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"What's New" Archives: January 2007

January 31, 2007:

Short Stops and High Hops...

...from, as it says above, the world of animated films and comic art.

° Brad Bethel wrote in response to my January 25 posting about the Wall Street Journal's article on DreamWorks: "Speaking as one who's grown tired of the CGI glut, Pixar not included, DreamWorks' goal [of making] more quality films is a very long shot. They have become fixated on taking a winning formula and milking it for all that it is worth. And I don't know how Jeffrey Katzenberg could not have foreseen the similarity in the competition. Most of them are riding the wave that was initiated by Shrek, and [in any case] there was a time when DreamWorks was riding on the Disney animation wave [that crested] in the 1990s. What DreamWorks needs to realize is that the medium of animation thrives on variety; formulas will only last for so long."

MB replies: I think the crucial question, where Jeffrey Katzenberg is concerned, is when to take him seriously and when not to. I think we can take him seriously when he talks about his quest for stories pregnant with sequels. I think we can shrug off whatever he says about making better films.

° Thad Komorowski wrote in response to my January 27 post titled "Writing and Drawing": "I appreciated your post correcting Charles Solomon's error regarding the scripts and storyboards on the classic Disney features. By 'coincidence' it looks like John Kricfalusi took issue with your defaming of Steve Worth and posted a huge rebuttal (though not mentioning you).  I wish people weren't so childish over the issue of 'script vs. storyboard.'  The cartoons of the Golden Age were great because those people actually knew what they were doing, in much greater numbers than today, not because 'they drew them.'"

MB replies: Yes, my nefarious scheme is working: I lured John away from his fascinating exegeses of the early Hanna-Barbera cartoons, those monuments of the animator's art, and tricked him into putting up a post favorable to that low-life Walt Disney. The next step in my plan to ravage the Spumco Empire is to convert John into a disciple of Don Bluth. You will know that my plan has succeeded when you hear that John has gunned down Steve Worth and Eddie Fitzgerald in a Burbank coffee shop because they refused to admit that The Small One is a better cartoon than The Great Piggy Bank Robbery.

Incidentally, I used "exegeses" back there for the benefit of Steve Worth, who complains constantly about my use of "ten-dollar words." The next time someone donates a children's book to Steve's hobbyhorse, the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive, perhaps it should be this one.

° I've mentioned that publication of the fourth volume of Didier Ghez's invaluable interview series Walt's People was imminent. It's now available, and here's the link to order it from Xlibris. It'll soon be available through amazon.com and other online booksellers, too.

January 30, 2007:

On the Button...

Paul Dushkind writes in response to yesterday's posting: "Didn't they say that Disney wore the Goldwater button hidden inside his lapel? If he wore it on the outside, then that would be boorish."

I should have included a link yesterday to the thorough demolition of this particular urban legend—including how the button has migrated to different places on Disney's jacket—at snopes.com. (Do the names "Richard Schickel" and "Marc Eliot" ring any bells?)

Walt and IkePerhaps something like the button incident really happened. Walt was certainly a committed Republican by 1964. He visited the GOP convention in San Francisco that year and was photographed with former president Eisenhower, whom he saw socially at Palm Springs. (The accompanying photo shows the two men with Eisenhower's son, John.) But for me to believe that he expressed his partisan affiliation through an action that was either pointless (if he hid the button) or incredibly rude (if he made it visible to President Johnson) requires much stronger evidence than any yet presented.

January 29, 2007:

That Goldwater Button

Ridgway BookToday I received Charles Ridgway's memoir Spinning Disney's World: Memories of a Magic Kingdom Press Agent. I was particularly curious about whether Ridgway would substantiate the oft-repeated story that Walt Disney wore a Goldwater campaign button when he received the Medal of Freedom from President Johnson at the White House in 1964. He's the source for that story that Neal Gabler cites on page 612 of his Disney biography, relying on a quotation in Howard and Amy Boothe Green's Remembering Walt. But Ridgway's memoir adds nothing to that quotation; it's plain that he wasn't at the White House ceremony, and he doesn't identify a source of his own. So Ridgway and the Greens, and Gabler after them, have perpetuated an implausible story that makes Walt Disney out to have been an extraordinarily boorish guest when he received his country's highest civilian honor. Shame on all of them.

As my list of Gabler's errors grows longer, I keep waiting for someone to call me on at least one of them, to tell me that I'm wrong and Gabler right. Hasn't happened yet.

