Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘American Experience: Walt Disney

The Passion of St. Walt

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Main Street U.S.A.

It’s easy to be cynical about Disney. After watching the excellent documentary about Walt Disney himself that aired last year on American Experience, I’m more conscious than ever of both the scope of his influence—he’s undoubtedly the single most important figure in the global popular culture of the last century—and the way in which he repeatedly, even perversely, fell short of his own stated ideals. Whenever I look into the eyes of the avuncular faker that he presented in his television appearances, or the guarded quotations from the founder that adorn the placards at all the theme parks, it’s painfully obvious how much of himself Disney refused to reveal. Few men who built an empire out of their own indomitable will have been as anxious to play the role of a genial uncle in public, or to wear that mask so relentlessly. Walking through Disney World itself creates much the same impression: it’s a machine that impersonates a fairyland. Yet when you enter the park at Main Street U.S.A., turn a corner, and are gifted with the unexpected sight of Cinderella’s castle at the end of the boulevard, the effect is undeniably magical, even moving, when you see it as it must have been conceived: as a portal into a wonderland opening up in the most ordinary surroundings, even if that vision of the everyday is a fantasy in itself. (As American Experience reminds us, Main Street U.S.A. was inspired by Disney’s memories of Marceline, Missouri, where he lived for only four years, and which he spent his life trying to recapture, as if Proust had been given the resources of a massive conglomerate to build a scale model of Combray.)

And none of this is accidental. Our first glimpse of the castle wouldn’t be nearly as effective if it weren’t preceded and framed by the nostalgic small town that we see when we enter the park, and the reveal is carefully managed for maximum impact: the buildings leading up to Main Street are exactly tall enough to conceal the castle’s spires, so it seems to appear out of nowhere when it finally comes into view. The parks are often seen as masterpieces of wayfinding, but having just returned from a week’s trip to Disney World, I was struck by how it conceals as much as it shows. Cinderella’s castle provides the obvious orientation point, and it’s hard not to think of Proust again: “It was always to the steeple that one must return, always it which dominated everything else, summing up the houses with an unexpected pinnacle, raised before me like the Finger of God.” But the castle also coyly hides itself from us: it can’t be seen from outside the park, of course, and it retreats yet again as you pass into Tomorrowland or Adventureland, preserving the illusion that you’ve entered a different world. (That initial prospect of the castle from Main Street is the only place where the park deliberately trades on that kind of juxtaposition.) Everything is designed to tell a coherent, unfolding story in space to thousands of visitors under some of the most challenging conditions imaginable, and even if it never quite lives up to its promise, it’s incredible that it comes even as close as it does.

Herb Ryman sketch of Disneyland

The more I think about it, in fact, the more the parks seem like the center of Disney’s achievement: they’re the culmination of all that he ever accomplished or wanted to represent. Both Disney the man and the studio he founded were built around the idea of realizing the impossible in practical terms, and it’s hard to imagine a better example of this than the parks. These aren’t movie sets that can be disassembled at the end of a shoot or filmed from just one persuasive angle: they need to accommodate hordes of guests, day in and day out, while remaining convincing at every level of detail. They provide the services and infrastructure of a small city while also furnishing material for dreams. In the few moments when I could pause to drink it all in, it seemed inevitable to me that it would be the handiwork of a man who began in animation, which is all about using the most basic of tools to create infinite possibilities—but only if you can solve the hundreds of concrete technical problems that occur along the way. And a visitor to the parks is filled with a heightened version of the same ambivalence that any thinking viewer feels when watching the movies that Disney made: you’re aware of the commercialism that feeds the illusion, even as you’re suckered into the same emotions that you felt when you were three years old. (Going there with an actual three year old, as I did, makes you all the more aware of the fine line between the dream and the reality: you’re always one hairsbreadth away from a meltdown or temper tantrum.)

But there’s also something weirdly precious about the way in which the experience frustrates your hopes. Going to Disney World isn’t like stepping into one of the advertisements: the heat, the lines, the expense, and the challenges of keeping a small child under control all keep interfering with the image you’re trying to recreate. Yet the result is something better, because it’s a series of pictures from your life. Disney is masterful at manufacturing nostalgia for worlds that we’ve never experienced firsthand, and it’s an impulse that is essentially conservative, even reactionary, whether we’re being asked to feel longing for Edwardian England or for an America that never existed. Along the way, though, it gives us a setting for something more important and complicated. It harps so repeatedly on the idea of “making memories” that it starts to sound vaguely threatening, but it’s absolutely true—this trip will be one of the first things that my daughter will remember, and I want it to reflect the real experience we had, not a commercial. (One of my earliest memories is being kicked by one of the Three Little Pigs at Disneyland.) If Disney World ultimately comes across as a bundle of contradictions, with something calculated and impersonal fused to a urgent striving toward transcendence, that’s true of everything interesting in life, and in art. Seeing it blown up to a gargantuan scale exposes the fissures there, but it also reminds us of the potential of creative imagination when combined with the quixotic determination to make it all real. And it’s something that I’ll never forget.

