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Archive for the ‘Live Action Movies’ Category

Revisiting Mary Poppins before she Returns

Enter to win my giveaway this month. Details can be found here.

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.

Miracle on 34th street

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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Seriously, Let’s Not Forget the Gags

Patience, they say, is a virtue. For my readers who have patiently waited for me to post – You’re all very virtuous and I’m pleased that you’ve come back again. I take my blog writing very seriously, (even if the content isn’t always serious). Part of that is an effort to not let my other life cross over into my blog world. Unfortunately, I’ve hit one of those bumps in the road of life that is making that separation difficult. But, more about that in a bit.

It usually takes me about a week to write, edit, format and add media to my posts. Because I’ve been in a bit of a funk, I’m going to do something different and just put words on the page one at a time until I’ve told you what’s on my mind. After all, every successful writer will tell you that you can’t finish something until you’ve started. Walt put it very well when he said, “The Way Get Started Is To Quit Talking And Begin Doing”. So, I’m going to start.

Life is full of complications, obstacles and unforeseen circumstances. Like, Br’er Rabbit, how we overcome life’s obstacles, in some way defines us. Br’er Rabbit escaped (sorry, there should have been a spoiler alert there) because he understood his adversaries’ weaknesses. My go to in tough times has always been humor. Laughter makes me feel better and tends to not drive away the friends and family who might be able to help me.

Many people, including his daughter and many of the talented people who worked with Walt over the years have said that one of Walt’s best qualities was his sense of humor. Walt encouraged the creation of gags, both in film and later in Disneyland. As we have just celebrated the opening of Toy StoryLand in Orlando and many changes to the theme parks in the U.S. like Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout, I’ve been thinking about whether current Disney Imagineers are still following Walt’s lead and finding ways to keep us laughing.

Even in movies that dealt with difficult ideas, like the death of a loved one such as Bambi or cruelty in Cinderella, Walt made sure that there was a heavy dose of gags sprinkled throughout the film. Sometimes the bits were focused on one character as in the scene from Snow White where Dopey chases the soap before swallowing it. There’s a moment in Bambi where after Thumper has convinced Bambi to go out on the ice, Thumper has to work carefully to get all of Bambi’s legs standing straight.  It’s an amazing scene, animated by supervising animator Travis Johnson, full of visual gags, broad expressions and situations.

In films like Cinderella and Pinocchio the Disney creative team gave us a duo to carry much of the humor. It’s likely that Walt would have seen vaudeville type shows growing up. The shows would often feature comedy teams like Weber and Fields or Smith and Dale. Much of Vaudeville humor was based on sight gags, often punctuated by one of the team getting knocked down or hit with something, and plays on words or outright mispronunciation. Gus and Jacques fill that role in Cinderella, with Jacques as the straight man and Gus providing most of the laughs. Gus struggling to pick up as many corn kernels as he can is classic visual and physical comedy. Later on, Gus’ gives us the word play angle when he yells of “Happy Birthday” instead of surprise when the mice unveil Cinderella’s dress.

I think some of the more recent animated movies provide a good mix of visual and verbal gags. Olof in Frozen gets some great mileage out of his body’s ability to break apart and come back together. And there are too many moments to list where his natural naïveté makes for some hysterical moments – “♫ I’ll be a . . .  happy snowman! ♪” “Why isn’t she knocking? Do you think she knows how to knock?” A big shout out to the animators of Hei Hei in Moana. He’s really a mime. So, everything he does is a sight gag. Dory’s different names for Nemo is a classic comedy, running gag.

I am concerned about the recent theme park trends that focus on thrills and high-tech immersive experiences. Pirates and Haunted mansion are immersive, but still have a large helping of gags. On the other hand, Guardians of the Galaxy:Mission Breakout is about great visual effects and the drops as is the original Tower of Terror. Both seem to rely on cast members to provide the fun. Which is fine. But, not all cast members are equally as adept with comedy. So, it’s a bit of a crap shoot. Nothing new in the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. It’s really about theming and animated animatronics. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s fabulously well done and faithfully recreates moments from the film. But, the Imagineers didn’t come up with any new jokes, they just reused the gags from the film. I won’t comment on Toy Storyland, since I haven’t seen it. But I hear there are some subtle sight gags. Will the upcoming Tron and Guardians of the Galaxy attractions at Walt Disney World keep the line moving and give us some laughs along with the thrills? We’ll see.

