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Archive for the ‘Fantasia’ Category

Revisiting Mary Poppins before she Returns

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Every time I watch Mary Poppins, I can’t help wondering, “Why isn’t there an attraction at a Disney theme park devoted to Walt’s crowning achievement in live action films?” I’ll get back to my rant in a moment.

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For new readers of my blog, and those who may have forgotten this vital piece of information in the overwhelming onslaught of things to remember, I don’t really do reviews. Nor do I use this space to offer Disney news. There are plenty of very good sites and blogs, unofficial and unofficial, that I think do these things very well. You can find some of the places I regularly visit on my page here. I prefer to offer my thoughts on topics that inspire me that are related to Walt and his legacy.

IMary slides up the stairs watch Mary Poppins now and again, and always enjoy it for its pure entertainment magic. But, I watched it the other night, prompted, I suppose, by the tsunami of promotions surrounding the soon to be released Mary Poppins Returns. I’m not a huge fan of the continued rollout of “live action” remakes of classic Disney animated films. In an earlier post, Drunk on Do-Overs, I said that I would keep an open mind. But, I would prefer to have Disney give us something new. And, I certainly don’t want to see an older “classic” redone frame for frame, just because the technology now allows directors to create what was once only possible through animation.

With the way current Hollywood survives on sequels, it seems almost impossible thatFantasia Hippos Walt rarely looked back. During his life, there were no sequels, even if the movie was a critical or box office success. No son of Bambi, Pinocchio Returns, or Dumbo 2. Unafraid of what his critics would say, after animated successes like Snow White and Pinocchio, Walt gave his audience Fantasia – not a traditional feature animated film. World War II and his own creative drive pushed him to explore live action films. Then, of course, came Disneyland. Walt was a restless creator, driven by inspiration, not be profit.

Most critics and Disney historians say that Mary Poppins is Walt’s finest live action feature. Most good directors will tell you that half the credit for a film’s success starts with casting the right actors. Accounts of the making of the film tell us that Walt made most, if not all of the casting choices, including betting that a young actress with no screen experience could carry the title role. Decades ahead of the Harry Potter series, Disney cast many of the roles with talented, but overlooked character actors including, Glynnis Johns (Winnifred), Elsa Lanchester (Katie Nana), and Arthur Treacher (Constable). Oscar winner Jane Darwell (Bird Woman) and Oscar nominee Ed Wynn (Uncle Albert) were nearing the end of their careers. And, like Walt, would live only a few more years. Aside from Dick Van Dyke and maybe Jane Darwell, depending on the viewer’s age, none of the actors would have been very recognizable to American audiences in the 1960s.  All of the performances, including, of course Julie Andrews, David Tomlinson and Dick Van Dyke, even years later, resulted in characters that are believable, funny and heartwarming, even amidst the fantasy world they inhabit.

Aside from having a magic casting touch, it would not surprise me to learn that Walt encouraged the prodigious use of matte painting, and flying by wire, as well as Disney developed technical effects. Traveling matte shots with live action and the Jolly Holiday sequences were accomplished with a technology called Yellow Screen (sodium vapor process). Interested parties can find a great, detailed look at the Mary Poppins matte work on this website. It’s amazing to see how many scenes were actually accomplished with matte paintings. They are hard to distinguish from the standard shots. As Walt did with color film, years earlier with the Silly Symphonies where Disney locked up exclusive rights to use the newest process, Disney owned the only camera in the world that could accomplish the yellow screen process. Walt also included audio animatronics. Today, these effects would all be accomplished with CG.

Anyone who things George Lucas and Industrial Light and Magic invented these kind of special effects, should realize they were just following in Walt’s footsteps as a film innovator. As was often the case, Walt didn’t invent any of these advancements. But, he did realize their potential where others might not have. By themselves, the brilliant use of special effects, which garnered an Oscar, would have been notable. However, Walt would never accept flash without substance. The story and the characters take center stage, supported by the visual effects.

While the story is dominated by the magic that surrounds Mary, there are some themes at the heart of the film that still resonate decades later and are, perhaps, more relevant today, than when it premiered.

It goes unsaid, that the Banks children are home schooled. While they worked their way through a string of nannies, the children are clearly intelligent, curious and inventive. It doesn’t seem that their parents are particularly involved in their upbringing. Winnifred has her cause, as a Suffragette. Women are still fighting for equal rights. And George, while hard working and successful, is content to “pat them on the head and send them off to bed”. It’s almost as if the Banks’ mirror our twentieth century two income families.