January 28, 2007:

Encyclopedia Fantasia

Bill Benzon, whose discussion of biographies, Disney biographies in particular, I noted in my January 15 posting, has called my attention to an earlier thread on his literary Web site, The Valve, that one devoted to Fantasia. His starting point: the idea that perhaps the famous Disney film is best examined as one of those "encyclopedic narratives," to adopt Edward Mendelson's term, that take the whole world as their subject matter. Examples from literature might include Dante’s Divine Comedy, Rablais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Goethe’s Faust, Melville’s Moby Dick, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I have some trouble with that idea, since Fantasia was conceived as a concert, and the idea in concerts is to achieve a pleasing variety, not to be encyclopedic, but The Valve's thread is stimulating reading, even so.

FantasiaAnd now Benzon has started a thread that looks at some of Disney's work, the "Rite of Spring" segment of Fantasia in particular, as pioneering examples of the popularization of difficult scientific concepts: "Disney presented a highly distilled version of what science had to say about the world. The segment opened with a galaxy-scale view of the cosmos and zoomed in on a young earth, before life had emerged. Then he took us under the ocean and showed us single-celled organisms, which multiplied, became many-celled, and then some of them morphed and walked on land as amphibians. And then the rise and demise of the dinosaurs. The audience saw hundreds of millions of years compressed into half an hour and the very large and very small made visible to the unaided eye. It was and remains an astonishing conception."

Bill has been floating other ideas in our email exchanges, and one of his most intriguing questions is about the significance of the order of Fantasia's segments. As he asks, "Why would Disney open the film with the Bach segment?" He has a theory about why opening with the Bach made sense in terms of Disney's ambitions for the film as a whole—he envisions an academic article on the subject—but it seems entirely plausible to me that using the Bach as an opener was simply a mistake, just as opening the second half (after the intermission) with the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony was a blunder. Consider these alternative possibilities: beginning the film with "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and opening the second half with "The Dance of the Hours."

As Bill says, "The obvious attention-grabbing opener would have been 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice.' It's really the only piece in the film that's more or less like material the audience would have been familiar with. And it's the only one with a conventional narrative." The effect would have been to reassure the audience: We're trying something new here, but it's just a small step forward from what you already know and like; trust us, you're going to like this new stuff, too. Who knows, maybe the audiences that were force-fed Bach would have been in a much more accepting mood if they'd spent the opening minutes with Mickey Mouse instead. The hippos and alligators in "Dance of the Hours" would probably have been just as welcome, especially in the wake of Stravinsky's challenging music, which concludes the first half of the film.

I can't recall much if any discussion, in all the Fantasia transcripts and memoranda I've read, about the best order in which the film's segments should be presented, but I'll have to take another look. The order of Fantasia's segments is one of those things that one tends to take for granted after seeing the film many times.

Mouse Tracks

I've taken much too long to say something about Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney Records by Tim Hollis and Greg Ehrbar, which was published last year by the University Press of Mississippi. I read this book late last fall on an airplane, returning from a visit to Washington, D.C., and I must admit that I approached it with skepticism. It seemed like a book that would appeal mostly to a very specialized audience—collectors of Disney records and a few other connoisseurs of Disneyana—and not so much to people like me, with a broader interest in things Disney.

Mouse TracksI was pleasantly surprised. Mouse Tracks is a more attractive and interesting book than I expected, especially in its early chapters, where Walt and Roy Disney—mostly Roy—make frequent appearances. (Merchandise of all kinds was Roy's territory; Walt rarely devoted any time to it.) The book is intelligently organized, with lots of sidebars on individual performers. I might have wished for a little more substantial documentation, but Hollis and Ehrbar have clearly drawn on unimpeachable sources, and I saw nothing to inspire the kind of doubt I've felt when reading so many other officially sanctioned Disney books.

The illustrations are generally impressive, too. I was particularly taken with the one on page 21, a mid-1950s advertisement for the first Disney soundtrack albums, with beautifully designed jackets for the albums devoted to films like Snow White and Pinocchio. "Disneyland Records' original [soundtrack] LPs were meant to take their place alongside other movie soundtrack albums of the day," the caption reads. "Not until would they be considered primarily children's records."

January 27, 2007:

Writing and Drawing

I really haven't been going out of my way to find more errors in Neal Gabler's Disney biography to add to my already long list, but readers keep calling them to my attention. Hans Perk, whose Web site is a prime resource for anyone interested in Disney history, has pointed out mistakes on pages 305 and 633. The error on page 633 is particularly odd; I wonder if Gabler actually visited Walt's gravesite or relied instead on Web sites that make the same mistake.

