April 26, 2009:
April 25, 2009:
April 19, 2009:
The Flypaper Sequence Revisited
April 17, 2009:
April 14, 2009:
April 13, 2009:
Hyperion Avenue and Griffith Park Boulevard, 2009
April 6, 2009:
April 2, 2009:
April 1, 2009:
April 26, 2009:
I meant to post the image below on April 12, but I forgot; I missed the Orthodox Easter on April 19, too. But what the hey, Easter is not just a day but a multi-week period in the church calendar in the Episcopal Church and, I assume, many other Christian denominations, so maybe this post isn't really all that late after all. And the artist of this cover of Warner Bros.' house organ? Looks like Bob McKimson to me.
From Mark Colangelo: I just read your thoughts on the Warner Club News cover possibly done by the hand of Bob McKimson. You might be right, but it doesn't look like the way McKimson drew the characters in the late forties, to me. Especially Daffy in the back. In the McKimson cartoons, Daffy had a squatter body, but a longer cranium, smaller eyes, and a larger beak. The Daffy in the Warner Club News looks like the model used for Daffy Dilly and A Pest in the House. This leads me to believe that maybe someone from the Jones unit did the cover. I'm going to guess that it's by Ben Washam, because Bugs Bunny also has the "chisel tooth" that Washam always drew on the character. Of course, I could be way
off base. This looks more like a job for Mark Kausler!
From Mark Kausler: I was afraid you would ask me about this cover. I know it isn't McKimson's drawing, but I don't recognize the drawing style as anyone else's either. Could be Washam, could be Virgil Ross, Bugs looks like a Freleng Bugs to me, but I really can't say for sure. Some more guesses from the Freleng unit: Hawley Pratt or Gerry Chiniquy.
MB replies: I know of no one better than Mark Kausler at identifying animators' styles, so if he's stuck, there's probably no ready answer. I borrowed that Warner Club News from Virgil Ross, many years ago, and my recollection is that he told me that McKimson drew the cover, but that seems unlikely. So, was it perhaps drawn by someone not in animation but elsewhere in the Warner operation, in publicity or merchandise or—?
[Posted April 27, 2009]
From Thad Komorowski: that is most definitely a Freleng unit drawing on your site. Virgil, as you may know, didn't have a very good memory for "who did what." It definitely isn't his (he always drew very specific, lovely drawings). I'd guess Hawley Pratt like Mark Kausler too.
From Dan Briney: I'm hardly one to second-guess Mark Kausler, but for what it's worth, I keep looking and looking at that Bugs and I see more McKimson there than Freleng. But I also wanted to point out that this is one of the charming, fun things about classic animation, that has been lost in the shift to 3D: it's actually possible to identify the styles of individual animators. In 3D animation the character model is what it is.
[Posted April 29, 2009]
From Thad Komorowski: I have to strongly disagree with the McKimson assumption. Bob illustrated a record book around '49, I think called "Bugs Bunny in Storybook Land," and he draws all four characters as how they appear in his cartoons. Again, I'd have to assume someone in Freleng's unit.
MB replies: Or was it possibly someone who wasn't an animator at all, and took his cues on how to draw the characters from a number of animators? Perhaps Ralph Heimdahl, who drew the Bugs Bunny newspaper strip? In any case, Thad is right about that record book/album (and there was more than one): the characters as McKimson drew them for the book/album don't look like the work of the same hand that drew them for the WCN cover.
[Posted April 30, 2009]
From Ricardo Cantoral: I think what is throwing people off here is Daffy. That long bill design is particularly distinctive of McKimson at the time. However, Bugs, especially the way his mouth is drawn, screams Virgil Ross or Hawley Pratt. I can't decide which since I've never seen much of Pratt's work but I know he did Friz's layouts. I am pretty much in the dark of who drew this personally.
MB replies: I agree on all points. That beak is always what catches my eye first, and I think it distorted my judgment.
From Thad Komorowski: You're right that it could not be an animator who drew the WCN cover. I don't think it's Heimdahl though because I have some of his 1948 comic book stories, and the Bugs looks rather different in them, particularly Bugs' cranium. It COULD be him though.
[Posted May 1, 2009]
When I put up Dan Briney's photo of the intersection of Hyperion Avenue and Griffith Park Boulevard—the location, long ago, of the Disney studio in its greatest days—on April 13, the great Danish animator Børge Ring was prompted to send me his memories of one of the most important people at that studio, the animator and director David Hand. Ultimately, what Børge wrote outgrew the comments slot for the Hyperion item, and so I've set up a separate Feedback page devoted to his memories not just of Dave Hand (they worked together in Denmark around 1950) but also of Jack Kinney, another veteran Disney director. You can go to the new Feedback page by clicking on this link.
