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"What's New" Archives: April-May 2005

May 31, 2005:

DREAMWORKS: Today's Wall Street Journal has a long and interesting story about how DreamWorks Animation stubbed its toe by overestimating DVD sales of Shrek 2. The story is probably available online only to subscribers, but you may be able to find it if you hunt around the Web.

Speaking of DreamWorks, Madagascar's box-office take for the holiday weekend—$61 million—was gratifyingly large, especially considering that so many reviews were negative. I've been puzzled by critics' hostility to the film, and I have to believe that some of it is owing to Madagascar's relatively weak second half. It's always better for a film to have a strong ending than a strong beginning, so that audiences leave the theater feeling "up," rather than a little let down. It seems that audiences are more willing than reviewers to forgive Madagascar's flawed structure, and this time, at least, the audiences are right.

May 25, 2005:

THE BIG QUESTION: A correspondent who prefers to remain anonymous wrote in response to the last paragraph of my review of Madagascar (which opens Friday, and don't miss it): "I also caught an early screening of the movie, and was happily entertained. To address the question in your last paragraph, I remember from early in the movie how the filmmakers slipped in the requisite flatulence gag under the guise of a few playful 'armpit farts.' Alas..."

But wait! Does a gag count as a fart gag if there's no foul odor for the onscreen characters to react to? My correspondent says yes, suggesting that it's the sound that's the crucial element. It's the rude noise that appeals to kids, he says, and not the dismay of any onscreen characters trapped in the flatulence zone. I prefer to cut the cheese—sorry, I meant to say, I prefer to cut the filmmakers a break and classify those "armpit farts" as more a sly dig at real fart gags than as a fart gag themselves. But I realize we're entering deep theological waters here, and I am open to dissenting voices.

POGO: It's always a joy to see a big-name critic taking up the cause of the greatest American comic strip, and Jonathan Yardley did my heart good with his piece in last Monday's Washington Post on Walt Kelly's "Pogo". Yardley is obviously unaware of Pogo's comic-book origins, and—more serious oversight—he doesn't mention the invaluable Fantagraphics reprints. But we Kelly fans will take what we can get.

DNR: I thought the Wall Street Journal did a good job in its piece this week on digital noise reduction's ill effects on classic cartoons. Certainly the most important point—that real damage is being done—comes across clearly, even if industry people won't acknowledge that the damage is significant. None of the anti-DNR people quoted by the Journal's Vauhini Vara sounds in the least like an obsessive freak.

May 20, 2005:

MADAGASCAR: I don't usually write about new films until they've been in theaters for days or even weeks, but I'm departing from my usual pattern because I've seen an advance screening of Madagascar, the new DreamWorks computer-animated feature, which opens May 27. To my astonishment—I haven't liked previous DreamWorks features—I really enjoyed the film. You can read my Commentary by clicking here.

May 13, 2005:

THE DIPPY DIPLOMATS: Courtesy of Andrew Sullivan's political Web site, some "separated at birth?" frame grabs of John Bolton, President Bush's nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, and Wally Walrus, star of the Walter Lantz cartoon The Dippy Diplomat, among others:

Wally and Bolton 1

Wally and Bolton 2

Wally and Bolton 3

THE SITH HITS THE FANS: The most recent installments in George Lucas's six-part opus have been computer-animated films, for all practical purposes—very bad ones, I think. Dale Peck shares my loathing for the whole misbegotten Star Wars project; you can read his piece for the New York Observer by clicking here.

May 11, 2005:

JOE GRANT: A lot of Disney fan writing is claustrophobic, but in reading some of the tributes to the late Joe Grant (who died May 6), I've had the feeling that I've stepped into a diving bell that is descending into very deep, dark waters. An example:

"Joe Grant will forever haunt animation, move audiences to tears, and swirl about our hearts like bright autumn leaves, reminding us that those who have come before us are not to be discarded and forgotten, but to be used as a source of courage and inspiration. True inspiration. Never has anyone so unassuming, so gracious and so gentle walked the halls of Disney Animation. Never has any one person—outside of Walt himself— inspired so much creative magic at Disney.

"Websters would do well to slip his portrait neatly beside the definition of 'gentleman.' It would have to be a lively caricature that emphasized the snowy wave of hair and apple blush cheeks that framed those jewel-brilliant eyes. Joe Grant’s face shined with a Father Christmas sort of secret knowledge of exactly what you were wishing in your heart, and for decades he granted those wishes."

Well—not exactly. Joe was a gifted, intelligent, and exceptionally interesting man, but any resemblance to Santa Claus was strictly accidental, not to say misleading. It's a pity that Dick Huemer, Ward Kimball, Bill Peet, and Frank Thomas, among others, aren't around to repeat or elaborate upon the assessments of Joe and his career that I heard from them years ago; but then, one of the advantages of living to be almost ninety-seven, as Joe did, is that any skeptics among your contemporaries will most likely have been silenced long before you.