While limited parental guidance was the norm in upper middle class families of the day, even the Constable seems to recognize how unfazed the parents are that the children have been without supervision for most of the afternoon. Any of us who are parents could surely use a reminder that what our children become and the relationships with their care-gives could be linked to the experiences of their early years. Given how quickly children of the 21st century seem to grow up, it’s even more important.

Tidy up the NurseryBut, even with proper attention, it’s no secret that almost everyone absorbs things better if they are shown practical applications of the lesson or behaviors. A “spoonful of sugar” doesn’t just make the medicine easier to take, it also makes even the most mundane tasks less tedious. Instead of memorizing, anyone who learns music at an early age, used Every Good Boy Does Fine, to remember musical notes. Or, friendly competitions to see who could pick up the most trash or a game of Horse to hone basketball skills. How many of you think Michael would normally have wanted to tidy up the nursery again unless it was fun.

Learning, however, should be balanced with encouragement to use one’s imagination.

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Kris Kringle helps Susie explore the ImagiNation

Here is where Mary certainly excels. Even adults should use the other half of their brains. But, you don’t need to pop into a chalk painting. I love the way Kris Kringle, in the 1937 Miracle on 34th Street talks, about imagination as a place, the ImagineNation. Thinking creatively can add a whole arsenal of problem solving solving skills to day to day problems as well as tackling bigger issues like hunger, poverty and homelessness. This is often referred to as out of the box thinking. I think we should forget about the boxes and spend less time complaining that things can’t be fixed or changed. As Mary shows the Banks family, a fresh look at things can make every day a kite flying day.

Mary Poppins in WDW

Mary takes a turn with the Pearly Band at Walt Disney World

I started with the lack of presence of Mary in the parks. Other than occasional appearances by Mary and Bert and the Pearly Band, Mary Poppins is MIA. We’ve now had two different Snow White themed attractions, Peter Pan, Mr. Toad (one half of a package film), Song of the South (kept under lock and key), but nothing from the movie that won more Oscars (5) than any other Disney release. I’m not the only one who thinks it deserved a place in the parks. Here’s a video of Disney Imagineering Legend, Tony Baxter describing his idea for a Jolly Holiday attraction.

I’m glad to hear that there are rumors of bring Mary to Epcot’s England Pavilion at Walt Disney World’. But, rumors don’t often turn into reality, no matter what the sources may be. I’m also glad that we can still take some important lessons from Walt’s masterpiece at the same time we fall under its magical spell.

 

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Wither the Muppets?

sesame streetMy kids grew up as regular visitors to the Street of Sesame. It was populated by colorful, friendly creatures and kind, smart, people. The Muppets taught my kids important things. How to count, recognize the letters of the alphabet. Also, how to make friends and be a friend, respect others, and accept the differences between us, to name a few important lessons.

At the same time my kids were gettin’ learned, I could enjoy the irreverence, the wackiness the winks and the never ending, parody-infused humor the Muppets brought to those of us on adult streets everywhere. They taught us how to laugh at ourselves and that the “classics”, whether books, music or movies, you could be take them out from behind the museum glass and play. They taught us to not take ourselves too seriously.

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So, what happened? Why have the Muppets not found their audience in the 21st

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Sherlock Hemlock

century? Why is it that Walt’s brand of entertainment far outlasted him, yet Jim Henson’s legacy seems to fade with each passing year? The Muppets have done feature films, television, appeared on countless talk shows, award shows and even have their own hit songs like The Rainbow Connection. Is Disney hiding them in an undisclosed location, plotting a massive marketing campaign? Or is something else going on?

Both men have rightly been called geniuses. Not because they cured a hated disease or helped put a man on the moon. (Although Walt did make that happen every day in early Disneyland, and there was the Muppets in Space. But, I digress) They had a genius for finding new ways to entertain us by taking something old and making it new.

 

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Even the candle is crying

Walt took animation, which was sill in its infancy, and made it into high art, while using story to create enduring characters. Disneyland was a new kind of entertainment based on old style fairs or amusement parks. His animated and live action movies and their characters continue to charm, amuse and evoke other emotions. And, they have become known the world over. When Disney builds theme parks in other countries, they include Mickey Mouse and many other characters that are as recognizable in Shanghai as they are in Anaheim.

 

fantasia posterThe years have not dulled the enthusiasm even for characters who have not been seen on the big screen for decades, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. All of this happened, even as Walt pushed the limits of what audiences would accept in animation. After the success of Snow White and Pinocchio, Walt took a left turn and gave us Fantasia. Then he took a trip to South America which resulted in very Latino feeling Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros. In between those two was Victory Through Air Power, the last feature Walt directed himself, which was more propaganda than entertainment.  He planned but never finished a surrealist piece with Salvador Dali (Finally released in 2003). Audiences might have grumbled, but they still kept coming.

