Thursday, July 07, 2005

Terrorists

What can I say about the London bombings that even sounds genuine? That I pray people are alright? Sure, it's literally the least you can do to show you care; there's not even any physical effort required. It's a selfish way of satisfying this need people have to look like they care about something so impersonal happening so far off (far from where I sit, at any rate). So I'm not here to say that I support the troops, support our allies, etc.

Besides, I'm not sad. I'm fucking pissed off. I'm pissed off because our unprovoked invasion of Iraq has set us at war with the entire Muslim world. I'm pissed off because during Bill Clinton's presidency, our anti-terrorist measures were so good that the only terrorist attacks we had were from disgruntled Americans and not foreign agitators, but Bush is barely in office and on his first longest vacation in presidential history than nobody's watching the door and the terrorists flood into the airports and kill thousands of Americans. I'm pissed that Bush delayed the counterstrike so long that Osama bin Laden snuck out of Afghanistan before we got there. And I'm pissed that he turned this thing around to attack Iraq rather than a country that actually had terrorists in it. Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction? Well, to be fair, his neighbor and enemy Iran already had them. Why don't we talk about the Iranian support the Iraqi rebels are getting? Or the fact that most of the 9/11 terrorists were in fact Saudi, not Afghani or Iraqi?

I'm pissed because our allies are feeling this violence, too. First Madrid and now London. At least Tony Blair isn't going to cave in to cowardice the way the Spanish did. These tragic attacks were, as always, aimed at the public rather than government locations. And during the G-8 Conference, too, so that terrorism and the war is now pushed to the front of talks, instead of poverty, disease, and the global economy.

We will never get out of this Dark Age in my lifetime. Three children will still die every minute in Africa, simply because they were unlucky enough to be born on a continent just as bloody and war-torn as the Middle East. We continue to support the murderers who sit in power in Israel and Saudi Arabia, but not help the poor of Africa. America, England, Spain, Germany, China, Japan, and France could work together to eliminate poverty and inequity, but they won't. George W. Bush won't even reduce car emissions to cut down on pollution. Why should he be bothered to help Africa?

If you think Darth Dubya has any interest in fighting terrorism, you've been fooled into voting more power into the hands of criminals. The whole point of this war on terrorism is that it cannot be won. It will never be over. We attempt to fight a "nice" war against enemies who are not traditionally organized, who have no national borders, and who are not scared of dying. The only real solution, I hate to say, seems to be to simply kill them all. There is no reason in war. But, hey, as long as you're all terrified, the government can expect your support as they gut the Bill of Rights, give more power to commercial interests, and run the country into the ground. It makes it easier to control--er, protect--you if you just give up all those pesky civil and private rights to Big Brother, doesn't it?

This country doesn't even deserve its freedom anymore. The sheep just want to graze and never look up to see what's going on in the slaughterhouse.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Evaluating Disney: An Introduction

Sure, it's coming too late, but I started the whole thing on a bit of a lark, and now that I'm apparently going to be spending the rest of my life on it, I wanted to define a set of parameters for the whole enterprise.

First, the purpose of this is to evaluate the history of animation in America, for which Disney animation forms the main line. Walt Disney, of course, was not the first American animator, and some of the influence he had in his early days is debatable. But as the 1950s came to a close, very few animation studios were left, and Disney's was the only one turning out regular features.
But in the 1950s, Disney became more interested in other projects, one of which was live action films. Therefore, this Evaluating Disney series will eventually encompass not only the Disney True Life Adventures and People and Places films, but the live action films as well; from the first one, Treasure Island in 1950, to this summer's films, Herbie: Fully Loaded and Sky High.

