Archive for Disney

20,000 Leagues of Their Own

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2021 by dcairns

Inspired by the Karel Zeman documentary we didn’t watch a Zeman film but instead looked at Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. First time I’ve made it through the thing, more or less, without drifting off. And yet, it’s not THAT boring.

It’s an impressive technical feat — everything they need to do, they pull off, and Bob Mattey’ giant squid is a wow. No wonder they brought him out of retirement to do Bruce the shark in JAWS. Quick! What was Richard Fleischer’s lawyer’s name? If we knew that, we would know what the squid should be called.

Melvin? Ken? Diablo?

Jules Verne’s episodic, meandering novel has given the adaptors some trouble — scenarist Earl Felton had written a couple of LONE WOLF movies (yay!) and a few small-scale works for Richard Fleischer, including the fantastic THE NARROW MARGIN, and suddenly he’s charged with penning this undersea epic which never had much of a plot. Once the protagonists are taken prisoner by Captain Nemo (James Mason) there’s nothing to do except wander around the magnificent Victorian sub, and go for the occasional jaunt. It all looks great but there’s no dramatic ticking clock to say anything in particular needs doing.

It’s interesting that Nemo is an ambiguous character and the fellow most sympathetic to him, Professor Arronax (Paul Lukas) is also most sympathetic to us. No strong decision seems to have been taken as to who Peter Lorre is playing, so the film’s best actor is somewhat rudderless, although as Fiona pointed out it’s kind of nice to see him playing somebody basically nice. And then there’s Ned Land, whaler and troilist, an appalling lout-hero, ably personated by Kirk Douglas, giving it both knees as usual. This seems to connect somehow to the Harryhausen/Juran FIRST MEN IN THE MOON — both feature delightful Victorian scifi vehicles (see also Pal’s THE TIME MACHINE) and thuggish heroes contrasted with appealing but powerless intellectuals. The Harryhausen movie actually made this WORK, though. (And this almost brings us back to Zeman, since his BARON PRASIL begins with a modern cosmonaut meeting Munchausen on the moon, much like FIRST MEN’s NASA opening, drafted by Nigel Kneale.)

THE BLACK HOLE, it’s been pointed out, is Disney’s unofficial remake of LEAGUES — Maximilian Schell even borrows James Mason’s beard (well, he had no further use for it) — to the extent of stealing the maelstrom from Verne, which doesn’t appear in the movie, and putting it front and centre and calling it a black hole. Where LEAGUES is meandering, though, HOLE is violently incoherent, though it does have an insane psychedelic/religiose ending which elevates it to the category of something or other that happened.

This must surely have been storyboarded to within an inch of its life but, curiously enough, Fleischer’s compositional genius isn’t much in evidence. I guess it’s his first Scope film.

Asides from the actors named above, the movie has one other favourite figure, Percy Helton, who turns up at the start as a salty sea-dog, looking less grotesque than usual in a beard of his own. He should’ve kept it, or vice versa. It’s one of those no-moustache Irish jobs, which usually make people look worse (Lincoln pulled it off, sorta), but dear Perc has the kind of face you can’t disimprove upon, so he ends up looking quite cute — from goblin to garden gnome.

A Brief, but Hopelessly Inaccurate, History of Animation

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on July 31, 2020 by dcairns

In FELIX THE NIHILIST (1921), the beloved cartoon cat flirted with terrorism.

America’s first cartoon star, Felix the Cat, was originally a real cat, but showman Aubrey Visser found it impractical to display a live cat in hundreds of movie theaters at once, so he resorted to showing drawings. Audiences didn’t respond enthusiastically to a single crudely-rendered drawing of a cat being held in front of them for five minutes straight, so he experimented with displaying six or seven such drawings in succession. This still didn’t enthrall the populace, so he added more and more… by the time he was rapidly shuffling sixteen drawings a second, he had simultaneously discovered animation and repetitive strain injury, and a new medium was born.

The popular animated flapper Betty Boop was the creation of actor and political activist John Wilkes Boop, who based the characterization on his mother, also a popular animated flapper.