I have lots of photos of Dave Hand in groups, but I could come up with only one portrait photo, the one at the right, which comes from Dave's "Disney Legends" page and is, I believe, the target of this comment by Børge: "The official publicity photo of Dave is worse than awful. It makes him look like a pasteurized missionary." A scary thought.
Børge suggests that there is a better way to get a sense of what Dave Hand was like, and it's by watching a movie that was made several years after he left the Disney studio:
David Hand liked physical activity and at fifty was a whack of a ping pong player. If you want to see him in action, go watch "Bongo" [in Fun and Fancy Free]. Ward Kimball caricatures Hand acutely as Lumpjaw the villain. Lumpjaw is DH to a tee, with timing, quick walks, and everything—for instance in the scene walking with heroine Lulubelle at his hand.
That's a frame grab from the scene in question at the right.
I wish Dave and Ward were still with us so I could test Børge's theory on them, but, alas, they're not. In my acquaintance with Dave—I spent a few hours with him on two occasions, years apart, and we exchanged letters and phone calls—it never occurred to me that he might have inspired the animation of Lumpjaw, but it's an entertaining thought.
And let me remind you that Dave Hand's own words, in the transcript of part of my 1973 interview with him, and in an audio clip from that interview, can be read and heard at this link.
April 25, 2009:
Ken Annakin, who died last Wednesday at the age of 94, was that great rarity among the people who made Walt Disney's live-action features, a director whose own sensibility shaped the films in significant ways. The typical Disney director—the kind of director Walt favored, alas—was a faceless traffic cop, but in Annakin's four Disney films the actors make up a true ensemble, each of them responding to one another with a seeming genuineness that has few parallels in other Disney features or, for that matter, in live-action features generally.
My favorite among Annakin's Disney features is Third Man on the Mountain (1959); I write about it and another of his features, Swiss Family Robinson (1960), on a page devoted to the DVDs of live-action Disney. Two of Annakin's Disney features, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men and The Sword and the Rose, have not yet been released on generally available DVDs, and that's unfortunate; they're charming films that deserve to be seen.
Annakin made other good films, but not as many as he had in him, I'm sure, and some that he did make would have been better if he'd had his way. He wanted Dick Van Dyke to star in what is perhaps his most famous non-Disney film, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), but for reasons he explains in his 2001 autobiography, So You Wanna Be a Director, he wound up with Stuart Whitman instead. Watch the film sometime and imagine Van Dyke in the Whitman part, and I think you will understand immediately why Annakin was right.
I spent a couple of hours with Ken Annakin and his wife, Pauline, in Los Angeles four years ago, interviewing them for The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, and I came away liking them both. One of the great pleasures of working on that book was meeting and interviewing a few of the people who worked on the Disney live-action features, a badly neglected part of Walt's output. Ken Annakin, Richard Todd, Fess Parker, James MacArthur (by phone), and others whose names are less familiar illuminated Walt's personality and helped me understand why too many of his live-action features fell short of his best work in animation—and they were a lot of fun to talk to, besides.
Click on this link to go the New York Times obituary for Ken Annakin. The extraordinary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who was also 94, died the same day as Ken Annakin; his Times obituary is at this link, and you can read Jenny Lerew's sensitive tribute by clicking here. Does it seem out of place to mention a live-action cinematographer (who never worked for Walt Disney) on a Web site devoted mostly to animation? If you think so, watch Black Narcissus (1947), one of Cardiff's breathtaking Technicolor movies for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and you may change your mind.
I realized a few weeks ago that I had committed myself to helping with no fewer than five book or book-sized projects—reading manuscripts, writing part of the text, providing research materials, and so on. The time I was spending meeting those commitments was eating up most of the time I would otherwise have spent on this site and my own next book. Now I've just about cleared away those commitments, and I've already turned down another one. I'm hopeful that both site and book will benefit.
One casualty of my overload was my usual checking of my Sage feeds. I visit a few sites, like Michael Sporn's, almost daily, because their proprietors are so frighteningly prolific (Michael's blog is especially rich in animation artwork), but for the most part I depend on RSS feeds to tell me when something new has gone up. As a result, I've fallen behind in posting links to some excellent material that no one should overlook if they find my own site of interest. For those links, see below.
I've praised Hans Perk's blog on many occasions, and no one who cares about Disney history, in particular, should fail to visit it often. Hans posts a tremendous number of documents of great historical interest, but I want to single out one that I think is truly extraordinary: the transcript of one of Don Graham's action analysis classes, this one held on February 20, 1936; the guest speaker was the animator Dick Huemer (seen at right), and his subject was "timing."