Milt Gray and I interviewed Joe Grant a number of times in the seventies and eighties, and I visited him and his wife, Jennie (who died in 1991), on other occasions. Those visits were almost always pleasant, but by the early nineties I had concluded reluctantly that I no longer liked Joe very much. I found him simply too patronizing and manipulative, the very traits that angered or annoyed a number of his Disney colleagues. I have no reason to believe that Joe was even aware that I had pulled back, much less that he cared. At the most, he would have been amused by my naivete.

Sometime in the next few weeks, when I can make time during work on my Walt Disney biography, I'll post a large chunk from my 1988 interview with Joe, the longest and probably most revealing of our interviews. In the meantime, if you want to learn more about what made Joe such an important member of the Disney staff—but also made him less than completely lovable—let me refer you to pages 256-259 of my book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age.

THE POPEYE MYSTERY: One of the enduring frustrations, where classic animation is concerned, is the continuing unavailability on DVD of most of the Fleischer studio's Popeye cartoons. Fred Grandinetti, the world's leading Popeye fan, talks about that and related issues in a very informative interview you can read by clicking here.

April 26, 2005:

BLOG ALERT: I paid an overdue visit recently to Jaime J. Weinman's excellent blog, "Something Old, Nothing New." I was impressed, as always; anyone who can hold my attention while writing about the Richie Rich comic book is pretty damned good. (He also writes about such things as Nikolaus Harnoncourt's new set of Haydn's "Paris" symphonies, some of my favorite music.)

Jaime's site, which is devoted to "Thoughts on Popular Culture and Unpopular Culture," is a true blog, and not especially user-friendly. Lots of gray pages, and no easy way of finding your way to entries of particular interest. I'm increasingly convinced that such blogs, and blogs in general, are, if not exactly a fad, a phenomenon with a limited life span—even a pseudo-blog like my own can come to seem a little too much like work. (That's why I've decided to stop worrying if my postings come days or even weeks apart.) But Jaime's blog is one of the few that's truly worth the time a visitor is likely to spend roaming through it. Try it, you'll like it.

SECULAR DISNEYISM, CONT'D: Jim Engel wrote in response to my March 31 posting in which I criticized James Dobson, head of the conservative Christian group called Focus on the Family:

"I enjoy your website (as I have Funnyworld and your books over the years). In perusing your daily comments of the last few weeks, I was struck by your dismissal of Dr. James Dobson as an "odious publicity hound" with regard to the SpongeBob incident [in which Dobson was widely reported as attacking the TV-cartoon star SpongeBob SquarePants for being a "gay" character].

"I was amazed at the time (well, and still am) at the coverage of that issue in terms of what he'd said versus. what the media (including comic and animation media) said he said.

"As a Christian who supports Focus On The Family, I receive mail and email from Dr. Dobson. I'm enclosing below the text of an email from Dobson about the whole SpongeBob thing that clarifies his point."

Rather than reproduce Dobson's email, let me direct you to this page on his Web site. As I've told Jim, "disingenuous" was the first word that came to my mind when I read Dobson's disclaimer; but I'll let you make up your own mind.

CRUISIN' WITH PORKY: Bob Bergen, whose expert recreation of Mel Blanc's voice for Porky Pig is one of the few bright spots in Warner Bros.' current mishandling of its classic characters, is offering a combination voice-over seminar/cruise from Los Angeles to Mexico. You can read about it on his site by clicking here.

April 16, 2005:

LEVIATHAN, CONTINUED: The current Fortune, the annual issue devoted to the Fortune 500, includes an article (there's a link, but the full text is available only to subscribers), about Robert Iger's enthusiasm for building Disney's business in China. Disney is a preeminently a "content" company—so what happens when a "content" company ties its fortunes tightly to an authoritarian government that has shown itself to be intensely concerned with the nature of the "content" available to its population? That does not seem to be a question that has given pause to today's Disney management, as well it might.

CRUMB AND HUGHES: Interesting item in today's New York Times about a joint appearance at the New York Public Library by R. Crumb and Robert Hughes, the bottomless bag of wind who writes about art for Time. Seems that Crumb now has a Web site (run by his son Jesse) where you can buy stuff like an $825 Mr. Natural lamp. Wow, the sixties really were a long time ago! Now that they're both Internet entrepreneurs, I wonder if Crumb and Ralph Bakshi have considered cross-marketing?

April 4, 2005:

Marceline signIN WALT DISNEY'S FOOTSTEPS: Last month, as part of the research for my Walt Disney biography for the University of California Press, I visited the two Missouri towns with the strongest Disney associations. I've posted photo essays about my visits, and you can click here to go to the Kansas City page, or here to go to the page for Marceline. This was my second visit to Kansas City—my first in more than fifteen years—and I was dismayed by much of what I saw in Walt's part of town. The more I saw of Marceline, though, the more I liked it. Some of Marceline's Web sites appear to be in flux, so I can't provide as many good Disney-related links as I'd like; I'll add them as soon as I can.

