and Descriptions of All Those Countryes, Their Commodities, People, Government, Customes, and Religion Yet Knowne. Divided into Sixe Books, and I think we all need to take a quick breath now. Pause. Better? OK, moving on, by Captaine John Smith sometymes Governour in those Countryes and Admirall of New England, starts off with a fulsome dedication to the Duchess of Richmond and Lennox that even the most ardent aristocrat might find just a touch overdone. It then continues with a preface assuring us that kings are great, before continuing on with no less than ten (count them, I did) poems assuring us that author John Smith is one awesome, awesome guy.

Even by 17th-century standards, this is quite something; several editions of the Bible, Shakespeare and Spenser have more modest introductions. And if, reading this, your first thought was that Captain John Smith had just a few public relations issues and/or really, really really needed money, or both, you’d be right.

[Read more]

This is not Hamlet: Disney’s The Lion King

The Walt Disney Company wants you to believe that The Lion King belongs in this Read-Watch. Never mind that the film is usually classified as a Disney original. In the corporate version of events, The Lion King was inspired not, say, by a desire on the part of Disney executives to capitalize on the company’s success with films featuring cute singing animals, but entirely by the desire to bring Hamlet to its natural environment out on the savannah with noble lions and evil hyenas, creating a sort of Bambi meets Hamlet.

With a happier ending.

Far be it from me to contradict one of the world’s largest and most successful media conglomerates, but let’s do a quick comparison, shall we?

[And then we’ll discuss the actual film]

I Could Show You the World, But I Won’t: Disney’s Aladdin

Ron Clements and John Musker knew immediately what they wanted to do after The Little Mermaid. Pirates! In! Space! They had, after all, been pitching it to Disney for years by this point, and the success of The Little Mermaid would, surely, let them pursue their dream.

Alas, then chairman of Walt Disney Pictures Jeffrey Katzenberg was not a pirate sort of guy. He did, however, console the successful writer/directors with a tempting offer: they could choose to work on any of the three projects then in development: a little movie about a lion, an adaptation of Swan Lake, and this, well, little thing about Aladdin that lyricist Howard Ashman had been playing with when not obsessed with mermaids, roses, and beasts. Crushed, but impressed by Ashman’s songs, and liking the potential humor of the piece, Clements and Musker agreed to come on board for Aladdin.

[Robin Williams’ improv, and slightly more weighty matters]