Considering how many errors Gabler's book contains—and given how few have been spotted by the many reviewers ignorant of the book's subject matter but impressed by its pretense of scholarship —it's a pity when a reviewer cites as an error something Gabler actually got right. I recently ran across Charles Solomon's review for the San Francisco Chronicle, in which he says:

"Given the extent of his research, Gabler makes some surprising errors. He talks about writers preparing a screenplay for 'Snow White,' when the first Disney animated feature to have a script was '101 Dalmatians' (1961). Like the shorts that preceded it, 'Snow White' was developed through storyboards that consisted of drawings and lines of dialogue."

Solomon should know better, even though that particular piece of misinformation has been widely peddled by alleged experts like Stephen Worth. During early work on Snow White, especially, its writers turned out a lot of pages in screenplay form, preserved now in the Walt Disney Archives. I'm looking at my photocopy of three pages dated November 21, 1934, headed "Snow White Dialog" and dealing with the "Spooks" sequence, in which the Dwarfs, returning home from their mine, think their cottage has been invaded by ghosts. Those pages contain not just the dialogue but also detailed descriptions of the action, and they specify cuts from scene to scene. There's one reference to a sketch.

I examined all the surviving story sketches for Snow White when I was writing Hollywood Cartoons, and here's how I summed up some of my thoughts when I was at the Disney Archives in 1997: "The sense I have from this material is that reducing Snow White to drawings was not a terribly orderly procedure. ... As evidenced by the many, many sheets of dialogue in the dialogue files (among other things), the writing of the film was more nearly writing in a live-action sense than it was during work on the next few features, when lavish storyboards were prepared; for some sequences in  Snow White, drawings began to enter the process in large numbers only when work began on layouts. True story sketches probably figured most importantly in work on the sequences with the Dwarfs, and even there ... the line [between story sketches and layout drawings] was blurred."

Screenplays—if properly understood not just as dialogue scripts but as detailed plans for what would wind up on the screen—were common at the Disney studio from the early 1920s on. There's even one for Alice's Wonderland, the last film Disney made in Kansas City, in 1923, and it was unquestionably written before the film was made, since it includes notes like this one: "Will have to build white wall same size as box on elephant to put Alice behind for this scene."

Another example, from 1929: Walt wrote a highly detailed, scene-by-scene screenplay—seven pages, single-spaced—for The Skeleton Dance, probably at the same time he prepared the exposure sheets. (There's this note at the end: "every frame of this is timed to music and all action must be made as per Expo. sheets ...... No Noise should be in action unless it is in music ....") Nothing suggests that drawings played a significant role in production until Ub Iwerks drew thumbnail layouts for the cartoon, one page of which is reproduced in Funnyworld No. 14.

And still another example, from 1934: Walt worked with an eleven-page screenplay of sorts when he directed The Golden Touch. This could better be called a treatment, I suppose (there were a lot of those, too, for both shorts and features), since it doesn't specify scene cuts or camera angles, but there's plenty of dialogue, and the action is described in detail. Although the finished cartoon departs in many respects from this treatment, Walt relied on it heavily when he was making the cartoon; it bears evidence of lots of revisions, some of them in his distinctive block printing.

There were quite likely story sketches for The Golden Touch, too, but there's no way to tell how important they were. Like so many other Disney "story sketch books" from that period, the one for this cartoon preserves not story sketches but thumbnail layouts—that is, the surviving drawings are concerned not with putting gags across but with the staging of the scenes.

The most important thing to remember about the early Disney cartoons, as people like Wilfred Jackson emphasized to me repeatedly, is that no two of them were made in exactly the same way. There was nothing cut and dried about their production. The people making them, and Walt Disney with them, were constantly trying to find ways to make them better, within the slowly expanding boundaries imposed by money and talent, and production methods evolved in response.

As to whether One Hundred and One Dalmatians marked a drastic change in the way the Disney features were made, that's a subject I'll set aside for another time.

Speaking of errors, I've already discovered a mistake in The Animated Man—nothing critical, but annoying as hell, since it's something I got right in Hollywood Cartoons. No doubt there are more such. Some source notes got left out accidentally, too. I'll list all such errors here, as they come to my attention, once the book is in print.

January 26, 2007:

"Really Simple," My Bloomin' ...

RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, has proved to be not so simple for me, as you know if you've added my site to your list of news feeds. The fancy software that is supposed to update my feed with the click of a button has turned out to be a little too buggy, or something, and so I've resorted to manual entry. With any luck my feeds will be considerably less of a mess from now on.

Almanac: James Agee

Reg Hartt has called my attention to this passage that James Agee wrote for The Nation in 1946 but that could have been written yesterday, especially as far as Hollywood animation is concerned. It's all too easy to plug familiar names into Agee's categories.

"Anyone who wants to make creatively interesting movies in this country today gets stuck in one of three, or at the outside four, ways, all of them too familiar to warrant more than mention. If he works in Hollywood, it is unlikely that he will get more than a fraction of his best ability on to the screen; and that is not to mention the liability of resignation to compromise, and of self-deceit. If he works on his own, he is unlikely to get his films distributed or even sporadically shown; and that is not to mention either the difficulty of getting the money and equipment to make the movies or the liability of self-deceit in the direction of arrogance and artiness—the loss of, and contempt for, audience, which can be just as corrupting as its nominal opposite. If, on the other hand, the would-be artist goes abroad to work, he is likely to find, in future, that the advantages are not so clear by a good deal as they were in the past; and unless he is a very specialized—and perhaps also a very limited—artist indeed, he is certain to suffer as profoundly by a change of country as he would, if he were a writer, by a change of languge. The fourth possibility is paralysis, or resignation to the practice of some more feasible art. Either of these is perhaps preferable to literal suicide, but not practically so as far as the movie artist and the movie art are concerned."

James Agee, Agee on Film, Volume One, page 190.

January 24, 2007:

Slowing Down at DreamWorks

Tuesday's Wall Street Journal included a story about DreamWorks Animation—not available free online, unfortunately—with some interesting quotations from Jeffrey Katzenberg. Excerpts:

"DreamWorks has a new motto for its business going forward: slow down. The company has decided to add a year to the production of its films.

"'We've been racing to the finish line and that has meant compromising on story telling sometimes,' says DreamWorks Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. There's a strong financial incentive, he adds: 'If we improve our box office performance by 10%, it adds $100 million pre-tax profit to the company.' ...

"There also is the realization that Shrek may not last forever. That has forced the company to think about developing other franchises—a particularly difficult task at a time when a flood of animated films is hitting movie theaters, many of them about cute talking animals. This summer alone has Surf's Up, about surfing penguins, and Ratatouille, about a rat's adventures in Paris.

"'I didn't realize how similar they were all going to be,' says Mr. Katzenberg, who describes a moment a year ago when he was in a movie theater and sat through back-to-back trailers for several near-identical animated movies. 'Fortunately, our next six or seven movies are unlike anything we've done before or anything anyone else is doing.'"

The rest of the piece is devoted mostly to DreamWorks' search for franchises—that is, films that can generate sequels that are virtually indistinguishable from the original.The quest for ideas "unlike anything we've done before" will extend only so far, in other words.

January 20, 2007:

RSS, Finally

Installing RSS (Really Simple Syndication, or maybe something else, depending on your preference, as with the initials DVD) did not come easy for me, for some reason, but it's finally here, and it seems to be working, if still on a bare-bones level. If you're not familiar with RSS, it's a keen way of keeping up with a lot of Web sites without opening a lot of pages—and it's a feature I've very much wanted to add to this site, since I can be so erratic in adding new material. To take advantage of it, you need a news aggregator; I use the one you can find at http://sage.mozdev.org/

January 19, 2007:

Walt in Paris, Cont'd

Thanks to Don Draganski for pointing out a January 16 Christian Science Monitor piece on the recently closed Disney exhibit in Paris. This article, by Robert Marquand, rather supports Didier Ghez's position on the exhibit more than my own more skeptical take. Well and good; if the exhibition, which opens in March at Montréal, results in an enhanced awareness and appreciation of the best Disney films, I'll be very happy to have been proved wrong. There should be a lot more press in North America for the Montréal version of the exhibition than there has been for the Paris show, and it'll be most interesting to see how many critics "get it."

January 16, 2007:

En Garde!

Didier Ghez is the compiler of the estimable series of interview collections called Walt's People; a fourth volume will be available soon through Xlibris and amazon.com. Didier, who is French, takes sharp issue with my piece criticizing the recently closed Disney exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, "Il Était Une Fois...Walt Disney" ("Once Upon a Time...Walt Disney"). You can read his comments and my response on a new Feedback page devoted to the Disney exhibition. The exhibition opens at Montréal in March.