The mere existence of this transcript was a great surprise to me; I've accumulated dozens of transcripts from the Graham classes, but I didn't have this one, and I'm almost certain that Dick Huemer himself didn't have one, either. When I knew him, Dick tended to disparage his abilities as an animator, but he comes across in this transcript as the serious artist he actually was. There's a wonderfully strong sense in this transcript—I can't think of another that matches it—of just what an exciting place the Disney studio was in the middle '30s, and of how much in flux everyone's knowledge of animation really was. It feels as if Huemer is reporting on what he and his colleagues have discovered as they advanced into unexplored territory.
Great stuff. As Hans Perk's mentor Børge Ring wrote after reading the transcript, "'Dick Huemer on Timing' is one of the best pieces I ever read on a blog: Huemer debates precisely all the brass-tack problems that make up the wonderful game of chess that lively action animation can be." Exactly right.
Hans has also posted a followup to my March 18 item about Emil Flohri, the Disney background painter in the early '30s, with a larger and much clearer version of the photo of Flohri and Carlos Manriquez that accompanied my item. With the help of Alex Rannie, Hans has been able to identify the two background paintings visible in the photo, one in Manriquez's hand and the other on Flohri's desk, and even the bound volumes of Judge on the shelves above Flohri's desk.
Hans sometimes laments the lack of response to his postings, and I sympathize. It often seems that the sillier the post, the more eager are the morons and subliterates among animation fans (a high percentage of the total, I'm afraid) to tell the world what they think about it. Blogs encourage speedy responses—seeing your inane comments go up a few minutes after you've submitted them is just one more of our society's many forms of instant gratification. Serious stuff, like so many of Hans's posts, and a good many of mine, call for a more serious response, and often there seems to be no time for such in the blogosphere.
Another admirable blogger, David Levy, has worked out one of the best blog schedules I can imagine—he posts every Monday, and only on Monday, as reflected in the title of his blog, Animondays. What I enjoy most about this blog is its strong sense of real life, specifically the real life of someone working in animation in New York City. Michael Sporn's blog is similar in that regard, but I think Dave Levy's blog feels even more real than Michael's, simply because Michael casts his net wider and covers much more, historically and geographically. Animondays is more focused on daily life. I've said that today's New York feels to me like a healthier environment for animation and animators than today's Los Angeles, and Dave's blog benefits from that disparity. Too many L.A.-based blogs read like the ravings of megalomaniacs or the whining of childish jerks, and Animondays is nothing like that. Dave Levy has a second book coming out this fall, and you can read about that on his blog, too.
Floyd Norman, aka Mr. Fun (that's him at the left in the gag photo), is the author of a frequently updated and highly enjoyable blog about his long career in the animation business, with the emphasis on his years at Disney. But I'd overlooked, until Milt Gray called my attention to it, a longer piece on Floyd's site called "Animation Lockdown." It's an eye-opening comparison of the open and relaxed animation studios that Floyd first knew, in the '50s and '60s—when young visitors from Disney could stroll the halls at the Warner studio without anyone's raising an eyebrow—with the tense, rigid, and tightly controlled industry of today. Highly recommended.
Finally (for the moment), let me recommend most heartily Frank Young's Stanley Stories. The Stanley in question is John, the brilliant cartoonist and writer whose name is most readily associated with Little Lulu but who, as Frank makes clear, has a lot of other great things on his resume. Frank Young is not just a Stanley fan, but also a student of his work who can identify it even when it's under the veneer of another cartoonist's drawings, as it usually was. Stanley Stories reproduces some of Stanley's best (and most obscure) stories and includes a glossary of "Stanleyisms," the distinctive characteristics of his writing. A biography is promised. This is the internet at its best.
My new comment format, which is more like that of standard-issue blogs, seems to be working out reasonably well. As a general rule, I'll post on my home page comments about items on this page, whereas I'll post on my Feedback pages responses to longer pieces, like my reviews. For example, I've added to the Feedback page on CGI films some criticism of my review of Happy Feet, by Henry Baugh, with my responses.
April 19, 2009:
Two years ago, I published an essay about the discovery of several pages of sketches that appeared to be preliminary drawings by the great Disney animator Norman Ferguson (seen above in a publicity photo from the 1930s) for the famous flypaper sequence in the 1934 Mickey Mouse cartoon Playful Pluto. Now the Oscar-winning Danish animator Børge Ring has offered a persuasive opinion about the role the sketches played in Ferguson's animation of that sequence, along with some information about how the sketches came to light. You can go to the essay, with the new information at the top, by clicking on this link.