Written by nevalalee

May 3, 2016 at 8:57 am

Oo-de-lally, oo-de-lally

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Concept art for Disney's Robin Hood

Over the last few weeks, my daughter and I have been slowly working through the Disney movies that are available for streaming on Netflix. I’m not sure about the business details of that arrangement, which I can only assume involved some protracted negotiations, but Disney’s conservative approach to its back catalog leads to an intriguingly skewed sample set. It’s reluctant to give unlimited access to its most lucrative plums, so the selection includes neither the masterpieces of the first golden age, like Snow White or Pinocchio, nor the heights of its late renaissance, like Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. Instead, it gives us the movies that fell through the cracks: lighter fare, much of it from after Walt Disney’s death, like The Aristocats or The Rescuers, or the movies that the revitalized studio continued to produce after the bloom had gone off the rose, like Hercules or Treasure Planet. And although my daughter seems equally happy with all of it, as an animation buff, I’m most interested in the way the result amounts to an accidental canon from a parallel universe. As viewers of the excellent documentary American Experience: Walt Disney can attest, the studio’s history consisted of alternating periods of boom and bust, and watching the movies on Netflix is like experiencing that legacy with most of the high points removed, leaving the products of the years when money was scarce and the animators were forced to work under considerable constraints.

In his indispensable book Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Disney Storyboards, the historian John Canemaker says this about that era:

After Walt died in 1966, story took a backseat to animation at the Disney Studio. In films such as The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers, and The Fox and the Hound, the animators brought new degrees of subtlety to the characters’ personalities and relationships. But the stories, concocted solely by storyboards that were mainly contributed to by a committee of animators, were weak and almost an incidental backdrop to the often bravura performances. Observing fine animators going through their dazzling paces in second-rate vehicles was likened by one pundit to watching great chefs make hot dogs.

Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston make much the same point in Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life:

The interrelationships of these characters were of particular importance in Robin Hood, because the story was secondary to the characters. There was no real suspense in Prince John’s many attempts to catch Robin. They are showcases for the histrionics of the two villainous actors who become richer and more entertaining as the picture progresses.

Concept art for Disney's Robin Hood

This goes a long way toward explaining the peculiar appeal of Robin Hood, which remains one of the most beguiling works in the whole Disney canon, as well as the movie that my daughter and I have ended up watching the most. Its reduced budget is painfully apparent, with animation and character designs repurposed from other projects, reused from elsewhere in the movie, or simply flipped and repeated. Much of the writing feels like the work of animators more accustomed to thinking in terms of isolated character poses and bits of business than considering the story as a whole, leading to the kind of crude, obvious gags and tricks that we find even in Winnie the Pooh. And the story suffers from a manifest indifference, verging on boredom, toward Robin Hood and Maid Marian: Disney has always been better at evil than at good, and it’s particularly evident here. But the evil is truly delicious. The pairing of Peter Ustinov as Prince John and the British comic Terry-Thomas as Sir Hiss—both playing wonderfully within type—still makes me laugh with delight. And the rest of the cast is stocked with the kinds of dependable character actors that Disney used so capably: Phil Harris, Pat Buttram, Ken Curtis, George Lindsey, Andy Devine. (You could write an entire dissertation on the evolving pool of talent that the studio employed over the years, from vaudeville and radio pros like Ed Wynn through the television stars of the seventies through the Second City and single-camera sitcom alumni that make up the cast of a movie like Inside Out.)

And it’s still oddly charming, especially in the songs that Roger Miller contributes as the Rooster: if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably got “Whistle-Stop” running on a loop through your head right now. (There’s something undeniably shrewd in the way the studio outsourced the music to different writers, with Miller’s novelty country numbers sharing screen time with “Love” by Floyd Huddleston and George Bruns and Johnny Mercer’s “The Phony King of England.”) It’s a cut below the classics, but luckily, we don’t need to take it in isolation. When we’re in the mood for a movie on which the studio lavished all its resources, there’s always Fantasia or Sleeping Beauty, but there’s also something engaging about the sheer roughness of Robin Hood, cut corners and all, which is as close as Disney ever got to the actor’s performance passing through the pencil sketches to end up almost intact on the screen. It all feels like the result of a private huddle between the animators themselves, and they weren’t afraid to poke fun at their own situation, as Thomas and Johnston note:

The subtler shadings of [Sir Hiss’s] personality were based on real experience. Occasionally, over the years, there had been men at the studio who in their determination to please Walt did a fair amount of bowing and scraping…Suddenly there was a place to use these observations as our cartoon character matched the reality of human actions. “Now, what was so funny about the way those guys did it?”

Now that Disney is an entertainment juggernaut once more, I doubt we’ll ever see anything as unvarnished and vital again. And as much as I love Frozen, I also miss the spirit that we find here, with Robin Hood himself—in the form of Walt—gone from the forest, and a ragtag group of merry men doing their best in his absence.

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