Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Walt Disney

The soul of a new machine

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Over the weekend, I took part in a panel at Windycon titled “Evil Computers: Why Didn’t We Just Pull the Plug?” Naturally, my mind turned to the most famous evil computer in all of fiction, so I’ve been thinking a lot about HAL, which made me all the more sorry to learn yesterday of the death of voice actor Douglas Rain. (Stan Lee also passed away, of course, which is a subject for a later post.) I knew that Rain had been hired to record the part after Stanley Kubrick was dissatisfied by an earlier attempt by Martin Balsam, but I wasn’t aware that the director had a particular model in mind for the elusive quality that he was trying to evoke, as Kate McQuiston reveals in the book We’ll Meet Again:

Would-be HALs included Alistair Cooke and Martin Balsam, who read for the part but was deemed too emotional. Kubrick set assistant Benn Reyes to the task of finding the right actor, and expressly not a narrator, to supply the voice. He wrote, “I would describe the quality as being sincere, intelligent, disarming, the intelligent friend next door, the Winston Hibler/Walt Disney approach. The voice is neither patronizing, nor is it intimidating, nor is it pompous, overly dramatic, or actorish. Despite this, it is interesting. Enough said, see what you can do.” Even Kubrick’s U.S. lawyer, Louis Blau, was among those making suggestions, which included Richard Basehart, José Ferrer, Van Heflin, Walter Pigeon, and Jason Robards. In Douglas Rain, who had experience both as an actor and a narrator, Kubrick found just what he was looking for: “I have found a narrator…I think he’s perfect, he’s got just the right amount of the Winston Hibler, the intelligent friend next door quality, with a great deal of sincerity, and yet, I think, an arresting quality.”

Who was Winston Hibler? He was the producer and narrator for Disney who provided voiceovers for such short nature documentaries as Seal Island, In Beaver Valley, and White Wilderness, and the fact that Kubrick used him as a touchstone is enormously revealing. On one level, the initial characterization of HAL as a reassuring, friendly voice of information has obvious dramatic value, particularly as the situation deteriorates. (It’s the same tactic that led Richard Kiley to figure in both the novel and movie versions of Jurassic Park. And I have to wonder whether Kubrick ever weighed the possibility of hiring Hibler himself, since in other ways, he clearly spared no expense.) But something more sinister is also at play. As I’ve mentioned before, Disney and its aesthetic feels weirdly central to the problem of modernity, with its collision between the sentimental and the calculated, and the way in which its manufactured feeling can lead to real memories and emotion. Kubrick, a famously meticulous director who looked everywhere for insights into craft, seems to have understood this. And I can’t resist pointing out that Hibler did the voiceover for White Wilderness, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short, but also included a scene in which the filmmakers deliberately herded lemmings off a cliff into the water in a staged mass suicide. As Hibler smoothly narrates in the original version: “A kind of compulsion seizes each tiny rodent and, carried along by an unreasoning hysteria, each falls into step for a march that will take them to a strange destiny. That destiny is to jump into the ocean. They’ve become victims of an obsession—a one-track thought: ‘Move on! Move on!’ This is the last chance to turn back, yet over they go, casting themselves out bodily into space.”

And I think that Kubrick’s fixation on Hibler’s voice, along with the version later embodied by Rain, gets at something important about our feelings toward computers and their role in our lives. In 2001, the astronauts are placed in an artificial environment in which their survival depends on the outwardly benevolent HAL, and one of the central themes of science fiction is what happens when this situation expands to encompass an entire civilization. It’s there at the very beginning of the genre’s modern era, in John W. Campbell’s “Twilight,” which depicts a world seven million years in the future in which “perfect machines” provide for our every need, robbing the human race of all initiative. (Campbell would explore this idea further in “The Machine,” and he even offered an early version of the singularity—in which robots learn to build better versions of themselves—in “The Last Evolution.”) Years later, Campbell and Asimov put that relationship at the heart of the Three Laws of Robotics, the first of which states: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” This sounds straightforward enough, but as writers realized almost right away, it hinges on the definition of certain terms, including “human being” and “harm,” that are slipperier than they might seem. Its ultimate expression was Jack Williamson’s story “With Folded Hands,” which carried the First Law to its terrifying conclusion. His superior robots believe that their Prime Directive is to prevent all forms of unhappiness, which prompts them to drug or lobotomize any human beings who seem less than content. As Williamson said much later in an interview with Larry McCaffery: “The notion I was consciously working on specifically came out of a fragment of a story I had worked on for a while about an astronaut in space who is accompanied by a robot obviously superior to him physically…Just looking at the fragment gave me the sense of how inferior humanity is in many ways to mechanical creations.”

