Monday, June 8, 2009

Deep in the Big Black Heart of the Sunshine State

I saw Disney/Pixar’s latest, Up, this weekend, and I continue to be impressed with the depth of these guys’ imagination. I can’t imagine how anyone came up with this storyline—an old man loses his wife, attaches balloons to his house, flies to South America, and somehow manages to fight off a pack of angry, trained, electronically talking dogs—but I’m glad they did. It’s a beautiful and moving film, as every Pixar film is, and if it’s not quite as good as Wall*E or Monsters, Inc. or Finding Nemo, it’s a worthy addition to their catalogue.

It’s no secret that Disney needed to be saved, at least in terms of animation. (Disney theme parks are also in need of some touching-up, especially, it seems, Disney’s California Adventure, but that’s another story, and I hate to badmouth Walt Disney World.) After 2004’s commercial bomb, Home on the Range—and the three commercial bombs that preceded it, Michael Eisner noted the success of the Pixar films and made the baffling decision to shut down the 2-D animation program at the Mouse.

Problem is, the reason no one likes, say, Brother Bear is not because it’s hand-drawn—the animation is absolutely gorgeous in that film, some of the best hand-drawn work ever done—but because no one could care less about the story and the characters. Disney ended up with what we can name “Michael Bay syndrome”—the technology doesn’t matter if your story’s a dog, and as The Island’s financial returns demonstrated, you can’t fool your audience forever. That’s why I can’t remember the name, much less the personality, of a single character in Brother Bear (I’ve not seen Home on the Range), whereas I can sing “Pink Elephants on Parade” from Dumbo or even “How Do You Do?” from Song of the South, a movie with its share of problems but with very strong characters.

So you have to care about the pixels on the screen; you in fact have to forget they’re pixels, have to allow yourself to fall in love with Princess Aurora or to want to be best friends with Aladdin. (You can insert your own examples there.) You have to have something to go home with. That’s why when Disney shifted to 3-D animation, it didn’t fix the problem. Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons are forgettable, just as forgettable as Brother Bear and Atlantis, because they lack story, not because their animation is or is not cutting-edge.

I’ve blogged before about how much I love John Lasseter, how his position as head of the animation department and his decision to (thank you, God and John) reinstate 2-D animation, is going to save Disney as an artistic entity. We’ve already seen signs of it. Last year’s Bolt was not a classic, exactly, but the characters were real in a way that no Disney character has been for nearly a decade; this year’s (2-D!) The Princess and the Frog looks even better.

So here’s what Pixar gets that Disney hasn’t understood in a long time. Here, in other words, is what makes Pixar in 2009 closer to Disney in 1941 than Disney in 2009 or even 1992. All of the early Disney features—for our purposes, let’s define “early” as prewar, which would allow us to work with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi—are shiny and beautifully drawn, but all of their prettiness only serves to hide the deep, existential dread at their cores.

I didn’t realize this as a child. I don’t remember being frightened or upset by any of the Disney movies I watched—and I watched nearly all of them. But my re-watching these films as an adult makes me weep and fear for my life. Take Snow White. We all know that the wicked queen attempts to have Snow White killed and, when that fails, she slips her a poison apple. What I didn’t remember is that this apple was never meant to kill her. We’re given the real plan by the queen herself. She turns to the camera as she’s brewing up the poison and says “She’ll be buried alive.” She laughs, and repeats herself, then laughs again. It’s the viewer that’s threatened here—threatened directly in fact.

Pinocchio repeats the trick and makes it even more disturbing by drenching the entire movie in pathos. Gepetto, as we know, is a clockmaker who desperately wants a son. But in the Disney movie, he’s overwhelmingly sad—a man who’s so lonely that he calls his goldfish his “little water baby.” (I can’t type that without my heart metaphorically collapsing in on itself.) This is a deep, ontological loneliness, one that you don’t expect to find in a children’s film.

When Pinocchio is “born,” Gepetto loves him instantly and unconditionally, even insisting that he is a “good boy,” a label based on nothing that corresponds to reality. Pinocchio abandons his father twice, showing no remorse that I can see, and nearly costs Gepetto, his “little water baby” and his cat, the adorable Figaro, their lives in the belly of a whale. If Pinocchio is our hero, if he is an everyman of some sort—and I figure he must be, with his name in the title—we’re indicted here. It’s a Calvinist vision of a certain sort.

That part is sad. It gets scary and disturbing once we see what happens to Pinocchio in show business. Stromboli, whom Christopher Finch calls the most evil of all Disney villains, locks his cash cow in a cage and says—again, to the camera—that when the puppet is no longer profitable, he will simply chop it into firewood. When Pinocchio escapes, of course, he’s again recruited by “Honest John” and sent to Pleasure Island. The proprietor of the island laughs to John that “The boys never come back…as boys.” At this the camera swoops to the front of his face, as he is completely transformed into a devil.

