Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Disney

The tentpole test

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

How do you release blockbusters like clockwork and still make each one seem special? It’s an issue that the movie industry is anxious to solve, and there’s a lot riding on the outcome. When I saw The Phantom Menace nearly two decades ago, there was an electric sense of excitement in the theater: we were pinching ourselves over the fact that we were about to see see the opening crawl for a new Star Wars movie on the big screen. That air of expectancy diminished for the two prequels that followed, and not only because they weren’t very good. There’s a big difference, after all, between the accumulated anticipation of sixteen years and one in which the installments are only a few years apart. The decade that elapsed between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens was enough to ramp it up again, as if fan excitement were a battery that recovers some of its charge after it’s allowed to rest for a while. In the past, when we’ve watched a new chapter in a beloved franchise, our experience hasn’t just been shaped by the movie itself, but by the sudden release of energy that has been bottled up for so long. That kind of prolonged wait can prevent us from honestly evaluating the result—I wasn’t the only one who initially thought that The Phantom Menace had lived up to my expectations—but that isn’t necessarily a mistake. A tentpole picture is named for the support that it offers to the rest of the studio, but it also plays a central role in the lives of fans, which have been going on long before the film starts and will continue after it ends. As Robert Frost once wrote about a different tent, it’s “loosely bound / By countless silken ties of love and thought / to every thing on earth the compass round.”

When you have too many tentpoles coming out in rapid succession, however, the outcome—if I can switch metaphors yet again—is a kind of wave interference that can lead to a weakening of the overall system. On Christmas Eve, I went to see Rogue One, which was preceded by what felt like a dozen trailers. One was for Spider-Man: Homecoming, which left me with a perplexing feeling of indifference. I’m not the only one to observe that the constant onslaught of Marvel movies makes each installment feel less interesting, but in the case of Spider-Man, we actually have a baseline for comparison. Two baselines, really. I can’t defend every moment of the three Sam Raimi films, but there’s no question that each of those movies felt like an event. There was even enough residual excitement lingering after the franchise was rebooted to make me see The Amazing Spider-Man in the theater, and even its sequel felt, for better or worse, like a major movie. (I wonder sometimes if audiences can sense the pressure when a studio has a lot riding on a particular film: even a mediocre movie can seem significant if a company has tethered all its hopes to it.) Spider-Man: Homecoming, by contrast, feels like just one more component in the Marvel machine, and not even a particularly significant one. It has the effect of diminishing a superhero who ought to be at the heart of any universe in which he appears, relegating one of the two or three most successful comic book characters of all time to a supporting role in a larger universe. And because we still remember how central he was to no fewer than two previous franchises, it feels like a demotion, as if Spider-Man were an employee who had left the company, came back, and is now reporting to Iron Man.

Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War

It isn’t that I’m all that emotionally invested in the future of Spider-Man, but it’s a useful case study for what it tells us about the pitfalls of these films, which can take something that once felt like a milestone and reduce it to a midseason episode of an ongoing television series. What’s funny, of course, is that the attitude we’re now being asked to take toward these movies is actually closer to the way in which they were originally conceived. The word “episode” is right there in the title of every Star Wars movie, which George Lucas saw as an homage to classic serials, with one installment following another on a weekly basis. Superhero films, obviously, are based on comic books, which are cranked out by the month. The fact that audiences once had to wait for years between movies may turn out to have been a historical artifact caused by technological limitations and corporate inertia. Maybe the logical way to view these films is, in fact, in semiannual installments, as younger viewers are no doubt growing up to expect. In years to come, the extended gaps between these movies in prior decades will seem like a structural quirk, rather than an inherent feature of how we relate to them. This transition may not be as meaningful as, say, the shift from silent films to the talkies, but they imply a similar change in the way we relate to the film onscreen. Blockbusters used to be released with years of anticipation baked into the response from moviegoers, which is no longer something that can be taken for granted. It’s a loss, in its way, to fan culture, which had to learn how to sustain itself during the dry periods between films, but it also implies that the movies themselves face a new set of challenges.