 

THE MUPPETSJim Henson took puppetry out of the fairs and children’s birthday parties and created his own group of enduring characters. He showed us that even puppets that were blue or red, fuzzy and had other un-human like features could, not only entertain, but touch our hearts. I would say that Kermit, Miss Piggy, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch are just as recognizable as Mickey Mouse. The appeal of the Muppets bridged generations.

The younger crowd laughed and learned with Bert, Ernie and The Count. While adults could laugh at the sneaky and wacky humor of Fozzy Bear, Sam Eagle and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. A string of popular movies (3 in Henson’s lifetime) combining puppets with actors proved that the Muppets could “act”.

And the weekly Muppet show, which ran for 5 seasons was a magnet for every big name in Hollywood to share the spotlight with Miss Piggy, a group of chickens or other Henson Workshop creations.

Like Disney, Henson challenged his audiences. The movie Dark Crystal and Labyrinth moved away from vaudeville slapstick and pushed further in to Fantasy at the same time he advanced the art of puppetry. In television, Fraggle Rock was intended to be an educational program to help kids deal with complex issues around the world.

After Henson’s passing, the deal to sell the company to Disney was completed and park fans have been enjoy Muppetvision 3d for many years. More recently Muppet characters are making regular appearances in Liberty Square above the Hall of Presidents. But recent attempts to revitalize the Muppet franchise, Muppets Most Wanted, failed with audiences who were less enthralled than the critics. The recent attempt to restart the franchise by going back to television, one of their earliest successes, was cut short after just one season.

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Muppets in LIberty Square

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Oz & Henson

Some have argued, like original Muppeteer, Frank Oz, that Disney just doesn’t get the Muppets. While others seem to think that the Muppets brand of entertainment was a product of it’s time and simply doesn’t translate into today’s reality focused offerings. I think it may be a combination of the two. Perhaps, Jim Henson did not have an opportunity to set the franchise off on a long term track as Walt did with multiple entertainment properties.  Then, Disney took too long to produce anything Muppet related, thereby losing any momentum that might have existed with audiences. I remember being excited about the prospect of deep pockets and potential creative input from the Disney organization. Then, radio silence for 12 years, before a movie was released. Pixar hardly missed a beat after being brought under the Disney brands. And Mickey Mouse went 30 years without being featured in a Disney film. But, it didn’t seem to dull his appeal.

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I’m a big fan of the Muppets style of entertainment. Maybe, in the final analysis, the very nature of Muppet humor doesn’t appeal to as many. Kermit is lovable. But, while Mickey started out as more of an impish troublemaker he evolved into a more lovable character with broad appeal.

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Kermit was always lovable. But he seems stuck in a world of vaudeville, where many of the real jokes go right over the heads of audiences that might extend the franchise — children, who eventually grow into adults and introduce their kids to the characters. Miss Piggy is not very approachable, Dr. Teeth and The Medicine show is product of a 60’s musical era, and Fozzy is, well, an acquired taste for many who grew up with the Carol Burnet Show or even Your Show of Shows.

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It’s still possible that Disney will find a way to keep the Muppets in the mainstream. They are giving the Muppet Babies TV cartoon a reboot. It’s possible that will be the way to gain some traction. Unfortunately, in the face of the blockbuster dollars other franchises like Marvel and Star Wars bring in, the Muppets will forever be an afterthought. I certainly hope not.

 

The Key to Disney’s Artistic Masterpiece

pinocchio posterThere is something special about the second full length Disney animated film, Pinocchio, released 78 years ago, that is easy to forget as you get caught up in the story and characters.

There’s a critical element that makes characters like Pinocchio, Gepetto, Jiminy Cricket, Honest John, Stromboli and the detailed backgrounds so beautiful to watch. Walt recognized a key advancement in movie making before most of the film industry and it would revolutionize, not only his animated films, but all movies. . .

 

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Seems Obvious, right? As I wrote about in Ahead of His Time . . .Again and other posts, Walt had an uncanny ability to see into the future and make decisions that others were too afraid or lacked the foresight to consider. I’ll get back to that thought.

It’s easy to understand why we take color for granted. Most of us have grown up in a world of color. Television, movies, newspaper comics, our smartphones and computers are, and have, used color for decades.

hyperionBut, let’s travel back in time to 1930. The recently created Technicolor three strip process was unproven, expensive, required specialized equipment and extremely bright light that needed to be balanced for every shot. The major studios were not  prepared to take on the cost to retool their equipment and experiment with the new technology. Imagine what a risk it was to Walt and Roy’s fledgling studio, huddled into overcrowded buildings on Hyperion Avenue. Even with the success of Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies, Roy was understandably nervous, since their current contracts would not pay them additional money to offset the costs of producing in color.

