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"What's New" Archives: December 2005

December 31, 2005:

HAPPY NEW YEAR, 62 YEARS LATE:

Looney Tunes No. 27

December 30, 2005:

THAT'S THE TICKET: One of the side benefits of my Walt Disney biography has been my discovery of the excellent work done by a number of people whose principal concern has been the history of the Disneyland park, especially in its early years. I remain convinced that Walt's best animated films are his most durable legacy, but thanks to such writers as Michael Broggie, Bruce Gordon, and the late David Mumford, I have a greater appreciation of how complex and interesting Disneyland really is.

The "E" TicketI've particularly enjoyed The "E" Ticket, a magazine devoted to Disneyland's history and now in its 43rd issue. The magazine's interviews are its greatest strength, and many of them demand the attention of animation buffs. Not only have the founders and editors, Jack Janzen and his late brother Leon Janzen, interviewed people who moved from animation to work on the park—Marc Davis and Ken Anderson are only two of the most familiar names—but they have also talked with Disney staffers like Frank Thomas and Ward Kimball, whose involvement with the park was peripheral but who for that reason could offer intriguing perspectives on Disneyland and its attractions. Add the interviews with people who were concerned mostly or entirely with Disneyland itself, like the brilliant landscape architect Bill Evans, and you have an extremely valuable record, one that can no longer be duplicated, given the deaths of most of the interview subjects. To learn more about The "E" Ticket (the name refers to the tickets for Disneyland's elite attractions under the old ticket-book system), click on this link.

December 29, 2005:

SPLOGGED: I'm accustomed to getting whacked pretty often at online message boards and blogs, as in responses to my audio commentaries on the latest set of Looney Tunes DVDs ("I can't listen to Mr. Barrier's commentaries at all. He may write well but his commentaries sound like some of the boring school teachers I've had—he takes the fun out of it. Sorry, Mr. Barrier, stick to writing"). So I appreciate Michael Sporn's using his "Splog" to praise this site, as well as Funnyworld and Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, as among his sources of inspiration this past year, in the worthy company of Amid Amidi's Cartoon Modern blog and several animated features with more than commercial ambitions. Michael does say of my writing in Hollywood Cartoons, though, that my "words were prosaic and well chosen." I'd like to think he meant to say "precise and well chosen," but I'd better not ask. I'll take what I can get.

December 25, 2005:

MERRY CHRISTMAS, 31 YEARS LATE:

Disney Christmas card

That's the front of the 1974 Christmas card from what was then known as Walt Disney Productions (and is of course © WDP). It opens up to reveal a sleigh train full of Disney characters, and that panorama is much too wide for me to reproduce here, unfortunately.

 

 

December 23, 2005:

EVEN BETTER MOUSEKEEPING: Soon after I posted the item below, I got a mailing from Gemstone Publishing that explains the very high price (list of $149.99; $94.49 at amazon)for the hardcover edition. It's limited to a thousand numbered copies, and, in Russ Cochran's words, "is made special by the inclusion of ten double-sized foldout prints made from the original artwork, much of it from the personal collection of Steve Geppi."

Mickey and the GangGOOD MOUSEKEEPING: David Gerstein's luxurious new paperback, Walt Disney's Mickey and the Gang, arrived earlier this week, and it's a beauty, a must-have for anyone with more than a passing interest in the cartoons that emerged from the Disney studio during its greatest period, from the middle 1930s to the early 1940s. The hook is the Disney material that ran in Good Housekeeping from 1934-44—a monthly page that usually told the story of a new short cartoon in verse, with illustrations by staff artists (typically Tom Wood or Hank Porter). The GH pages are attractive, but of limited interest in themselves; what makes the book extraordinary is the way that David has used each page as the hook for fascinating explorations of the cartoons involved—how they were made, how they were publicized, how they were transformed into comic books, comic strips, and merchandise of other kinds. Some pages were based on stories that never made it to screen, and there's artwork from those unmade cartoons and others (including two pages of storyboards for a Disney version of Private Snafu). It's a remarkable package, bracingly original in both conception and execution. (One caveat: the link above will take you to the amazon.com page for the very expensive hardcover edition; you'll almost certainly want to buy the paperback, which costs less than $20. Just click on "paperback" under "other editions.")

