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"What's New" Archives: July 2013


July 17, 2013:

Summer Doldrums

Saving Mr. Disney


July 17, 2013:

Summer Doldrums

I'm in the final stages of work on my next book, Funnybooks, so I've done very little movie-watching this summer, whether in a theater or via Blu-ray or otherwise. I did finally see Wreck-It Ralph, the Disney CGI feature in which video games come to life, on Blu-ray a few weeks ago. When I discussed it the next day with my seven-year-old friend John—a theatrically savvy kid who saw Mary Poppins onstage in New York last year with his mom—I told him I didn't much care for it. He was shocked—shocked!—by my failure to appreciate what he was sure was the best movie he'd ever seen. Happily, we found common ground that afternoon by watching a dozen color Mickey Mouse cartoons from the 1930s.

Wreck-It Ralph felt to me like just one more Hollywood animated feature made by committee, so that when the story started getting too convoluted, the impulse wasn't to simplify but to add another layer of complication. More dialogue, more plot twists, more stuff, so that everyone on the committee could point to something that was theirs. Today's Disney features remind me powerfully of treatments and continuities I've read for much earlier Disney features, films made during Walt's lifetime. Many of those treatments were more complicated, sometimes much more complicated, than the stories that wound up on the screen. The reason the films were so much better than the treatments was because Walt Disney's dominant drive was toward simplicity and directness. I detect no comparable cast of mind at John Lasseter's Disney studio, or almost anywhere else in the Hollywood animation industry

Which isn't to say that kids like my friend John are wrong to enjoy movies like Wreck-It Ralph, only that they're finding enjoyment in them that differs fundamentally from the enjoyment I found as a child, and still find as an adult, in movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Dumbo. Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, writing about Despicable Me 2, remarked of the script that it was "erratic, to put it generously. Yet the 3-D animation is so stylish and, from time to time, so downright beautiful, that you hardly notice when the storytelling loses track of itself." Indifference to poor storytelling is surely characteristic of a large part of the audience for most new animated features. I haven't seen Despicable Me 2, but I have to believe that its lapses in storytelling would bother me a lot more than they would bother John. That's why it's pointless for me to go see it, and the other animated features like it. They were most emphatically not made for people like me, who grew up with movies of a very different and, I think, vastly superior kind.

Walt Disney's judgment wasn't perfect, of course, as I was reminded by one of the characters in Wreck-It Ralph: King Candy, a dithering old soul whose voice and mannerisms have been borrowed from Ed Wynn, a famous clown who starred in vaudeville and on radio in the 1920s and early 1930s. Wynn, who died in 1966, appeared in a lot of weak Disney live-action movies toward the end of his life, usually miscast (as, for example, a deaf Vermonter in Those Calloways), but he's present in The Absent-Minded Professor, otherwise a stupefyingly dull, laugh-free "comedy," in a reprise of his radio role as the Texaco Fire Chief. Thanks to Wynn, there's suddenly an invigorating whiff of eccentricity and unpredictability in what is otherwise a flat, predictable film. There was, alas, no opportunity, for him to enliven other Disney duds in the same way, and King Candy too is a pale shadow of the original.

But, to end on a positive note, I did love Sarah Silverman's voice work in Wreck-It Ralph.


From Roberto Severino: I am one of those people who still hasn't seen Wreck-It Ralph, but am mainly interested to see how characters like King Candy were animated and Sarah Silverman's voicework. The Eric Goldberg animation that I've seen specifically pertaining to the film looked great. It was a hand drawn animatic and it felt so refreshing to see animation in which you could tell that a human being with a discernible style drew it. From the looks of it, CGI has made quite a lot of progress in the past few years, but nothing really beats looking at a well drawn animatic like the one Goldberg did for the movie.

Sorry to hear that you were disappointed by the film and its apparent flaws. Clear, coherent storytelling is something that animation artists need to focus on rather than hoping that the slick 3-D animation will make up for any story structure problems. Maybe the audience won't care as much, but there are degrees of integrity and professionalism that I think animation artists need to live up to.

From Kevin Hogan: have not yet seen Wreck-It Ralph, but I feel like I’ve already seen it. Trailers to films are becoming way too revealing, and the films themselves are so predictable that I never feel surprised when I see it anyway. I bet I can take a stab at the plot of Wreck-It Ralph already without knowing anything about it other than the video game premise:

  1. Ralph wants to be a video game hero.
  2. He goes out into the video game world, and finds that being a hero isn’t all its cracked up to be. The world of video games needs villains.
  3. He restores himself to his rightful video game, bringing joy and harmony to all he has met….

I don’t mean to say that the films of my beloved “golden age” of animation did not have simple plot structures, but I highly doubt inventive moments like “Pink Elephants on Parade” have made it into Wreck-It Ralph. The trailer leads me to believe that the film paints by the numbers all the way through, which it probably does.

[Posted July 18, 2013]

From John Richardson: I know my taste in movies differs from yours sometimes (I’m less picky), but your point about the growing complexity of recent animated movies really made sense to me. You’ve expressed something that I hadn’t consciously been able to pinpoint myself; I just knew I had this “feeling” sometimes after watching what I felt had to have been a really good movie. Was I just growing jaded? In a lot of cases, there seem to be too many movies packed into one feature. When this happens, maybe the management should say, “Okay, that’s too much for this movie. Go ahead and make a different movie about that idea by 2017… and you—in the blue—your idea, by 2018,” etc. (I know: That would kind of get in the way of the sequels.) I really do get a lot of enjoyment from some of these newer movies, but it’s often the same kind of enjoyment I’d get from watching an hour and a half of previews of really good films.

