Thursday, January 22, 2015

Disney Project 4/54 Dumbo

Previously: Fantasia


Released: October 31, 1941
Watched: January 22, 2015

The first flattering photo of this project~

Dumbo is a film, that I highly under appreciated. This is the first time that I have watched it the whole way through in many, many years (which is weird because I own it).

The story of Dumbo was based on a children's book by Helen Aberson and illustrated by Harold Pearl. The short, straightforward story was written (only a few years prior to the film) for a prototype of a new toy called a "Roll-A-Book" where the "pages" of the book were put together in one long scroll and rolled through a viewer. Mysteriously, there are no remaining prototypes of the Roll-A-Book and the original tale of Dumbo the flying elephant was quickly forgotten for the Disney version. Today, the original is impossible to find.

Dumbo is actually an interesting piece of history in the Disney timeline. The story of the poor baby elephant, doing the best he can with his bad luck, is a fitting metaphor for what the studio was going through at the time. Following the huge financial disappointment of Pinocchio and Fantasia, Dumbo was a savior for Disney. The film was short and sweet (did you know Dumbo is only 1 hour long? I didn't realize until I sat down to watch it and suddenly it was over), a simple, low budget film. However, at the onset of WWII, an uplifting animal tale was exactly what America needed. The film was an enormous financial success, and practically saved Disney.

Due to the low budget, Disney made the most of what they had. Compared to the style of Snow White and Pinocchio, Dumbo is very different. Whereas the earlier films had beautiful detailed backgrounds and amazing effects, Dumbo is drawn in a clean, cartoony style with no elaborate effects. The backgrounds are done in simple, yet colorful watercolors. This style is so different, and yet feels just like a children's storybook. It works just perfectly.

The film feels a bit dated by today's standards, in some ways it's good (such as the jazzy, fun music) but other ways not so good. For one circuses (and their conditions for animals) are very different today and there are definitely some racial stereotypes that Disney frequently comes under fire for. The circus itself is set up by faceless black men, who sing about how hard they work for the circus (including the lines, "We slave until we're almost dead. We're happy-hearted roustabouts").

And of course you can't talk about Disney racism without considering the "Jim Crows". No doubt that the crows are complete generic stereotypes of black people in 1941, but when you watch the really doesn't come off as bad as it's gets criticized for. The crows themselves end up practically saving the story by encouraging Dumbo, teaching him to fly, and giving him his "magic feather". The crows are the ones who take pity on Dumbo after hearing his sad story ending with the fact that the circus has literally made him into a clown, putting him on display to be laughed at. Something the crows sympathize with (perhaps because of the way black people were portrayed in media?). The animation for their characters was even choreographed by a well-known pair of black dancers (whose names I can't find and it's killing me, because I saw it in a Dumbo documentary). The crows were really meant to be good-intentioned, jazzy characters. But it's not fair to discuss Dumbo without the controversy.

I also feel like I need to mention the infamous pink elephant, drunk, nightmare scene. This scene is pretty well-known and often parodied. It feels a little out of place, but it's interesting. Like in Fantasia, Disney had a lot of interest in experimenting with different styles and animating to music. The scene was also heavily influenced by Surrealism and Dali which was extremely popular in America in the early 1940's. Bizarre and dream-like art was new and unique at the time, and even influenced Dali to work with Walt Disney not many years later!

I loved watching this movie, so much more than I thought I would. The bright, colorful, clean style leads itself just perfectly to the feel of reading through a children's book. It's happy and lighthearted and then also sometimes just punches you right in the heart. 

My favorite scene is the stork song. It's cute and fun and sets immediate sympathy for Mrs. Jumbo.

Next: Bambi

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Disney Project 3/54 Fantasia

Previously: Pinnochio


Released: November 13, 1940
Watched: January 15, 2015

I was extremely excited to get to this one, and luckily it was near the very beginning of the list! Also lucky for me, it was just put on Netflix so watch it if you get the chance!

Fantasia is one of my favorite Disney movies. An incredibly unique approach to animation, the film showcases 8 separate animated sequences set to classical music, with no dialogue. The sequences include both purely artistic expression and storytelling, based on everything from early life on earth to Greek mythology. It will be difficult to keep this short and sweet without analyzing every single segment. :)

Fantasia shares many stylistic similarities with Pinocchio, in design, animation, effects, etc. (they were released in the same year after all), but also includes several technical advancements. The synchronization of music and imagery is amazing, and for it's time the sound is wonderful. Fantasia was actually the first film ever to use stereophonic sound (where different sounds come from different speakers to produce a way of hearing that is more natural), using the Fantasound system.