If you're interested in things Disney, and you don't yet own the first three volumes of Walt's People, you need to rectify that oversight. Here are links to Volume One, Volume Two, and Volume Three. I've contributed to each volume, and I recommend them highly. Didier is doing a great job finding and publishing obscure interviews with important Disney artists.

January 15, 2007:

Back From Burbank

I was in that Los Angeles suburb a few days last week, recording audio commentaries and doing an on-camera interview for a couple of DVD sets (non-Disney) that should be out later this year. An interesting experience, the interview especially, since I've done very little such work. I have no idea how I'll come across on the screen, but I was aware, during the taping, that you can be at a disadvantage in such a situation if you take your writing seriously. I do a lot of editing and rewriting of my stuff, and there's precious little opportunity to do any such thing when videotape is rolling. You're stuck with what comes out of your mouth, and I found myself wishing constantly I'd come up with a better word, or a better phrase (and, of course, I worried that I might have stumbled into mistakes). Audio commentaries are not as daunting to me—we backed up the tape and fixed some bobbles—but I'm still much more comfortable typing in front of a computer screen.

While I was in Burbank, I stopped by the Disney Studio to visit with a couple of old friends, and I was encouraged by what I heard. Robert Iger's ascension does seem to be making a positive difference in, for example, the status of the Walt Disney Archives and Disney history generally. The impending demise of the Walt Disney Treasures line of DVDs might seem at odds with that conclusion, but it may simply mean that the Disney Home Video people want to get away from the restrictive nature of a "limited edition," in favor of the more expansive "Legacy" series. I certainly hope so.

Book Chat

I've continued to add to my list of errors in Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination; the most recent entries, new or expanded, are for pages 527, 531, and 612. As with some of the errors I've noted before, I'm most surprised not by Gabler's mistakes but by how fundamental they can be, right up to the verge of making stuff up. I trust the book less and less, and I'm sure my list of errors is going to expand considerably over the next few months, as readers find mistakes I've missed. David Bordwell writes of Walt Disney: "A lot of it reads like a notecard book, with quotes, paraphrases, and commentary dutifully snipped and pasted in, packing each paragraph." Exactly right, although Bordwell, like every other reviewer who hasn't saturated himself in things Disney, has no way of knowing just how many of those notecards were filled out carelessly or hastily.

As I've said in my review, there's evidence that Gabler set out to write a different kind of book—a critical biography, based mainly on secondary sources—but wound up writing a straight biography after he got access to the Disney Archives. As to why he would have made that turn away from his original plan, I think the timing was the key. Steven Watts' serious biographical study, The Magic Kingdom, appeared around the beginning of 1998, got admiring reviews, and, as best I can tell, never made a ripple in the bookstores. (It was also the target, incredibly, of a lawsuit by Marc Eliot, who objected to Watts's restrained characterization of Eliot's awful Disney biography.)

The seven years Gabler supposedly put into his biography would have begun in 1998, or early 1999 at the latest, that is, soon after the performance of Watts's book had cast into doubt the existence of a market for another Disney study. I wouldn't be surprised if Gabler's publisher, Knopf, rather than Gabler himself, decided that a straight biography was thus the way to go, and pushed him into seeking Disney's blessing. That would certainly account for the lack of enthusiasm for his subject that I find all but omnipresent in Gabler's book. It could also explain a lot of the mistakes. The pity is that if Gabler had written a critical biography of Walt, it very well could have been a good book.

I mentioned David Bordwell's blog a couple of paragraphs ago. If there's one good thing to be said for Gabler's Walt Disney, it has to be that the book has encouraged some intelligent people who haven't paid much attention to Walt or his films to take a fresh look. Bordwell, a distinguished film scholar, is one of them; I certainly don't agree with everything he says in the Disney essay on his blog, but, boy, is it ever more stimulating than the usual fan bilge. I also enjoyed the exchanges about biography, Disney biography in particular, that my review of Gabler's book provoked on the literary blog called The Valve.

January 9, 2007:

Mo' Mo-Cap

A couple of very interesting motion-capture-related pieces in the New York Times this week, today's article on James Cameron's new feature following Charles Solomon's piece Sunday on the ever more blurred line between live action and animation.

January 8, 2007:

Walt in Paris—and Montréal

I've finally committed to paper—I mean to pixels—my thoughts about "Il Était Une Fois...Walt Disney," the huge exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, soon to pull up stakes and move to Canada for a three-month run. You can read my review of the exhibition my clicking here.