December 20, 2005:

GREG FORD: Reading Michael Sporn's "Splog" this morning reminds me that I overlooked the fact that Greg Ford programmed the "Cartoon Musicals" series at the Walter Reade Theater in New York that I mentioned in yesterday's post. Greg is the expert at such programming, making the series all the more recommendable to anyone who'll be in the New York area over the holidays. Michael advises that the series is sure to sell out, so don't dawdle.

December 19, 2005:

DISNEYLAND DOCUMENTS: As I mentioned back on December 9, I've delivered a manuscript for my Walt Disney biography, but I'm still tracking down stray facts and, I should have added, stray documents. I've examined and copied thousands of Disney-related documents over the years—transcripts of story meetings, interviews, letters, legal documents, memoranda, and on and on—at the Walt Disney Archives in Burbank and dozens of other locations, but some items have eluded me. I'm seeking copies of certain Disneyland-related items, in particular. If anyone has copies of the following items, or could point me toward them, I'd be delighted to pay reasonable amounts for copies of my own, or to make a trade:

1. The inventory of the collection of miniatures that Walt displayed in his office, and Dave Smith's article about that collection in the February 1978 issue of Small Talk magazine (I've not been able to locate that issue through interlibrary loan).
2. Walt's August 31, 1948, memo outlining his thoughts on a "Mickey Mouse Park" in Burbank.
3. The June 1954 report on visits to amusement parks by a Disney team that included Bill Cottrell.
5. The 1953 "narrative description" of Disneyland that Karan Ann Marling mentions on page 62 of Designing Disney's Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance.
6. The 1953 Stanford Research Institute studies for Disneyland (site and feasibility). I have copies of some of Buzz Price's other reports for Walt and Roy, but not those two crucial ones.
7. The brief family history by Elias Disney that Bob Thomas mentions on pages 7-8 of his biography of Roy Disney, Building a Company.

Copies of some of these items are housed at the Disney Archives, of course, but the Archives has been closed to me and most other outside researchers for a number of years (I barely made it under the wire when I was researching Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age). As a result, I've had to rely on secondary sources in a number of instances where I would much prefer to rely on primary documents.

In addition to the documents I've listed, I'm sure there are other documents I don't even know about but that would be of help in rounding out my portrait of Walt. I don't have a lot of primary material related to the TV shows, for example. Please don't hesitate to write if you know of material that might be of use.

POLARIZED: Old-time readers of Funnyworld will remember Kim Weston's comprehensive article on the unpublished artwork that Carl Barks drew for the Disney comic books; it was in No. 16, in 1975. Kim and I are back in touch, after a number of years, and he has contributed some illuminating thoughts on Imax 3-D that I've added to my Commentary page on Polar Express, as well as some Barks-related information that I've added to my page of additions and corrections for Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book.

BARKS (AND OTHERS) ON DVD: Speaking of Barks, you may have been intrigued by references to a 9 1/2-minute "bonus feature" devoted to Barks in the two-DVD Walt Disney Treasures set called The Chronological Donald, Volume Two. This brief survey is a botch, starting with the closeups of a Disney story man who is supposed to be Barks but is actually Harry Reeves. This completely avoidable mistake is made during Leonard Maltin's introduction on the first disc and repeated during the bonus feature itself.

I doubt that Jerry Beck and the two cartoonists who share most of the screen time should be blamed for this dismal effort; they've simply been asked to carry too much of the load. Why ask one of them to talk about Barks's introduction of Uncle Scrooge when he has only a vague idea of when it happened (in 1947, not "the late forties")? Why show so much of other artists' work when Barks is the ostensible subject? Barks's own brief (and funny) appearance at the end of the film, from a "Disney Legends" ceremony at the Burbank studio, comes as a relief.