Which brings us back to the singularity. Its central assumption was vividly expressed by the mathematician I.J. Good, who also served as a consultant on 2001:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

That last clause is a killer, but even if we accept that such a machine would be “docile,” it also embodies the fear, which Campbell was already exploring in the early thirties, of a benevolent dictatorship of machines. And the very Campbellian notion of “the last invention” should be frightening in itself. The prospect of immortality may be enticing, but not if it emerges through a technological singularity that leaves us unprepared to deal with the social consequences, rather than through incremental scientific and medical progress—and the public debate that it ought to inspire—that human beings have earned for themselves. I can’t imagine anything more nightmarish than a world in which we can all live forever without having gone through the necessary ethical, political, and ecological stages to make such a situation sustainable. (When I contemplate living through the equivalent of the last two years over the course of millennia, the notion of eternal life becomes considerably less attractive.) Our fear of computers taking over our lives, whether on a spacecraft or in society as a whole, is really about the surrender of control, even in the benevolent form embodied by Disney. And when I think of the singularity now, I seem to hear it speaking with Winston Hibler’s voice: “Move on! Move on!”

Brexit pursued by a bear

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Over the weekend, my wife and I took our daughter to see Paddington 2, which can accurately be described as the best live-action children’s movie since Paddington. These are charming films, and the worst that can be said of them is that they’re clearly trying hard to be better than they have any right to be. Unlike an artist like Hayao Miyazaki, who constructs stories according to his own secret logic and ends up seizing the imagination of adults and children across the world, director Paul King and his collaborators are more in the tradition of Pixar, which does amazing work and never lets you forget it for a second. (If you want to reach back even further, you could say that these movies split the difference between Babe, a technically phenomenal film that somehow managed to seem effortless, and Babe: Pig in the City, an unquestioned masterpiece that often felt on the verge of flying apart under the pressure of George Miller’s ambitions.) Paddington 2, in particular, is so indebted to the work of Wes Anderson, especially The Grand Budapest Hotel, that it seems less like a pastiche than an unauthorized knockoff. Is it really an act of homage to painstakingly recreate the look of a movie that came out less than four years ago? But it also doesn’t matter. It’s as if King and his collaborators realized that Anderson’s work amounted to an industrial process that was being wasted if it wasn’t being used to make a children’s movie, so they decided to copy it before the patent expired. The result isn’t quite on the level of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a major work of art that also seems to have been made by and for twelve-year-old kids. But it’s more than enough until Anderson finally makes the Encyclopedia Brown adaptation of my dreams.

Paddington 2 also doubles as the best advertisement for Britain in film since the heyday of the Ministry of Information, with a roster of such ringers as Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, and Joanna Lumley, as well as a wonderfully diverse supporting cast. (It also gives Hugh Grant—the quintessential British export of the last quarter of a century—his best role in a long time.) It’s the most loving portrait of London that any movie has provided in years, with a plot driven by an implausible treasure hunt that serves as an excuse to tour such landmarks as Tower Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Watching it is almost enough to make you forget the fact that just a few months before production began, the United Kingdom narrowly voted to effectively withdraw from its role as a global power. It might seem like a stretch to see a children’s movie through the lens of Brexit, but nearly every British film of the postwar period can be read as a commentary on the nation’s sometimes painful efforts to redefine itself in a changing world order. Nostalgia is often a strategy for dealing with harsher realities, and escapism can be more revealing than it knows, with even the James Bond series serving as a form of wishful thinking. And America should be paying close attention. A nation on the decline no longer has the luxury of having its movies stand for nothing but themselves, and Britain provides a striking case study for what happens to a culture after its period of ascendancy is over. The United States, like its nearest relation, threw away much of its credibility a year and a half ago in a fit of absentmindedness.

