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"What's New" Archives: 2019

 

July 19, 2019:

Toy Story 4

 

June 15, 2019:

While I Was Away...

Interviews: Four With Maurice Noble

 

 

January 24, 2019:

A Cautionary Tale

Oh, Pooh!

 

July 19,2019:

Toy Story 4

About twenty minutes into this very handsome new Pixar feature, I began to feel the tug of a term that I hadn't thought about much since my college days: "exposition." Here's a short definition, from a dictionary of literary terms that I've owned for decades: "That part of a play in which the audience is given the background information which it needs to know." When writers talk about "exposition," they're typically using the term in a pejorative sense, because flat-footed exposition often takes the place of more inventive storytelling. I think that's the case with Toy Story 4.

How limited are the story possibilities, and thus the characters, in the whole idea of a movie filled with sentient toys, toys whose only goal is—and only can be—to become the property of a child. That premise flaunts its peculiarity in the person, so to speak, of Forky, the hand-made toy assembled, as Forky himself acknowledges, from trash. The Toy Story films have always flirted with existential questions: if countless toys look exactly alike, are they the same toy? If not, how do they differ, and how do those differences arise? It is in Forky that such questions take their strangest shape yet. Unlike the other toys, all of which are factory products, Forky doesn't exist until he is patched together by a child, Bonnie, the little sister of the earlier films' Andy. Forky comes alive when Bonnie has finished assembling him, as if he were a sort of Pinocchio and she a juvenile Geppetto, but with no Blue Fairy to expedite matters. Or maybe that's not the best analogy; think instead (but not too hard) of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Inevitably, because it's organized around such an odd and confining premise, Toy Story 4 spends a lot of time trying to gain traction through exposition—that is, by setting up and executing episodes that put the toys to work but are notably lacking in surprise and, especially, energy. Just as well, probably: for one thing, where could the romance of Woody and Bo Peep go, if the film tried to carry it much further?

Comedy doesn't fill the gaps left by the plot. I laughed exactly once during the movie, at the two stuffed-animal carnival prizes, Ducky and Bunny, voiced wonderfully by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. They are reminders of how bright and clever the first two Toy Story movies seemed, and of how sobersided the two most recent installments have been by comparison. Maybe having fun with all those toys—and making fun of the very idea of walking, talking toys—has come to seem too much like a repudiation of that great Disney shibboleth, "sincerity."

 

June 15, 2019:

While I Was Away...

Away from this website, that is. Travel has not been part of my life since Phyllis and I returned from a brief trip to Key West late last year. I had knee replacement surgery in early April, the first of two rounds, and that surgery has seriously limited me since then. When people tell you that recovery from knee surgery is long and arduous, they speak the truth, but sometimes there's no satisfactory alternative, unless maybe you can avoid stairs for the rest of your life. Surgery on my other knee is coming in mid-August; I will have spent most of this year nursing my knees. At least I have reason to hope that after I've healed from my surgeries, I'll no longer sound like I'm shelling walnuts whenever I bend down,

Because the site has been quiet for five months, I haven't posted comments on a few events that I wanted to say something about, like the passing of Ron Miller and Dave Smith. I still may write about them. And then there's the Tim Burton Dumbo, which I saw in an otherwise empty theater. Audiences have passed a harsh and eminently fair judgment on that movie, so further comment from me might be superfluous. Or maybe not. I've passed on seeing Aladdin, and Ill be skipping the new Lion King, too.

But I've finally finished editing my interviews with Maurice Noble, and you can read about them below.

 

Interviews: Four With Maurice Noble

Maurice Noble was one of the most enjoyable of the hundreds of people that Milt Gray and I interviewed during research for my book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. As reflected in the transcripts that follow, the talk just flowed, and I ran out of tape more than once in our interviews. Other people, particularly younger people in Hollywood animation, enjoyed his company as much as I did. Like the Disney artist Joe Grant, he became a sort of totem, not just a highly skilled artist but a source of wisdom.

As with Grant, though, I found my own reservations growing—not about Maurice as a person but about his work, and especially the influence of his thinking on Chuck Jones's work as a director. I explained those reservations at length in Hollywood Cartoons, pp. 540-43, and I think they remain legitimate, as much now as when the book was published in 1999.

But there is much to enjoy in the interviews, regardless of what you think about my arguments. You can find all four Noble interviews at this link.

Comments

From Thad Komorowski: Thanks so much for posting those interviews. I'm still digesting them all, but the '76 one with Milt might be my favorite of the bunch, if only because it captures the atmosphere of the time so well: that they created so much wonderful cinematic art and now they were retired or resigned to working on crap, and here were you guys trying to figure out how exactly everything happened with absolutely nothing to go on. 

I'm amazed that you didn't include that smoking gun of Noble's admission that Maltese would hide the violence in his boards, half-jokingly, but half-seriously, in your book. And he didn't say it just once! It's at once highly revealing and almost single handedly supports your reservations about Noble's influence on Jones' directorship (one that I mostly share). Well, it's out there now anyway, and I'm grateful.

