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"What's New" Archives: March 2005

March 31, 2005:

SECULAR DISNEYISM: I've been intrigued by news items reporting that some Imax theaters are refusing to show movies that mention evolution, "fearing protests from people who object to films that contradict biblical descriptions of the origin of Earth and its creatures," in the New York Times' words. It seems that "religious controversy has adversely affected the distribution of a number of films" dealing with scientific subjects, and that production of "large-format science documentaries" will inevitably respond to such pressures.

Those reports set me to wondering about Walt Disney and Fantasia, and about why Disney and his films haven't yet come under attack from people who find the bare mention of evolution offensive. It's hard to regard Fantasia's "Rite of Spring" sequence as anything other than an endorsement of evolutionary theory, although Deems Taylor's narration dances all around the word without ever using it, speaking instead of "a story of the growth of life on earth." Walt Disney himself was not a visibly religious man, and certainly not a churchgoer; he lived in a rigidly religious household as a child and thereafter never attended church. On the rare occasion when religion makes an appearance in a Disney film (Pollyanna, for example), there's evident a deep skepticism toward Christianity of the harsh fundamentalist kind, and a distinct preference for the faith's more benign manifestations.

If Walt Disney and his films have not yet been the targets of odious publicity hounds like James Dobson, that can only be because such people realize that they run a much greater risk of looking foolish if they condemn Walt than if they attack SpongeBob SquarePants. But we live in a period when willed ignorance is increasingly respectable, and surely Dobson and his ilk are simply biding their time.

March 28, 2005:

BACK FROM MARCELINE: Walt Disney's hometown is an interesting place, it turns out. I'll post a fully illustrated report shortly.

BARKS VS. STANLEY: Mark Mayerson has called my attention to an exchange that's taking place on The Comics Journal's message board. It was initiated by Jeet Heer, who has advanced the proposition that John Stanley (the comic genius behind the Little Lulu comic book of the forties and fifties) was far superior to Carl Barks (the comic genius behind the best Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comic books published then) as a writer. I haven't had time yet to digest the views posted by Jeet and others, but this looks like an uncommonly interesting thread. Most animation and comics message boards are depressing places, heavily populated by shameless ignoramuses (my favorite example being the poor soul who asked, "Who is W. C. Fields?"), but such people don't seem to have been attracted by this Barks-Stanley discussion.

My initial thought: the action in the Lulu stories takes place within so much narrower a compass than the action in any of Barks's stories that the effect is to magnify the subtleties of which Stanley is indeed a master. Barks is just as subtle, only he's working on a broader canvas. I think Stanley's non-Lulu stories are illuminating in this regard: a lot of them are wonderfully funny, but they certainly don't have any more refinement (I think they have considerably less) than comparable Barks stories.

But read the debate—and, of course, read the stories, if you haven't already—and make up your own mind. And read the Journal, too; how I wish there were a regularly published animation magazine that rivaled the Journal for intelligence and pungency.

March 17, 2005:

LEVIATHAN: As I've followed this week's developments at the Walt Disney Company, I've been reminded of how much that corporation differs from the Walt Disney Productions that Michael Eisner took over in 1984. Then, less than twenty years after Walt Disney's death, the company still looked very much like Walt's—poorly run, to be sure, but recognizable as the founder's child. Not so today, once past the endless recycling of Walt's cartoons and Walt's characters. I visit several fan sites devoted to all things "Disney," and I often wonder how those sites rationalize making room under their particular tents for both Bambi and Desperate Housewives.

There's nothing "Disney" about a lot of what bears that label now, at least compared with what "Disney" meant a few decades ago. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that being a devoted fan of today's Disney Company is about as odd as being a fan of, say, General Motors. Disney is just another big corporation; and if you give your heart to a big corporation, you should expect to have it sold back to you.

I wonder, in the wake of the Bernard Ebbers verdict, how Walt himself would fare in today's business climate. Like so many entrepreneurs, he identified with his company, and in his activities the line between the personal and the corporate was often blurry. Walt didn't pay attention to money, either, as long as he had enough of it to spend on pet projects. If Walt Disney Productions, as a public company, had been caught up in an accounting scandal at all similar to those that wrecked Enron and WorldCom, could Walt have escaped punishment? Not if he had operated in a climate as censorious as ours. I'm glad that he didn't.

Speaking of Walt: I'll be visiting Disney-related sites in Missouri next week, so the site will be even quieter than usual for the next ten days or so. I still haven't seen Robots, I'm sorry to say. I'm actually very curious about one thing. Given that it's a contemporary animated cartoon, Robots surely includes at least one fart gag But how was such a gag accommodated, considering that the characters are made of metal? Don't tell me; and don't tell me, especially, if there is no fart gag. I prefer to postpone my disappointments.