I loved many parts of Wreck-it Ralph, but the complexity did work against it, mostly in subtle ways. Then when King Candy transforms into a giant crab that we’re supposed to regard as a serious threat… really, I was reminded of your dark fantasy of what Dumbo would be like if it were created today.

[Posted July 25, 2013]

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney

Saving Mr. Disney

It is, of course, much too early to pass judgment on Saving Mr. Banks, the Disney feature dramatizing the making of Mary Poppins. It won't be released until December. All we have to go on so far is a trailer, available on Cartoon Brew, with a few glimpses of Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney. (I've appropriated the frame grab above from that source.) Those glimpses are not encouraging. Hanks is a fine actor but in the American movie-star mode made familiar by John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda...the list is a long one. What those excellent actors had in common was that they expertly blended their own personalities (or what seemed to be their own personalities) with those of the characters they were playing. At least, that is, when they were well cast. Ask one of them to play a part whose dimensions couldn't be expanded gracefully to accommodate the actor's personality, and you've got trouble, or maybe much worse, as with John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror. What I see in the trailer is Tom Hanks distorting his actor's persona in unattractive ways, trying to give us Walt's dynamism but losing his—and Hanks's—warmth and charm. I hope the feature itself is better.

What is most interesting about Saving Mr. Banks at this point is that it is one more step in what seems to be the gradual transformation of Walt Disney himself into a Walt Disney character, fundamentally similar to Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. I've written about this transformation before, in connection with the remaking of Disney's California Adventure theme park, but I don't think I ever envisioned Walt's becoming the principal character in what will inevitably be a largely fictional account of one part of his life.

If Saving Mr. Banks is successful at the box office, we can no doubt look forward to similarly fictional Disney movies, about the Hyperion days, perhaps, the making of Snow White, the construction of Disneyland, and so on. Some if not all of those movies could resemble Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in their mingling of more or less real people with ’toons who behave as if they were real people. One possibility: a live-action Walt is betrayed by an animated Oswald, who is presented as a typical Hollywood back-stabber, conniving with a live-action Charlie Mintz. Then Walt finds an animated Mickey, out of work since he was a child bit player in the Alice series, rummaging through the trash behind the Hyperion studio in search of a bit of cheese. Etcetera.

Or, think about Walt's habit of prowling through the studio at night and looking at what's on the storyboards or the animators' desks. He picks up a sheaf of Bill Tytla's animation and as he flips it Grumpy comes to life and complains to Walt about how Tytla is drawing him: "Tell that dadblasted Cossack he's makin' my fingers too big! They look like bananas!"

I need to quit. I'm entirely too good at this. Bob Iger, you have my private number.


From Mark Mayerson: Saving Mr. Banks is very much in the vein of Pirates of the Caribbean. Disney is strip mining things that it owns rather than creating anything new. The Disney snake is eating its own tail. That's why Robert Iger is buying everything in sight instead of investing in new Disney creations. He is incapable of thinking beyond what already exists.

From Thad Komorowski: As far as Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney goes, well, it could be worse, couldn't it? I'd rather see him be a cartoonish, mystical, and positive historical figure played by a great actor than the antisemitic center of grand operas orchestrated by complete a**holes.

[Posted July 19, 2013]

From Mark Sonntag: The first I heard about this movie was almost a year ago from Diane. She had mentioned to me how Tom Hanks visited the museum and talked to her about Walt. I'd like to think that's a good thing. For me, I'll give it a chance though seeing recreation of Disneyland TV footage of which we've seen the real thing makes it hard to see Tom as Walt. Maybe people who are not as familiar with Walt will have an easier time of it. That said, I would imagine some viewers may be inspired to actually read about Walt, hopefully The Animated Man.

On another note, I too am getting increasingly disappointed in Disney as a creative entity but something I've noticed recently bothers me most. Have you noticed how on the packaging of recent re-releases of the classics on Blu-ray they no longer refer to Peter Pan, for example, as Walt Disney's Peter Pan but as Disney Peter Pan? Have a look at the packaging, Walt is slowly disappearing into the corporate behemoth. I noticed it on Lady and the Tramp and Cinderella, too.

From Ralph Daniel:I agree with your recent assessment of Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney, etc. But I think they missed the boat with their title, as accurate as it may be. They should call the movie Making Mary.

[Posted July 23, 2013]

From John Richardson: Regarding Tom Hanks’s version of Walt, I agree with you. Hanks is plenty charming as an actor, and can convey considerable sincerity. But I don’t think he can wrap his brain around someone being as exuberant as Walt was, while still being “for real.” Walt really wasn’t just a salesman; his optimism was deeply sincere, and that came across. On a more superficial level, I can’t yet get over how little Hanks looks like Walt in these clips. Even on Saturday Night Live skits—whoever they’re doing, they nail the hair. Hanks has a completely different facial structure, different nose and eyes (and eyebrows) than Walt, and different coloring. So one of their only surefire devices would be to duplicate the hair, and they didn’t really. And Tom Hanks has shown he can do a variety of dialects, but the way he does Walt, it sounds to me like a Deep South plantation owner. Is that just my imagination? If he would even just pronounce the R’s like a Kansas/Missouri boy, it would do something.

But basically, the problem may be he just seems too youthful. Even if he’s the age Walt was then, he lacks the kind of authority Walt had, and I think that may be partly a generational thing. Maybe his face just doesn’t sag right. Anyway, I enjoyed your imaginary scenarios of future Walt films. (You did such a good job, I don’t even fear them anymore.)

MB replies: Tom Hanks turned 57 this month; Walt Disney was in his early sixties when Mary Poppins was being made. I agree that authority, rather than age, is what's lacking.

[Posted July 25, 2013]