April 2, 2005:

TASHLIN FEEDBACK: I've added a message from Greg Duffell to the feedback page devoted to the Frank Tashlin interview. If you've ever wondered who really directed The Dot and the Line, here's your chance to find out.

BARKS VS. STANLEY, CONTINUED: I've heard from Jeet Heer, who initiated the stimulating and ongoing exchange about the relative merits of the great comic-book creators Carl Barks and John Stanley on a Comics Journal message board. Jeet writes:

"Briefly, I think this issue comes down to depth versus range. There is no question that Barks’s stories had a range that Stanley lacked. Range in this sense referring not just to all the geography that the Ducks covered, but also the many odd cultures they encountered, as well as the inventive plots that Barks put them through.

"Yet I think the relatively narrow ground that Stanley covered—a few city blocks with occasional forays into fairyland and the beach—was covered with greater depth. There is a density to the social relations in Stanley’s world that I don’t find in Barks.

"The character of Tubby highlights what I’m talking about, since his hair-brained schemes push the action forward, much more so than the level-headed Lulu. All the characters around Tubby have mixed feelings toward him. The fellers in the club mock him but also look to him for leadership. Lulu likes Tubby but is always trying to bring him down to earth. Lulu’s dad has an ongoing low-level war against Tubby but tolerates him for the sake of Lulu. Even Gloria, so quick to push Tubby away, gets upset when he turns his attentions to Lulu. Tubby is really the wobbling pivot of Stanley’s universe, the free-floating center that keeps the action going.

"In a sense, Stanley was a bit like Charles Schulz. Just as the Peanuts gang is held together by an organic web of relationships, the same is true of Lulu’s neighborhood. I don’t get this feeling of an organic community in Barks: it really does seem like a universe of every man for himself.

"I haven’t even gotten into the other aspect of Stanley’s writing that is so impressive—his understated slyness. Often you have to pay close attention to what the characters are saying to catch the full nuance, because they are talking at cross-purposes. I find that it takes either close reading or re-reading to catch the full drift of the comedy: aside from the obvious comedy of the farcical situations, there is a lot of subtle wit buried in Stanley."

That's an excellent summary of Stanley's great virtues, I think.

In reading Jeet's message, and the posts on the message board, I've been reminded again of how important it is to judge artists by their best efforts—particularly when those artists were, like Barks and Stanley, required to turn out a large amount of work at a steady clip. I re-read all of Barks' duck stories and all of Stanley's Lulu stories when I was making choices for A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics more than twenty years ago, and I remember being struck at the time by the mediocrity—that's the only word—of much of what I read. It wasn't that Barks and Stanley were ever less than conscientious professionals, but only that they couldn't afford to wait for inspiration to strike. They had deadlines to meet; and it was because they wrote and drew so steadily that they were fully prepared to meet the challenge when the Muse did make her appearance.

Comparing the best work of the two artists—and I don't think more than 10 percent of either man's output really deserves that title—it's certainly true that Stanley evokes the community life of Lulu's rather down-at-heel small Northeastern city more effectively than Barks does the life of Duckburg (which is always more a prop than a real town). I would still give the palm to Barks, though, because his richest stories have a psychological subtlety and, more than that, a psychological intensity that I don't think Stanley ever quite achieves, even in those stories he drew himself. Is there a Stanley story in which any character is as brilliantly brought to life as Donald Duck in Barks's ten-page story in the October 1952 Walt Disney's Comics? I don't know of any; and, for me, it's through the creation of such characters—instantly recognizable, but open to us in a way that real people are not—that fiction of any kind ultimately justifies its existence.

April 1, 2005:

ROBOTS: I finally saw it the other day, and I can't bring myself to write a full review of it. It is the most formulaic computer-animated film I've seen to date. Almost everything about it is numbingly predictable—the pointless movie-star voices, the pop-song borrowings, the synthetically sentimental orchestral score, the busy sequences that evoke theme-park rides and video games, the flimsy story (in this case a knockoff of Monsters, Inc.), and, above all, the sanctimonious fraudulence with which the film's makers, employees of Rupert Murdoch, wag their fingers at businessmen dedicated to maximizing profits. A pinch of irony, if you please. There's a fart gag, of course, an unusually elaborate and prolonged piece of business, in fact, as if the filmmakers were determined to put to rout those doubters (like me) who couldn't envision how metal bodies could be flatulent. I saw Robots during school vacation, with fifty or more children in the audience, and it was only during this part of the film that I heard the kids laugh.

There are a few traces of thought in the film—I enjoyed the sequence in Robots' version of Grand Central Terminal, which reflects the experience of real New Yorkers (the Blue Sky studio is still located in White Plains, I believe), and I applaud the use of a Tom Waits song on the soundtrack. For the most part, though, I came away feeling that Robots had been made by talented people who had been working very hard at suppressing those talents. What a way to spend several years of your life—and how depressing to see a film like this one, so soon after The Incredibles and The Polar Express have shown us what computer animation is already capable of.