There are, however, a few things that will not appear in this series:

1. The You And... series, which were primarily made as 16mm educational films for schools.
2. The I'm No Fool series, which were created along similar lines (but had a really catchy theme song sung by Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket).
3. Anything, animated or live action, done for the TV series: Disneyland, Walt Disney's World of Color, The Wonderful World of Disney, or whatever you want to call it, there is currently no way to track down these films. Therefore, I'm sticking to (mostly) theatrical releases. Which brings me to...
4. Straight-to-video films. I have no interest in sequels to any of the films that were made while Walt was still alive, and I will not be viewing them (even the theatrical releases such as Return to Neverland). These are cheap cash-ins, and I like to think that Walt would have felt the same way. He hated sequels, too. Movies like The Lion King II or Pocahontas II, however, I've already seen and don't mind discussing.
5. Disney Channel Original Movies. There's only one that I like, anyway (Cadet Kelly, with Hilary Duff).
6. Any television series produced by Disney.
7. Movies based on television series, like Recess: School's Out, Doug's First Movie (which turned out to be the last), and the surprisingly good Teacher's Pet movie. There may end up being some exceptions, but for the most part, I have no interest in these things. That also includes the recent video releases Kim Possible: A Sitch in Time and the other one.
8. The Nightmare Before Christmas. Disney meant to release this as their animated feature in 1993, but lost their nerve and released it through their Touchstone label. I don't consider it a Disney movie, though I do love it.
9. Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures. Life is short enough as it is. I will, however, make it a point to discuss Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which is a huge influence on their current animation.
10. The Hayao Miyazaki films released by Disney. Disney is only distrubiting films by Miyazaki (perhaps the greatest animator of all time) and his Studio Ghibli. I'll be eventually discussing Miyazaki in an upcoming Masters of Animation.
11. Pixar. Same thing; Disney really only distributes those films and takes the credit.

The Masters of Animation series will run concurrently, because focusing only on Disney while discussing the history of animation would be a mistake. Many other greats contributed in numerous ways to the art form, and it is my pleasure to discuss as many of them as I can.

Hope you enjoy this series.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Evaluating Disney: 1934

By 1934, Disney was facing money problems. The cost of an average Mickey Mouse short was $13,500, and despite Mickey's popularity, Disney was only breaking even on that kind of investment. When color was added to the Silly Symphonies, the cost ran up to $27,500 per short--meaning that the series, despite its great technological strides and the fascination of novelty, was actually losing money for Walt. Walt even had a near nervous breakdown from the money woes, and developed a weird obsession with death. Mickey Mouse was incredibly popular, and many fans wanted to see him be nothing but good, writing angry letters whenever he did something mean--which was the Mouse's early nature.

How popular was Mickey Mouse? The marketing blitz had begun in 1930, with a few products and a comic strip from King Features. By 1934, Disney had a staff just to handle licensing deals, and 80 companies (including RCA Victor and General Foods) were selling something in the image of the Mouse. As a sideline, business was great--Disney earned about $300,000 a year on licensing, as opposed to about $22,000 on a short cartoon (and not always that, either). It was around this time that the Ingersoll Watch Company issued the first of their beloved Mickey Mouse watches.Madame Toussaud put Mickey in her wax museum, and Disney became the first filmmaker accepted into the Art Worker's Guild of London. There were 1500 fan clubs devoted to Mickey in America, and more overseas. The Duchess of Alba, descended from Goya's mistress, had her Mickey Mouse doll painted into her first official portrait. Mickey had invaded Europe with his charm, and he was being dubbed into three languages. In France, Michel Souris (or Mickey Sans Culotte) was a popular hit. In Spain, Miguel Ratancito beckoned from the marquee. In Italy, Benito Mussolini himself loved the adventures of Topolino. Mickey was Musse Pigg in Sweden, Mikel Mus in Greece. He began to take over the world, proving appealing in any language. In Japan, he was called Miki Kuchi, and a poll placed him second in popularity to only the emperor himself. Jan Christian Smuts of South Africa professed his love for Mickey, and the Nizam of Hyderabad screened dozens of Mickey Mouse shorts. Canada's Prime Minister Mackenzie King loved Mickey, and so did President Franklin D. Roosevelt at home, and England's King George V refused to go to the movies unless Mickey Mouse was to precede the main feature. And in 1937, the demand for Michael Maus was so rampant in Germany, that Adolf Hitler--who had banned the Mouse because the cats wore German helmets in The Barnyard Battle--was forced to let him back in the country. Not even Chaplin could do that.

