Tor.com content by

Mari Ness

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

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]

Fairy Tale and the Other Realm as Social Commentary: “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp”

In Western literature, the best known story of the Arabic The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, also known to English readers as The Arabian Nights, is arguably “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.” The classic rags to riches story of a boy and a magic lamp has been told and retold numerous times in numerous media, from paintings to poems to novels to films, helped popularize the concept of “genies” for European readers, and has even been used to sell certain types of oil lamps.

What’s great about all of this is that “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” isn’t actually in any of the original Arabic collections of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights at all. Also, it may not be Arabic, but French.

[And this is before we get to all the slashy stuff in some translations!]

A Return to the Glory Days: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

As work began on Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney animators were finally – finally – feeling confident again. Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Little Mermaid had been critical and box office successes, and even The Rescuers Down Under, if not exactly a major hit, had at least allowed animators to work out computer animation techniques that they were eager to try on a new film. The animators were ready to return to the glory days of Disney animation, with a film that could be both a work of art and a box office success.

They succeeded beyond their wildest hopes.

[I have a few things to say about this Enchantress person.]

Marriage Can Be Monstrous, or Wondrous: The Origins of “Beauty and the Beast”

Technically speaking, Beauty and the Beast is not quite a tale as old as time—time, after all, more or less got going right after the Big Bang, well before anyone was telling any fairy tales at all. But in human terms, the story of Beauty and the Beast is very old indeed, with literary roots stretching well back into antiquity, making this arguably the second oldest story in this Read-Watch, after the stories of Hercules.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that in the original literary version, the Beast isn’t a Beast at all, although some people think he is.

[Why it often sucks to be a woman in a fairy tale, even if you do get to keep your harpsichord after a series of disasters.]

A Very Christmas Mickey: Mickey’s Christmas Carol and The Gift of the Magi

Time for a bit of a detour, as the Disney Read-Watch pauses to watch—not read—a couple of Disney Christmas shorts loosely based on literary sources: Mickey’s Christmas Carol and The Gift of the Magi. And for those of you thinking that, given the film coming up next in the Read-Watch, we should really be discussing Beauty and the Beast: An Enchanted Christmas instead, thing is, I checked, and it turns out, that film was never ever made, never ever existed, and was never even thought of, no matter what Google, Disney, IMDB, and your own DVD collection might be telling you.

Never existed. AT ALL.

So that’s that.

Now, Mickey!

[Read more]

The Arrival of Computer Animation: The Rescuers Down Under

An increased use of computers was arguably the single most significant development for Disney animation during the 1980s. Computer assisted animation had kept costs more or less under control for The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver and Company, helped with several of the effects shots in The Little Mermaid, and provided one of the few aspects anyone in the animation department was willing to remember about the hell that had been The Black Cauldron. Up until the very end of the decade, however, computer assisted animation was only used for selected shots and effects.

That was about to change with The Rescuers Down Under, an otherwise forgettable film that formed a Disney milestone: it was the first Disney animated film to use the Computer Animation Production System throughout the entire film.

[Collaborating to create the illusion of camera movement]

Disney’s Renaissance: The Little Mermaid

As gloomy as most of the 1970s had been for Disney’s animation department, the 1980s were even worse. The Fox and the Hound had swiftly settled into obscurity; The Great Mouse Detective, though an improvement, had only done moderately well at the box office; and the trauma that had been The Black Cauldron still lingered in the animation walls. Still, Jeffery Katzenberg insisted that the studio return to producing one animated film per year. With cheerful, family friendly things. No matter how glum the animators felt.

[The start of the Disney Renaissance, and the awesomeness that is Ursula]

Queen Latifah IS the Wizard of Oz: NBC’s The Wiz

I tuned into NBC’s recent live broadcast of The Wiz with trepidation. I mean, yes, I love Oz. Yes, I love musicals. But this particular version of The Wiz was part of NBC’s now annual tradition of airing a live musical in the holiday season. To put it very kindly, the past two live musicals had been, well, not good—NBC’s Peter Pan wasn’t quite the worst version that I’ve seen, but it’s up there, and their version of The Sound of Music did nothing other than make me severely nostalgic for Julie Andrews.

So I had fears. Severe fears.

But it was The Wiz. Which meant Oz. Which meant I had to watch.

And you know what? Barring some early stumbles and some highly questionable camera movements and commercial cuts by NBC—It was pretty good. [Queen Latifah needs to play the Wizard of Oz in every depiction of Oz ever]

Pain, Humanity, and Ascension: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”

Hans Christian Andersen’s earliest years were marked by extreme poverty. His parents did not live together until nine months after his birth, leading Andersen and others to wonder if his father of record—also named Hans Andersen, a shoemaker—was indeed his father. Highly dubious legends later insisted that Andersen was the illegitimate scion of noble, even royal blood, but if so, noble and royal money was distinctly absent in those early years. His maternal grandmother died in a poorhouse, as did his mother. His (probable) paternal grandfather became mentally ill later in life, and also landed in a poorhouse, leaving his wife and children in desperate financial straits. A cousin landed in jail for begging.

What saved Andersen’s soul, then and later, were fairy tales about magical things like little mermaids.

[Still no excuse for putting a guilt trip like this on small kids, Mr. Anderson!]

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!]