March 11, 2005:

CLANK: Robots opens today, and I'll post some thoughts about it in a few days. I've criticized "robotic" computer animation in the past, and I've been tempted to hope that Robots, filled as it is with metallic, emphatically artificial characters, would be a wry—dare I say "post-modern"?—commentary on the medium's limitations. The reviews have not been encouraging, however. For example, here's the gist of Joe Morgenstern's very brief, dismissive review in today's Wall Street Journal:

"This computer-animated feature was made by the people who gave us the modest delights of Ice Age, but they seem to have forgotten everything they knew about appealing stories and characters that kids can care about. Instead of a cute, thrifty squirrel, or a wide-eyed sloth, we have ducts, gears, cogs, sprockets and bearings as cluttered backgrounds for a city populated by blathering robots made of mismatched parts. The video-game sequences are impressive, but you know that a 'toon is in big trouble when its most powerful theme is planned obsolescence."

Robots, like Ice Age, was directed by Chris Wedge. He worked on Tron—the live-action Disney feature that pioneered through its extensive use of computer animation—more than twenty years ago. At a recent L.A. screening of Robots, Wedge visited with Steven Lisberger, Tron's director, and, fortunately, Chris Padilla of the Web site AnimationTrip.com was on hand with a tape recorder. You can read the results by clicking here. I particularly enjoyed some of Lisberger's comments, like this one:

"In some of the major studios, the attitude is that when you put enough people in a room and you get them working on something, and the one that’s left standing at the end—you go with him. And it’s sort of a 'survival of the fittest' business acumen. My feeling is that too often they apply that in the creative realm. It’s like, 'Ten people have a creative direction on this. You ten people go at it. And the one that wins—we’ll use his idea.' I find that the problem with that is that very often, the person who has the best creative idea is not that good at politicking, is not good at making the right friends, is not good at the phone calls, is not good at the connections. So if you base it on that other formula, you end up with bad studio movies. That’s a specific that I’ve seen come out of the mixture of business and art. ... The way to counter that is to have a team of people that really know each other."

March 9, 2005:

BOOK BEAT: Two university presses will soon be releasing a couple of animation-related books with which I had some peripheral involvement. I'll tell you what I know about them, in case that helps you make up your mind about ordering them. As always, you can order from amazon.com by clicking on the links.

Fleischer book coverI had the opportunity to read a manuscript verson of Richard Fleischer's memoir of his father, Max Fleischer, which will be published in June by the University Press of Kentucky as Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution. Here is a little of what I wrote to an editor at the UK Press when I recommended publication of the book:

"The Max whom his employees observed, and whom they have described in interviews with a number of writers, was consistent with the Max in this book—a conservative burgher of steady habits, an obsessive tinkerer and inventor—but much of Richard Fleischer's rich anecdotal material could only have come from a member of Max's immediate family. .. I came away from the book feeling that I knew Max better than before, and that I liked him more. The book also fills gaps, both large and small, in the historical record."

Inevitably, I had some problems with the manuscript, and I'll address them in a review if they've survived the transition into print. But, on the basis of the manuscript I've read, this is a book I can warmly recommend. Richard Fleischer, who directed Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, among many other films, is also the author of an excellent Hollywood memoir, Just Tell Me When to Cry, but I suspect that Out of the Inkwell will prove to have even more lasting value.

I don't know a great deal about Chuck Jones: Conversations other than that it will contain my 1969 interview from Funnyworld No. 13, but I do know that Maureen Furniss, who edited the book for the University Press of Mississippi, has tracked down an enormous number of Jones interviews; the list she sent me at an early stage of her work already included a substantial number of Jones book coverpublished interviews that I had somehow missed.

The problem with Jones interviews is that they are so repetitive. Toward the end of his life, especially, Chuck tended to slip into auto-pilot in interviews, offering the same answers no matter how different the questions were. (My last interview with him, in 1986, unpleasant in other respects, was unpleasant in that way, too.) Maureen had a daunting task, but her thoroughness in assembling interviews encourages me to believe that she has completed it successfully. We'll know in April, when the book is published.

Mississippi's "Conversations with Comic Artists" series, of which the Jones book is part, is increasingly valuable but apparently little noticed by many members of its natural audience. I have the Charles Schulz and Carl Barks volumes on my shelves, and I can recommend both highly, especially the Barks, edited by Donald Ault, which contains a lot of previously unpublished and frequently illuminating interviews. I still need to buy the R. Crumb and Milton Caniff entries.

SPEAKING OF CHUCK: When I last wrote here about the second set of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVDs, I hadn't yet received my contributor's copy; but now I have, and I can say without reservations that this set lives up to my hopes. It contains many of Bob Clampett's best Warner cartoons, beautifully restored, as well as some outstanding Chuck Jones cartoons (One Froggy Evening, A Bear for Punishment, What's Opera, Doc?, The Dover Boys).