I attended this annual festival in Canada two years ago and enjoyed it. It's certainly worth a few days of your time if you have any kind of serious interest in animation. Basic information is now available online, at this link, with much more to come. The dates are October 14-18, but for people who want to submit films for the judging, the critical dates are June 1 (the deadline for the online form) and June 15 (the deadline for submitting films on DVD). There's no entry fee. You can sign up on the festival site for a monthly email newsletter. The subjects of this year's retrospectives will be Don Hertzfeldt, Suzan Pitt, Jim Blashfield, Stan VanDerBeek, and Studio Film Bilder.
April 17, 2009:
I've used my review of The Art of Pixar Short Films and The Alchemy of Animation as a soapbox for some thoughts about Disney's new "online community" and related matters. You can read my review by clicking on this link.
April 14, 2009
Up for auction on eBay last weekend, the original 8 x 10 negative for this publicity photo of Bob McKimson at his animation desk at the Schlesinger studio, circa 1936, with model sheets for Porky Pig and the Friz Freleng Merrie Melodie Boulevardier from the Bronx on display. The winning bid: $284.99. No, I can't believe that figure either.
My copy of this photo originated with Bob Clampett, who had a copy negative and print made for me from his 8 x 10 print at Producers Photo Lab in Hollywood—at a cost to me of considerably less than $284.99, I hasten to add.
April 13, 2009:
Back on February 7, I ran a 1927 photo that Gunnar Andreassen had found, of the intersection of Hyperion Avenue and Griffith Park Boulevard in Los Angeles. The very early Disney studio was just out of the camera's range. Dan Briney was inspired to visit that intersection and take a photo of it as it is today, and you can see the result above. Dan writes:
Today I decided to drive up to L.A. to visit an address we all know well: 2719 Hyperion Avenue. Or at least, the supermarket parking lot that used to be 2719 Hyperion Avenue. Even with the old Disney Studio long gone, it is still a profound experience to walk where the most fabled chapters of animation history were written. (David R. Smith's article "Disney Before Burbank" from a 1978 Funnyworld was a huge help in trying to pinpoint the location of Walt's original office.)
While I was there, I thought about your blog entry of a few months ago, about a 1927 photo of the intersection of Hyperion and Griffith Park, and thought it would be interesting to capture the same view as it appears today.
The picture (attached) isn't at an angle perfectly corresponding to the original photo—which I wish I had brought along as a reference—but it's still interesting to compare the two views. In particular, you can see a mountain peak in the background of my photo that is dimly visible in the 1927 photo. It's about the only feature that's recognizable across 82 years.
Visiting Los Angeles usually cures me of any desire to do so again for a very, very long time; God only knows what this area is going to look like whenever I summon the spirit to go back. I think about Walt and his crew toiling away here in the '20s and '30s and wonder if they could ever, in their wildest imaginations, have imagined Hyperion Avenue in the 21st Century. They were probably better off not knowing.
From Dan Briney: Hope I don't offend any Angelenos with my somewhat disparaging comments toward the end, but L.A. is definitely not my kind of town. What's saddens me is the sense I get—based on what I know about the city's history—that much of it was once a much more attractive and liveable place. I would like very much to have seen the Los Angeles of the early 20th Century....
From Will Hamblet: Thanks so much for the follow-up picture. The "mountain" in the background is more of a hill in Griffith Park itself. I live very near that intersection and shop at Gelson's at least once a week. And, of course, Mr. Briney has to indulge in some L.A. bashing. Silver Lake and Echo Park (where I live) are actually very charming areas. I've lived here for almost 40 years now and have enjoyed every minute!!
MB replies: I first visited Los Angeles forty years ago next summer, and my memories of the city from that visit are mostly pleasant; but on every succeeding trip, it has seemed that traffic has gotten worse. Over the years, I've avoided driving in L.A. as much as I can. In the '90s, when I was spending weeks at a time doing research in the Disney Archives, I stayed at a motel near the studio and walked back and forth every day. The last time Phyllis and I stayed in downtown L.A., we didn't take our car out of the hotel's garage for several days, relying instead on our feet and the new Metro. But in L.A., more than any other city I can think of, it's hard to work around the need for a car, and I think that's why the city as a whole has become so close to unlivable, as appealing as some of its neighborhoods are.
[Posted April 14, 2009]
From Børge Ring: [This comment has been incorporated into a Feedback page devoted to Børge Ring's memories of David Hand.]
