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"What's New" Archives: January 2005

January 19, 2005:

HIATUS: I'll be traveling much of the time for the next few weeks, so the site will be quiet. When I come back, I'll have the welcome opportunity to consider two new DVDs collecting the work of the independent animator Joanna Priestley. Independent animation isn't easy to see anywhere, and certainly not here in the heartland—that's one reason I write so little about it—and it's encouraging to think that DVDs like Priestley's may make up for the chronic lack of theatrical exposure.

January 15, 2005:

BI-POLAR: On one of my frequent visits to Harry McCracken's Web site, I ran across this comment from Jerry Beck, co-proprietor of the indispensable Cartoon Brew site, in response to my favorable review of The Polar Express:

"Mike seems to appreciate the dreamlike quality of the visuals. As I said in my review on Cartoon Brew, I could've bought that had they bookended the film with live action. What explains the dreamlike quality of the non-dream opening and closing sequences?"

I think the key word here is "dreamlike," as distinct from "dream." The film doesn't tell us where reality stops and dream begins, or even if they're fundamentally different. The boundary between the two is highly fluid. It's just such ambiguity—and mystery—that distinguishes The Polar Express from most children's entertainments, and that makes it so appealing to me.

DAVID HAND: The first interview I posted on this site was with David Hand, Walt Disney's second-in-command during the Disney studio's golden years and the man in charge of bringing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Bambi to the screen. After he left Disney in 1944, Hand went to England, where he started and ran a cartoon studio for the J. Arthur Rank organization. That studio made only nineteen cartoons before Rank shut it down in 1950.

Animaland DVDNine of those cartoons, all in the "Animaland" series, were first released on DVD a few years ago, but now they have reappeared in an enhanced package from Image Entertainment that includes an 18-minute biography read by Dave Hand's son, David Hale Hand, a filmography, remarkable photos of "Animaland" merchandise, and a sampling of Hand's gag cartoons for magazines. The "Animaland" cartoons themselves are not competitive with the best Hollywood cartoons—they couldn't be, given that Hand had to build his animation studio from the ground up—but they're fascinating, even so. There are strong hints in some of them, like Ginger Nutt's Christmas Circus, that Hand's studio might eventually have produced outstanding cartoons with a distinctive British flavor. I recommend the DVD to anyone who cares about Hollywood animation's history.

January 10, 2005:

POLAR EXPRESS IN 3-D: John Benson wrote in response to my speculation below about the 3-D version of The Polar Express: "I don't agree that the 3-D doesn't enhance the entire film. Many effects may not be evident in the 2-D version. The wolves, for example; not just when they're running, but the first stationary long shot of them with the train in the background, which I found startlingly beautiful and unexpected. Or even something as small as the reflection in the hubcap in the boy's bedroom. Mixing 3-D with 2-D in the same
feature would not only be technically a problem but would be disconcerting. You accept the technical form that a film is made in as a given (b&w vs. color, scope vs. standard ratio, sound vs. silent, etc.), but when it switches in mid-film you're disconcertingly made aware of
it. Especially if you'd have to put on and take off 3-D glasses. I think you should see the 3-D version before deciding whether it's extraneous."

The Polar Express isn't playing in 3-D anywhere near where I live now; neither is it playing in the Washington-Baltimore area, where I used to live and still visit. It is, however, playing in Boston, where I'll be for a few days in early February. I'll hope that Polar Express is still playing in 3-D then. It may be; evidently the 3-D version is so good that the seasonal connection isn't as important as it otherwise might be.

January 9, 2005:

POLAR EXPRESS: I finally got around to seeing it a few days ago, and, to my surprise, I loved it. Click here to find out why.

I saw Polar Express flat, but it's also showing in a 3-D version that I haven't seen. Parts of the film, like the dazzling "hot chocolate" dance routine and the train's roller-coaster ride, cry out for 3-D, but I don't think other parts of it would benefit. I wonder if Polar Express would not best be seen partly flat and partly in 3-D, if today's film technology permitted such a thing. In this respect, as in others, this movie may be just a little ahead of its time.

January 4, 2005:

WILL EISNER: I don't usually post "breaking news" on this site—sites like Cartoon Brew do that much better than I ever could—but I can't help but take notice of the death yesterday of Will Eisner, creator of "The Spirit." I won't dilate now on what I thought was so special about Eisner's work; I've already done that, in a piece posted here. Suffice it to say that I think Eisner was one of the three great geniuses of the American comic book, the others being Carl Barks and Harvey Kurtzman. Now all of them are gone. Eisner was 87 when he died. I last saw him in 2003, when he spoke at the Library of Congress, but I'd read about him since in admiring articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post; I'm grateful that he lived long enough to be recognized by such institutions as the great artist he was.

