Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Disney Project 17/54 One Hundred and One Dalmatians

Previously: Sleeping Beauty

One Hundred and One Dalmatians

Released: January 25, 1961
Watched: April 23, 2015

This week's film was One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which I was so excited to watch because this was one I really loved when I was a kid. We had a version of it taped onto a VHS and I remember watching it many times. 

One Hundred and One Dalmatians is based directly on the novel of the same name by Dodie Smith, which was written in 1956 (only 5 years before the film was released). Walt Disney had read the book, and immediately decided he wanted the rights to make a movie of it. The film had several differences from the book, but Dodie Smith was involved in the whole process and said that the Disney version of the story (which was written entirely by storyman Bill Peet, marking the first time at Disney that a film was written by one man) was an improvement on her book, and that the Disney drawings were better than the original illustrations. Supposedly, she was a Disney fan, and while working on the novel she secretly hoped Walt would take notice.

The production of the film was fairly straight forward and did not take long compared to previous films. What makes One Hundred and One Dalmatians unique is that it was the first film to use xerography, or using Xerox photography to transfer drawings directly onto animation cells (instead of having inkers hand trace every image onto cells). This technique was developed at Disney studios by Ub Iwerks, who was in charge of special processes on most Disney films and developed a lot of other cool effects in Disney films prior to this.

Anyway, the cameras used in xerography were not high tech enough to pick up on only the wanted outlines and instead picked up every sketchy line left by the artist. It's easy to see in many animated films from the 1960's and forward when this is used, because it leaves the animation looking very...sketchy (I don't know how else to describe it). This is something I absolutely love in animation, and makes the 1960's one of my favorite decades for animation styles/trends. I think it brings out the sense of a drawing come to life, and it's great. Funny enough, Walt Disney hated it, like a lot. 

The use of xerography helped make the film possible however, because it saved animators from having to animate every single spot on every single dog (fun fact, Pongo has 72 spots, Perdita has 68, and each of the puppies has 32. That's  6,469,952 in all). What's also interesting about the artwork of this film is that it marks the change to a new style for Disney. A new, more angular, stylized look had been developed for Sleeping Beauty, which Walt had intended to make Sleeping Beauty stand out. However, animators liked the look, and the angular feel stuck for the next several films.They also developed a very sketchy looking background style, where the colors don't always line up with the lines, to match the sketchiness of the animation. I love this too. Disney did not like this. At this point he was loosing the tight control he had had over his early films (because of being stretched between several projects by this point) and he felt like his company was loosing it's fantasy element. 

All of the Lady and the Tramp dogs!
This is also the first Disney film (as far as I can tell) to include Easter eggs, as many of the dogs from Lady and the Tramp make another appearance! All recent Disney films sneak in many characters and objects from previous films. It's also the first film to have fun animated opening credits, instead of just painted title cards.

The xerography is obvious in this picture, many of the symmetry lines down the middle of the puppies' head are still clearly visible.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians was extremely well received. The film was one of the cheapest Disney films made at that time, due to the use of xerography. The profit made from the film helped bring Disney back from the losses of Sleeping Beauty, and the film was re-released into theaters four more times. It continues to be one of the most popular Disney films, leading to sequels, live action remakes, and a television show.

I loved watching this movie very much, it's so cute I even got my roommate to watch it with me (and for anyone who has ever wondered, my roommate has watched 3 movies with me. Otherwise I have watched all of these alone). It is nostalgic for me, and the story has held up perfectly with time. I absolutely love the animation and art style of this, and the characterization is great.

This is the most important 12 seconds of the entire film (and my favorite of the dogs). I have been quoting this non stop for the past week.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Disney Project 16/54 Sleeping Beauty

Previously: Lady and the Tramp

Sleeping Beauty

Released: January 29, 1959
Watched: April 14, 2015

This week's movie was Sleeping Beauty. Sleeping Beauty is obviously one of the better known Disney films, but it was never one of my favorites as a child. I definitely appreciated it more watching it now.

It's hard to say exactly where the story of Sleeping Beauty originated, but it is most common attributed to the Brothers Grimm and the Disney version is based most strongly on their version, "Little Briar Rose" (which is also where Aurora's fake name is taken from). Although, the Grimm versions of folk tales are not accurate to the sources (I could write another whole post about the Brothers Grimm, so I won't even get into it), but their version was adapted from the published story "La Belle au Bois Dormant" (The Beauty Sleeping in the Wood) by Charles Perrault in 1697, which was adapted from "Sun, Moon, and Talia" by Giambattista Basile, which was published in 1634, which was based on various orally told stories dating back as far as the 1300's. Basically, the sleeping princess tale is pretty old news.

The film was also heavily inspired by the Tchaikovsky's ballet of the same name, which the score was taken directly from. Like in Fantasia, Walt's interest in animating to classical music really comes through here. The name Aurora also comes from the ballet.