To be fair, Disney, which controls both the Marvel and Star Wars franchises, has clearly thought a lot about this problem, and they’ve hit on approaches that seem to work pretty well. With the Marvel Universe, this means pitching most of the films at a level at which they’re just good enough, but no more, while investing real energy every few years into a movie that is first among equals. This leads to a lot of fairly mediocre installments, but also to the occasional Captain America: Civil War, which I think is the best Marvel movie yet—it pulls off the impossible task of updating us on a dozen important characters while also creating real emotional stakes in the process, which is even more difficult than it looks. Rogue One, which I also liked a lot, takes a slightly different tack. For most of the first half, I was skeptical of how heavily it was leaning on its predecessors, but by the end, I was on board, and for exactly the same reason. This is a movie that depends on our knowledge of the prior films for its full impact, but it does so with intelligence and ingenuity, and there’s a real satisfaction in how neatly it aligns with and enhances the original Star Wars, while also having the consideration to close itself off at the end. (A lot of the credit for this may be due to Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter and unbilled co-director, who pulled off much of the same feat when he structured much of The Bourne Ultimatum to take place during gaps in The Bourne Supremacy.) Relying on nostalgia is a clever way to compensate for the reduced buildup between movies, as if Rogue One were drawing on the goodwill that Star Wars built up and hasn’t dissipated, like a flywheel that serves as an uninterruptible power supply. Star Wars isn’t just a tentpole, but a source of energy. And it might just be powerful enough to keep the whole machine running forever.

Moana and the two studios

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Concept art for Moana

If the history of animation had a portentous opening voiceover, it would probably say: “In the beginning was the storyboard.” The earliest animated cartoons were short and silent, so it made sense to plan them out as a series of rough thumbnail sketches. Even after they added sound and dialogue and became longer in length, the practice survived, which is why so many of the classic Disney movies are so episodic. They weren’t plotted on paper from beginning to end, but conceived as a sequence of set pieces, often with separate teams, and they were planned by artists who thought primarily with a pencil. This approach generated extraordinary visual achievements, but it could also result in movies, like Alice in Wonderland, that were brilliant in their individual components but failed to build to anything more. Later, in the eighties, Disney switched over to a production cycle that was closer to that of a live-action feature, with a traditional screenplay serving as the basis for future development. This led to more coherent stories, and it’s hard to imagine a film like Frozen being written in any other way. But another consequence was a retreat of visual imagination. When the eye no longer comes first, it’s harder for animators to create sequences that push against the boundaries of the medium. Over time, the movies start to look more or less the same, with similar character designs moving through beautifully rendered backgrounds that become ever more photorealistic for no particular reason.

The most heartening development in animation in recent years, which we’ve seen in Inside Out and Zootopia and now Moana, is the movement back toward a kind of animated feature that isn’t afraid to play with how it looks. Inside Out—which I think is the best movie Pixar has ever made—remains the gold standard, a film with a varied, anarchic style and amazing character design that still tells an emotionally effective story. Zootopia is more conventionally structured, but sequences like the chase through Little Rodentia are thrillingly aware of the possibilities of scale. Moana, in turn, may follow all the usual beats, but it’s also more episodic than usual, with self-contained sequences that seem to have been developed for their visual possibilities. I’m thinking, in particular, of the scenes with the pygmy Kakamora pirates and the encounter with Jermaine Clement’s giant coconut crab Tamatoa. You could lift these parts out and replace them with something else, and the rest of the story would be pretty much the same. For most movies, this would be a criticism, but there’s something about the episodic structure that allows animation to flourish, because each scene can be treated as a work of art in itself. Think, for instance, of Pinocchio, and how the plot wanders from Stromboli to Pleasure Island to Monstro almost at fancy. If it were made again today, the directors would probably get notes about how they should “establish” Monstro in the first act. But its dreamlike procession of wonders is what we remember the most fondly, and it’s exactly the quality that a conventional script would kill.     