Maltin has taken heat in some quarters for the poor picture quality of some of the cartoons in this year's two animated Treasures sets, the Donald and Disney Rarities—there's a big step down from the consistently high level of the earlier Disney Treasures—but my own very limited experience in such matters suggests to me that other people were responsible. For what it's worth, the two Treasures sets devoted to live-action television—one of "The Adventures of Spin and Marty," from the Mickey Mouse Club, and the other of "Swamp Fox" and "Elfego Baca" episodes from the weekly Disney show—look very good.

I'm amused by the fine line Maltin sometimes has to walk in his introductions to the Treasures sets, as when he talks about the people who made the "Baca" and "Swamp Fox" shows as "storytellers." That's another way of saying they were hacks. Efficient hackwork is what Walt wanted, and, alas, it's just what he got. I'm delighted that these shows are available again in such excellent presentations, especially with Walt's original introductions, but as to whether they're "treasures" of any kind—well, let's save that discussion until after a lot more Disney TV shows have made it onto DVD. I'll buy them all.

NEW YORK EVENTS: I left Manhattan a few days too early this month to see the blockbuster Pixar exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that runs through February 6, but interesting critiques have been published in the New York Times (the online version corrects a silly mistake in which Linda Hunt was credited for the voice of Edna Mode, whose voice was actually provided by Brad Bird) and on the "Splog" page of Michael Sporn's new Web site.

A lower-profile New York event is a Film Society of Lincoln Center series devoted to cartoon musicals, at the Walter Reade Theater, which John Benson called to my attention. It'll run December 28-January 4. Click here for the schedule. Reading over the titles to be shown is to some extent an exercise in nostalgia—I was instantly reminded of the pre-video days when such retrospectives were the only, or almost the only, way to see a lot of these cartoons—but some of the films are still scarce on videotape or DVD. If I were in New York after Christmas, I'd certainly make an effort to see the program devoted to Walter Lantz's Swing Symphonies and Musical Miniatures on December 28 (repeated on December 30). "Independently Musical," on January 1 (repeated January 3), looks to be more of a mixed bag, but some of the cartoons on the program, like Mark Kausler's It's the Cat (illustrated here), are very much worth seeing. And an Oskar Fischinger program that includes his wonderful Motion Painting No. 1 (shown twice on January 2) is self-recommending.

BLOGS: I mentioned Michael Sporn's "Splog" a few paragraphs ago, and it is turning out to be a valuable source of animation information, especially New York-related. I'll be paying it regular visits.

Another enjoyable blog I've encountered recently is Jenny Lerew's. Like Michael Sporn, she's an animation professional, but on the West Coast, where she works in story for DreamWorks. Her post (headed "one sketch, long caption") on Fred Moore, Ward Kimball, and Walt Kelly is especially recommendable. We can only hope that she'll publish the article on Moore that she researched when many of his old Disney colleagues were still around to share their memories of that great animator. She wrote it for Funnyworld—in its post-Barrier phase—but the magazine expired before the article was published.

Gerald's SymphonyThere are so many excellent blogs now that it's impossible to keep track of them all, but I can't end without recommending Amid Amidi's new Cartoon Modern. Amid, the co-proprietor of the indispensable Cartoon Brew site, is the author of a forthcoming book on animation design in the 1950s, as exemplified by UPA, and this site is an outgrowth of his work. Lots of fascinating stuff here, artwork especially, but there's also a plaintive memo from Steve Bosustow about the cost overruns on Gerald McBoing Boing's Symphony, along with a lot of frame grabs from that cartoon. It's a cartoon that Amid admires, and that I don't—I find the story insultingly silly, and I have problems with aspects of the design (when you fill the screen with figures depicted in transparent line drawings, as in the frame grab above, the result is likely to be messy, as if a closet full of coat hangers had gone berserk). But Amid's postings often make even such relatively unsuccessful cartoons interesting, and they're a good omen for his book.

