Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Archive for the ‘Live Action Movies’ Category

Working Through a War

joseph campbell hero quoteAs we honor the men and women of the armed forces for their service past and present on this Memorial Day, I’d like to take a peek at the often overlooked, but important, work of the Disney studio during WW II and it’s effect on Walt and the Studio. Like many of his generation, Walt Disney lived through two world wars. He was too young to enlist in WWI. Even though the war, for the most part, was over, 16 year old Disney found a way to serve by being an ambulance driver, stationed in Paris in 1918. By all accounts, he Disney 1918returned, a changed man. Widening his view of the world encouraged him to look beyond whatever ambitions his parents had for him and encouraged him to find his own way. Having been around, but also, not served during my generation’s wars, Vietnam and the two gulf conflicts, I think I can say, without hesitation, armed conflict affects everyone in some way, either positively or negatively. Walt’s experience in Europe left him with optimism about his abilities led him to open his first business, illustrating and lettering for magazines.

In 1941, right after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the Disney studio property, not only had to deal with war time 160511-walt-disney-life-book-04rationing and other changes, but, became the only major movie studio to be occupied by the U.S. Army. Staying for 8 months, the military took over large sections of the studio, including having one Navy Commander, take up residency in Walt’s office bedroom for several days. I don’t think that the War made Walt anymore patriotic than he had been. However, with overseas profits cut off, his studio commandeered, he launched his staff and himself into an all out effort to support the war effort in the best way he could – film making. Commercial efforts were completely halted, but the overall output of the studio actually increased at the same time cost to produce short pieces, educational films, and propaganda decreased by a whopping 98%.

The downside to this flurry of activity was threefold. First, the general public did not see much of the top secret or educational films, which amounted to 93% of the Studio’s output. Films on aircraft identification, venereal disease, dental health, precision bombing and pacific islands slated for invasion were praised for the effectiveness. But aside from some lighter pieces featuring Goofy, Pluto and Donald Duck on military service and propaganda films like “Out of the Frying Pan into the Firing Line (Minnie teaches housewives how to save kitchen fat for use in explosives)

“Winged Scourge” (7 Dwarves show how to combat malaria), and the “New Spirit” (Donald Duck demonstrates the importance of paying income taxes), Disney produced only two films that had significant public showings.

One was heaped with high praise, Der Fuhrer’s Face, for it’s morale and propogandist value. The other, Victory Through Air Power, the only film of the period Walt controlled completely from start to finish during the war, generated no money and poor critical reviews.

Second, although the Army kept the Studio busier than they had ever been and every effort was made to reduce production costs, the U.S. government was, not only, cheap, but was slow to pay and often, Walt had to go directly to Congress to get paid at all. In typical government fashion, opinions about the value and quality of the Disney work would be endlessly debated, even though there had been a promise to pay for the work. As a result, even the increase in film footage from the normal about 37,000 feet per year to over 200,000 feet, the Studio spent the war years barely breaking even. walt with generals.jpgWalt was not one to complain. As a patriotic American, he felt it was his duty to have the Studio help support the war effort as much as possible. All of this was accomplished while many artists left Disney for more creative work, and others were drafted, while the remaining staff struggled to keep up with military and government demands and short deadlines. Keep in mind, that while Disney toiled through primarily government contracts, other studios were producing films like The Philadelphia Story, Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca, Going My Way, and Double Indemnity, to name a few. Not that those studios didn’t support the war effort, but their output was still primarily under their control. During 1946, in contrast to Disney’s struggles to stay solvent and restart his Studio, the industry, as a whole, had its best year ever.

Which brings me to the third, and perhaps, most important negative effect of the Studio’s war effort. The war had come almost immediately on the heels of the of the traumatic and crippling animator’s strike that almost brought the Studio almost to a halt in 1941. Walt was terribly hurt and felt betrayed by the artists that he had worked so hard to build into a creative powerhouse and transformed the Company from a mom and pop shop, into one of the most respected and profitable film companies in the world. I will not spend time here going into a full account of the strike or whether Walt was justified in his thinking. (Read some of the many biographies like The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life by Steven Watts or Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination  by Neil Gabler for more strike details). But, here was a man who thrived on inspiration and the freedom to create as he pleased, being forced to work through the frustration government contracts coupled with a limited set of choices for what to work on. With little understanding of the situation, he was called unpatriotic and a war profiteer by some and even by government officials who were dictating the work. Since he was told by the military to avoid humor or invention in the films, I’m sure he just got bored. Later, those same people criticized the work because it had no humor.

