Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Disney

Inside the sweatbox

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Yesterday, I watched a remarkable documentary called The Sweatbox, which belongs on the short list of films—along with Hearts of Darkness and the special features for The Lord of the Rings—that I would recommend to anyone who ever thought that it might be fun to work in the movies. It was never officially released, but a copy occasionally surfaces on YouTube, and I strongly suggest watching the version available now before it disappears yet again. For the first thirty minutes or so, it plays like a standard featurette of the sort that you might have found on the second disc of a home video release from two decades ago, which is exactly what it was supposed to be. Its protagonist, improbably, is Sting, who was approached by Disney in the late nineties to compose six songs for a movie titled Kingdom of the Sun. (One of the two directors of the documentary is Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, a producer whose other credits include Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Moon.) The feature was conceived by animator Roger Allers, who was just coming off the enormous success of The Lion King, as a mixture of Peruvian mythology, drama, mysticism, and comedy, with a central plot lifted from The Prince and the Pauper. After two years of production, the work in progress was screened for the first time for studio executives. As always, the atmosphere was tense, but no more than usual, and it inspired the standard amount of black humor from the creative team. As one artist jokes nervously before the screening: “You don’t want them to come in and go, ‘Oh, you know what, we don’t like that idea of the one guy looking like the other guy. Let’s get rid of the basis of the movie.’ This would be a good time for them to tell us.”

Of course, that’s exactly what happened. The top brass at Disney hated the movie, production was halted, and Allers left the project that was ultimately retooled into The Emperor’s New Groove, which reused much of the design work and finished animation while tossing out entire characters—along with most of Sting’s songs—and introducing new ones. It’s a story that has fascinated me ever since I first heard about it, around the time of the movie’s initial release, and I’m excited beyond words that The Sweatbox even exists. (The title of the documentary, which was later edited down to an innocuous special feature for the DVD, refers to the room at the studio in Burbank in which rough work is screened.) And while the events that it depicts are extraordinary, they represent only an extreme case of the customary process at Disney and Pixar, at least if you believe the ways in which that the studio likes to talk about itself. In a profile that ran a while back in The New Yorker, the director Andrew Stanton expressed it in terms that I’ve never forgotten:

“We spent two years with Eve getting shot in her heart battery, and Wall-E giving her his battery, and it never worked. Finally—finally—we realized he should lose his memory instead, and thus his personality…We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best—and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.

This statement appeared in print six months before the release of Stanton’s live action debut John Carter, which implies that this method is far from infallible. And the drama behind The Emperor’s New Groove was unprecedented even by the studio’s relentless standards. As executive Thomas Schumacher says at one point: “We always say, Oh, this is normal. [But] we’ve never been through this before.”

As it happens, I watched The Sweatbox shortly after reading an autobiographical essay by the artist Cassandra Smolcic about her experiences in the “weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid” environment of Pixar. It’s a long read, but riveting throughout, and it makes it clear that the issues at the studio went far beyond the actions of John Lasseter. And while I could focus on any number of details or anecdotes, I’d like to highlight one section, about the firing of director Brenda Chapman halfway through the production of Brave:

Curious about the downfall of such an accomplished, groundbreaking woman, I began taking the company pulse soon after Brenda’s firing had been announced. To the general population of the studio — many of whom had never worked on Brave because it was not yet in full-steam production — it seemed as though Brenda’s firing was considered justifiable. Rumor had it that she had been indecisive, unconfident and ineffective as a director. But for me and others who worked closely with the second-time director, there was a palpable sense of outrage, disbelief and mourning after Brenda was removed from the film. One artist, who’d been on the Brave story team for years, passionately told me how she didn’t find Brenda to be indecisive at all. Brenda knew exactly what film she was making and was very clear in communicating her vision, the story artist said, and the film she was making was powerful and compelling. “From where I was sitting, the only problem with Brenda and her version of Brave was that it was a story told about a mother and a daughter from a distinctly female lens,” she explained.