Sleeping Beauty actually has one of the most interesting production stories of all the films I've watched so far. This movie was practically the entire focus of Disney animation for all of the 1950's (which explains why there is a 4 year gap between it and the previous film). A combination of the fact that Walt put nearly all of his passion into this film, and that construction on DisneyLand was underway at the time explains why it took quite so long. Straight from the wikipedia page, "the story work began in 1951, voices were recorded in 1952, animation production took from 1953 until 1958, and the stereophonic musical score...was recorded in 1957."

The style of Sleeping Beauty is entirely unique in the Disney lineup. Walt felt that because he had already done two Princess centered films (Snow White and Cinderella) he wanted this one to feel different so it would stand out (little did he realize he could put out dozens of generic princess films and sequels and do just fine). Disney had been known at this point for creating a very comforting feeling, because of their soft, rounded style. Walt wanted to change this up, and instead pushed for a stylized, angled look inspired by medieval art and illustrations from the time period of the film.

Dem nature backgrounds
Walt had placed artist Eyvind Earle as the color stylist and chief background designer for the film, due to his knowledge of medieval art. Earle was given a lot of creative freedom and painted most of the film's backgrounds by himself. Because this film used Super Technirama 70 (just a newer, better type of film), the backgrounds could contain more detail than ever before in an animated film. Many of the Disney artists and animators did not approve of how much freedom Earle had, as his work dictated the style that everyone needed to follow, leaving the other artists with very little creative freedom.

What else is great about this movie is the attention to characterization. Aurora, the three good fairies (Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather) and the evil fairy (Maleficent) are all entirely unique and interesting women in their own ways. This is also the first Disney film where the Prince is given a name and plays an important part, unlike in Snow White where he is merely "The Prince" or in Cinderella, where Prince Charming had no speaking lines.

The unfortunate thing, was that Sleeping Beauty did not do so well. Walt had put so much faith in Sleeping Beauty, that he had put $6 million into the production cost, more than any other Disney film at the time and more than twice the cost of each of the previous three films. He had also believed it would be so successful, that during the construction of DisneyLand he included the enormous, iconic Aurora's castle (an important staple of DisneyLand today, but perhaps not as big an attraction as he had hoped at the time). The film did not make as much at it had cost, and Disney suffered its first financial loss in over a decade. The film received mixed reviews, and was never released again in Walt's lifetime. In fact, Disney would not create another fairy tale film for another 30 years because of this.

Today it has done well, and has become considered one of the Disney classics. Like I mentioned, Aurora's castle in DisneyLand has become an important Disney icon, and the characters have remained popular. Maleficent has become known as one of the scariest Disney villains, even leading to the recent, successful live action film, "Maleficent".

What I really liked about this movie is the artistic style, and you can definitely tell how much work was put into it. The style definitely sticks out as unique for its time, but what it really reminded me of was the super popular fantasy animated films of the 1980's (specifically Prince Phillips fight with the dragon). I can't help but feel that this film had an influence on that trend.

I always liked the magic dress fight scene (although the scene where they try not to use magic is definitely much funnier), and how about that Fantasia reference with the brooms? You can also hear some of the beautiful score in this scene.

And for the record, I like the blue dress better.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Disney Project 15/54 Lady and the Tramp

Previously: Peter Pan

Lady and the Tramp

Released: June 22, 1955
Watched: April 9, 2015

This week (aka last week and I'm finally getting around to writing about it) I watched Lady and the Tramp and I was so excited to get to it. Like almost every other movie of this time period, I'm sure I watched this as a child but really didn't remember a ton about it. I know I had the story book version too, and I loved looking at the drawings of the puppies especially. I have a soft spot for talking animals, and the animal movies are always my favorite.

The story for Lady and the Tramp came about in an interesting way, so it's hard to say exactly what it's "based on". The original idea came from Joe Grant, a story man at Disney. He approached Walt in 1937 (way back during the Snow White days) with the idea for a story about his dog, Lady, who had been pushed aside after he and his wife had had a baby. He shared some sketches he had done of Lady with Walt, who enjoyed them enough to begin right away on the story. The idea was pushed around for the next few years, but never got too far as Walt felt that Lady was just too sweet and there was no action. 

Around that time, Walt had read the short story, Happy Dan, The Whistling Dog by Ward Greene in Cosmopolitan (the short story for Bongo had also come from Cosmo, which apparently was a completely different magazine back in the day). The character of Happy Dan inspired Tramp who was the perfect foil for Lady's sweet, faithful self. Eventually the story was set, but Walt had realized that the Disney movies that were most successful were the ones based on well-known stories, and not so much the stories that had been written just for films. For this reason, Walt actually had Ward Greene (the short story author) write a novelization of the film, which was released 2 years before the film. If you look closely at the original poster, you can see that it says "from the novel by Ward Greene" because it was advertised as an adaption of the novel (which technically was written after).

