Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Archive for January, 2017

Ch-Ch-Ch Changes

us-flagToday, our country will go through an orderly transfer of power from outgoing President Obama to incoming President Trump. Whether you are looking forward to or dreading this day, many of us find the act and process of change to be, at a minimum, disruptive and at the far end of the scale, frightening. Walt Disney World and Disneyland are going through the largest changes since the Eisner years, back in the 1990’s. And across websites, social media and face to face discussions, both reactions are equally displayed and justified. Any change is hard. By its very definition, Change (a: to make different in some particular, b: to make radically different, c: to give a different position, course, or direction to) conjures up all manner of disruption, discomfort and inconvenience and also opportunity.

There are Disney fans out there who mourn the loss of every attraction that is replaced or remade. Part of the reason many of us make the pilgrimage over and over to tmickey-ice-cream-barhe Parks, is familiarity. Many people refer to Disney World and Disneyland as Home. To those who are happier at a Disney theme park instead of the place their mail gets delivered, the Parks represent comfort and a reliable experience. They know where the pictures are taken on Splash Mountain and Tower of Terror and they never take off Mickey’s ears as the first bite of the ice cream. There’s a lot to be said for consistency. Smooth sailing and calm waters, no unexpected, unwelcome surprises.

There are others who look forward to new experiences in the form of new attractions, parades, restaurants, shows and experiences. The other side of the conversation probably consists of complaints about how Disney is falling behind in the theme park business. Universal and others are challenging Disney’s supremacy with things like the World of Harry Potter and faster and more exciting roller coasters. They want the Parks to remain the best and most magical places to visit. There’s excitement surrounding Avatar Land, Star Wars Land and Toy Story Land, to name a few. For a Disney theme park fan who wants to see the Imagineers push the limits of creativity, design, engineering, technology and entertainment, the next couple of years are going to be non-stop fun.

I find change-intersectionmyself on both sides of the conversation on Disney theme park change. I find it very exciting to experience attractions that have Walt’s fingerprints all over. I love his whimsy and musicality in the Enchanted Tiki Birds, his appreciation of the past and excitement about the future in Carousel of Progress, and his love of country in Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Walt was a complex man and since he died when I was very young, attractions like these are as close as I will ever come to having a conversation with him. So, I do want to hold on to some of the past. In gives me an appreciation of where Disney’s theme parks have come and an anchor as others things inevitably change.

But I do want some change. I want new attractions to experience and places to explore. I want to feel the need to return, not just to do it out of habit. I want to be surprised and amazed by things that seemed impossible only a short time ago.  Even though the Theme Parks are not a hotbed of culinary excellence, the theming and attention to detail in most of the Disney restaurants, turn meals into experiences. So having some new places to eat is an important part of my vacation planning.

Finally, everyone, even the great Walt Disney made mistakes. The Phantom Boats only lasted for a year after Disneyland’s opening day (too difficult and costly to maintain). The Rainbow Mountain Stagecoach ride only had a 3 year run (the coaches tended to tip over). Both of these were closed on Walt’s watch. It doesn’t make sense to keep things around just for the sake of continuity. How many of  us would have wanted to be riding Mission to the Moon today? Is there a parent out there that wouldn’t have killed for the shorter wait times and covered play area for Dumbo, rather than baking in the sun for an attraction their kids had to ride? And let’s not forget that Walt said, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” Nobody tells the boss what to do.

So, bring on the changes. Unleash the Imagineers. Let’s see what they can do. Don’t wipe all of the past away. It keeps us grounded. But keep the theme parks vibrant, alive and relevant to the times we live in. Walt was not only a creative genius, but an innovator. I think we honor his contributions by remembering what he accomplished and pushing the envelope to see where the magic can take us, just as he did.

