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"What's New" Archives: September 2004

September 30, 2004:

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO...: Leave it to The Onion to report fearlessly on subjects that other news outlets shun.

ROBERT CRUMB: The September issue of ArtNews has a Crumb drawing on the cover and an article about Crumb on the inside. You can find the cover online, but not the article, alas. It's an amusing portrait of a great cartoonist who is squirming uncomfortably as he tries to have it both ways: "I'm not interested in a bunch of cake eaters that go sniff around museums. Not at all. It's totally bizarre to me that when my gallery sells my place-mat drawings, they tout the stains and stuff as a selling factor—like, 'And look at the authentic grease mark'—and it adds to the value. That world is phony, repugnant, and sick."

But ah, that phony world's checks—large ones, I'm sure—do clear your bank, don't they, Robert? And I suspect it has been a while since anyone has seen Crumb upholding his artistic integrity by stuffing a grease-stained place-mat in a trash can. Crumb has earned whatever wealth is now his, and perhaps he should simply enjoy it. No whore ever regained her virginity by sneering at her customers.

To judge from an accompanying photo, Crumb, who is now 61, is roughly a decade away from becoming a dead ringer for Mr. Natural.

MORE ON FRANK THOMAS: Milt Gray, my longtime colleague and collaborator, going back to the days when he was co-editor of Funnyworld, had "one serious reservation" about my September 27 ruminations on Frank Thomas:

"In the paragraph that begins 'At his best,' I feel you are too hard on Thomas.His animation may well be broader in Lady and the Tramp and in Bambi, but to me it is fully appropriate because that is what those stories called for. I personally love Thomas's animation in those two cartoons. And, in the spaghetti-eating scenes, John Lounsberry's animation of the two Italian chefs is even broader than Thomas's dogs, and I especially love that animation of the chefs. I think it would be more appropriate to criticize something else, like the literalism of the animation in the later features, I believe that the extremely unimaginative writing is far more to blame than the animation. If Thomas was responsible for the writing in those cases, that would put the blame back onto him again."

Actually, it would be closer to the mark to say that I don't think Thomas's animation in either Lady or Bambi is broad enough, although "broad" really isn't the word I want. "Self-aware" or "self-critical" would be more like it. Thomas's work in both films suffers from the "sincerity" for which he is so often applauded, because that "sincerity" is in the service of ideas that aren't worthy of it. What matters is not just how sincere an animator is, but what he's sincere about, and in both Lady and Bambi Thomas invests himself wholeheartedly in material that is emotionally compromised.

The sequence in Lady is the harder case, because there really is an element of parody in the spaghetti-eating sequence. To call Thomas's animation "thumpingly obvious," as I did, was lazy and wrong. I suspect I would feel differently about Thomas's scenes if the surrounding film were not so diffusely sentimental, and if Lounsbery's Italians—whom I do like—were animated with a little less restraint and a little more Kimball-like edge.

There's wonderful subtlety in Thomas's animation of the two dogs, as in the way Lady moves after she and Tramp accidentally kiss. She turns her head swiftly away and then lowers it slowly, as if recoiling automatically at first, then realizing that she liked what happened. She is, besides, a little confused by her own pleased reaction. It's just such precision of feeling that is lacking in most of the rest of the film.

Milt raises a very interesting point about the interplay between writing and animation, but in neither Lady nor, especially, Bambi is there any reason to believe that Thomas was struggling with writing that he found at all unsympathetic. Thomas and Ollie Johnston do discuss some films in Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, but it's revealing that they are probably coolest to Cinderella. It's a much, much better written film than The Jungle Book or Robin Hood, to name just two clunkers that they embrace wholeheartedly, and for whose shortcomings in both story and animation they deserve much of the blame.

As animators, Frank and Ollie were always, and understandably, most concerned not with the quality of the writing but with opportunities for virtuoso displays like the one in Lady. They disliked Cinderella because it didn't offer them any. In this respect they were much like those classical soloists who love playing concerti that are musically flimsy but are showcases for the musician's skills. The fatal problem with Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life is that it renders broad judgments on animated films even though it was written from this very narrow perspective.

DEBATE CRITIQUES: I've added comments from a few more visitors to the site on the Feedback page devoted to response to the Barrier-Kricfalusi debate.

September 27, 2004:

ON FRANK THOMAS: When the great Disney animator died earlier this month, the word "intelligent" was invoked in more than one homage to his work, sometimes with a caveat to the effect that "intelligent" did not mean "cold" or "analytical." True enough; but the important point is that in Thomas's work at its best, it was not his intelligence but his characters' intelligence that was visible on the screen. In one Thomas scene in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, I remember, the sense that Pongo was thinking—not like a dog, and not like some approximation of a human being, but like a complete person who was somehow both dog and human—was so strong it was startling.

Elsewhere on the site, in my running debate with John Kricfalusi, I defend Disney animation as successfully depicting the "normal," in contrast to the extreme emotions that dominate John's cartoons. Thomas's best work exemplified such Disney animation: The characters' inner lives are revealed with the transparency of which only animation is capable, even as the animator subdues the visible distortions that could undermine the matter-of-factness an animated film must have to survive the long haul of feature length.