As a result, Walt withdrew from much of the day to day, hands on work that had been part of the foundation of his earlier success – the Disney touch. The effects, psychological, financial, creative, of this strike and the War, undoubtedly led, in some part, to the rather uninteresting film period that followed, characterized by quick, lower budget bundling of shorts like those in Make Mine Music and Fun and Fancy Free.

On the other hand, after the war, it could be said that doing more live action film making in England, to take advantage of monies that were frozen there, may have encouraged the dawning of a new focus for Walt. He turned most of the day to day work over to others, who shepherded Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan to successful outcomes. Walt spent more time on the sets of the other movies, learning and building what he would need for future films like Treasure Island, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Mary Poppins. Time to think, tinker with his backyard railroad also gave him time to work out the beginnings of his next great adventures, TV and Disneyland.

walt on his train

Not everyone contributed to the War effort by fighting. Certainly, the Disney Studio work was cited for its morale boosting and educational value. But, there is no question that Walt lost the better part of 5 years of creative energy to do his part. Finances dictated many of the decisions he was forced to make in the ensuing years to keep his Studio afloat. The fallout from, creative boredom, focus on money and the disappointment he felt toward the striking animators who he had respected and tried to do right by, most likely played a factor in Walt’s disillusionment with the direction he saw America taking. Some of animated projects that had been put off during the war were made and most are considered part of what many call the Silver Age of Disney Animation. But many remained, concept art, unfinished scripts, or in some cases just unproduced ideas. What might have become of unrealized ideas like The Rainbow Road to Oz, Don Quixote, Chanticleer and unfinished collaborations with Roald Dahl and Dali. Many or none may not have made it out of the conceptual stages. And I would be the last to say, I wish Walt had stuck with animation instead of doing TV, building Disneyland or producing Mary Poppins. For now, I’d like to remember that while Walt didn’t man a post, his work and the work of his Studio, was a factor in the Allied effort to win the war.

disney war logos

Disney artists designed more than 1,000 WWII military logos

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Was it a Beauty or a Beast?

FeedbackI have a theory about movie trailers. The number of trailers released in advance of a movie is directly proportionate to the poor quality of a film. If the movie is a dog, we get buried in advance release hoopla. A good film will succeed critically at the box office without a constant barrage of hype.

For the last several months there are two reasons I have tried not to view trailers for the new Beauty and the Beast. First, I wanted to be surprised by the film. I didn’t’ want to have any preconceived thoughts and I wanted to keep an open mind, even as my dread increased in direct proportion to the amount of hype. Movie trailers often leave me feeling as if I’ve already seen the movie or at least what the marketers think are the best parts. Second, the alarming number of trailers left me with the nagging feeling that Disney thought the movie was not beautiful and wonderful, but beastly and horrible.

Please be advised. I’m not a professional movie critic. If you’re expecting a review of the film, there are literally hundreds of newspapers, magazines and websites who make have people who make a living writing reviews you can read. Or, better yet, go see the movie and form your own opinion. But, since I’ve already started writing about the movie, I will happily give you some of my thoughts on what I think was good and bad.

Psst! Avast there! It be not too late to alter course, mateys—there be spoilers ahead.

dead men tell no tales

Even though I knew the plot, I was still drawn into the story in its new form. In an earlier post, Drunk on Do-Overs?, I discussed the remake frenzy going on at the Disney Studios and my hope that the new filmmakers would, at least, add something new to the stories. I’m not talking about making it more “real” by removing some of the fantasy inherent in an animated film. I hope that they will, as Walt would say, “Plus it”, make it better. And, indeed, I feel the director, Mr. Condon definitely plussed things up in this movie.

BEAUTY AND THE BEASTFirst and foremost, was the deeper and more interesting relationship between Belle and Maurice. The tenderness, emotion, and natural chemistry between them at the beginning of the film makes Belle’s choice to take his place as prisoner that much more heartbreaking. And that she tricks him to do it makes our heart break for Maurice as he is dragged out. Condon came back to this key relationship several times later when we learn what happened to Belle’s mother and again in their short stay in the Asylum wagon.