Concept art for Moana

The fact that Disney and Pixar are rediscovering this sort of loose, shaggy energy is immensely promising, and I’m not entirely sure how it happened. (It doesn’t seem to be uniformly the case, either: Finding Dory was a lovely movie, but it was plotted to within an inch of its life.) Pinning down the cause becomes even tricker when we remember that all of these movies are in production at the same time. If so many storytelling tricks seem to recur—like the opening scene that shows the protagonist as a child, or the reveal in the third act that an apparently friendly character is really a bad guy—it’s probably because the same people were giving notes or actively engaged in multiple stories for years. Similarly, the move toward episodic structure may be less a conscious decision than the result of an atmosphere of experimentation that has started to permeate the studio. I’d love to think that it might be due to the influence through John Lasseter of Hayao Miyazaki, who thinks naturally in the language of dreams. The involvement of strong songwriters like Robert and Kristen Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda may also play a part: when you’ve got a great song at the heart of a scene, you’re more likely to think of visuals that rise to the level of the music. Another factor may be the rise of animators, like Moana producer Osnat Shurer, who came up through the ranks in the Pixar shorts, which are more willing to take stylistic risks. Put them all together with veteran directors like Ron Clements and John Musker, and you’ve got a recipe for self-contained scenes that push the envelope within a reliable formula.

But the strongest possibility of all, I think, is that we’re seeing what happens when the Pixar and Disney teams begin to work side by side. It’s been exactly ten years since Pixar was acquired by its parent company, which is just about the right amount of time for a cultural exchange to become consistently visible onscreen. The two divisions seem as if they’re trying to outdo each other, and the most obvious way is to come up with visually stunning sequences. This kind of competition will naturally manifest itself on the visual end: it’s hard for two teams of writers to keep an eye on each other, and any changes to the story won’t be visible until the whole thing is put together, while it’s likely that every animator has a good idea of what everybody else is doing. (Pixar headquarters itself was designed to encourage an organic exchange of ideas, and while it’s a long drive from Emeryville to Burbank, even that distance might be a good thing—it allows the divisions to compete on the basis of finished scenes, rather than works in progress.) It isn’t a foolproof method, and there will inevitably come a day when one studio or the other won’t overcome the crisis that seems to befall every animated feature halfway through production. But if you wanted to come up with a system that would give animators an incentive to innovate within the structure of a decent script, it’s hard to imagine a better one. You’ve got separate teams of animators trying to top each other, as they did on Alice, and a parent studio that has figured out how to make those episodes work as part of a story. That’s a great combination. And I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2016 at 9:13 am

Zootopia and the anthropomorphic principle

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Concept art for Zootopia

Note: Mild spoilers follow for Zootopia.

I enjoyed Zootopia one heck of a lot, but the most emphatic recommendation of all came from my daughter, who burst into tears as soon as the movie ended. And it wasn’t because something onscreen had upset her, or even because she was startled by the unstoppable Shakira track that blasts over the closing credits: she was sad because she loved it so much, and now it was over. In fact, she was inconsolable, to the point where I had to carry her into the lobby and reassure her that we would see it again soon. And I’m looking forward to it, as well as to the countless other viewings to follow, which will give us plenty to discuss when she gets older. I plan to talk to her at length about my favorite scene, the chase in Little Rodentia, and how its sudden shifts of scale remind me of animation’s visual possibilities—and how rarely they seem to be utilized. We’ll also dissect the cleverness of the screenplay, which offers up a neat false ending before burrowing deeper into the story’s implications. She can compare it to the Richard Scarry books she reads, and even to Robin Hood. And when she’s ready, I’ll gently point out that this is something like the fourth consecutive Disney movie in which a seemingly innocuous character turns out to be the real bad guy, which makes me think that this trope ought to be retired.

Above all else, we can talk about its message, which, as has been widely noted, is a timely one indeed. And it deserves a lot of credit for this. Most ordinary movies would have been content to settle for the moral that anyone can be anything, or that we should all be a little nicer to one another. A slightly more ambitious film might have reminded us that we shouldn’t judge based on appearances, and it might conceivably have even broached the subject of racial profiling. But Zootopia goes even further, into the implication that there are systems in this world that are set up to benefit—deliberately or otherwise—from institutionalized prejudice. It’s a heady lesson, even if it will mostly affect viewers who were already primed to receive it, like those who cringe a bit when Judy Hopps, a rabbit, praises Nick Wilde, a fox, for being so “articulate.” But you never know. And I think it’s true, as other commentators have pointed out, that the movie is able to go as far as it does because its parts are played by animals. The first trailer took pains to introduce audiences to the concept of anthropomorphism, but it’s an idea that we all intuitively understand, and it’s generally accepted that certain kinds of stories go down more easily when presented in animal form. It’s the reverse of the uncanny valley: we empathize with animals because our minds focus on the points we have in common, a tendency that has been utilized by moralists from Aesop to La Fontaine.