Smolcic adds: “During the summer of 2009, I personally worked on Brave while Brenda was still in charge. I likewise never felt that she was uncertain about the kind of film she was making, or how to go about making it.”

There are obvious parallels between what happened to Allers and to Chapman, which might seem to undercut the notion that the latter’s firing had anything to do with the fact that she was a woman. But there are a few other points worth raising. One is that no one seems to have applied the words “indecisive, unconfident, and ineffective” to Allers, who voluntarily left the production after his request to push back the release date was denied. And if The Sweatbox is any indication, the situation of women and other historically underrepresented groups at Disney during this period was just as bad as it was at Pixar—I counted exactly one woman who speaks onscreen, for less than fifteen seconds, and all the other faces that we see are white and male. (After Sting expresses concern about the original ending of The Emperor’s New Groove, in which the rain forest is cut down to build an amusement park, an avuncular Roy Disney confides to the camera: “We’re gonna offend somebody sooner or later. I mean, it’s impossible to do anything in the world these days without offending somebody.” Which betrays a certain nostalgia for a time when no one, apparently, was offended by anything that the studio might do.) One of the major players in the documentary is Thomas Schumacher, the head of Disney Animation, who has since been accused of “explicit sexual language and harassment in the workplace,” according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. In the footage that we see, Schumacher and fellow executive Peter Schneider don’t come off particularly well, which may just be a consequence of the perspective from which the story is told. But it’s equally clear that the mythical process that allows such movies to “suck” for three out of four years is only practicable for filmmakers who look and sound like their counterparts on the other side of the sweatbox, which grants them the necessary creative freedom to try and fail repeatedly—a luxury that women are rarely granted. What happened to Allers on Kingdom of the Sun is still astounding. But it might be even more noteworthy that he survived for as long as he did.

The secret villain

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Note: This post alludes to a plot point from Pixar’s Coco.

A few years ago, after Frozen was first released, The Atlantic ran an essay by Gina Dalfonzo complaining about the moment—fair warning for a spoiler—when Prince Hans was revealed to be the film’s true villain. Dalfonzo wrote:

That moment would have wrecked me if I’d seen it as a child, and the makers of Frozen couldn’t have picked a more surefire way to unsettle its young audience members…There is something uniquely horrifying about finding out that a person—even a fictional person—who’s won you over is, in fact, rotten to the core. And it’s that much more traumatizing when you’re six or seven years old. Children will, in their lifetimes, necessarily learn that not everyone who looks or seems trustworthy is trustworthy—but Frozen’s big twist is a needlessly upsetting way to teach that lesson.

Whatever you might think of her argument, it’s obvious that Disney didn’t buy it. In fact, the twist in question—in which a seemingly innocuous supporting character is exposed in the third act as the real bad guy—has appeared so monotonously in the studio’s recent movies that I was already complaining about it a year and a half ago. By my count, the films that fall back on his convention include not just Frozen, but Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, and now the excellent Coco, which implies that the formula is spilling over from its parent studio to Pixar. (To be fair, it goes at least as far back as Toy Story 2, but it didn’t become the equivalent of the house style until about six or seven years ago.)

This might seem like a small point of storytelling, but it interests me, both because we’ve been seeing it so often and because it’s very different from the stock Disney approach of the past, in which the lines between good and evil were clearly demarcated from the opening frame. In some ways, it’s a positive development—among other things, it means that characters are no longer defined primarily by their appearance—and it may just be a natural instance of a studio returning repeatedly to a trick that has worked in the past. But I can’t resist a more sinister reading. All of the examples that I’ve cited come from the period since John Lasseter took over as the chief creative officer of Disney Animation Studios, and as we’ve recently learned, he wasn’t entirely what he seemed, either. A Variety article recounts:

For more than twenty years, young women at Pixar Animation Studios have been warned about the behavior of John Lasseter, who just disclosed that he is taking a leave due to inappropriate conduct with women. The company’s cofounder is known as a hugger. Around Pixar’s Emeryville, California, offices, a hug from Lasseter is seen as a mark of approval. But among female employees, there has long been widespread discomfort about Lasseter’s hugs and about the other ways he showers attention on young women…“Just be warned, he likes to hug the pretty girls,” [a former employee] said she was told. “He might try to kiss you on the mouth.” The employee said she was alarmed by how routine the whole thing seemed. “There was kind of a big cult around John,” she says.