In Africa, it was discovered that some tribes would not accept soap as a gift unless Mickey Mouse was imprinted on it. Other tribes carried images of Mickey to ward off evil spirits. According to Richard Schickel's invaluable book The Disney Version, one traveler reported seeing a Mickey Mouse sticker on a window in one of the most remote places on Earth--Manchuli, the snowy land where the Chinese Eastern Railway meets the Transsiberian Line.

Walt himself was awarded a medal and a scroll by the League of Nations that called Mickey an international symbol of goodwill. In Paris while touring Europe to accept the award, Walt saw that in many European theaters his cartoons were billed above the feature and, in many cases, played without a feature at all. He and his brother Roy had heard of an exhibitor, Willard G. Triest, who had put together a 55-minute program of Disney shorts, which opened to a gala premiere in Stockholm that was attended by the democratic corps. On another night, members of the royal family came. The show was so popular it played for 14 weeks without a main feature of any kind. One night, Triest heard there were some children who had been missing all day from the Japanese embassy--he found them in his theater, sitting through his Disney program for the seventh time that day.

Triest was invited to repeat the show in Paris...which is where Walt Disney saw it, and realized that people would gladly sit through feature-length animation. Provided the quality was there, which was foremost in Walt's mind. Throughout 1934, he began working on a new feature, based on a movie he had loved as a kid: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

1/13: The China Shop
A Silly Symphony where nothing much happens. It's the typical Symphony plot: things dance, things sing, an evil thing makes all kinds of trouble and is defeated. How quickly this series developed a tedious routine... That said, some of the animation is extremely well done (Art Babbitt was one of the animators, and Wilfred Jackson directed); the dance scene from The Clock Store is repeated to better effect, and the colors and effects animation are astoundingly good. It may succeed only on technique, but when the technique is this good, does it matter?

1/13: Shanghaied
Around this time, a few changes occured. Mickey himself has been sublty redesigned. Minnie Mouse has, for the first time, a voice that isn't incredibly irritating. And the backgrounds became lighter and less detailed. So, although this cartoon--one of those where Mickey has to rescue Minnie from Pegleg Pete--is fairly well-animated, it also looks less special. The backgrounds are so undetailed that it looks sparse.

2/10: The Grasshopper and the Ants
Certainly the best Disney cartoon of the year, one of their best overall, and the second hit song for Silly Symphonies: "The World Owes Me a Living," sung by Pinto Colvig, the voice of Goofy. Despite being a fun cartoon, there is also an interesting Depression-era thing going on here. The Grasshopper wears a fancy top hat and tails, while the ants have a sort of proletarian work ethic going. When the winter (read Depression) comes, the Grasshopper has wasted everything and the conscientious workers have saved all of their food and weather the storm far better. However, they take in the Grasshopper and allow him to work by playing and singing, implying that art is a valuable contribution to society. Either way you read it, this Wilfred Jackson-directed short is pure enjoyment from start to finish.

2/17: Camping Out
How nice to see Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow again, especially knowing their days are numbered. Walt didn't care for these personality-free supporting characters, not least of which because they were remnants of the circle-and-hose animation style that Disney was trying to eliminate (by 1934, it was seen as quaint at best). Mickey was becoming so good and moral that he needed better foils for his personality; too many people complained when he was a little bastard, the way he used to be. Dave Hand brings a lot of energy to this great short; Mickey, Minnie, Clarabelle, and Horace are camping and run afoul of an entire swarm of really pissed off mosquitos, and the whole short is basically a battle. Lots of fun, lots of laughs.

3/3: Playful Pluto
Wow, Mickey's a dick. All he does through this short is torture Pluto and then get mad at him. For example, he turns the hose on Pluto, but then gets pissed when Pluto mangles the hose and rips the faucet off of the side of the house. When Mickey goes down to the basement to shut off the water, he makes Pluto hold the flashlight in his mouth; when the guage hits Pluto in the face and he swallows the flashlight, Mickey just laughs at him. And the whole thing goes on like that. It's a good short, well-animated by Dick Lundy, Norm Ferguson, and Art Babbit, and it contains one classic sequence: Pluto stuck to flypaper and trying to get it off of his body. But it's pretty much just Mickey torturing his dog.