Anyway, production on the film had began in the late 30s/early 40s, but (just like practically every other film I've written about) was pushed back due to the war and everything. Over the next decade or so the film went through many changes in story and characters and whatnot. But finally was settled in 1953, when the novelization was released. In 1949, Joe Grant (who had sparked the original idea) had left the studio, and by the time the film was released in 1955 he was given no credit for his contribution to the movie, but has since been given fair credit. This was also unfortunately the last Disney film that Mary Blair had worked on, she was originally intended to be the background artist for the film, but left the studio in 1953 to illustrate children's books (which she was also awesome at).

There are a lot of things about Lady and the Tramp that were unique and progressive for animation at the time. For one, it was the first film to be animated in CinemaScope, the popular new wide screen format. Animators had to completely revamp their ideas on layout and placement to fit the new format, and as Walt realized that not every theater was equipped to handle CinemaScope, it added more problems. Walt requested that two versions of the film be made so that it could be shown in any theater. In some areas, the scenes had to be completely reanimated to fit back into the standard fit, without cutting out any characters! 

What else is impressive about the animation process, was the amount of time and effort the animators put into researching dogs for the film. Much like in Bambi, the animators spent a lot of time observing and working with different breeds of dogs and it shows. The movement and behavior of the dogs feels so real and makes the characters really believable. There are many things in the film used to show the story from the dogs' point of view, such as rarely showing the humans faces, and how Lady believes her owners are named "Jim Dear" and "Darling" because that is what she hears them call each other. They use plenty of storytelling techniques that add to the story.

Lady and the Tramp did extremely well, both financially and critically. It brought in more money than any other Disney film since Snow White and was re released into theaters many times. It has since become fairly iconic, specifically the scene of Lady and Tramp eating spaghetti (which, funny enough, Walt did not like and fought to keep it out of the film. He thought it was silly). The film and characters are still pretty popular today.

Ultimately, I loved the crap out of this movie. I was crying about 5 minutes after Lady started talking, just because I like talking animals. For real. The characters are all so lovable and the art style and animation is perfect. The attention to detail and behaviors makes them come to life.
I love the opening with little puppy Lady, it sets the tone so well.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Disney Project 14/54 Peter Pan

Previously: Alice in Wonderland

Peter Pan

Released: February 5, 1953
Watched: April 7, 2015

This week I watched Peter Pan, which, like most of the other Disney films of the 50's, is considered one of the most well known films but I have not seen it in many, many years. 

Peter Pan was based on a series of works by J.M. Barrie, most notably the play, " Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up" in 1904. The character of Peter Pan and his adventures was created by author J.M. Barrie as a way to react to his older brother's death. Barrie's brother had died at the age of 14, and thus would always remain that age in memory. Hence the idea of a child who could never grow up. For this reason, Peter Pan was an incredibly personal and important character to Barrie. He appeared in several works including short stories, novels, and the most popular play. Peter Pan is not, contrary to popular belief, a a fairy tale in the traditional sense. His stories were written by one man (and not told through different cultures, such as Snow White or Cinderella) and had a specific story to tell. Although of course, productions of the stage version could differ, the Disney film was only the second movie adaptation of Peter Pan (following a silent film, released 30 years earlier) and follows the play fairly faithfully.

Walt had been interested in the Peter Pan stories since childhood and had begun the fight to obtain the rights for a film in 1935 (before Snow White had even been released). The rights to Peter Pan had been left by Barrie to the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, and Disney worked for four years to obtain the rights. Finally in 1939, the film went into early production, only to be delayed until the 1950's, following the craziness of the war times. 

The production of Peter Pan was not hugely unique to Disney history, but it was the final Disney film to be released by RKO Radio Pictures, before Walt Disney founded Buena Vista Distribution. It was also the final Disney film to be worked on by all 9 members of the "Nine Old Men". 

Much like Alice in Wonderland, the artwork of Mary Blair was a huge influence to the style of Peter Pan and the two films share a colorful, whimsical, storybook style which is very suited to Disney storytelling. The two films' styles are incredibly alike. Also, like Cinderella, the film relied strongly on live action models acting out scenes, sometimes even building life size props and sets from the film. Many of the voice actors on the film doubled as the live action models, and it shows beautifully. The characters are believable and have a lot of depth and personality. 

Mary Blair Illustrations of Mermaid Lagoon
Peter Pan had a fairly good reception, and did pretty well at the box office. The film has stood up for the most part over time (aside from some controversy which I'll get back to) and is considered a Disney classic, leading to several new adaptations. The characters especially have really stuck around. Tinkerbell the pixie has gone on to be one of the most popular and loved Disney characters, appearing practically everywhere and leading to her own entire line of films and products in recent years (although arguably she's changed quite a bit from the silent, fiery ball of sass she was in this original).