December 17, 2005:

STOP THE MOTION: Milt Gray points out a goof in my posting yesterday about stop-motion animation: "You said that you could hardly imagine Bob Clampett as a stop-motion director, but didn't Bob show you those experimental stop-motion films that he made in 1938? I was surprised how good they were, I thought they were better than what George Pal did later, but Bob didn't make any more because Leon Schlesinger insisted that his studio would only turn out animated cartoons."

I do remember those films; what I should have said, probably, is that I can't imagine the Bob Clampett of the early forties, when he was at his peak as a director, finding stop-motion animation at all satisfactory as a vehicle. The fluidity and spontaneity of his direction, and of the animation done in response to it, seems to me incompatible with the incremental, step-by-step nature of stop-motion work.

And as Milt also reminds me, I've enjoyed at least one other stop-motion feature, The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Milt adds: "Inbetweening cartoon animation is kinda fun (at least for me), but I would never want to have to do stop motion animation, because how does one know where one is going, and how does one correct a mistake? That's something I should have asked Bob Clampett, I guess."

December 16, 2005:

WALLACE & GROMIT: Kel Crum wrote to express disappointment that I never got around to reviewing Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. I saw about twenty minutes of that feature, actually, before I was defeated by a faulty sound system and asked for a refund (which the theater gave me without hesitation). I haven't made any effort to see it again. I have a blind spot where stop-motion animation is concerned, I'm afraid, and I don't like to review films for which I have trouble mustering sympathy or interest. My problem may be that the intense, painstaking labor required to produce a stop-motion film almost always seems to me disproportionate to what winds up on the screen. Which is to say, I've never seen a stop-motion film that I thought was nearly as exciting or funny as the best hand-drawn or computer-animated films. I can't imagine very many of the animators and directors I've most admired working in stop motion. Norm Ferguson as a stop-motion animator? Bob Clampett as a stop-motion director? The mind boggles. Looking at it from the outside, as I must, stop motion feels claustrophobic to me, a feeling I never have where the best hand-drawn animation is concerned, even though its basis is also small changes, frame to frame. (A lot of in-betweeners might dispute me on the claustrophobia angle.)

I did enjoy Chicken Run, however.

EMAIL OF THE DAY: My negative review of John Kricfalusi's Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon (or Cartoon Party) has been slumbering in a corner of the site for a couple of years now, but Keithy Sutheren evidently just discovered it and had this to say about it: "Why do you have a grudge against Ren and Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon?, theyre so funny. I think youre jealous that you cannot make a cartoon.You seem like a real conservative square: a lawyer masquerading as an animator, now THATS sad. Lets see you make a cartoon, Barrier." Ah, if only I could attract such dedicated fans.

IGER ON ANIMATION: Yesterday (the thirty-ninth anniversary of Walt Disney's death) in the Wall Street Journal, Disney's new CEO Robert Iger said this: "I've concluded that for the company to be successful long-term creatively, it must get animation right." Absolutely correct, I think, but a remarkable statement coming from a Disney CEO, considering that in the Eisner years the Walt Disney Company seemed to have become more a hotel and cruise-ship operator than a film producer, much less a leader in animation. Iger was quoted in an article about the ongoing Disney-Pixar negotiations, which have become ominously prolonged. I still expect an eventual renewal of that partnership, however.

December 15, 2005:

THE POP-IN: The current (December 19) issue of The New Yorker includes an article by Caitlin Flanagan, available online, called "Becoming Mary Poppins: P. L. Travers, Walt Disney, and the Making of the Myth." Apart from the author's interview with Richard Sherman, one half of Disney's songwriting team, it's mostly a library job that seems to have been assembled with limited cooperation, if any, from either Travers's estate or the Disney studio. To me, Flanagan's misreading of the film (like her exaggeration of its influence on the children who saw it) is sweeping in its scope, leading to statements like these: "As Mary Poppins slips away, Mrs. Banks goes to the park with her family [abandoning her role as a suffragette and] embracing her proper role in the household. The story's happy ending depends on a signal fact: the Banks children will no longer be brought up by servants. Henceforth their own mother—corralled homeward through the beneficient intercessions of Mary Poppins—will do the job herself. 'Mary Poppins' advocates the kind of family life that Walt Disney had spent his career both chronicling and helping to foster on a national level: father at work, mother at home, children flourishing."