3/24: Funny Little Bunnies
This special Easter Silly Symphony might just be the most saccharine cartoon Disney ever produced. It's just a bunch of bunnies making candy for Easter (what some Disney fans call "a conveyer belt cartoon"), and that's about it. They gather paint from the rainbow, for crying out loud. It's just so damn cute, and that's about all it is. After seven minutes of this, I'm ready for Mickey to skip back out and beat the shit out of Pluto some more. And the weird thing is, Funny Little Bunnies continues to be incredibly popular among Disney fans. Weird.

4/14: The Big Bad Wolf
This Silly Symphony is the sequel to last year's massively popular Three Little Pigs, the first Silly Symphony to actually make any money. Walt felt that he was caving in to public demand, and never really cared for the short. This time around, Fiddler Pig and Fifer Pig lead Red Riding Hood through a short cut in the woods, and the Practical Pig has to once again save their hamhocks. And, of course, we get a reprise of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" It's actually not a bad cartoon, though, and the Wolf is much more fun this time around; when Red says "What a big mouth you have," he jumps up and says, "You ain't seen it by half!" and chases her around. Disney's version of the Grimm tale makes it to the screen with all the implied child molestation of the story intact--the red hood a badge of sexual maturity, but also a red flag that inflames nature's sexual predators. Good stuff. It feels like a little bit of an inspiration for Tex Avery, who ramped up the innuendo in his cartoons featuring Wolf and Red.

5/19: Gulliver Mickey
You think Mickey was a bastard before? Well, put him in charge of the teeny people of Lilliput and watch him go mad with power. Mickey lands on the island, and all he does is screw with these people, knocking them around and generally annoying them. They attack him, of course, but their little arrows and cannonballs just harmlessly bounce off him; even when they shoot a gigantic arrow up his ass, all he does is laugh at them. Mickey spends most of the cartoon just giggling at these people's attempts to defend themselves, but at the last minute he saves them from a giant spider who is an even bigger dick than he is. Fun stuff.

6/9: The Wise Little Hen
The Donald Duck era begins here. This Silly Symphony, which is a fun adaptation of the story where the little hen can't get anyone to help her plant and harvest her corn, so she eats it all herself, is the first appearance of the duck that would go on to become Disney's most popular character (even the sailor suit is already in place). Interestingly, Walt was certain that Peter Pig would be the popular character to use, but audiences went crazy over Donald. His voice, by Clarence Nash, could only be understood by about half of the audience, so that became a major part of the joke. This is a fun cartoon, too, although it is worth pointing out that this same year Ub Iwerks produced The Little Red Hen, which played better as a story (although it didn't look as slick).

6/16: Mickey's Steam Roller
Dave Hand directed this short, so you know it's got a lot of energy and gags, but it feels dated, even for 1934. It's pretty fun, but it looks and feels like a short from 1930. Mickey drives a steam roller, which gets taken for a wild ride by his mischevious nephews. Those kids are just as much assholes as real kids are, I must say; they even go as far as to stop all of Mickey's attempts to get back aboard and stop the out-of-control steam roller, even if it means hurting him. There's a great chase, though, and I especially liked a fun gag where Mickey tries to stop the steam roller by tying it to a lamppost, only to see every street light by the road come popping off of their moorings. It's a lot of fun, but an odd throwback from a studio trying so hard to be progressive.

7/14: The Flying Mouse
Judging from the comments of fans online, this Dave Hand-directed Silly Symphony is one of the least popular Disney cartoons (and for the record, Hand didn't care much for it, either, and found Walt's humor on this one to be surprisingly sadistic). A mouse saves a butterfly from a spider, the butterfly turns out to be a fairy, and she grants his wish to fly. But she gives him bat wings--he frightens his family, the birds he admires want nothing to do with him, and the bats mock him. He's not happy with his wish until the fairy takes the wings away, his lesson supposedly learned. But what was the lesson? I think it's supposed to be "don't try to be something that you aren't," but it really comes across as "don't try to be something special, because the very thing that makes you unique will make it impossible for you to fit in." A horrible little cartoon.