[Posted April 17, 2009; moved April 20, 2009]
From Dana Gabbard: I am bemused at the comments in re Los Angeles. That picture is fairly innocuous as to being threatening or any such. Yes, the wide open spaces have long since vanished but that is a function of more and more people, a trend that seems engrained in our DNA.
Thanks for the kind comments on the Metro. I am actively advocating its expansion, including underneath Wilshire to the westside. Thanks to passage of a local sales tax ballot measure last year we will in the next decade or so have a spiderweb of such service criss-crossing the region. We may never make L.A. traffic free (what major city is?) but at least we'll be providing options.
[Posted April 18, 2009]
From the Holland Animation Film Festival...
We are very pleased to inform you that the Holland Animation Film Festival is from now on an annual event. The 13th edition of the festival takes place from 4 - 8 November 2009.
We kindly invite you to submit your film for this festival edition, for the following competitions:
Competition for Independent Animated Shorts in the categories narrative and non-narrative
Competition for Applied Animation in the categories commercials, educational films, music videos and leaders
The entry forms for these competitions are available at www.haff.nl.
Deadline for all entries: 1 July 2009.
Holland Animation Film Festival, the unique five-day international meeting place for all professionals, animation lovers, producers, students, upcoming talents and all interested audiences. Featuring retrospectives, thematic programmes, master classes, talk shows, exhibitions, installations, SFX/VFX and much more.
...And from Voice Artist Bob Bergen
I'm performing my one-man show in New York City April 22 and 23. If you happen to be in NYC or have friends in the Big Apple who are fans of all things cartoon, please spread the word, come and see the show, etc! Here's the scoop: "BOB BERGEN: SO, HERE'S THE DEAL" (the story of a nice Jewish boy who wanted to be Porky Pig) makes its NYC debut April 22 & 23 at Don't Tell Mama. Reservations NOW being accepted!!! Click here to reserve for April 22 OR here for April 23. Check out the show trailer.
April 6, 2009:
My April 2 post about Don Bluth stimulated several interesting comments, which you can read by clicking on this link. I particularly like Marc Colangelo's comparison of Bluth and Hugh Harman.
My post was a response to a sort-of-pro-Bluth post by Michael Sporn. Michael responded to my post with a lengthy rebuttal, which has inspired a lot of comments from his visitors. I wonder how many years it has been since anyone thought this much about Don Bluth. That's Bluth above at the center, with animators John Pomeroy, left, and Gary Goldman, in a photo taken in 1979, soon after Bluth and his colleagues had left the Disney studio to start Don Bluth Productions. Their first feature followed three years later.
The critical question, I suppose, is whether Bluth's generally dismal features benefited the animation industry as a whole, as Michael believes and as I do not. I regard the "Bluth saved the industry in the 1980s" argument as skeptically as I regard the argument that Hanna and Barbera's TV cartoons "saved" the industry a quarter century earlier. As I wrote more than a year ago:
It's undoubtedly true that in one sense Hanna-Barbera and, later, Filmation "saved" the Hollywood animation industry. I'm not sure that was necessarily a good thing. For decades, thanks to the success of the H-B cartoons and their imitators, the industry has been dominated by studios of an intensely commercial kind, and most of its product has been dismissed, rightly, as kiddie junk. If the industry had survived in a much-diminished form, but making better films—that is, if it bore a closer resemblance to New York's animation industry—would that have been so bad?
Likewise, Bluth's films, even more than the Disney features themselves, encouraged the idea, especially among lazy critics, that real animation, the only kind worth taking seriously (certainly as a commercial proposition), was pseudo-Disney animation—"full, rich, warm, colorful" animation, as a Bluth press release put it—and everything else was second- or third-rate.
As Michael Sporn mentions in his response to one of his commenters, he and I sat together when we heard Bluth speak at the Kennedy Center, in the American Film Institute's theater, around the time that Bluth's first feature, The Secret of NIMH, was released in the summer of 1982. Michael and I saw a lot of each other in those days. Phyllis and I lived in Alexandria, Virginia, right across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., and Michael and his friend and collaborator Maxine Fisher drove down from New York often to stay with us for the weekend. We drove or trained north for short visits with them. None of us had much money to spare, but most of the Washington museums didn't charge admission, and ethnic restaurants and AFI tickets were cheap. The AFI theater was wonderful in those pre-video days, a haven where you could see lots of films that were all but impossible to see otherwise.
I had forgotten about Bluth's 1982 appearance, and I've struggled to call up memories of it. I can remember vividly the AFI appearances by many other animation people, including Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, Woolie Reitherman, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Joe Oriolo, Shamus Culhane, Faith Hubley...the list is a remarkably long one, especially considering that most of those people lived on the other side of the country. But Bluth's speech is hazy in my memory, I think because he seemed opaque as a person. Michael remembers Bluth's talk as resembling a sermon, and that sounds right.