Walt used to pay people $5, cold, hard cash for gags. That was a good sized bonus in the 30s and 40s. I wonder if current Disney management offers incentives for laughs? I’m sure there many laughs in more recent theme park additions that I haven’t thought of. I don’t get to the parks as often as I’d like. If you know of one, let me know so I can get a chuckle next time I see it.

Getting back to my bump in the road and why I’ve been thinking about humor and not blogging. The 20-year relationship with my employer ended unexpectedly due to a large restructuring in advance of being acquired by another company. I haven’t had to look for a job in a long time. Technology and social media have drastically changed the job search landscape. Reaching out to a network of people used to involve, primarily phone calls. Today, it’s LinkedIn, that drives a lot of action. The bigger your LinkedIn network, the more people will be keeping their eyes and ears open for me. So, I would be grateful to anyone who would be willing to send me a connection request so I can continue to find new sources of information about jobs or companies I might interview with in the future. The bigger your network, the better it looks to those who will, inevitably, look at it as part of the interview process. My LinkedIn profile can be found at https://www.linkedin.com/in/brad-kramer/It would be great if you could connect with a note, so I can figure out what we have in common. This concludes the self-promotion portion of the blog post. Now back to the laughs.

Ultimately, Walt liked to give us a laugh along with a tear or two. He even named his early company Laugh-O-grams. I, for one, find some of my favorite movies, even action ones, like Raiders of the Lost Arc or Mission Impossible Whichever, mix in some humor and make the movie better.

For those of you who are struggling with your own life road obstacles. Try a laugh. It works for me.  What do you do when life seems to have gotten the better of you?

As I said earlier, I’m going to forgo the usual media parts of this blog post. It’s just been too long a stretch without sharing. I’ll let you, my readers, be the judge of whether this  post maintains the standards that I have set for myself.

laughograms

 

There’s So Much That We Share

After more than a year, I decided to revisit this Blog’s mission statement. So, I went back and reread my About Brad’s Blog . Happily, I found no reason to change the tenets which prompted me to write about Walt’s legacy. While, I have strayed, from time to time, from writing specifically about how we can still find a lot Walt’s influence in Disney products, I continue to try to focus the thoughts and opinions I share with you.

Today, as a nation, we celebrate the life and work of Dr. King. I do not want to suggest that Walt’s work in the entertainment industry has had the far reaching impact that Dr. King’s civil rights continues to have on people all over the world. Nor do I want you to think that I believe a free trip to Disneyland or viewing a Disney movie will solve the problems and divisions in our complicated world.

I am still inspired when I hear or listen to the last part of Dr. King’s, now famous, “I Have a Dream” speech, written 55 years ago:

“. . .when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, August 28, 1963

mlk speech

My first thought is often – if we all thought about those things everyday, instead of just once a year, perhaps, we could change things for the better.

When Walt dedicated I’ts a Small World at Disneyland in 1966, as water from more than 15 countries was poured into the Small World river, he said:

“We wanted to foster a better understanding among nations of the world by showing the dress, the customs, the language, the music and a little of the culture of our neighbors around the world, and we wanted to show it to be a very happy one. I think it’s safe to say that having fun has universal appeal.”

Walt Disney – 1966

Dedication its-a-small-world-disneyland

So, maybe, the next time you take a ride on It’s a Small World;

MKSmallworld exit

Sample the cultures in Epcot’s World Showcase;

worldshowcasemapWalk through the Harambe Market in Animal Kingdom;

Harmabe Market at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Or watch movies like Mulan, Brave, Cocoa, Moana and even Mary Poppins;

You’ll remember the message hidden in all of the fun, and take a moment to remember what Walt and the Sherman Brothers were reminding us.

“There’s so much that we share,
That it’s time we’re aware,
It’s a small world after all.”