Concept art for Zootopia

But there’s an even more interesting point to be made here, which is that the anthropomorphism of Zootopia seems to have loosened up the filmmakers themselves. Since we find talking animals in everything from Kung Fu Panda to My Little Pony, it’s a little surprising to realize how rarely it’s been used in its purest form by Disney: Robin Hood is the only other movie from the classic canon—if we don’t count Chicken Little—to show animals interacting in a world without humans. And it’s worth asking why it resists exploiting such a powerful tool, especially because it appeals so much to children: it’s no accident that Robin Hood, which is far from the best movie the studio ever made, is the one that my daughter has watched the most. In part, it’s due to a residual anxiety over being seen as kid’s stuff, which still haunts the genre as a whole, but there’s also an element of caution at play. Walt Disney himself was oddly insistent on centering his movies on a boring human couple, with the animators reduced to creating a riot of energy in the supporting characters: it’s as if the Marx Brothers had built all their movies around Zeppo, or even Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle. It was a conservative choice made by a studio that embraced conventional values, and animals have always enabled exactly that anarchic vein in animation that Disney did his best to repress. (Disney buffs have long wondered why the studio repeatedly tried and failed to develop Chanticleer, an animal fable featuring none other than Reynard the Fox, and I suspect that we have our answer here.)

Something similar appears to have happened with Zootopia, even if it’s obviously the product of another place and time. Try to imagine this story being made with human characters, and you can’t: its anthropomorphism was a shield that protected it throughout what must have been a lengthy development process. I’m tempted to propose an anthropomorphic principle of fiction, in parallel to the anthropic principle that I’ve discussed here before, which states that a story that grounds itself in a nonhuman world is more likely to take meaningful risks with our human preconceptions. To borrow a concept from the movie’s own lexicon, it allows animators to follow their instincts. (I also can’t resist pointing out that both “animal” and “animation” emerge from the same root, which refers to nothing less than the soul.) And I have a feeling that this is where the real influence of Zootopia will be felt. A movie can’t change the world, unfortunately, but it can certainly change a studio, and I’m hopeful that Disney will continue to pursue the line of thinking it represents. It gives us a world rich enough to sustain multiple sequels, so here’s my pitch for the next one: a movie that raises the question of why everyone we meet here is a mammal, as if we couldn’t be expected to relate to anything with feathers or scales. That’s a form of prejudice, too—and if Zootopia itself teaches us anything, it’s that our assumptions are sometimes so large that they can’t even be seen.

Written by nevalalee

March 14, 2016 at 9:59 am

Sofia’s world

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Sofia the First

When you’ve gotten into the habit of seeing television as a source of hot takes and think pieces, it can be hard to turn that mindset off. Consider the case of Sofia the First. Of all the shows that my daughter watches these days, it’s by far her favorite, and its easy availability through Netflix and Disney Junior means that we absorb three or four episodes on an average morning. (Like most parents, I do what I can to keep screen time under control, but it isn’t easy: we’re at the point where I can only talk her into brushing her teeth and putting on her pajamas with the promise of a Taylor Swift video.) Most of her shows tend to blur into background noise, largely because I’ve already been up since before sunrise, but I’ve ended up watching Sofia more closely. And I like it. It’s a show that benefits from having the full resources of the massive Disney studio mustered on its behalf: as the gateway into the princess franchise for an entire generation of toddlers, it’s a crucial piece of that machine, and you can tell that a lot of time, money, and effort have gone into making it as appealing a product as possible. The animation is great, the songs are cute, and the writing is reasonably sharp, even as it remains pitched squarely toward the kindergarten crowd. When I sit down to watch it, I have a good time.