In that connection, I don't think it's necessarily bigoted to point to Bluth's Mormon faith as an element in his personality as a filmmaker. (He grew up in Payson, Utah, and quit as a Disney inbetweener in 1956 to spend two years as a Mormon missionary in Argentina.) Mormons seem to be as culturally distinct a people as, say, Jewish New Yorkers; that is certainly my impression after several visits to Utah, including a few hours in Temple Square. No one would think it bigoted to suggest that Woody Allen's identity as a Jewish New Yorker is a driver of his comedy, and Bluth's strong identity as a Utah Mormon invites speculation in the same vein.
Possibly Bluth's personal history has even shaped his films in unfortunate directions. I haven't seen The Secret of NIMH since it was released, but I've carried the phrase "unearned exaltation" in my mind since then. Mrs. Brisby's triumph somehow seemed like a religious victory achieved without enough work. But maybe I should see that film again, since there's wide agreement that it's Bluth's best.
From Thad Komorowski: Bluth's religiosity does explain the windiness of his pictures. They all go off on random tangents with little coherence as a whole (not a vignette picture), and ultimately come off as artificial and false. Why does a Homer Simpson complaint, "Your movie was more boring than church!" keep springing to mind here?
What exposes what a lie that "Bluth saved animation in the '80s" idea is, is that almost the second Disney got its act together for The Little Mermaid, Bluth faded into the background. I can't say I am a fan of Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, or The Lion King, but is there really a contest between those and All Dogs Go to Heaven, Rock-a-Doodle (which my dad and I reminisced about going to when I was three or four years old; "That movie was just badly scripted.") or A Troll in Central Park? And if films of the Bluth sort are what is saving the industry, does said industry even deserve to be saved?
[Posted April 7, 2009]
From Gene Schiller: I don’t quite sympathize with the anti-Bluth tirades appearing on your site. He made a couple of duds—but The Secret of NIMH is, on the whole, fluidly animated, beautifully colored and richly textured; the level of detail is frequently staggering. I would think these qualities would endear it to the animation buff. Also, I wouldn’t be so quick to write off Titan A.E.—if anyone has crafted a more exciting opening scene for an animated film, I haven’t seen it.
[Posted April 8, 2009]
From Joseph Adorno: I noticed nobody bothered to mention Don Bluth's last film to date, Bartok the Magnificent. Seeing as how it is the only sequel he took part in, it is an example of Don playing in a corner—noticeably better looking than most direct-to-DVD junk, but nothing special. It actually plays like a longer Banjo, with the garish colors and designs (Moscow looks like a city made out of birthday cake).
In recent years, it seemed Don was trying to get a feature length Dragon's Lair movie made. His two books on animation had sketches and script pages and other preliminary stuff, but unless it's CG, he may be done.
MB replies: For those who want to keep up to date with Don Bluth, there are two Web sites: Don Bluth Animation, where Bluth sells "animation tutorials" on DVD, and DonBluth.com, a bare-bones site with basic information about him and his films. I admire Bluth's seemingly cheerful persistence at an age (he is 71) when many people would say the hell with it. I wish I could feel some admiration for his films, too, but that'll never happen.
[Posted April 9, 2009]
From Chris Dailey: The Secret of NIMH was based on the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien. I wanted to point out that your quote "Mrs. Brisby's triumph somehow seemed like a religious victory achieved without enough work" could potentially have more to say about the original material than Bluth's interpretation. Sadly, it's been almost 20 years since I've seen the movie or read the book, so I can't provide any insight on that.
I loved the book growing up. I only saw the movie once as a teenager, and I remember being happy with the animation overall, and having only a few small problems with the movie at the time (one of which was renaming Mrs. Frisby to Mrs. Brisby). Bluth's other films have not left any significant impression on me.
[Posted April 13, 2009]
From "Gerit": I'm intrigued by the direction you were going by suggesting that Don Bluth's Mormon faith has influenced his work. It no doubt has, but you didn't really finish the thought, i.e., how specifically the Mormon paradigm comes into relief in any given case. Are you saying that his lack of focus as a storyteller reflects, say, the Book of Mormon in its sprawl—or something like that? Maybe there'd be too much investment of time to break it down in a Joseph Campbell way but I wanted to see if you had anything more compelling than a hunch about how his faith leeches mediocrity into his storytelling.