This partially accounts for our sudden fascination with Britain and its royal family, which seems to have risen to levels unseen since the death of Princess Diana. Part of it amounts to an accident of timing—the flurry of celebrations for Queen Elizabeth’s ninetieth birthday and sapphire jubilee generated a flood of content that was more available to American viewers than ever before, and we were unusually primed to receive it. Over the last year or so, my wife and I have watched something like three different documentaries about the Windsors, along with The Crown and The Great British Baking Show, the soothing rhythms of which make Top Chef seem frantic by comparison. Above all else, we’ve followed the saga of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, which has often been mined for clues as to its possible social and political significance. As Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker:

This may be because [the engagement is] legit the only bit of non-terrible news that’s happened in the last year. But there’s more to it than that. This is a royal wedding for non-royalists, even for anti-royalists…There is another important way in which Markle’s arrival reconfigures what Prince Philip reportedly calls “the Firm.” Not only is she American, she is also of mixed race: Markle’s mother is African-American, and her father is white…Whatever else Markle brings to the gilded royal table in terms of glamour, intelligence, and charm, her experience of racial prejudice is unprecedented among members of the royal family. At a time when racial bigotry and nativism is on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic, the coming to prominence at the heart of Britain’s First Family of an American woman whose ancestors were enslaved could not be more welcome, or more salutary.

The unstated point is that even as the United Kingdom goes through convulsions of its own, at least it gets to have this. And we can’t be blamed for wanting to clutch some of it to ourselves. After quoting Princess Diana’s wish that she become “a queen of people’s hearts,” Mead adds:

For those of us horrified by the President’s imperial, autocratic instincts—by his apparent wish to reinstate a feudal system with himself at its apex, attended by a small court of plutocrats who, like him, have been even further enriched by Republican tax reform—might we not claim Harry and Meghan as the monarchs of our hearts? Might they not serve as paradoxical avatars of our own hopes for a more open, more international, more unified, and fairer world?

It’s hard to quarrel with this basically harmless desire to comfort ourselves with the images of the monarchy, and I’ve been guilty of it myself. The building blocks of so much of my inner life—from the Sherlock Holmes stories to the movies of Powell and Pressburger—reflect a nostalgia for an England, as Vincent Starrett put it, “where it is always 1895.” It’s an impulse as old as Walt Disney, a Chicago child whose studio turned into a propaganda mill in the early sixties for the values of the Edwardian era. (As much as I love Mary Poppins, it’s hard to overlook the fact that it premiered just a few weeks after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and against a backdrop of race riots in Philadelphia.) America has nostalgic myths of its own, but it tends to fall back on its British forebears when it feels particularly insecure about its own legacy. When it becomes too difficult to look at ourselves, we close our eyes and think of England.

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

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

Ask the dust

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Pig-Pen, Part 1

Over the last few days, I’ve watched A Charlie Brown Christmas repeatedly with my daughter. I don’t think I’d seen it in its entirety for at least twenty years, and I was relieved to find that it held up even better than I had hoped. It’s odder and more prickly, in its way, than the Peanuts specials I remember best—I especially like Lucy’s explanation that Christmas is “run by a big eastern syndicate”—and it benefits in particular from being deeply rooted in the original strips. My favorite line, for instance, comes straight from a strip first published on November 27, 1959. In the special, Frieda complains that Pig-Pen’s dust is taking the curl out of her hair, prompting Charlie Brown to respond:

Don’t think of it as dust. Think of it as maybe the soil of some great past civilization. Maybe the soil of ancient Babylon. It staggers the imagination. He may be carrying soil that was trod upon by Solomon, or even Nebuchadnezzar.