In addition to Maurice and Belle’s backstory, we are given more detail about how the Young Prince’s upbringing laid the foundation for his later, fateful decision. This helps us see the Beast as more “human” rather than just a spoiled kid. He wasn’t a bad person, just flawed — like the rest of us. That context, together with the servant’s admission that they were complicit in the Prince’s inability to care or love for others, allows us to understand why the Beast has struggled in vain to lift the curse. (And why the innocent servants are suffering along with him)

Condon then lets us see the gradual development in the Belle/Beast relationship. TheBeauty and the Beast library is not just a gift, but the means by which they begin to bond. The intimate conversations we are privy to between Belle and the Beast let us see the development of their relationship that goes beyond feeding a few birds and throwing snowballs. We begin to see Belle warm to charms that the Beast has not exercised in many years, while the Beast begins to feel something other than self pity and hatred of the world.

I welcome the additional songs into the B&B canon. The work of Alan Mencken and Tim Rice shines in Evermore and How Does A Moment Last Forever. And putting some of the original lyrics back into “Gaston”, puts more punch in the song and makes the character seem even worse (shooting beasts in the back, etc.). Here again we’re given more rounded and developed characters than we were presented with in the animated film.

In the negative column. They left out three of my favorite lines: Cogsworth has two. “This is yet another example of the late neoclassic Baroque period. And, as I always say, if it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it!” and “Well, there’s the usual things. Flowers, chocolates, promises you don’t intend to keep.”

And from the song Gaston:

Gaston: LeFou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking

Lefou: A dangerous pastime

Gaston: I know.

It’s all in the timing and it works better when sung rather than read.

I liked the dance break in the “Gaston” pub scene as well as the addition of Cadenza and his relationship with Madame Garderobe. And overall, the movie was beautiful to watch. There were lots of other small things that made the movie enjoyable. But now it’s time to turn to some things that detracted from the film.

The poorly used Pere Robert, as the spiritual leader of the small town, is made to appear more enlightened than others in the town because he shares books with Belle. But he then shows no inclination to do anything to help Maurice or Belle when the town turns against them. I expected he was going to be the one to let them out of the asylum coach. But, he just seemed to melt away. That’s no way for someone who would should have been a model of forgiveness and compassion.

I applaud the Disney leadership for not squashing Condon and Josh Gad’s decision to portray LeFou as gay. But, while I’ve enjoyed Gad’s performances in other things, I found his portrayal of LeFou to be uninteresting. His acting choices left me with a gay man displaying stereotypical behaviors that the worst in our society believe to be true. In the original, LeFou was employed as comic relief and a foil for Gaston. Gad’s LeFou always seemed to be a little out of place in his scenes with Gaston, who’s darker and more cowardly than the animated version. I felt that all that was left of LeFou was a whiney sycophant with little to remind us of his role or purpose in the story.

Taking away some of Cogsworth’s facial expressions caused him to lose some of his zing and appeal. And finally, I still don’t understand the snowball. Was I supposed to be surprised and amused? I think I was mostly horrified.

the-new-beauty-and-the-beast-trailer-and-the-original-side-by-side-will-reawaken-your-disney-nostalgia

With any remake of a well-regarded film, there will be those who simply are unable to view the new version as a different movie. That would be easy, if the picture was bad by any measure. But, overall, I think the movie is an excellent film that can stand on its own without constant comparison to its animated predecessor. While there are facets of character that, in my eyes, keep it from being a great film, they are not devastating. I believe that this Beauty and the Beast will be a movie I will add to other Disney films that can watch many times in the future.

beauty and the beast poster

 

Drunk on Do-Overs?

dumbo_drunk_timothy_The Disney film division is drunk. Drunk on remaking many of the classic animated films as live action movies. Aside from the recent Jungle Book and the upcoming Beauty and the Beast, there have been announcements and some rumors that Pinocchio, Dumbo and the Lion King are in various stages of development. Then Tinkerbell (rumor of Reese Witherspoon) and Cruella (rumor of Emma Stone) are going to have live action renditions of their own.

With the critical and box office successes of Alice and Wonderland and The Jungle Book, it’s not hard to understand why Robert Iger and the rest of Disney’s management is jumping into this trend with both feet. Not only have the movies been viewed positively by the critics and made very handsome profits, but they are introducing stories and characters to a whole new generation of movie goers. And if there’s anything Walt Disney knew and the current management knows, characters and their franchises can drive long term profits and fan loyalty.