And a piece in The Hollywood Reporter adds: “Sources say some women at Pixar knew to turn their heads quickly when encountering him to avoid his kisses. Some used a move they called ‘the Lasseter’ to prevent their boss from putting his hands on their legs.”

Of all the horror stories that have emerged lately about sexual harassment by men in power, this is one of the hardest for me to read, and it raises troubling questions about the culture of a company that I’ve admired for a long time. (Among other things, it sheds a new light on the Pixar motto, as expressed by Andrew Stanton, that I’ve quoted here before: “We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best—and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.” But it also goes without saying that it’s far easier to fail repeatedly on your way to success if you’re a white male who fits a certain profile. And these larger cultural issues evidently contributed to the departure from the studio of Rashida Jones and her writing partner.) It also makes me wonder a little about the movies themselves. After the news broke about Lasseter, there were comments online about his resemblance to Lotso in Toy Story 3, who announces jovially: “First thing you gotta know about me—I’m a hugger!” But the more I think about it, the more this seems like a bona fide inside joke about a situation that must have been widely acknowledged. As a recent article in Deadline reveals:

[Lasseter] attended some wrap parties with a handler to ensure he would not engage in inappropriate conduct with women, say two people with direct knowledge of the situation…Two sources recounted Lasseter’s obsession with the young character actresses portraying Disney’s Fairies, a product line built around the character of Tinker Bell. At the animator’s insistence, Disney flew the women to a New York event. One Pixar employee became the designated escort as Lasseter took the young women out drinking one night, and to a party the following evening. “He was inappropriate with the fairies,” said the former Pixar executive, referring to physical contact that included long hugs. “We had to have someone make sure he wasn’t alone with them.”

Whether or not the reference in Toy Story 3 was deliberate—the script is credited to Michael Arndt, based on a story by Lasseter, Stanton, and Lee Unkrich, and presumably with contributions from many other hands—it must have inspired a few uneasy smiles of recognition at Pixar. And its emphasis on seemingly benign figures who reveal an unexpected dark side, including Lotso himself, can easily be read as an expression, conscious or otherwise, of the tensions between Lasseter’s public image and his long history of misbehavior. (I’ve been thinking along similar lines about Kevin Spacey, whose “sheer meretriciousness” I identified a long time ago as one of his most appealing qualities as an actor, and of whom I once wrote here: “Spacey always seems to be impersonating someone else, and he does the best impersonation of a great actor that I’ve ever seen.” And it seems now that this calculated form of pretending amounted to a way of life.) Lasseter’s influence over Pixar and Disney is so profound that it doesn’t seem farfetched to see its films both as an expression of his internal divisions and of the reactions of those around him, and you don’t need to look far for parallel examples. My daughter, as it happens, knows exactly who Lasseter is—he’s the big guy in the Hawaiian shirt who appears at the beginning of all of her Hayao Miyazaki movies, talking about how much he loves the film that we’re about to see. I don’t doubt that he does. But not only do Miyazaki’s greatest films lack villains entirely, but the twist generally runs in the opposite direction, in which a character who initially seems forbidding or frightening is revealed to be kinder than you think. Simply on the level of storytelling, I know which version I prefer. Under Lasseter, Disney and Pixar have produced some of the best films of recent decades, but they also have their limits. And it only stands to reason that these limitations might have something to do with the man who was more responsible than anyone else for bringing these movies to life.

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2017 at 8:27 am

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

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