Walt himself, and most of the Disney crew, was incredibly passionate about Fantasia. There was so much potential for this style of storytelling in animation and work began immediately on a sequel. However, the film was a financial failure for several reasons (despite good critical reaction). Because of the new sound system, the film could only be shown in theaters which were equipped to handle it. The cost of the film was practically doubled by the cost of installing the sound systems across the country, and the limitations meant that less people were able to see the film. Also released at the onset of WWII, Disney was cut off from the European market, effectively losing a lot of the profit that could be made internationally.

The sequel had to be cancelled, and for decades animators wondered what would have come of Disney if Fantasia had been as successful as Snow White,

I love Fantasia. I have extremely fond memories of watching it as a child (I liked the Pastoral Symphony segment best, I adored the unicorns and Pegasuses and pretty centaur girls) and appreciate it even more as an adult. The visual storytelling is wonderful, the visualization of sound is beautiful, and the touches of humor are perfectly done in a very "Disney" style. 

I don't have very fond memories of the Night on Bald Mountain sequence as a child. Honestly I think I may have just stopped the tape before it came to it! But the sequence is gorgeous and chilling in a dark and serious way that Disney had never quite touched. By today's standards it doesn't even feel like Disney, but for the time Disney was still new and was experimenting with different styles and feels.

It's hard to pick a favorite scene, but the subtlety of the fish set to the Nutcracker's Arabian Dance is one that I appreciate so much more as I get older.

Next: Dumbo

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Disney Project 2/54 Pinocchio


Released: February 7, 1940
Watched: January 12, 2015

Sick and greasy, watching movies on youtube in the dark since 2015

First off, Pinocchio was super difficult to find to watch in the first place. I don't own this one, and it's currently in the Disney vault so they won't even let me pay to watch it on Disney Movies Anywhere or any of those websites. So I ended up watching it in lower quality on youtube. Oh well. Pinocchio is one Disney film that I remember watching as a child, but maybe only once or twice. It's not one that necessarily stuck with me and I have not watched it since childhood so this was a fresh viewing for me.

Based on the 1883 children's novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio differs greatly from it's source material (which I have not read fully). The novel was brought to Walt's attention during production of Snow White and he was enthused by the idea of an animated adaption. Whereas Snow White was based on a short fable which could be stretched and added to, Pinocchio needed to be shortened down from long a novel and adapted to a visual medium. 

Pinocchio was the second animated film from Disney, released about 3 years after Snow White (the success of Snow White prompting the studio to produce another full length feature). The improvements are fantastic. The story feels much more fleshed out and the characters are built in a way that is believable and connectable, and less reliant on gags and humor (such as the dwarfs in Snow White). The style is very similar to Snow White, in the backgrounds, the animation, and the character design, but the effects have already improved vastly. Things such as weather, smoke, machinery, and water (in the ocean, the rain, and even Cleo's fish bowl) look incredible.

Pinocchio was also the first animated film to be cast with celebrity voices such as Cliff Edwards (a well-known singer) as Jiminy Cricket, and an actual child as Pinocchio. Seeing as I have no idea now who any of the voice actors are, they made good choices in choosing actors who were not only well-known but suited to develop characters who would live on without their recognized talent.

The writing and dialogue for the most part is good. Occasionally it feels like it is jumping around, as they take different stories from the original novel and string them together, but it is enjoyable to follow (until Pinocchio receives a letter saying his dad has been eaten by a whale out of nowhere. what is that?). It's a pretty basic, down-to-earth, morality tale. Be good and honest and follow your conscience. Research after viewing showed that one critic, Nicolas Sammond, felt that it was "an apt metaphor for the metaphysics of midcentury American child-rearing." Basically encouraging middle class life, do what your dad says and go to school. Don't indulge in vaudeville shows, amusement parks, pool houses, smoking, and drinking. I think this is a really interesting take on it, which does help place the film in 1940, when it was produced.

Ultimately, I really liked this movie. I felt immediate sympathy and love for the small family from the very beginning. It's fun and easy to follow, and a very straight forward message. It's clear that it's had a strong influence, as it differs so strongly from the source material and yet most versions of Pinocchio since have followed the Disney model. Jiminy Cricket has become an important staple of Disney, along with the song "When you Wish Upon a Star".