But the strange thing is that I also find myself thinking about it at odd moments throughout the day. The premise, if you aren’t familiar with it, is spelled out with admirable efficiency in the show’s theme song: Sofia was a village girl whose mother married the king of Enchancia, making her a princess overnight and giving her a new royal brother and sister. She has a magic amulet that lets her talk to animals, and which occasionally summons a princess from another movie to give her advice, although their input isn’t always particularly useful. (When Aurora from Sleeping Beauty turns up, you have to wonder what she has to teach anyone about anything, and her only tip is for Sofia to listen to her animal friends.) Her world is populated by the usual sorcerers and magical creatures, including, delightfully, Tim Gunn, more or less playing himself. And if this all sounds routine, it’s executed at a consistently high level, with a light touch and just enough wit to make it all very charming. The writers are clearly having fun with the material. They aren’t afraid to let Sofia herself come off as prissy or smug, and Amber, her stepsister, has become a fan favorite for obvious reasons: she’s vain, spoiled, and self-centered, but she’s also the closest thing we have to an audience surrogate, and she’s often the only one who sees the underlying ridiculousness of the situations in which she finds herself.

Sofia the First

Yet the fact that I’ve devoted this much thought to Sofia at all indicates how my feelings about television have changed. I don’t think it’s possible for me to watch a show casually anymore: everything has to fit into a larger picture, as if I’m pitching some imaginary article to Salon. My wife and I have debated class issues, or their absence, in the kingdom of Enchancia; unpacked the character arc of Cedric the Sorcerer; made fun of the general incompetence of King Roland; compared the series to the plot of The Royal We; and joked about writing a crossover with Game of Thrones. (Honestly, James shades into Joffrey so imperceptibly that it isn’t even funny.) But we’re also being sucked into the show on its own terms, even if we can’t simply enjoy it in the way my daughter does—we have to justify it to ourselves. We’re used to seeking out shows to talk about, rather than having them sneak up on us: sometimes it seems as if we watch most shows these days so that we won’t be left out of the conversation online, rather than the other way around. And if we talk about Sofia at length, it’s because we’ve been trained to talk about every show this way. Thanks to my daughter, we basically binge watch it every morning. And even after she’s gone to bed, there are times when I’m folding laundry or doing other chores around the living room and I have to almost physically restrain myself from putting on an episode.

Of course, there’s a reason I’m writing about Sofia the First here and not Strawberry Shortcake: I’ve learned to value quality wherever I find it, and the show is an excellent example of how a branding strategy can yield something like real storytelling, however slickly packaged and presented. But it also reminds me of something that I’ve lost. A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post in which I referred to television as a reviewable appliance, generating a steady stream of content to fill the voracious demands of online critics and readers. After reading—and occasionally writing—so much of it, I find it harder to relate to shows purely as entertainment. (It may also have something to do with the fact that I’ve watched nothing but appointment television for the last decade or so: it’s been a long time since I’ve tuned into something simply because it was on.) Sofia might seem like the quintessential example of Renata Adler called a work of art that “inevitably cannot bear, would even be misrepresented by, review in depth,” and although I doubt that this is what she meant, I do think that it deserves to be watched through a child’s eyes. And so do a lot of other shows. I might not gain much by seeing Sofia as my daughter would, but it might be healthier if I watched, say, Mad Men that way. As Sofia herself says in her theme song, there’s so much to learn and see. And I’ve got to figure out how to do it right.

Written by nevalalee

March 9, 2016 at 9:45 am

The Jedi mind trick

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BB-8 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.

—Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

At some point over the next few hours, perhaps as you’re reading this post, The Force Awakens is projected to surge past Avatar to become the highest-grossing movie in the history of the North American box office. We usually don’t adjust such figures for inflation, of course, probably because there wouldn’t be as many records broken each year if we did, and it’s all but certain that the original Star Wars will remain tops in the franchise in terms of tickets sold. Yet it’s impossible to discount this achievement. If the latest installment continues on its present trajectory, it has a good chance of cracking the adjusted top ten of all time—it would need to gross somewhere north of $948 million domestic to exceed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and earn a spot on that rarefied list, and this is starting to feel like a genuine possibility. Given the changes in the entertainment landscape over the last century, this is beyond flabbergasting. But even this doesn’t get at the real, singular nature of what we’re witnessing today. The most unexpected thing about the success of The Force Awakens is how expected it was. And at a time when Hollywood is moving increasingly toward a tentpole model in which a handful of blockbusters finance all the rest, it represents both a historic high point for the industry and an accomplishment that we’re unlikely to ever see again.