It’s no secret that Walt had a particular view of the world. In some ways his movies reflect the world and the time in which he lived and the idealized world of Marceline, Missouri he had grown up in. Even at the time of his greatest successes, many described his entertainment as “corny”. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that Walt created what we now call Family Entertainment. His story telling insures his work remains timeless and just as entertaining now as it was many years ago. In much the same way we can still watch and enjoy Gone with the Wind and Singin’ in the Rain, even though they were made long ago by entertainment standards.

But, I don’t think we can ignore the this generation’s expectations for any form of entertainment. We’re not satisfied with a roller coaster that goes up and down, it has to go upside down. Fireworks can’t just be loud and bright, they have to make pictures and be synchronized with music. Cars can’t just get us from here to there, they have to do it while we surf the web and stream only the music we want to hear.

So does that mean that in order to attract a 21st century audience, the Disney company has to remake all of the classic animated films? Let’s keep in mind, that Walt was remaking what were, and still are, considered classic fairy tales and fables. I would say, if you sit most kids and many adults in front of the movies we put in the animated Disney classic category, they will be drawn in an enjoy it as if it were made today. So why do it over again? I think if a director has something new he would like to say with the material, then, by all means, have at it. But just modifying the script by putting in some modern references, using technology or making it “grittier”, seems like a waste of good film.

In the case of the live-action remake of Cinderella, I think that the director gave us some new insights into the characters which make the film work. The Mowgli in the new, live-action jungle book, demonstrates more emotional dimension than Walt’s original. And director Favreau raises the stakes for everyone by having Shere Khan kill Akila. The tiger seems more dangerous and determined than the suave 1967 animated character. I will  reserve judgement on Beauty and the Beast and others until I have seen them.

It’s no surprise that we want our movies and theme parks to sizzle with excitement now possible through the use of technology. Now before you start thinking that I want to go back to the early days of Coney Island and silent movies, I’ve been involved with technology and computers for over thirty years. And I do think they have a place in our entertainment. I think attractions like Star Tours, Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster, Mickey’s Philharmagic and others (not to mention those in other theme parks) are great examples of how different kinds of technological advancements help to meet our 21st century definition of what’s fun, exciting or thrilling. And Pixar has used technology as a way to tell great stories, populated by memorable characters.

Walt himself was always looking for the next great thing to make an idea even better. He called it, plussing. Whether it was adding sound or color to movies, the mulitplane camera, audio animatronics, the monorail, new attraction ride systems, combining live action and animation in films, Walt was often first and more often than not, he was right about what the public would like. We get so caught up in the entertainment empire that Walt built that we lose sight of his constant drive for innovation. If it plussed the story or the attraction, and made it better, then he wanted to use it.

There will always be risks in taking on films and attractions with which the public has formed an attachment. In any case, there’s no chance that the changes will please everyone. Some are wild about Walt Disney World’s New Fantasyland while others still mourn the loss of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. It would hard to imagine that the Disney company will be right every time. There will probably be creative team who will lose sight of story and character and hope that CG will save the movie. No one sets out to make a bad movie or theme park attraction. But it does and will happen (See Stitch’s Great Escape for an example of a good idea going wrong) Don’t forget, once a project has been green lighted, Mr. Iger and Disney has to trust in the producers, directors, Imagineers and other artists, tradespeople and craftsmen to deliver the goods as promised.

I would hope, the Disney risk taking is not limited to just remaking titles from the existing catalog. I’d love to see new ideas and new creative excitement surprise us, so the Disney company can build new audiences through the development of new characters and unforgettable stories. Even if they are not all spectacular hits (see Tomorrowland).  Remember:

The difference in winning and losing

For now, I think Disney has earned my trust. I’ll try to keep an open mind as new films and attractions are delivered. Hopefully, the upcoming new additions to the theme parks and new film projects will continue to show that Disney is not quitting.

What do you think?

What’s With You and The Disney Thing?

I was asked the other day what I like so much about all things Disney. That’s an easy question, I thought. I’ve got a hundred reasons why I go to the theme parks, watch and re-watch Disney movies, collect Disneyana, (see my post Hooked on Collecting) pour over Disney message boards, Disney Facebook pages, dissect every announcement of changes and additions to the theme parks and read biographies of Walt Disney. You’re going to have to tell me when to stop. Just tell me when to stop. Only problem was, while I was thinking all those things, I wasn’t saying anything. At that moment, I realized that while I had thought about all those different aspects of the world of Disney, I had never really articulated why it is that Disney means so much to me – at least not out loud.