The Art of Animation

Disney Legend Tyrus Wong

The recent death of Disney Legend artist Tyrus Wong and the release of Disney’s Moana have got me thinking about the state of animated feature films today. Admittedly, this is something I have thought about before. Moana is a beautiful film. Its depiction of island paradises, the ocean and god-like creatures are a joy to watch. And, the leaps that CG animators have made from films like Toy Story in the depiction of people is nothing short of amazing. However, I can’t help feel that Wong’s “re-discovered” work and contribution to Disney’s animated classic, Bambi highlights what I think is an important difference between the animation of Walt’s era and what is generally accepted as today’s the norm for modern animation. Hand drawn animated features, using Disney’s as an example, had and still have (See Hayao Miyazaki films as an example) a distinct artistic look that pulls the viewer in and brings life to the film.


Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle”

Considerable print, press, lectures and college film courses have discussed what many consider Walt’s most important contribution to animated films – elevation of animation to an art form. As early as 1929, 8 years before the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt would drive some of his animators to a local art class. In 1937 he would formalize a regular training regimen for the animators (eventually it would became CalArts) The classes were not


Art Instructor with Disney Animator

just for his lead animators, but for all the animators. Walt was interested in breathing life into drawn forms, not just getting laughs. If you have the opportunity to look just at the background art for some of Disney’s early animated films, particularly Pinocchio, but even later work like 101 Dalmatians, they stand on their own as works of art, even without characters or motion. I believe Walt knew that in order to improve animation, it was necessary to improve all of the film, not just the characters who moved and got most of the attention.

He did, however, have one other trick up his sleeve. If you look at the early Disney animated features, either in individual picture form or the final movie, you can’t help but notice that each film has its own distinct artistic sensibility. Snow White, Pinocchio, 101 Dalmatians are all as different as a Monet is from a Rembrandt. The artistic quality of the films draws us in and creates a visual appeal that is as important as the differences between Mo Willems work and other picture book illustrators, making the turn of each page or the change in scene a new experience that keeps our eyes and our minds interested in the material. It’s the differences in artistic viewpoint that enable us to see the merits of both Rembrandt and Van Gogh’s self-portraits. By all standards, they are both great works of art, yet completely different in look and creative approach and tell us a great deal about the artist and any messages they are trying to convey without the use of words.

CG animation does offer us some visual differences in the complexity and style of the images. But, in in my eyes, the differences in artistic approach and style seem to be flattened out by the computer generated approach to creating them. I’m not saying that CG animation is not an art form. Far from that. I believe that CG animators still have to create, what legendary Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston called the “Illusion of life” on the screen. The complex animation skill it took to “see” Moana think and go through her internal struggle like a real actor are not different from the joy or pain we see on the face of Roger in 101 Dalmatians.

It would be hard to argue that there are no artistic differences between Moana and Toy Story 3, and I’m not going to try.

But, I do think that CG animation has removed some of the style differences we can see in earlier hand drawn animated  features. I miss the water color style of Bambi, simplistic style of Dumbo and the sweeping grandeur of Sleeping Beauty. A viewing of Fantasia is almost a primer on how different artistic styles and approaches impact the look of an animated work. The sorcerer’s apprentice and night on Bald Mountain couldn’t be any more different, while they still maintain a high degree of artistic achievement.

Fantasia 1940

I look forward to each new Pixar or Disney Animation feature. I think Walt would be proud that Disney directors still strive to be story tellers first and animate as a way of telling that story. And, I’m certain that Walt would have welcomed CG as an exciting opportunity to tell stories through a different form of animation and to animate things that might seem impossible in the hand drawn world. On the other hand, Disney animators, when challenged always seems to find a way to achieve Walt’ vision and the directors who folloeed. But, Walt did not follow the path of other animation studios and use the same artistic style for every movie. I believe that he would have seen CG as just that – another creative style, and looked for other styles to help tell a particular story. And, so, I will continue to enjoy CG animated features. But part of me still hopes that John Lasseter will someday unleash the creative talents that are out there in the world and do some more hand drawn animated movies.

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