content by

Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

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]

Forbidden Desire and Locked Doors: “Rapunzel”

Stories of maidens locked into towers or behind walls litter European folklore, appearing in fairy tales, saints’ lives, and dubious histories and chronicles. In part, these tales echoed the real life experiences of women locked behind walls for one reason or another. Some women went willingly. Convent life, for instance, could offer not just a religious experience and spiritual comfort, but educational and artistic opportunities for many women. Other women did not.

But even the strictest convents and prisons did not completely remove these women from the world of men. Not even in the case of arguably the most famous fictional woman to be trapped in a tower, Rapunzel.

[A fairy tale partly inspired by real life events]

The End of an Era: Disney’s The Princess and the Frog

In the late 1990s, Disney executive Andy Mooney noticed something: small girls at Disney events and theme parks often showed up dressed as princesses. But not, alas, Disney princesses, since official Disney costumes weren’t available. Inspired, in January 2000 he ordered his division to start developing Disney Princesses, a franchise that included very sparkly clothing, plastic tiaras, very sparkly plastic Princess jewelry, dolls, and other merchandise. The franchise proved wildly successful, and Disney soon expanded the market, featuring the Disney Princesses in various theme park attractions and on Disney Cruise Ships, creating Disney Princess Dining, Disney Princess Meet and Greets, Disney Princess Makeovers, and an assortment of other Disney Princess items.

The franchise had, however, one major problem: none of the original Disney Princesses were black. It was time, Disney thought, for Disney’s Animation department to create another fairy tale.

[Read more]

Wait. What Happened to the KISSING Part? “The Frog King, or Iron Henry”

You probably think you know the story: the girl, the well, the golden ball, the frog, and that kiss.

You’ve almost certainly heard the saying: “You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you can find your prince.”

What you might not know is that in the original German versions, and even the first English translations, the princess doesn’t kiss the frog at all.

And it’s not exactly clear when the two of them managed to make things, well, legal.

[Read more]

When Even Dinosaur Fights Aren’t Enough: Disney’s Meet the Robinsons

“It’s been a long hard day full of emotional turmoil and dinosaur fights.”

For their next foray into computer animation, Disney decided to back away from trying to create something similar in tone to Shrek, and instead, recapture some of the sweetness at least associated with many Disney films, along with the occasional zaniness and attention to detail that was a highlight of the Pixar films.

The result was somewhat of a mess.

[A dinosaur, and an evil hat.]

An Inauspicious Start to Computer Animation: Disney’s Chicken Little

“Crazy little chicken. We don’t make eye contact. Bye bye.”

I’ve kept my computer open while watching each and every film in this Read-Watch, frequently pausing to take notes. Sometimes extensive notes, sometimes short notes, sometimes notes that I’m completely unsure about even a day later—for instance, “rabbit pizza!” during The Black Cauldron, a note that still mystifies me. Sometimes long lines of incomprehensible gibberish, usually, but not always, a contribution from a cat. Sometimes I’m so enthralled that I forget to take notes, and then have to watch the film again. (You can weep for me.) Sometimes my notes are so extensive that the post is mostly done before the film.

And sometimes, my notes consist of this (edited because my mother reads these posts):

Holy $@%# is this a bad movie.

[Spoilery discussion of the film’s many questionable moments; also, the Disney executive shakeups of 2005]

The Sky Is Falling! Maybe! “Henny Penny” or “Chicken Little”

The story of Henny Penny, also called Chicken Little, or sometimes Chicken-licken (not to be confused with “Finger-licken” from Kentucky Fried Chicken), the terrified little chicken convinced that the sky is falling and that life as we, or at least as chickens know it, is over, is common throughout European folklore—so common that “the sky is falling!” and “Chicken Little” and related names have become bywords for fearmongering, and the often tragic results that occur.

[The different endings of Chicken Little, with a bonus brief discussion of Disney’s first, deadly serious, take on the story.]

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]