Of course, Walt was undeterred, both by the technical obstacles and that other nasty annoyance – Money – or so it might seem. A couple of paragraphs back I mentioned Walt’s foresight. In most books I’ve read about Walt, he was more interested in quality and innovation than what it would cost to achieve his goals. But, don’t for a minute think that he wasn’t business savvy.

Flowers and TreesThe Technicolor people were so desperate to prove their process that they would have financed all of the changes necessary for Disney to retool for color animation. Walt was so convinced that color would make his animation more realistic and more entertaining that he decided to stop production on the Silly Symphony short Flowers and Trees and start over in color. He had the back sides of the black and white cells washed to remove the gray shades and had the Ink and Paint department redo them in color. And instead of taking that silly money from Technicolor, Walt made a deal for two years exclusive use of the Technicolor process.

Flowers and Trees, now in color, was a huge success and even rivaled Mickey Mouse in popularity. For his people’s efforts, Disney was awarded the first Academy award for an animated short in 1932. Proving color could work with Forest and Trees was more than just a stunt. Walt was now confident that he could began the process to develop Snow What. The films success enabled Roy to get new, desperately needed bank financing. Plus, Walt now had a two year head start using and learning about color over any other studio. And learn they would, throughout the rest of the Silly Symphonies releases.

In a previous post Inspired by Walt to get Creative, I mentioned the book Ink and Paint, the Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, as inspiration for a novel I am writing. I highly recommend the book to anyone whose interested in learning the back story of what it took to get Animated films through production. Flowers and Trees utilized about 400 different color shades.

Getting back to Pinocchio, the shades ballooned to about 1,500 shades to complete, what might be the finest hand drawn animated film ever made. That number doesn’t include special effects like water above and below, bubbles, the Blue Fairy glow and other important film elements.

Live action films have the advantage of actual colors to shoot. For hand drawn animation, the Disney Paint department had to deal with issues like colors shifting after drying or being under the not camera lights, as well as a need for wide ranges of shades depending on the action in the context of the film. The Disney Paint people ended up designing their own colors and paints to meet the increasing demands of the films. Disney hired chemists and built an entire department to create, manage and distribute paint as needed.

I chose Pinocchio as the focus of this post because I think it might be the apex of what Disney artists, including animation, background, and painting created in those early years of feature films. Keep in mind, this one only feature film #2 for the Studio and it’s an artistic masterpiece. The backgrounds are of quality found in museums around the world. The use of color not only fills the screen, but adds to the film’s mood through the use of shadows and details that might not register fully when screening the film.  But upon closer inspection the completed work reveals subtle and complex intricacies.

I believe that there are some films that are better because they are in black and white. If, for example, you watch a noir film that has been colorized, the loss of shadows and the heightened color seems to mute the overall tension common in films like The Third Man, The Big Sleep or Double Indemnity. There’s no doubt that color afforded so many possibilities to the world of Disney animation. After the richness of Pinocchio, Disney artists explored many different styles. Fantasia was a mix of realistic

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Rite of Spring

Modern

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Tocata and Fugue in D Minor

traditional animation humor

Dance of the Hours

Dance of the Hours

and Classical

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Pastoral Symphony

Bambii takes us into the realistic world of landscapes and animals.

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And, Sleeping Beauty, perhaps one of the most visually experimental and stunning films, can be seen as an end, not only of the golden age of hand drawn animation, but of the use of artistic drawing and painting styles in Disney Animated films.

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Jiminy_Cricket_standing_up_to_LampwickOverall, it’s hard to imagine any of the films, starting with Snow White, any other way, but in glorious color. I don’t think there’s any doubt that, even if Walt had gone ahead with Snow White in black and white, it might have been considered a good, maybe ground breaking film. But it would not have had the impact that the color added. It almost certainly would not have encouraged Walt to continue to explore and expand on the use of color in Pinocchio, both in character design (27 different colors were used to bring Jiminy Cricket to life) and detailed backgrounds.

Walt Disney never described himself as an artist. He didn’t draw as well as others, he couldn’t paint and he had no training in the use of color. He did, however, recognize how much color would bring to the films he was making. As with other great leaders, he surrounded himself with people who could do those things. The list of great animators, artists on all of the films during Walt’s lifetime, both conceptual and actual production is lengthy. Walt not only took advantage of their skills by constantly challenging them to do more, but he encouraged their continued growth by providing training. We’ll never understand how, but somehow, Walt could see the finished product in his mind’s eye. By any means at his disposal, like taking a leap of faith on Technicolor, he found a way to realize those dreams and ideas.

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