I don't like Mary Poppins much, but my problem with it is not its allegiance to what might be considered an outmoded conception of the nuclear family. (Mrs. Banks was made a suffragrette not because Disney wanted to put her in her place at the end of the film, but because Glynis Johns had to be given something to do and, especially, a song to sing.) Mary Poppins's crucial weakness is a down-to-earth movie weakness, short-sighted casting. The script's true central character is Mr. Banks, because the story turns on his transformation; the role required an actor as strong as, say, Rex Harrison. But Walt Disney cast David Tomlinson as Mr. Banks instead. Walt wasn't interested in working with actors as expensive and temperamental as Rex Harrison, but, most important, he never advanced past the idea that Julie Andrews was necessarily his star because the film is called Mary Poppins. It thus seemed natural to him to cast Tomlinson, an excellent supporting actor, as Mr. Banks. But Tomlinson was confined by mannerisms and temperament to roles calling for a stuffy, easily ruffled Englishman; casting him as Mr. Banks meant that there was a fatal lack of weight at the very center of the film.

Set beside the disastrous casting of Tomlinson, the casting of Dick Van Dyke (instead of a far more appropriate actor like Tommy Steele) as a Cockney chimney sweep was merely unfortunate, particularly so during the extended dance on the rooftops. That number demanded a strong lead dancer, and there was no way that Van Dyke, as hard as he worked, and as likable as he was as Bert, could fill that role.

It was thanks to Walt Disney's decisions, on casting and other matters, that Mary Poppins wound up as a very long, very broad film strung together from an assortment of musical numbers, some irresistibly cheerful, others tiresomely sentimental. As its special effects and studio-bound sets come to seem more dated, and its structural weaknesses more obvious, it gets harder and harder to regard the film as a whole as any kind of classic, however well some of the individual numbers hold up. I'm sure that fifty years now, diehard Disney buffs will still be chattering about the "magic" of Mary Poppins, but by then I doubt that anyone will be listening.

SPORN ON GRILLO: Michael Sporn responds to Oscar Grillo's deliberately provocative remarks in my December 14 posting, just below: "As to Oscar Grillo's suggestion, it would be a good one if animation weren't everything to me. I haven't suffered my company and its very trying difficulties for 26 years to take a five-year break so other people can get it together. Who cares what they or anyone else do? I do my work and my only reward is the film itself. Oscar is a brilliant animator/artist. If he has a problem with the work other people are doing or how that work is being received, he should put that complaint into his own work somehow."

December 14, 2005:

A MODEST PROPOSAL... : ...from Oscar Grillo, to wit: "The word ANIMATION (Like POETRY or TRUTH or LOVE) is of enormous significance, and nowadays it is seldom taken seriously by its practitioners. I strongly advise anybody who is involved in this extraordinary form of art to take a deep breath and meditate about the meaning of it before they enter into any animated project: unless you mean it, don't bother. It is a waste of your time and ours. Life's too short to sit in darkened rooms for a couple of hours watching flashing lights with no meaning. I would even suggest a moratorium on animated films for a considerable time to clear the decks and the air...No animated films should be produced for at least five years!!!"

Anyone who has just seen Chicken Little may be tempted to agree—but since seeing that wretched film, I've seen Michael Sporn's The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (the complete film, not just the clip on his Web site), and I daresay that most people lucky enough to see it will not want to take Oscar's pledge.

SECOND SIGHT: There's always the danger, when you revisit a fondly remembered film, that it will seem less impressive on a second viewing. So, when I went to see The Polar Express in Imax 3D in New York earlier this month, it was with a certain trepidation. I loved the "flat" version I saw early this year, as I said in my review, but I worried that a second viewing would call my original enthusiasm into question.