I think that message is an appropriate way to remember and honor Dr. King’s belief that we are all capable of treating each other with kindness and respect.

small world finale

A Disney Musical Connection

Steamboat-willie-title2Up until recently I believed that my only connection to Walt Disney and the Disney company was that I liked going to the Parks, enjoyed the movies and collected Disneyana. But, while going through some old family photos as such, I came across something I probably had looked at many times, but never made the psychic connection had a link to Disney through music. Music has always been an important part of any Disney production from the first silly-symphony-opening-card-c2a9-walt-disneysound film Steamboat Willie to later shorts like the Silly Symphonies to today’s academy award winning songs. It’s also an important part of our theme park experiences. Whether it’s the soundtracks for rides like Rock n’ Roller Coaster and Splash Mountain or the instantly recognizable parade songs or the background music that sets the tone for each of the lands in all of the Parks around the world. Music is all around us when we are there.

IMG_7344While I am not particularly musical, I did have a famous relative who was. His name is probably not an instant “Wow” to the current or even my generation. But, if you were listening to popular music in the 40s to the early 60s, Dick Manning was well known composer and radio personality. By himself and with collaborators he provided lyrics and music to songs sung by eras songsters like Perry Como, Patti Page, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, Kate Smith, Dinah Shore, Donny and Marie Osmand, Annette Funicello, (Ah, some Disney Bells went off on those last two, didn’t they?”) and many others.

The most direct connection is through that loveable Mousketeer Annette. In 1960, my grandfather co-wrote a song called O Dio Mio, which was released as a single and later as part of several albums of Annette’s greatest hits. Here’s Annette being introduced by Dick Clark on American Bandstand (The MTV of several generations), singing the song.

Dick’s collaborator is also a Disney connection. His partner on that song and many of his other great hits was Al Hoffman. Disney music buffs will recognize that name from some very well known Disney tunes,

Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo

A Dream is a Wish your Heart Makes

and So This is Love

all from Cinderella. And from Alice in Wonderland, The Unbirthday Song

IMG_7345Dick Manning and Al Hoffman wrote many songs which were used in al hoffmanmovies and television, including some Disney productions. One of Dick’s biggest hits were his lyrics for 1905 waltz melody called Fascination, which was featured most recently on Dancin’ with the Stars in 2011 and 2012. Fascination was also heard in Disney’s Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, in the scene wherein Herbie plays this song on his radio, to the Lancia Scorpion later named “Giselle”, much to the annoyance of driver Diane Darcy.

Another successful song that was used on DWTS 2006 Season 3, was Papa Loves Mambo, a song that was covered by many recording stars of that era including Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Pearl Bailey was danced to by Sara Evans & Tony Dovolani.

It’s played in the of Par-Tay episode in TV series The Middle. And When Disney owned Miramax the song can be heard in the Pallbearer. Perry Como can be heard singing the song in the 2006 movie Stick It. These two songs can be heard in many other non-Disney movies like Diner, My Cousin Vinny, Ocean’s Eleven and on TV in the Sopranos.

For those of you who might have been listening in the Land Pavilion at Epcot, Dick’s song Allegheny Moon, originally recorded by Patti Page could also be heard in a music loop that used to play inside until sometime in the early 2000s.

elvis hawaiin wedding songAnd there’s a couple of three degrees of separation that connect singers who have appeared in Disney animated films. Elvis’, whose music is famously featured in Lilo and Stitch recorded Dick’s Hawaiian Wedding Song, the last number in the movie Blue Hawaii.

And that great motivator Donny Osmand as Shang, who rallied his troops in Mulan, recorded Morning Side of the Mountain in 1974 with his sister Marie who competed in DWTS season 5. The song was on the Billboard top 100 and made number 1 on the easy listening chart.

My Grandfather came from a strong musical background. His father, David, an emigre from the Ukraine has several recordings of folk songs in the Library of Congress. With his wife they performed around the world and in NY’s Yiddish theater in the 1920s. Dick had a long and varied career which started in radio when he had his own music show. In addition to popular music he wrote the words and music for a musical called The Fifth Season, which ran off Broadway in New York as well as a Rhapsody. His contribution to Disney is limited, but I found it fun to research how it has been used. He wrote at a time when clever lyrics and melodies were very popular and many artists might record a well received song. It’s always a little thrill when I catch part of one of his songs in a movie. And I like thinking that I have a connection to Disney, even if it’s slightly removed. I think Dick would have been pleased that his creations have continued to be enjoyed by new generations of listeners. Here’s a listing of his most popular songs from the promotional piece I found:

Dick Manning Songs

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

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?

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