Here we have an image of evil for its own sake, something that does not merely threaten the characters on the screen but threatens the audience as well. This evil, we’re told, exists in the real world, and the villains in these films do not feel like cartoons. They’re something real, something threatening, something horrible.

I’ve written in another post about the darkness at the center of Fantasia, so I’ll touch briefly on Bambi and Dumbo, each of which paints life in ugly and frightening terms. Dumbo is taken away from his mother after she spanks a teenager who pulls on her son’s enormous ears—and the other elephants shun him because of his supposed disability. The “Baby Mine” scene of the film, in which Jumbo, stuck in the “mad elephant” trailer, touches her son’s trunk with her own through the bars of her cage. (No wonder Dumbo gets loaded afterwards!) And I doubt I need to talk about the senseless killing of Bambi’s mother—no doubt the source of nightmares for many a young Disney fan—though I’ll point out that his father also refuses to take care of him.

After the war, though, things changed. The bad guys got more cartoonish, funnier, and even though the animation got more technically sophisticated, the dread disappeared. We’re not the slightest bit afraid of the buffoonish Captain Hook and his even dumber sidekick, Smee. And when villains are more realistic, like Lady Tremaine from Cinderella, we don’t feel personally threatened. We may feel for Cinderella, but there’s not a sense that we’re next.

About the only exception I can think of in the period from 1945-1989 is the rat from Lady and the Tramp, which clearly sends the message that children—and adults, for that matter—shouldn’t sleep easy, for fear something will eat them alive, bite by bite.

The much-vaunted Disney renaissance of the ‘90s moved closer to the original vision of the films, but not all the way. What we see in the ‘90s films (and I’m including 1989’s The Little Mermaid in that list) is a sort of cartoon version of Shakespeare’s villains, as in Jafar/Iago or Hades/Macbeth. In the case of Mermaid’s Ursula, we actually get a cartoon version of a Shakespearean actress, a washed-up old hack with little use in the modern world. The exception is The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s humorless murderer, Frollo—that’s Disney’s darkest film, even if it tacks on a happy ending to the original novel.

So the kind of existential dread embodied in the wicked queen or Stromboli has been absent from Disney films since 1945. This post is getting long, so I’ll talk about how Pixar has brought angst back in a later post.

7 comments:

Meredith said...

I've never thought so critically about Disney. I didn't think I had to. I mean, it's Disney, right? But what you're saying makes a lot of sense. I've lost interest in new Disney movies. The trailers of some of those angst-less movies put me to sleep.

Anyway, this is an interesting post.

Tim Rhodes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim Rhodes said...

(sorry, I accidentally sent that before finishing).

I was just about to say something similar to Meredith's post-- I haven't really thought critically about some of the older Disney movies (although I have thought about the fact that older Disney villians were so much more scary and genuinely terrifying). This is a great post and makes me want to revisit some old Disney movies that I have loved and forgotten.

And I cannot wait to see Up. I'm so excited.

Michial said...

I may be overthinking these things--10 years in academia will do that to you--but I'll also note that I relate to these movies emotionally first, and then and only then do I analyze them. Victoria and I both cried nearly the entire length of "Up."

Ford said...

No, Michial, you're definitely not overthinking these things. I think you're expressing, very ably, my very feelings about Pixar and Disney. The comparison between Bay and Eisner is spot on. I just shake my head every time I see a Bruckheimer and/or Bay trailer.

They're laughing all the way to the bank, sure, but it's not like Pixar isn't either, and Pixar is producing work that is substantial enough to be enshrined in cinema history. The opening 15 minutes or so of up are so well done. The montage is basically It's a Wonderful Life-the silent film short, and it hits every note, dynamic contrast and change theme perfectly.

I'm glad Disney was smart enough to admit defeat and to realize that without story and character, even the name Disney cannot sell shiny toys and slickly produced movies (at least as well as Pixar).

Michial said...

I've got as many problems with Eisner as anyone else, I should say, but he really did save the company at a very dark time in its existence. Think about the Disney Renaissance that took place under his watch, and think about the movies that preceded it: everything from "The Aristocats" through "The Black Cauldron" through "Oliver and Company" (which I love, even though the animation is terrible). He really did some great things.

And that's doubly true for the theme parks. Eisner created the Grand Floridian Hotel and a bunch of the other heavily themed "deluxe resorts," as well as creating Disney's Hollywood Studios (my favorite park). Unfortunately, he also "updated" older attractions, adding rock music and Iago to "The Enchanted Tiki Room."

So Disney folks have a very conflicted attitude toward him.

Corey said...

What an amazing insight, thanks !