When you look at the lineal timeline of the most successful films at the domestic box office, you have to go back seventy-five years to find a title that even the shrewdest industry insider could have reasonably foreseen. This list, unadjusted for inflation, consists of Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., Titanic, and Avatar. Gone With the Wind, which claimed the title that The Birth of a Nation had won a quarter of a century earlier, is the one exception: there’s no doubt that David O. Selznick hoped that it could be the biggest film of its era, even before the first match had been struck for the burning of Atlanta. Every other movie here is a headscratcher. No studio insider at the time would have been willing to bet that The Sound of Music—which Pauline Kael later called The Sound of Money—would outgross not just Doctor Zhivago and Thunderball that year, but every other movie ever made. The Godfather and Jaws were both based on bestselling novels, but that’s hardly a guarantee of success, and both were troubled productions with untested directors at the helm. Star Wars itself hardly needs to be discussed here. Columbia famously passed on E.T., and Titanic was widely regarded before its release as a looming disaster. And even Avatar, which everyone thought would be huge, exceeded all expectations: when you take regression to the mean into account, the idea that James Cameron could break his own record is so implausible that I have a hard time believing it even now.

Avatar

Which is just another way of saying that these movies were all outliers: unique, idiosyncratic projects, not part of any existing franchise, that audiences discovered gradually, often to the bewilderment of the studios themselves. The Force Awakens was different. It had barely been announced before pundits were speculating that it could set the domestic record, and although Disney spent much of buildup to its opening weekend downplaying such forecasts—with the implication that rival studios were inflating projections to make its final performance seem disappointing—it’s hard to believe that the possibility hadn’t crossed everybody’s mind. Most movie fans will remember that William Goldman said “Nobody knows anything” in Adventures in the Screen Trade, but it’s worth quoting the relevant paragraph in full. After noting that everyone in town except for Paramount turned down Raiders of the Lost Ark, he continues:

Why did Paramount say yes? Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars, a decision that may just cost them, when all the sequels and spinoffs and toy money and book money and video-game money are totaled, over a billion dollars? Because nobody, nobody—not now, not ever—knows the least goddam thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office.

If Hollywood has learned anything since, it’s that you don’t pass on Star Wars. Whatever you might think of its merits as a movie, The Force Awakens marks the one and only time that somebody knew something. And it’s probably the last time, too. It may turn into the reassuring bedtime story that studio executives use to lull themselves to sleep, and Disney may plan on releasing a new installment on an annual basis forever, but the triumphant rebirth of the franchise after ten years of dormancy—or three decades, depending on how you feel about the prequels—is the kind of epochal moment that the industry is doing its best to see never happens again. We aren’t going to have another chance to miss Star Wars because it isn’t going to go away, and the excitement that arose around its return can’t be repeated. The Force Awakens is both the ultimate vindication of the blockbuster model and a high-water mark that will make everything that follows seem like diminishing returns. (More insidiously, it may be the Jedi mind trick that convinces the studios that they know more than they do, which can only lead to heartbreak.) Records are made to be broken, and at some point in my lifetime, another movie will take the crown, if only because inflation will proceed to a point where the mathematics become inevitable. But it won’t be a Star Wars sequel. And it won’t be a movie that anyone, not even a Jedi, can see coming.

Written by nevalalee

January 4, 2016 at 8:13 am

Alice in Disneyland

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Alice in Wonderland model sheet