With the first cartoon to feature dialogue and sound, Walt Disney was all set to score a popular hit, except he had unexpected trouble with the Hays Office over the title, Steamboat Penis. Disney offered up a variety of alternatives: Steamboat Cock, Steamboat Dong, Steamboat Trouser Snake, finally settling on the more acceptable Steamboat Dick John Thomas Percy Johnson. The final touch which ensured his success was a radical redesign of the main character:

With his instantly recognizable characters such as Michael and Winifred Mouse, Donald  Amberson Duck, and George “Goofy” Babbage, Disney became the king of cartoons, eventually founding his very own kingdom in the form of an amusement park, Waltworld or something. But it wasn’t enough to fill the stagnant emptiness corroding his innards, and so he ordered his poorly-paid minions to create America’s first animated feature film, originally entitled SO WHITE AND THE SABINE DWARFS. Endless story conferences eventually ironed out the plot, which originally had the Aryan princess heroine kidnap a group of dwarfs who eventually contracted Stockholm Syndrome and refused to leave her. In one intermediate version they contracted Stockhausen Syndrome, causing an addiction to musique-concrète, and in another the affliction was Stockard Channing Syndrome, named for the as-yet-unborn Tony award winner.

Disney’s gamble paid off, and led to a succession of hit movies. No major cultural event of the forties and fifties was allowed to go untackled by a Disney animation: with PINOCCHIO he blew the lid off the lying puppet problem in Italy, while DUMBO drew attention to the grave dangers posed by levitating pachyderms, pink or otherwise, and in 1940 FANTASIA warned a world plunging into global warfare of the destruction that would ensue if ballet dancing was ever taken up by hippopotami.

Meanwhile, the Fleischer brothers did something awful with insects.

While Disney reigned supreme in feature animation, he did have rivals in the short subject category. To compete with his Silly Symphonies and Crazy Concertos, Warner Bros rolled out their anarchic Merry Melodies, Looney Tunes, Phobic Phanphares and Bipolar Bagatelles, starring violently-inclined rodents, fowl, swine, etc. These were successful but led to concerns that showing such aggressive by livestock could cause problems with imitative behaviour. In 1947, the Herschell Gordon Freleng cartoon FUDD FEAST had to be briefly withdrawn after an incident in Fort Collins, Colorado, involving a duck and a stick of dynamite. It was later reported that instances of coyotes strapping themselves to rockets quadrupled during the years when Chuck “Charles M.” Jones was directing his beloved ROADRUNNER toons, and anti-violence campaigners point to the fact that such incidents are seldom reported today as proof of the deleterious effects of animated mayhem upon impressionable canines.

Pixar’s KRAZY KOMPUTER is often cited as the first computer animation, but in fact it is a conventional cel animation DEPICTING a playful computer doing sums and emitting a long piece of paper. But soon, computers everywhere were DOING the animation, saving colossal amounts of time and money, which is why animated feature films today are so famously cheap and quick to make. The photorealistic approach also allowed animation to stage a successful takeover of the live action film, with first special effects, then sets, then makeup, being infiltrated by the pixel-pushers. Today, everything is a cartoon, from the action cinema of James Cameron, to the sensitive dramas of Noah Baumbach (Adam Driver is based on an old Ub Iwerks drawing found torn up in a wood) to the news. The world is governed now by cartoon characters. They draw the editorial cartoons first and then get semi-convincing CGI creations to act them out.

Don’t tell me you hadn’t noticed.

Beyond the Paleontology

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2019 by dcairns

Officially, the blogathon is supposed to be over — but I have three guest posts on their way, and I’ve kept watching late films too…

So, I guess I saw ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IS MISSING when it came out in 1975, a long time ago — when dinosaurs ruled the earth, or my world, anyway. Aged eight, I was a little disappointed that there were no live, stampeding dinosaurs in it. As moderately amusing as the conceit is, if Disney had made a proper version of THE LOST WORLD and followed Willis H. O’brien and had a rampant brontosaurus in Victorian London… IMAGINE how entertaining that would have been!

But even if they were determined to carry on filming David Forrest’s long-forgotten novel The Great Dinosaur Robbery, being an animation studio they could surely have had an animated prologue or something showing how the dinosaur came to be a skeleton in the British Museum?