8/11: Orphan's Benefit
Walt Disney and his animators seem to believe what I have always believed: children are bastards. And in this cartoon, they prove it. This cartoon--which is one of the better of this year--sees Mickey and the gang performing a benefit for, well, orphans. But the gang has changed now. Gone are the old barnyard characters of days past: the fat pig, the old goat, the little dog, that hilarious wiener dog. Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow are still around, but they perform their gymnastic routine with Goofy. A new character, Clara Cluck, appears for the first time. Pluto and Minnie appear, of course. And Donald Duck is now in the gang, having made the rare crossover from Silly Symphony to Mickey Mouse. Donald gets the worst of it from those bastard kids, who ruin his every attempt to recite "Little Boy Blue." Already, Donald's fiery temper and his fighting stance are developed, and there's a lot of possibility in both. Donald is my favorite Disney character, and seeing him already fully characterized in his first Mickey cartoon is great. Bert Gillett does some of his best direction.
9/1: Peculiar Penguins
A lot of people felt the Silly Symphonies were arty and pretentious, and this one won't win the case against that opinion. The penguins are cute as they romance about, and of course the boy must save the girl from a heavy. Kind of routine, though well-animated (direction by Wilfred Jackson) and the penguins are very cute.

9/29: Mickey Plays Papa
Ouch. A baby is left on Mickey's doorstep one stormy night, and he and Pluto try to stop the baby from crying. The first half-minute of this cartoon is incredibly well-animated, but things settle down quickly. The rest is just Pluto being about as dumb a bastard as a dog can be, the baby crying, and Mickey being incredibly fucking stupid. It gets old very fast. At one point, Mickey tries to quiet the baby with a Chaplin impression that even the baby finds tiresome (a comment of Chaplin, or on Mickey's increasingly generic and routine capering?). Boring.

11/3: The Goddess of Spring
Wilfred Jackson turns out the second best Silly Sympony of the year, and only nine months after directing the best Silly Symphony of the year, The Grasshopper and the Ants. This is a retelling of the Persephone and Hades myth, but the animated depiction of Hell is extremely good, as is the depiction of eternal spring. The lyrics are very simplistic, but the operatic singing is heads above anything in the series before. This short was mostly a dry run for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs--still three years off--as the animators attempted to draw realistic human movement. The Goddess needs work (her arm movements are rubbery and too loose), and the animators fare better on Hades. But, thanks to the greatness of Disney animation, the cartoon never once feels like an overdone test--it's still a very enjoyable cartoon, and one that is trying to do something new. Excellent colors, as well as some fine use of shadow and a nice sense of drama that builds, unfolds, and climaxes in under ten minutes. Excellent.

11/17: The Dognapper
Minnie's beloved Pekingese Fifi is kidnapped by Pete, and rescued by police officers Mickey and Donald. There are some fun battle scenes in an abandoned saw mill (some great buzzsaw gags), and Donald's cowardice is alternately hilarious and endearing. Although I have some problems with this short--the spare backgrounds, a lack of definition--Dave Hand makes it worthwhile. Side note: Clarence Nash voiced both Mickey and Donald in this cartoon.

12/15: Two-Gun Mickey
Unfortunately, Ben Sharpsteen couldn't bring much energy to this, another "Mickey saves Minnie from Pete" cartoon. I'm already tired of all the gun gags, though there is some good stuff in here. But not a lot.

By the end of the year, Disney looked even more stuck in a rut than in the previous year. Although his popularity showed no signs of slowing, Mickey's adventures were becoming increasingly routine and generic. The Silly Symphonies, for all of their innovation, were becoming self-conscious and stilted. There were many cartoons to love this year, but all the more reason for concern. Walt, of course, had already envisioned the future, and was trying hard to make it happen. But right now, the feeling of treading water is coming off of these cartoons.