MB replies: I'm afraid a hunch is about as far as I've gone, since I can't persuade myself that Bluth's films are worth the effort of tracing down the sources of their shortcomings. I've read part of the Book of Mormon, however, and it does seem to me that anyone whose ideas of how to tell a story were shaped by that book would start off with two strikes against him. It's no mark against a religion, my own included (I'm an Episcopalian), that it strains credulity, since they all do—what would a religion that didn't strain credulity be like?—but Mormonism seems to me a rather extreme example of that universal trait. Perhaps a Mormon element in Bluth's films is that he tends to embrace a storytelling strategy that requires his audience to make repeatedly what he may regard as leaps of faith, but that can just as easily be characterized as the unquestioning acceptance of the arbitrary and ridiculous.
[Posted April 19, 2009]
April 2, 2009:
Michael Sporn has posted a couple of items recently in connection with the DVD release of Don Bluth's 1979 short Banjo the Woodpile Cat. Michael's comments on the film, and on Bluth's work generally, are typically generous and open-hearted. He says: "My only sadness is that the Bluth studio isn’t moving forward with more features. I’m sure it’s difficult in these 3D days, and the energy required is for the young, but I wish he could engender the cash to continue on with the medium."
I couldn't disagree more. Bluth is for me a white-bread Ralph Bakshi, someone who sucked up money that should have gone to other people, then used it to make terrible features that tanked at the box office and ultimately made it more difficult for good films to get produced. If Bluth is finally on the sidelines, that's cause for rejoicing. I hope he stays there.
I haven't devoted much time to thinking or writing about Bluth, but I did write at some length about his films in my review of the Disney disaster Treasure Planet; it was one of the first reviews I posted on this site, almost six years ago. I've just re-read that review, for the first time in a few years, and I'm pleased with how well it holds up. I think you'll enjoy my piece, unless you're longing for a sequel to Bluth's Anastasia.
From Mark Colangelo: Like yourself, I've never liked the Bluth features. However, I wouldn't consider him similar to Ralph Bakshi—who was bad in a different sort of way—but rather to Hugh Harman. Both men seem to overdo the animation in their cartoons, often obsessing over the details and making the movement more elaborate than it needed to be. It seems like they were doing it more to show off, rather than the fact that the story called for it, or it illustrated the character's inner workings. Unfortunately, this gave the animation in their films a plodding, insincere feeling. Both men also had difficulty in telling a simple and logical story, and they had no feel for comedy.
Unlike Harman, though, with Bluth's films one can plot the man's slow descent into madness. Each succeeding film got more bizarre and disjointed. Characters change their motivation on a whim. The female characters are embarrassing to watch. (For all its faults, I at least enjoy Bakshi's Fritz the Cat, for reasons. I suspect have more to do with Crumb's original stories than Bakshi's gifts as a director.)
The character designs got progressively uglier, too, even when they were supposed to be cute. Often the main characters looked like they came from different animated films of different eras. In Thumbelina, for example, the eponymous character and her mother are of the late-Disney, over-reliance-on-live-action variety, or "realistic," whereas their dog is obviously based on Pluto (who is completely without any real dog anatomy), but to make it even more odd, he is blue and has a mustache. The insects Thumbelina runs into look like they escaped from an early thirties Fleischer cartoon, whereas a beetle that falls in love with her looks like Clampett's Dishonest John in a wet suit. Then there is a Frog based on Charo's physique. One has to see this character; there is no way I can do justice to it by trying to describe it in words.
From Ricardo Cantoral: I can't think of an Animator/Director more inept at telling a story or making characters then Don Bluth. He is basically the Robert Zemeckis of animation, except that he is far, far less talented. All he does in his films are special effects no matter how it relates to anything in the plot. How many times has anyone watched a Bluth film then was suddenly smacked in the face with either a strange musical number or surreal imagery that is not mentioned later by anyone in the film? I think what is most hilarous about the beginning of Bluth's career is how he left Disney because he thought, correctly, that the studio was losing its charm. How ironic to look at his films, they are the most charmless works ever made. His character designs are frightfully bland (Anastasia and Titan AE) or hideously ugly (any animal character). Also the character acting in his films is simply squashing and stretching and backed up by annoying voice actors; try listening to Dom DeLuise for five minutes in those films without contemplating a merciful suicide. The only thing I envy about Bluth is the budgets he had. Real artists deserved them more than he ever did.
From Vincent Alexander: I just thought I'd put my name in and say that I completely agree with your comments about Don Bluth. I've never really understood how anyone who has seen a Don Bluth movie could really make a defense for him. Is there really any reaction to A Troll in Central Park other than pure horror?