The Grand Palais usually hosts exhibitions of grander art, and I've wondered how differently the Pompidou Centre, Paris's leading venue for modern art, might have presented a Disney show. When I was there last September, the Pompidou was hosting an exhibition in which avant-garde films were "hung" on the wall like paintings; a current exhibition, one I'd love to see, is devoted to Tintin, the famous Belgian comics character. A museum that can welcome Tintin would surely be a hospitable venue for Mickey Mouse and Snow White.

One room at the Grand Palais exhibition was devoted to a continuous screening of Destino, the short film that originated in a brief collaboration between Walt Disney and Salvador Dali in the 1940s. Only a few seconds of film were completed then, but Dali's drawings were exhumed a few years ago and used as the basis for the new film. Viewing conditions were less than ideal, so I'll withhold any comments on Destino until it's released on DVD later this year as part of the new "Legacy" series. (All the True-Life Adventures were released last month as the first DVDs in the series; Destino will evidently come out alongside DVDs devoted to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Disneyland.)

Speaking of Destino, I was approached last summer by the contractors assembling the "extras" for the DVD; they wanted me for an on-camera interview. Our schedules couldn't be reconciled, but I'm sure someone would have pulled the plug before the interview took place, or certainly before it was committed to disc. Clips from my interview would have alternated on the screen with appearances by some of the bishops of what I've come to think of as Disney's Established Church—a highly amusing thought, but they would never have tolerated my company.

January 5, 2007:

Walt's House

As you've surely heard, the house where Walt Disney was born, at 2156 North Tripp Avenue in Chicago, is up for bids on eBay. If you've been waiting to pounce at the last minute, the time is almost at hand; click here to see how the auction is proceeding.

[UPDATE: It didn't sell; there was only one bid, and it didn't meet the reserve price.]

January 3, 2007:

Rats

Very interesting piece on JimHillMedia.com about how problematic the marketing of Pixar's next feature, Ratatouille, is proving to be. What a pity that Brad Bird got stuck with that property.

Walt in Paris

I've been planning for some time to post a report on my October visit to the Grand Palais in Paris, where the enormous exhibit "Il était une fois ...Walt Disney (Once Upon a Time…Walt Disney)" will be up until January 15. Ben Simon has more than beat me to it, though, with a richly illustrated report on his valuable new Web site, Animated Views. Ben toured the exhibit with its French curator, Bruno Girveau, and the bulk of his report is a transcript of their conversation, with many photos of what they were talking about. Reading Ben's report will make you want to hot-foot it to Paris in the next twelve days to see the hundreds of pieces of Walt-era Disney artwork on display. Fortunately for North Americans, the exhibit opens in Montréal on March 8. You'll want to see it if you have any sort of serious interest in Disney.

Get Happy

I was thinking about Happy Feet, the wretched computer-generated film that I reviewed earlier this week, when I remembered a piece that Terry Teachout wrote for the Wall Street Journal last fall as one of his "Sightings" columns. Teachout is always worth reading (in print and in his blog), and I found what he said relevant to the overstuffed quality that I found so disagreeable in Happy Feet:

"There's no longer any such thing as an artistically risky commercial film. Nobody in his right mind would dream of gambling tens of millions of dollars on a movie that isn't carefully calculated to appeal to a mass audience. That means big, star-studded spectacles of one kind or another. Hollywood is built to make such movies—and even in the absence of commercial pressures, it's much harder to make an artistically serious big movie than an artistically serious small one.

"The reason for this is that all great art is ruthlessly selective. It imposes order on the natural world. That's why sonnets have 14 lines and string quartets are played by four musicians. ... As Igor Stravinsky put it, 'Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit.' As the scale of a work of art increases and more people become involved in its creation and execution, it grows steadily more difficult for the artist to exercise the unswerving selectivity that turns chaos into beauty."

Those inescapable commercial calculations are visible in Happy Feet, certainly, in the abundance of star voices, in the very choice of penguins as the main characters (after all, who dislikes penguins?), and in the hero penguin's quest, which echoes successful movies like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The irony is that George Miller sunk Happy Feet's artistic prospects not by yielding to such considerations, but by failing to be anything like "ruthlessly selective" in those aspects of his film—the photo-realism of his characters, the wall-to-wall dialogue—where commercial calculations were presumably less oppressive.

January 1, 2007:

Happy New Year

What better way to start the new year than by seeing a movie with "happy" in its title, you might think. Wrong. You can read my thoughts on Happy Feet by clicking here.

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