This is a great line, obviously, but my favorite part comes at the end: “Or even Nebuchadnezzar. The idea that Charlie Brown would be especially impressed by the thought of Nebuchadnezzar is delightful, and it’s the kind of thing that would have occurred only to a singular man working alone at his desk.

Recently, I’ve become preoccupied with the problem of how to preserve this kind of idiosyncratic voice in the face of all the larger pressures that threaten to eliminate it. In part, it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of children’s entertainment, which is when those tensions start to feel especially stark. It isn’t unreasonable to suppose that someone who devotes his or her life to writing stories for kids might be fundamentally odd in a way that feels more comfortable with children than adults: when you think of Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, and Maurice Sendak, among others, you’re left with a sense of aliens trying to navigate their way through the grownup world. But if you’re in charge of the company—or the big eastern syndicate—that packages and distributes that content, you’re working under very different incentives. You’re wary of giving offense or warping tiny minds in a way that would arouse the ire of their parents; you know that the risks of any artistic experiment far outweigh the potential benefits; and you’re painfully aware that you’re likely to offend somebody, no matter what you do. Hence the insipid caution of so many books, movies, and television shows aimed at kids six and younger. Occasionally, individual and corporate goals will align, as in the early days of Sesame Street, but more often, the companies that worry most about what kids want to see are the most likely to come up with something that doesn’t interest anyone.

Pig Pen, Part 2

And the solution, oddly enough, seems to be to ignore the kids altogether. Disney and his early cohort of animators didn’t use focus groups to figure out what children wanted to watch: they were trying to amuse themselves. Similarly, Chuck Jones and the rest of the team at Warner Bros. were making the cartoons that they wanted to see. A Charlie Brown Christmas was all but made by hand, and many of its elements—the jazz score, the lack of a laugh track, the gospel message from Linus—were included in in the face of indifference or active opposition. Instead of writing down to kids or aiming at a target audience, these artists devoted themselves to art forms, like the animated cartoon or comic strip, to which children are naturally drawn. They thought as cartoonists or animators or puppeteers until they began to intuitively make good choices based on what the medium itself could accomplish. And once they learned to think in those terms, they didn’t need to worry about what the kids would like: anything that fully realizes the possibilities of an animated short or a four-panel strip will engage younger minds, no matter what stories you tell. The real enemies of art, here as elsewhere, aren’t the network notes themselves, but notes coming from people who have no stake or interest in the kinds of stories being told. An animator allowed to think as an animator can’t help but come up with something that will fascinate a four-year-old. It’s when those tricks of the craft are diluted by views imposed from the outside that you end up with something condescending and dull.

In the end, every medium has its own logic, and in some cases, that logic naturally approximates that of a child. (I’m not saying this to minimize the difficulty or sophistication of the efforts involved—only to say that their power is derived from a fundamental affinity to how we see the world at a younger age.) Usually, these are the media that are the most accessible to creative children in the first place: it isn’t hard to get started with cartooning or puppetry, and kids are often interested in them because the materials are readily available. You could even say that this is why they’ve retained the emotional charge of something remembered from childhood: the artists who make their mark with puppets or cartoon characters are drawing on skills that they began to develop at an early age, while novelists, by contrast, are building on something that they acquired later on. There’s plenty of good juvenile fiction out there, but its logic is more adolescent, in every sense of the word. And the best artists of them all, like Schulz, are the ones who make the spectrum of feeling from childhood to adulthood feel like a seamless whole. Charlie Brown and Linus don’t talk like any real six-year-olds would, but if they’re uncannily convincing as children, even to readers of the same age, it’s because Schulz understands how kids talk among themselves, and how their conversations can seem as urgent or complicated as anything adults can say. That honesty clings to them like dust. And as Pig-Pen says: “Sort of makes you want to treat me with more respect, doesn’t it?”

Written by nevalalee

December 11, 2015 at 9:18 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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