Not to worry. The 3D version is especially impressive, for reasons like those John Benson sets out in his addendum to my review, but I wouldn't change a word of what I wrote last February about the "flat" version. I realize that enthusiasm for Polar Express is regarded as rank heresy in some quarters, but I'm sorry, I can't help it (and my heresy is ranker than you might think—I've really enjoyed Waking Life both times I've seen it, too). I would hesitate to watch Polar Express on DVD—I think it needs a big screen, even a flat one, more than most movies—but I pity anyone who passes up a chance to see this extraordinary film in Imax 3D.

Now I have to work up the courage to buy or rent the DVD of Madagascar, another film I expected to hate but didn't.

December 13, 2005:

JOE GRANT: You can read excerpts from my 1988 interview with the renowned Disney artist and story man, who died last spring, by clicking here.

December 12, 2005:

CHICKEN LITTLE: You can read my commentary on Disney's latest by clicking here.

December 9, 2005:

AS I WAS SAYING...: I didn't expect to take quite so long a leave of absence from the site to work on my Walt Disney biography, but that's what happened. That book is not "finished," by any means. Although I delivered a manuscript to University of California Press on November 28, I'm still tracking down lots of stray facts, and I expect to revise the book in various ways after it has come under the scrutiny of several expert readers. But I'm now over the hump, and I plan to update the site with some frequency in the next few weeks. I have a Joe Grant interview all but ready to post, and, thanks to good friend Didier Ghez, some older material, from Funnyworld and other sources—a Hugh Harman interview, for instance—is now in digital form, and I'll be posting it, too. I was in New York for a few days earlier this month and saw both Polar Express and Chicken Little in 3D, and I'll soon weigh in on those two films, the latter especially. (I actually saw three 3D films on that trip, since the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show opens with a dazzling short 3D cartoon, but I wouldn't encourage anyone to spend $85 just to see that film. If you have the chance to see it for a more reasonable amount, do.)

MICHAEL SPORN: I've written elsewhere on the site about the films of Michael Sporn, a New York-based independent animator whose work I've admired for many years. Michael has just put up a wonderful site devoted to his work, and I strongly recommend a visit. Be sure to play the video clips from six of his cartoons; taken together, they give an excellent sense of what is so special about his best work. The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (illustrated above) is a leading candidate for the Academy Award. Michael has been nominated only once before, twenty years ago, for the charming Doctor De Soto, and it is long past time that he was recognized not only by more nominations but also by an Oscar. Michael is devoted to hand-drawn animation, the currently unfashionable "2D" kind, and his best films are eloquent evidence that hand-drawn animation is capable of a subtlety and emotional power that computer-generated animation so far cannot match.

WALT'S PEOPLE, VOLUME TWO: Speaking of Didier Ghez, as I was an item or two ago, he has just published the second volume of Walt's People, a trade-paperback series devoted to collecting interviews—often difficult or impossible to find otherwise—with people who worked on the Disney cartoons, usually with Walt himself. Here's a brief description from Didier's press release: "Walt's People - Volume 2 features in-depth interviews with artists Friz Freleng, Grim Natwick, Frank Tashlin, Ward Kimball, Floyd Gottfredson, Herb Ryman, Frank Thomas, Dale Oliver, Eric Larson, Woolie Reitherman, Richard Rich, and Glen Keane. These interviews discuss among many other subjects 'the Bambi that never was,' the challenge of animating The Jungle Book with the smallest animation crew in years, the frustrations and joys of Eric Larson and Woolie Reitherman, and the creation of The Black Cauldron. It contains hundreds of new stories about the Studio and its artists and should delight even the most serious historians and enthusiasts." I'm among the contributors, who also include Robin Allan, Paul F. Anderson, J.B. Kaufman, Jim Korkis, Mike Lyons, John Province, Thorkil Rasmussen, Christian Renaut, Arn Saba, and Klaus Strzyz. The book will be available early next year through online booksellers like amazon.com (where you can already buy the first volume). In the meantime, you can buy it directly from the publisher (for only $18.69) by going to this Web site.

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