A few weeks ago, I noted that watching the Disney movies available for streaming on Netflix is like seeing an alternate canon with high points like Snow White and Pinocchio stripped away, leaving marginal—but still appealing—films like Robin Hood and The Aristocats. Alice in Wonderland, which my daughter and I watched about ten times this week, lies somewhere in the middle. It lacks the rich texture of the earlier masterpieces, but it’s obviously the result of a lot of work and imagination, and much of it is wonderful. In many respects, it’s as close as the Disney studio ever got to the more anarchic style of the Warner Bros. cartoons, and when it really gets cooking, you can’t tear your eyes away. Still, it almost goes without saying that it fails to capture, or even to understand, the appeal of the original novels. Part of this is due to the indifference of the animators to anything but the gag of the moment, a tendency that Walt Disney once fought to keep in check, but which ran wild as soon as his attention was distracted by other projects. I love the work of the Nine Old Men as much as anyone, but it’s also necessary to acknowledge how incurious they could often appear about everything but animation itself, and how they seemed less interested in capturing the tone of authors like Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, or Kenneth Grahame than in shoehorning those characters into the tricks they knew. And it was rarely more evident than it is here.

What really fascinates me now about Alice in Wonderland is how it represents a translation from one mode of storytelling—and even of how to think about narrative itself—into another. The wit of Carroll’s novels isn’t visual, but verbal and logical: as I noted yesterday, the first book emerges from the oral fairy tale tradition, as enriched by the author’s gifts for paradox, parody, and wordplay. The Disney studio of this era, by contrast, wasn’t used to thinking in words, but in pictures. Movies were planned out as a series of thumbnail sketches on a storyboard, which naturally emphasized sight gags and physical comedy over dialogue. For the most part, Carroll’s words are preserved, and they often benefit from fantastic voice performances, but most of the scenes treat them as little more than background noise. My favorite example here is the Mad Tea Party. When I watch it again now, it strikes me as a dazzling anthology of visual puns, some of them brilliant, built around the props on the table: you can almost see the animators at the drawing board pitching out the gags, which follow one another so quickly that it makes your head spin. The result doesn’t have much to do with Lewis Carroll, and none of the surviving verbal jokes really land or register, but it works, at least up to a point, as a visual equivalent of the density of the book’s prose.

Cheshire Cat model sheet

But it doesn’t really build to anything, and like the movie itself, it just sort of ends. As Ward Kimball once said to Leonard Maltin: “It suffered from too many cooks—directors. Here was a case of five directors each trying to top the other guy and make his sequence the biggest and craziest in the show. This had a self-canceling effect on the final product.” Walt Disney himself seems to have grasped this, and I’d like to think that it contributed to his decision, a few years later, to subordinate all of Sleeping Beauty to the style of the artist Eyvind Earle. (That movie suffers from the same indifference to large chunks of the plot that we see elsewhere in Disney—neither Aurora nor Prince Philip even speak for the second half of the film, since the animators are clearly much more interested in Malificent and the three good fairies—but we’re so caught up in the look and music that we don’t really care.) Ultimately, the real solution lay in a more fundamental shift in the production process, in which the film was written up first as a screenplay rather than as a series of storyboards. This model, which is followed today by nearly all animated features, was a relatively late development. And to the extent that we’ve seen an expansion of the possibilities of plot, emotion, and tone in the ongoing animation renaissance, it’s thanks to an approach that places more emphasis on figuring out the overall story before drilling down to the level of the gag.

That said, there’s a vitality and ingenuity to Alice in Wonderland that I miss in more recent works. Movies like Frozen and the Pixar films are undeniably spectacular, but it’s hard to recall any moments of purely visual or graphic wit of the kind that fill the earlier Disney films so abundantly. (The exception, interestingly, is The Peanuts Movie, which seems to have benefited by regarding the classic Schulz strips as a sort of storyboard in themselves, as well as from the challenges of translating the flat style of the originals into three dimensions.) An animated film built around a screenplay and made with infinite technological resources starts to look more or less like every other movie, at least in terms of its staging and how all the pieces fit together, while a film that starts with a storyboard often has narrative limitations, but makes up for it with a kind of local energy that doesn’t have a parallel in any other medium. The very greatest animated films, like My Neighbor Totoro, somehow manage to have it both ways, and the example of Miyazaki suggests that real secret is to have the movie conceived by a single visionary who also knows how to draw. Given the enormous technical complexity of contemporary animation, that’s increasingly rare these days, and it’s true that some of the best recent Pixar movies, like Toy Story 3, represent the work of directors who don’t draw at all. But I’d love to see a return to the old style, at least occasionally—even if it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Written by nevalalee

November 25, 2015 at 9:04 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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