Still, the film begins with a really jaunty Ron Goodwin score, then it has Derek Nimmo in old age makeup telling us the story from a leather armchair in his club, presumably in modern times… this is all fine.

Then it gets racist FAST and HARD — young Nimmo is escaping a matte painting of China in yellowface — his glued-on Fu Manchu moustache is brown to match his hair — then he’s gliding over a model of the Himalayas — then he’s rescued by a yeti — the eight-year-old me must have been thrilled by that, but it left no trace in the memory banks.

Then we’re in London and it’s even more racist. Peter Ustinov is somewhat embarrassing as a Chinese master spy, although once you get over the offense, it’s a very inventive bit of ham. An actor full of tricks… well, he’s ALL tricks. But he does get all the laughs. Clive Revill, in a sort of yellowface death mask as his henchman, is horrifying to look upon. He actually gets a couple chuckles in extreme longshot because he’s an able physical comedian but every time the camera ventures closer you feel sick.

Helen Hayes is a nanny, everyone’s after a formula of some kind… it may be racist as shit but it passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. A good big role for Joan Sims.

They spent money on this thing! Clearly armies of inept gag writers have laboured to stuff it full of crap slapstick, and nobody’s in charge of quality control. All of these gags are big and expensive, and they involve bringing in extraneous shit just in order to be able to stage the gag, whereas gags which use the elements already in play in your story will result in a more cohesive show. Plus, gags with a strong cause-and-effect construction, and gags that build up and form chains of connection are the best for a story. Nobody at Disney in the seventies seemed aware of that.

The plus side is that the film keeps wheeling on beloved British comedy actors, because it has all these extra gags to cycle through, so although the material is giving no pleasure whatsoever, the pageant of Carry On actors, sitcom stars, Richard Lester background people and elaborate sets and costumes has a mild nostalgic appeal.

Two of the stars of ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING actually appear in this, but that’s probably a coincidence caused by the sheet preponderance of Brit talent roped in. We also get a second or two of Kathleen Byron. Michael Powell, we should remember, was unemployed, forgotten and living in genteel poverty at this time.

Curious that it was Ustinov’s turn in CHARLIE CHAN AND THE CURSE OF THE DRAGON QUEEN that prompted protests. Petrol-bombing Disneyland would have been a measured response to OOUDIM. Historians with only these two films to work from would deduce that a lot of social progress was made between 1975 and 1981.

Racism and caricature are uncomfortable bedfellows — most of us feel we can tell the difference, but blurred lines happen. Caricaturing the qualities of a specific person is acceptable if the intent is clear. Caricaturing on purely racial lines is clearly offensive. This movie is making fun of an ignorant idea of the Chinese, but it doesn’t appear knowing. In other words, it seems to accept the idea, and then mocks Chinese people for supposedly conforming to it. Ha ha, they make nonsense noises! It all comes from lazy ignorance, which is never an interesting way to approach anything.

The model work is pretty incredible, I will say that. It was only while framegrabbing afterward that I realized how much of this movie is miniature. And there are… images:

It’s the penultimate film of Robert Stevenson (his best colonialist romp is the much earlier KING SOLOMON’S MINES, which somehow manages to be less obnoxious), and it’s slightly more convincing as a film than ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD which I was dragged to see as a seven-year-old (the back-projected lava was exciting — I do still like the matte paintings and the miniature airship effects). Stevenson would make THE SHAGGY D.A. and then bow out aged eighty-one.

They put his credit over a drawing of a traffic cop.

ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IS MISSING stars (deep breath) Hercule Poirot; Madelon Claudet; Lady Ruff-Diamond; Emperor Palpatine; Bungdit Din; P.C. Corky Turnbull; John Glynn Haggard; Hazel the McWitch; King Bruno the Questionable; De Nomolos; Planchet; Sgt. Grogan; Miss Marple; Pte. James Frazer; Ives ‘The Mole’; Dr. Fettle; Sister Ruth; Marie Curie; the Minister of the Inferior; Reverend Timothy Farthing; and Cleo(patra).

Speaking of Michael Powell, here are two more limericks.