[Posted July 20, 2019]

January 24, 2019:

A Cautionary Tale

I don't much like delving into personal history here; other people, like Mark Evanier, are better at it than I am, and usually have more interesting tales to tell. But I'm making an exception here, mostly because telling what happened to me might be helpful to other people.

I'd been seeing the same barber for seven or eight years, with results that were satifactory to me but not to my wife. Phyllis wanted me to try the stylist who has been cutting my friend Roger's hair for years, with results that Phyllis preferred to my barber's handiwork. I finally agreed to see Roger's man, someone I already knew casually, for a trial trim. When I was in Dusty's chair and he was trimming the hair around my ears, he noticed a black spot behind one ear; I'd never seen it, Phyllis had never seen it, and my barber had never seen it, all because it was extremely difficult to see. It was only because Dusty was so thorough, in my first visit to his chair, that anyone saw it. Dusty urged me to see a dermatologist, but I doubted the need, especially since I haven't had so much as a suntan, much less a burn, for decades, and my skin has suffered less sun damage than most people's; but I made an appointment with a skin doctor whose family I already knew. When the results of a biopsy came back a few days later, they were jarring: that spot was melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. My doctor quickly scheduled surgery with a specialist. I'm now in my third week since the surgery, which I'm assured got all of the melanoma. If I had shrugged off Dusty's warning, the result could have been fatal; since my own diagnosis, I've learned of other people whose melanomas appeared in the same place, and with terrible results.

So, don't shrug off warnings about the dangers in exposure to the sun, or, for that matter, about what can happen, as in my case, if an apparently harmless mole or spot turns deadly. It pays to check yourself in the mirror occasionally, or to ask your favorite barber or stylist to keep an eye out for anything that looks suspicious. Me, I took several nice bottles to Dusty when I saw him again this week.

And now, back to work on the Maurice Noble interview. I hope to have it up by the end of the month, although that's probably too ambitious.

 

Oh, Pooh!

When I was writing Hollywood Cartoons and The Animated Man I tried to read (or, more often, re-read) as many as possible of the important literary sources of the Disney cartoons, but somehow I didn't pay much attention to A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh books. Now I'm remedying that oversight. I've read the first Pooh book, Winnie-the-Pooh, and I'm deep into the second, The House at Pooh Corner. I have a better sense of Milne's strengths than I did before, but I still can't warm to the books. For all their droll cleverness, they still cloy (Dorothy Parker was right). I think that's because almost all the characters, Christopher Robin excepted, are toys, stuffed animals. Other children's books, like Johnny Gruelle's Raggedy Ann titles, are populated by sentient toys, too, but almost no one makes any claims for their literary quality. The Milne books, though, are "classics," and so demand more respect than I can give them. Talking-animal stories are one thing, stuffed-animal stories very much another, as far as I'm concerned. Jeremy Bentham was right: real animals are united with us in their capacity for suffering, and so to accept in talking animals, like those in The Wind in the Willows, emotions and even language resembling our own doesn't require an insuperable leap of the imagination. But a stuffed toy bear? No.

I've been struck, as I've read the Pooh books and returned to books like Lewis Carroll's Alice pair, by how closely the Disney cartoons based on those books stick to the narratives laid out in the books (Wind in the Willows may be the cartoon that resembles its literary source the least). What's missing generally in the cartoons based on English literary sources is not specific incidents but rather an evenness of tone that's hard to imagine duplicated in an American cartoon; this is why cartoons like Alice seem so frantic.

Bill Peckmann recently encouraged me to watch a BBC comedy called The Detectorists, about a couple of doofuses who search with portable metal detectors for ancient coins and the like (but more often come up with relics like Hot Wheels cars). Bill writes about it: "I'm probably the only person that sees this connection, but I feel it has a lot of Barksian humor in it. The two semi-anti heroes, who both have a high level of man-child in them—they are responsible and not responsible at the same time—remind me so much of Donald Duck dealing with everyday life, luckily with the same results, meaning with lots of laughs."

I'm afraid I didn't laugh very much, although I appreciate the concept; and there's something delightful about having as one of the two leads Toby Jones, who played Culverton Smith, an exceptionally evil villain, in one of the BBC's Sherlock Holmes episodes. And what do you know! I see he provided the voice of Owl in Disney's misbegotten live-action/CGI film Christopher Robin.

On the subject of A.A.Milne, one more thing. On page 77 of Funnybooks, I noted that Walt Kelly had invoked Milne's stories as the literary model for Pogo, rather than Joel Chandler Harris's Brer Rabbit stories. This despite the Harris stories' superficial similarity to Pogo, especially in their Southern swamp setting. Reading the Pooh stories now, I've been struck by how strong are the echoes of those stories in Pogo. Christopher Robin, sensible and quiet, is the Pogo figure, supervising a menagerie of sweet-tempered but slow-witted animals. Pogo is, for my money, much the superior creation, but Milne deserves credit for providing Kelly with a sturdy armature for his stories.