The "extras" are mostly fine, too. I didn't flinch too often listening to my own audio commentaries (except when I heard my silly mistakes—that is indeed Tommy Dorsey, rather than Glenn Miller, in Book Revue, and I mixed up the genders of the Crosby and Cantor children in my commentary for Baby Bottleneck). For me, though, the real treasure among the "extras" is the supplementary audio track for What's Opera, Doc? that allows us to listen in on the recording session for the voices in that cartoon.

There are lots of pathways that lead back to the Warner Bros. cartoon studio in the forties and fifties, when the people there were making their best cartoons—interviews, old photographs, documents of various kinds. But the snippets from recording sessions, this one in particular, are unique. When we hear Mel Blanc seeking Chuck Jones's guidance on the reading of a line, we're there, with no distorting haze—no selective memories, no posing for the camera, only two great pros going about their work without a hint of self-consciousness. They had no reason to believe that what they said would survive a day, much less surface on hundreds of thousands of DVDs fifty years later.

For me, the immediacy of this particular exchange makes it immensely moving. I don't know that I'd argue that it's worth the price of the set in itself; but it's a close call.

March 3, 2005:

MORE BI-POLAR: Milt Gray wrote in response to John Benson's comments about the 3-D version of The Polar Express, which I appended to my own review of the film:

"I enjoyed John Benson's comments on your site about Polar Express. I would argue only one point he made: Instead of the 3-D being completely 'natural' (if he means that in a literal way), I felt that the 3-D was just a little exaggerated—and I loved it because, being a little exaggerated, it gave the movie a stronger feeling of fantasy. That, in turn, made the very unnatural-looking characters seem to belong in the movie, so that they were easy to accept on their own terms. To me, Polar Express felt very much like a John Stanley Lulu-Tubby ghost story, sort of like 'The Ghost In the Bottle,' or 'The Wishing Tree.'

"I especially agreed with the last paragraph of Benson's comments, about the difficulty of suspending disbelief in today's world, compared with the 1950s. As much as I wanted to let myself go with the 'believe in Santa' theme of the movie, my reaction to that theme was very uncomfortable and exactly the same as John's. He articulated perfectly my own reservations about that aspect of Polar Express."

A March 9 addendum from John Benson: "I guess he's right that the 3-D was sometimes a little exaggerated, but then it often is in 3-D live-action movies (all they have to do is move the cameras a little further apart). However, it was only exaggerated in that way, which is a slightly unnatural way of filming reality. I was not conscious of any selective hightening of the 3-D within a frame, which to my mind would qualify as 'unnatural.'"

March 2, 2005:

AN OSCAR AFTERTHOUGHT: As pleased as I was to see Brad Bird win the Oscar for best animated feature for The Incredibles, I was almost equally chagrined to see him lose the award for best original screenplay to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. When I first read about that film, I thought, "What an interesting idea for a film." When I finally saw the film, I had exactly the same reaction—not that the film itself was interesting, but that the idea behind it was. Eternal Sunshine strikes me as a classic example of a one-sentence "concept" masquerading as a two-hour screenplay. That so flimsy an effort should have been chosen over Bird's extremely clever and inventive screenplay is testimony to the Academy's chronic preference for the superficially serious—and, of course, for live action over animation.

If you haven't yet read my Los Angeles Times piece on The Incredibles, or my interview with Brad Bird, you can still read them by clicking on those links.

CATCHING UP: A couple of items that merit your attention...

Golden Awards: From Bob Foster in L.A.: "The Animation Guild's Golden Awards Banquet will be held April 9, 2005, 6 p.m. at Pickwick Gardens, 1001 Riverside Drive in Burbank, California. This event honors those veterans with fifty years in the industry of screen cartooning, animation, and related fields. This year's honorees began their careers between 1943 and 1955, during the heyday of Warner Bros, UPA, Disney, Jay Ward and more. It's been 10 years since the last Golden Awards Banquet, so we have a lot of honorees for this year's event."

Individual banquet tickets are $37.50, and you can order them through the Guild's Web site by clicking on this link. For more information on attending the banquet, call Dave Brain at (818) 246-6437 or email him at dbrain@sbcglobal.net.

Oswald Gets Lucky: From Pietro Shakarian: "Now hosted on Jerry Beck's 'Cartoon Research' is 'Of Rocks and Socks: The Winkler Oswalds (1928-29),'a guide on the extremely rare (and largely undocumented) Oswald cartoons produced during the six-month gap [between the Disney and Lantz Oswalds] by Charles Mintz and George Winkler. This whole thing has been written and tediously researched by David Gerstein and myself. Check it out here."

I'm not sure why Pietro snuck that "tediously" in there, because the Oswald pages, filled with information that was new to me and probably to most readers, are anything but tedious to those of us who care about Hollywood animation's history. These pages are the fruits of the kind of basic research that today's academics, preoccupied as they are with "theory," can't be bothered with, but that will have far more value over the long haul. They're well worth a visit. Kudos to Jerry Beck for giving them a home.