And because I really have to, let's address the Indians. The big flaw in Peter Pan is the fact that Native Americans have been reduced down to stereotypes on the same level as mystical creatures like the mermaids and pixies. Yes I get that they are meant to be natives of Neverland, and I get that Neverland is a world based on a child's imagination. They are not based on real Native Americans, but on the child's play idea of 'cowboys and indians'. But a stereotype, based on a stereotype is still a stereotype. While it can be understandable for it's time (the original play being written in the early 1900s, and this film only 50 years later) and the Indians aren't necessarily bad guys or anything, it still makes viewing the film pretty uncomfortable when the children are throwing around words like "injuns" and "red skins" in the midst of magical adventure. I would say that it's better to view the film as it is than to try and censor out the controversial bits. Anyway, for that reason, I would say that Peter Pan is not exactly a timeless film like some other Disney classics, but instead really needs to be taken with a grain of salt and probably some discussion if I ever chose to watch it with children.

Anyway, other than the uncomfortableness of the dated Indians, the film is charming and loveable. It's a fun adventure story, and I enjoyed it ,although it wasn't one of my favorites. I will say though, that Nana is easily my favorite Disney dog. That's a big claim but I'll make it. Also I never realized before that the father and Hook are played by the same character (something that was a tradition in the theater version), alluding to the fact that parent's are often times seen as the villian to children. There are some great childhood and growing up themes in this film that I can probably appreciate more as an adult than I would have as a child.

I need more Nana in my life.

Next: Lady and the Tramp

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Disney Project 13/54 Alice in Wonderland

Previously: Cinderella

Alice in Wonderland

Released: July 26, 1951
Watched: April 2, 2015

This week's film was Alice in Wonderland, which is another well known classic. This is one that I've always liked, although it has been years since I had watched it, and I was excited to see it again.

Alice in Wonderland was based on the Wonderland series of books by Lewis Carroll including scenes from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871). Despite being taken from a direct source, the stories of Alice and Wonderland have been adapted in many ways and at the time of this Disney film it had already been made into several films. The Disney version, however, would eventually become one of the most known and loved versions.

Walt's interest in the Alice stories was nothing new to the Disney studio. He had been a fan of the books since childhood, and his first animated series was based loosely on the stories. When Disney was a young animator (only 21 years old) in 1923, he had created a short titled "Alice's Wonderland" which had never been released to the public but instead was used as a sort of pilot short to show different studios. Eventually the short was expanded into the first series created by Disney Bros. Studios, and ran for 3 years.

In 1932, Walt began looking for ways to expand his love of Alice into a feature length film and immediately bought the rights to the book's illustrations. Ultimately the idea was scrapped in favor of Snow White after a popular live action adaption was released by a different studio. Over the next decade or so the project was bounced around with different artists and writers, but nothing seemed right for what Walt wanted.

What eventually set the tone for Alice in Wonderland was illustrations created by artist Mary Blair (who I discussed briefly in my Three Caballeros post, and who I love). Mary's illustrations moved away from the dark serious tones of the original illustrations, and instead took a modern, colorful, and bold look. Walt was inspired by her take on the story, and started production on the film focusing on the story's whimsical properties.

Mary Blair's illustration of the unbirthday party scene
Surprisingly at the time of the film's release, Alice in Wonderland did not do well. The film did very poorly financially, and critically with fans of the original books. Many criticized Disney of dumbing down (or Americanizing) classic literature. The film was ultimately a disappointment to Walt, and was never released again in theaters during his life.

What brought Alice in Wonderland to the popularity it enjoys today, is kind of a fun story. Almost two decades later, in 1968 the animated Beatles film, Yellow Submarine, was released and very quickly bizarre cartoons became associated with drug culture. Alice in Wonderland was rediscovered among young adults and was shown in niche theaters in college towns across the country. Disney at first rejected the association, but eventually embraced it and the film was re-released into theaters with promotions of the "psychedelic" nature of the film. It was a huge success and the film has been popular ever since. The characters and themes of the film appear often, and continues to influence new adaptations of the stories today.

Alice was a very fun film to watch. The different stories are all silly and engaging, the characters all extremely unique, and the artwork is bold, yet charming. I knew very little of the history of the film, and before sort of assumed that the film was released in the 60s or 70s. I was surprised to see that this one was as early as 1951. Like many of the package films, the movie plays as several different stories stitched together, but it works wells. Some of the scenes I enjoy more than others (the unbirthday party and caterpillar scenes are classics of course), but it was nothing unbearable.

My favorite scene is probably the caterpillar's song.

Next: Peter Pan