There's a problem, though: When an animated feature requires a display of intense emotion, how does the animator provide it without distorting the characters too obviously and thus violating that carefully maintained sense of the "normal"?

Thomas knew how to do that. He showed one way in his first major piece of animation, of the grieving Dwarfs in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There's no writhing and thrashing; instead, Thomas's Dwarfs are stunned and all but paralyzed by a grief far more overwhelming than they could have expected. Their restrained movement is entirely consistent with those feelings (as opposed to being mere twitching that keeps the drawings from going dead).

In his animation of a Captain Hook who is trying to seduceTinkerbell while boiling with anger, Thomas was just as subtle in his handling of a far more active character. There is not a lot of expressive distortion in the animation of Hook—there is instead a kaleidoscopic flood of drawings, each one registering with incredible exactness the split-second fluctuations in Hook's state of mind.

Such animation has its limits, of course, like any other kind of animation. There is, for instance, an exuberant energy in Bob Clampett's Warner cartoons that has no equivalent in Peter Pan or any other Disney film. But Frank Thomas, at his best, solved the problems peculiar to feature animation as well as any animator ever has.

"At his best" is a crucial qualifier. Many of the tributes to Thomas have been specimens of what I've called "Disneyism" and have concentrated their praise on animation that—whatever the skill involved—is thumpingly obvious, like the famous spaghetti-eating sequence in Lady and the Tramp. As for Thomas's cloying work in Bambi, the less said the better.

Such animation at least has some life to it. But animation of the "normal" can all too easily shade into animation that is literal and dead—the difference is that between a living creature and an expertly made-up corpse—and in such zombie-like features as Robin Hood and The Rescuers, Thomas crossed the line. It was, unfortunately, animation of the latter kind that he and his longtime friend and collaborator, Ollie Johnston, chose to embalm in the book variously called Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life and The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation.

For reasons I've set out elsewhere, I regard that book as a continuing disaster, responsible more than anything else for the literalism that has suffocated most of the features that have emerged from Disney and DreamWorks in recent years.It has constantly threatened the Pixar films as well. "Almost all of the animators at Pixar had that book beside their drawing tables during their formative years," Pete Docter, the director of Monsters, Inc., told Charles Solomon for a Thomas obituary in the Los Angeles Times, "and a lot of us still do."

Better they should dump the book in their wastebaskets and pay closer attention to what Thomas did—what he animated, when he was at his peak—instead of what he wrote.

HE'S BACK: Two days ago, on the Saturday morning edition of Today, the co-anchor Campbell Brown interviewed Marc Eliot, author of a Cary Grant biography that is apparently full of tabloid-worthy details about suicide attempts and drug use and homosexual liaisons. As I listened to Ms. Brown's deferential interview of Eliot, whom she obviously regarded as a serious biographer, I tried to remember where I'd heard Eliot's name, and I finally placed him: he is the author of Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince, the most notorious of Disney biographies. And now poor Cary Grant, another safely dead Hollywood icon, is getting the treatment. No Amazon.com link here; if you want to waste your time and money with Eliot, you'll get no help from me.

September 24, 2004:

ALSO HEARD FROM: I've added several visitors' messages to the Feedback page devoted to comments on my ongoing exchange with John Kricfalusi.

September 23, 2004:

I'M BACK: ...after several weeks of watching Walt Disney True-Life Adventures and People and Places and such at the Library of Congress. I wrote to John Kricfalusi while I was away, continuing the Barrier-Kricfalusi debate.

September 1, 2004:

TAKING A BREAK: This will be my last posting for a few weeks. I expect to post more of the Barrier-Kricfalusi debate around September 25; mark your calendars. I have other things on the fire, too, that I wasn't able to add to the site as quickly as I hoped, a Frank Tashlin interview first among them. In the meantime, I've added a page devoted to visitors' comments on what John and I have been saying.

FANTASTIC PLASTIC: Reading last week's USA Today story about DreamWorks' computer-generated Father of the Pride, I realized that the show was not "created" in any meaningful sense, but was constructed instead, like a computer built out of off-the-shelf parts. And so it was: after watching the first show in this new series last night, I can't remember seeing any piece of animation, not even the worst of Hanna-Barbera, that was so utterly soulless and mechanical.

Father's principals are stock sitcom characters; there's the fat, bumbling husband, the improbably attractive wife, the sarcastic and vaguely Jewish old person. They're also lions, of course—thus the garnish of zoological jokes atop the usual harmless sitcom smut—although they look and move less like any sort of real animal than like the bendable, posable dolls that Father of the Pride will undoubtedly spawn if it's a hit.

What made Father of the Pride barely watchable was the occasional presence of an especially plastic-looking Siegfried and Roy, whose Las Vegas animal act, now shuttered, triggered the idea for this series in the fertile mind of Jeffrey Katzenberg. Knowing that Roy, so bright and lively in his computer-animated form, was mauled almost to death by one of his tigers (a species I didn't see represented in the TV show's large supporting cast) added a welcome note of the creepy to what was otherwise the most depressingly mundane piece of computer animation I've yet seen.