Disney Sword in the Stone quote

Source: Gifbay.com

Fortunately for me, the person who had asked was understanding and willing to wait while I put some coherent words together. Not everyone I talk to understands my love of the world of Disney. I get a lot of “It’s so commercial” or “It’s for kids” or “They just want your money”.

I tried to trace back my when my interest had begun. The first movie I ever saw in a theater was The Sword in the Stone. A good movie, but not a great movie. I remember waiting for and watching Disney’s Wonderful World of Color every Sunday on television. There was that great opening with Sleeping Beauty Castle, Tinkerbell and firework sand classic cartoon and nature shorts,disney-wonderful-world-of-color sometimes a movie and Walt would introduce the pieces. But not all of it kept my interest.

I saw many of the live action movies while I was growing up, like “Herbie the Love Bug”, “The Ugly Daschund” and “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes”. but most of them were, well mediocre. Even the movies with better stories like “The Shaggy Dog” and the “Absent Minded Professor” I saw at the drive-in. Small, tinny sounding speaker and watching through the windshield did not make for a great movie experience. And the Shaggy Dog just scared and wierded me out. I didn’t go to Walt Disney World for the first time until I was in my late twenties. And that trip is kind of a blur. So how and when did this minor obsession start?

Winnie the Pooh thinkingNow, picture for a second, that all this happened in my head, in a matter of seconds, while I probably had this mouth open faraway look in my eyes. I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, A Mother’s Gift, how my mother had been a collector of Disneyana and took me to my first Disney movie. But, as interesting as the items in the collection are and fond as I am of the memories of her telling me about them, and as much as I did enjoy Disney animated movies, and I vaguely remember enjoying my early visit to Walt Disney World, those were curiosities and did not lead me directly to the place where I am today – writing a blog each week about Walt Disney and the world of Disney magic.

Then it hit me. There was a kind of common denominator to all of this. It wasn’t pin collecting, new movies, the addition of Star Wars to the Disney portfolio or escaping into the Fantasy world of a Disney theme park. It’s Walt.

Walt Disney hard at workWalt Disney has become a role model for me. Here was a man who came from no means to build one of the greatest entertainment empires the world has ever seen. He persevered through setback after setback, going broke more than once. He could have been envious when it became apparent that others could execute the drawings for his ideas better than he could. He could have quit when Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was taken away from him. (BTW, thank you Disney company for bringing Oswald home) He could have taken the easy path and continued to make short cartoons when everyone told him that people wouldn’t pay and sit for a feature length animated film. He could have folded his tent when many of his animators went on strike. He could Walt Disney Disneyland quotehave sold out to another company when World War II forced him to make films for the military at almost no profit. And he certainly could have coasted on easy street when the company finally reached financial stability after ignoring the naysayers who said that the theme park he imagined would fail. Instead, he persevered. Instead, he stuck to his dreams and found ways to achieve his goals.

I am in awe of the boundless creativity that Walt exhibited throughout his life. As I discussed in my post How Much do You Want It?, there aren’t many people who have been successful at so many different entertainment genres. Walt had no background, training or experience in television, live action movie producing or theme parks. He even learned animation while he was creating his early shorts. But, he never let that stop him from doing what he instinctively knew what people wanted or needed for entertainment. His boundless optimism that, somehow, despite not having money or many supporters or any real plan for how some of his work would get accomplished, if he just focused on making people happy, everything would work out. He took big, potentially company destroying chances and didn’t look back. His unbridled enthusiasm and can-do attitude made him a natural leader. As a result, people he needed help from to succeed, believed in him and followed him. Bankers, animators, architects, engineers, directors, artists, even his brother Roy all fell under the spell of a man who could weave a great story and who’s enthusiasm for any project was spell binding and infectious.

Walt Builds Disneyland

If you were to describe someone who was not afraid of the unknown, took risks, lead men and women on great campaigns, followed his own heart, stuck to his principles, exhibited a knack for problem solving and built great things, you might be thinking of decorated military man or an explorer, moving from one adventure to the next. Not someone who made movies and created theme parks. But Walt Disney was an exceptional man who followed his passions even in the face of tremendous skepticism and what, to others, were insurmountable obstacles, financially, technically and artistically.

Those exceptional qualities inspire me and, I think, others, even though he has been gone for fifty years, to admire and aspire to be like him. While others have been successful at their chosen professions or endeavors, I’m hard pressed to think of too many who have done it with such style and enthusiasm and seemed to have so much fun at the same time. I’d love to hear where your love, passion or interest in the world of Disney came from.

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