January 1, 2005:

LIVE-ACTION WALT: Charles Ilardi writes about my recent "buying guide" to Walt Disney's live-action features on DVD: "I have no doubt you’ve picked the best of the crop (I still remember being four years old and waiting in line for hours outside Radio City Music Hall to watch That Darn Cat; those scars haven’t healed yet!). But I must call attention to The Three Lives of Thomasina. As an animation fan and a fan of The Prisoner (there are a few of us!) I was most surprised by the presence of Patrick McGoohan in a Disney film, acting at his most Number Six surliest. Additionally, he’s surrounded by future Prisoner comrades like actor Finlay Currie (a Disney Brit-film vet) and director Don Chaffey. (Incidentally, the cameraman, Paul Beeson—To Sir, With Love, The Saint—didn’t work on The Prisoner, but he was second-unit cameraman on Raiders of the Lost Ark, for whom the second-unit director was David Tomblin, producer of The Prisoner!) Anyway, McGoohan must surely give the earthiest performance ever in a Disney production, and at times the combination of the realistic atmosphere and the magical elements of the Paul Gallico story don’t gel. It is interesting to watch, nonetheless, and I’m curious what you and your readers think of this film."

Thomasina DVDFor me, Thomasina is one of the many Disney live-action films that suffer from Walt's reliance on TV-trained directors (who sometimes returned to TV after working for him). Walt apparently valued their efficiency, but fast set-ups and the skillful marshaling of actors too often came at the cost of sliding over crucial character relationships. In Thomasina, we're left with questions whose answers a more sensitive director would have suggested through his principals' responses to one another: Why is the father (the McGoohan character) so cold? Is it because he fears being hurt grievously again if anything should happen to his daughter? Does he not see in Thomasina's death and his daughter's grief an analogue to his own grief? And so on. It's just such questions that Ken Annakin anticipates and answers in his four films for Disney, through his sympathetic handling of his actors. He does it so smoothly that it's tempting to assume that the answers were always there; but they weren't.

Gene Schiller writes about one of those Annakin films: "Thanks for steering us towards Third Man on the Mountain, a thoroughly enjoyable film, though you might have mentioned William Alwyn's fine score." A good point. The music for most Disney live-action films is so dreadful—a constant auditory poke in the ribs—that it would be a shame not to acknowledge the rare good score. Let me also recommend Max Steiner's score for Those Calloways, one of the many coulda-been-good Disney films.

INTERVIEWS: With one exception—the Fess Parker interview—the interviews I've published on the site were recorded years or even decades ago. A good friend of the site wrote recently to suggest that I pursue an interview with one of today's hot animation directors, and I asked another good friend of the site what he thought of that idea. His answer:

"Prior to Funnyworld, the past generation [of animation filmmakers] was almost never interviewed, so we knew nothing about what they did or how they thought. But today's generation is so extensively interviewed that we already know everything about them—we know what they're going to do before they do it. That's why it is probably a waste of your time to put any effort into interviewing the new guys. Plus, most of the new guys, being the center of so much media attention, already have egos as big as Chuck Jones' after he began getting so much media attention. Better to stick with Fess Parker."

Well said. I flatter myself that I might be able to ask people like Brad Bird questions that other interviewers aren't asking, but with so many interviews in print, it seems likely that most of the pertinent questions are being covered.

And as to whether the PR people for the major cartoon studios would even entertain an interview request from the proprietor of a Web site that never gets more than a couple of thousand page hits on its very best days...probably I'm better off not knowing.

AUTHORS: Joshua Wilson, whose thoughtful message about my book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, prompted me to put up a new Feedback page devoted to the book, wrote again after reading my response to his message: "When I said I couldn’t imagine the author of Hollywood Cartoons laughing at the Tom and Jerry short Solid Serenade, I really meant the 'author' persona that arises in my mind from the tone of the writing. It’s a concept I have a hard time describing, but that objective, serious tone gives the impression of a serious mind behind the words."

When I read Josh's message, I was reminded of a passage at the end of George Orwell's essay on Dickens, when Orwell writes about how an author's persona can be distinct from the author himself:

"When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the face of the writer. ... What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens's photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity."

I have the feeling, based on the messages I receive, that at least a few of my readers do see a face behind the page. Whether it's always the face I'd choose that they see is another question, of course. Sometimes I think they see a rather severe face, brow knotted and head shaking as if to say, "Won't do, won't do at all." But better that face than none at all, I suppose.

RESURRECTIONS: If you subscribed to Funnyworld around 1978, you got a premium: a record containing a short interview with Jack Mercer, the great voice of Popeye, conducted by the New York cartoon maker Michael Sporn. That interview is available again, as one of the many added features on a DVD, "Popeye Original Classics," made up otherwise of excellent transfers of the Fleischer Popeye cartoons that are in the public domain. King Features' continuing refusal to approve video releases of the Fleischer and Famous Popeyes—even as it gives its blessing to a hideous CGI version of the character—is one of animation's greatest disgraces. Buying the new DVD, from Steve Stanchfield's Thunderbean Animation, is an excellent way to thumb your nose at the smug fools who run King.