My favorite scene (which for some reason I can only find a clip of in Italian) is the entire opening in Gepetto's workshop. I love the details and the mechanisms of his music boxes and clocks and everything, and the personalities of Figaro (the cat) and Cleo (the fish).

Next: Fantasia

Sunday, January 11, 2015

My first trip to Chicago

As a little graduation and Christmas gift to myself, I took a week off work and my friend Mike and I went to Milwaukee (where he is from) and Chicago.

I had never been to Chicago before! Although I'm pretty sure we picked the coldest week of the year to be there.

Our first stop was the Galloping Ghost Arcade, where for 15 dollars you can spend an entire day playing from a choice of 443 different arcade games. It's well worth it.

We stayed in a fancy hotel

 And ate fancy sushi. We also ate way cheaper Chicago hot dogs which were just as amazing.

And visited the famous art museum, of course. Which was so huge and had so many exhibits, we didn't even have time to see everything! But we did see a lot of famous paintings, including:

 Grant Wood

Georgia O'Keeffe 

Edward Hopper 

Not Mary Cassatt :(

 James Whistler




Vincent Van Gogh

 And of course, George Seurat
Which we appreciated, Ferris Bueller style

Lastly we visited Medival Times, which was super fun.

I was surprised by how many of the adults kept their crowns on (like 99% of them). Of course I kept mine on the whole time too. 

We cheered for the red and yellow knight. He didn't win though.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Disney Project 1/54 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

I have realized recently that there have been 54 animated movies put out by Walt Disney Productions, and there are 52 weeks in a year. This means if I watch 1 Disney movie a week, I can watch them all in a year, more or less.

I am a huge Disney fan, and a huge fan of animation in general, and have already seen probably 35-45 of these movies, but never in order. This idea was brought on by reading this book:

The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston

Which more or less goes through the early years of Disney animation, and talks about all the different aspects of animating and storytelling and technology and all those different things.

So really that's not that interesting, but that's what started this little project, and if I write about it on my blog I'll feel like I'm being held accountable for actually watching them. I'm following this list of films from Wikipedia.

So that's my little intro. Anyway, I know I'm not the first person to write about any of these movies and I don't expect to get any praise for doing so, I just think it will be fun. Let's go.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Released: December 21, 1937
Watched: January 5, 2015

Me about to watch, just woke up, unflattering photo, but I have to start somewhere.

It's tough to start with Snow White, because it's classic. It's well known and it's a big deal in the animation world. There's not much that I can say that isn't already known. Based on the Brother's Grimm fairy tale, the Disney adaptation is fairly close to the original tale (compared to many other Disney films).

Snow White was not only the first full length Disney animation, but the first full length cell animated movie in the world and was a huge inspiration and influence on animation everywhere. At the time, critics believed that watching an hour of animation would hurt your eyes and didn't believe that cartoons were meant for film. However, the success of Snow White proved this point wrong.

The animals feel very much like the animals of early shorts

There's not much to say about the animation, because there isn't much to compare it to being the first! It's great, it's fluid, etc. The characters, especially the animals, are reminiscent of the earlier Disney shorts, especially the Silly Symphonies series. The film itself feels pieced together through different musical sequences and visual gags in the way the shorts were. Walt Disney himself felt that the film and story was to be built around the dwarfs and their possibility for silly gags and charicature-ness. The princess was never intended to be the the main attraction, but a simple, easily liked, and pretty girl for the dwarfs' personalities to play against (It's interesting given how powerful the "Disney Princess" is today). This is why I feel like the beginning and the end of the film are rushed, to really get to the dwarfs without developing the characters fully which is a bit disappointing. Overall, the goofiness was played down from it's original intention, leaving a pretty straight forward and lighthearted fairy tale story instead of just an 1 1/2 hour long Disney short.

Snow White is a film that I remember liking as a child, but only vaguely (although I was Snow White for Halloween when I was like 5). The last time I viewed it was about 3 years ago and I remember feeling like it was slow and sort of dragged and didn't hold up very well. But after this viewing I didn't feel that way. I really like it. The animation is impressive for it's time, the characters are likeable, the music is fun, and the little animals are cute. Cute animals are enough reason for me to enjoy a film, really. It's just a genuinely feel good movie.

The 'whistle while you work' sequence is my favorite.

Next: Pinocchio