From a correspondent who prefers anonymity: Most of Don Bluth's later films that suck, with the exception of Thumbelina, suck because of major studio interference, always wanting things changed or dumbed down, or budgets cut down. It is not Don Bluth's fault straight out. And I say "exception of Thumbelina" only because Bluth had no studio interference with that film, so that film's tanking literally is his fault, and he has outright said so.
[Posted April 6, 2009]
As you probably already know from Cartoon Brew, I was interviewed Monday by Doug Fabrizio of KUER, the University of Utah's public radio station, on the hour-long show called RadioWest. You can hear the podcast by going to this link. We talked not about Disney, the subject of most of my occasional radio interviews the last couple of years, but about the Warner cartoons and my book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, among other things.
April 1, 2009:
The New York Times has a story today about the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco's Presidio, which is scheduled to open in October. You can also visit the Family Museum's Web site (now being reconstructed in anticipation of the October opening) at this link. The online version of the Times story includes a seven-item slide show; the above photo of Walt's daughter Diane Disney Miller, in front of the museum, is from that slide show.
The Times story says that Diane, the Family Museum's founder and presiding intelligence, was "dismayed" by Neal Gabler's 2006 biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. That will not come as news to longtime visitors to this site, who will recall the 2007 piece in which I reported that Diane had denounced the book to Disney executives—who gave Gabler lots of help—as "a monstrous piece of libelous junk." (The last I heard, she had received no response.) The Gabler book got mostly adoring praise in the mainstream media, the Times included, so it's good to see a least a whisper of dissent in that newspaper. Perhaps over time Gabler's book will be displaced from its wholly unjustified position as the "standard" Disney biography.
I've never made any secret of my own low opinion of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. My review is at this link, and a list of the book's errors and distortions is at this one. I haven't added much to that list lately, but that's not because new mistakes don't keep turning up. I just get tired of keeping track of them.
The Times also says:
Speaking of the company, Mrs. Miller hasn’t been especially thrilled with aspects of its stewardship, either. "They try, but there is nobody there anymore who actually knew him," she said. Disney the man, she frets, has gotten lost as his empire pushes its brand across the globe.
"My kids have literally encountered people who didn’t know that my father was a person," said Mrs. Miller, who has seven children with her husband, Ronald. "They think he’s just some kind of corporate logo." ...
Disney executives declined to comment. They are probably puzzled by Mrs. Miller’s concerns, given the attention the company gives her father. Disney releases DVDs called "Walt Disney Treasures" that feature his television appearances and operates a museum-style attraction about his life at Walt Disney World. The company recently issued collectible figurines in his likeness and runs a fan club and magazine dedicated to him; part of its California Adventure Park is being rebuilt to reflect Disney’s early days in the state.
"Collectible figures in his likeness"...what more could one expect, really? Only that the theme parks sell "Walt Disney" dolls in plush, I suppose.
Thanks to Michael Sporn and Alexander Rannie for the link.
Yes! Here it is, irrefutable photographic proof! Bob Clampett and Adolph Hitler were the same person! I can hear the fanboys yawning: everybody knows that, they'll sneer, as they go back to rearranging their Looney Tunes Pez dispensers. But not all of us are so au courant, as we say down at the comic-book shop, so here's the conclusive evidence, for those of you still cherishing the illusion that Bob was just a great cartoon director, and not also the mass murderer of millions. Those many stories about his mysterious absences from the Schlesinger studio? Of course! He was away invading Russia! His resignation from the Schlesinger staff in May 1945...the month of...V-E Day? Now you know the real reason he left in a hurry. And the passing of "Bob Clampett" in 1984? That "Bob" was, of course, an actor hired to play the role. The real Bob, I can now reveal, is alive and well and making new cartoons in Paraguay, while plotting world domination in his spare time. It's hard to say which will come first, the release of his new Looney Tunes or his invasion of England, but either way, I'll be watching!
And in other news, John Kricfalusi has signed up with Pixar, where he will direct Toy Story IV, in which Woody rides west on My Little Pony hunting for Care Bears...no, wait...Bob Clampett as Hitler anyone can believe, but Kricfalusi at Pixar? That's just too farfetched, even as an April Fool's joke.
From Dan Briney: I appreciate your publishing the final, incontrovertible evidence of the Clampett-Hitler connection. I had suspected for some time now that Bob had in fact been Hitler ("Russian Rhapsody" was a gigantic head-fake that had everybody from Jack Warner to FDR fooled; as you know, it was conceived as an elaborate distraction by Leon Schlesinger, who of course was actually Mussolini with a bad toupee) but it's nice to get the thing settled.
And we wonder why Jones had such a massive grudge against the guy! And why he nursed it even after Clampett "died"! HE KNEW....
[Posted April 6, 2009]