Thursday, December 29, 2011

DATE Night: The Sword in the Stone

Way to use alliteration, y'all.
We are now entering a new phase of our DATE Nights. Remember a little while back when we hit a rocky patch with the package films of the forties, starting with Saludos Amigos? Well, we patched things up by the fifties, leading to the second golden age, which began with Cinderella. We have come to what can be described as mid-relationship doldrums. Things are not completely bleak, but it's gonna be shaky for a good while, with a lot of ups and downs. Fasten your seatbelts. It's gonna be a bumpy (couple of DATE) Night(s).

The Background:

For me, The Sword in the Stone marks the end of the second golden age of Disney animation, which lasted from Cinderella to 101 Dalmatians and brought us a string of films that were each and every one masterpieces. Despite any quibbles that you may have with them or how they were received in their day, you have to admit that each one of these films was solidly structured, charmingly told and artistically stunning and bold. Sword is none of these things and it is the beginning of a very controversial and divisive period for Disney feature animation. Until we reach the third golden age, which is over twenty years away, there are few great films and bucket loads of inconsistency weighing down the rest. This movie is where the cracks really begin to show.

It had been two years since Disney released 101 Dalmatians and the public was eager for their new animated feature. All signs pointed to The Sword in the Stone being a success. Wolfgang Reitherman (director) and Bill Peet (story) had been keys to the last film's success and were once again at the helm. Many of the great animators were still behind their desks. The new kids on the block at the studio were the Sherman Brothers, who wrote the songs here before becoming legends for their work on Mary Poppins among many, many other classics. This would also be the last animated feature that would be released in Walt's lifetime and his guidance was usually a boon to the creative process. As the Disney Christmas release of 1963 it did well, but was not an all-out smash. It did decent box office and was somewhat well-reviewed. It was also pretty quickly forgotten. There is a small cult of devotees, which every Disney film, no matter how obscure, has, but by and large there are few traces of it left. It was re-released to theaters twice and issued with little fanfare on DVD. Merlin pops up at the parks here and there to get a kid to pull the sword from the stone. Otherwise, the film has kind of faded into obscurity and (hate on me if you must) somewhat deservedly so.

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 12: The Sword in the Stone. The first time I've felt artistic disappointment. The style that worked for 101 Dalmatians does not work artistically for the Arthurian period. It isn't without charm. The girl squirrel is adorable. The Sherman Brothers wrote the music for the first time and it's fun. The duel between Madam Mim and Merlin is fun. But overall, I'm not so much a fan.
February 6, 2010 at 9:38pm ·

The Art:

A rare artistically sound moment.
6/10. This is a situation where the stylistic choices made by the creators did not jibe with the story that they were telling. At the beginning, we have a traditional opening of the illustrated storybook but when the movie starts, we are stepping into a completely different story. It's like aesthetically promising Sleeping Beauty and delivering 101 Dalmatians and it's off-putting. The background styling owes much to the look of 101 Dalmatians, with blocks of color behind detailed lines, but despite how well-done they may be, I can't help but wonder if they fit the story. Often they take on a kind of patchwork quality that looks haphazard, while the effect in 101 Dalmatians is consistently artful. (As you can see "does it fit the story?" is the query that spooled endlessly through my head while watching this film.) The Xerox lines, with their sketchy quality, do the rich legends that they are trying to present no favors. The effects animation (water, rain, snow, smoke, etc.), which are usually always standouts, end up looking pretty chintzy here for the most part, though they do improve over the course of the film. The reflections in water and magic effects, especially in the wonderful wizard duel sequence, are standouts. In the end, there is nothing that I love visually in this movie. I can't help but wonder what difference it would have made to base the look on artwork from Arthurian times, but the filmmakers wanted a modern look superimposed over a classic story. By taking the more economical and less artistic road, they ended up with a film that looks cheap rather than clever.

The Story:

5/10. Here's where the bulk of the problems are rooted. The creators obviously wanted to take an old world story and modernize it. The idea makes sense. It would allow "today's" audience to connect with it more and provide some humor as well. In some cases, this works like a charm (Hercules, The Emperor's New Groove), however, here it dates the piece instead, taking away the timeless quality that even animated classics set in modern times (101 Dalmatians, Lilo & Stitch) have. Merlin's ability to see the future doesn't deepen the story as much as it provides easy humor that is no longer terribly relevant to an audience in the 21st century. This issue has repercussions throughout all the other aspects of the movie, but is not the only mistake that was made.

The age old battle of crab v. snake, Disney-style.
The film is front-loaded with exposition at the top and then structured in a very disjointed and episodic manner. It feels less like a feature film than a series of "Merlin & Wart" shorts. "Merlin & Wart Swim With the Fishes". "Merlin & Wart Go Nutty". "Merlin & Wart Meet Mad Madam Mim". Each may be charming in its on right for five minute long chunks, but they feel strung together without having a clear arc to make it into a single story. They are also pretty preachy, each containing a hackneyed lesson to be learned from "look before you leap" to "brains before brawn", and none of these nuggets of wisdom is expressed in a very innovative way. Some of these sections are successful overall, such as the squirrel and Madam Mim bits, which are the highlights of the film, but for the most part they seem to drag on without building much in the way of tension or momentum. Then they slam into a moralistic brick wall that leaves you thinking "meh" and wishing there was more of a payoff.

All of the material that strings these pieces together doesn't much register. There are a lot of hijinks that seem better suited to a Looney Tunes short (everything with the wolf stalking Wart), jokes that repeat themselves (Archimedes' twisty neck) and sequences that feel like they are ripping themselves off (I'm being chased by a big fish! Now I'm being chased by a hawk! See how that's different and brings a new level of clarity to my journey as a character? No? Oh...well, nuts...). Even transitional techniques (sloppy fades and blackouts) feel unimaginative and the opening sequence a step backwards after the brilliant precedent set by 101 Dalmatians.

Ah! Snake v. mouse makes much more sense.
I like to root for the underdog and champion many underrated Disney gems. (Just wait 'til we hit Home on the Range.) Sometimes glaring mistakes can be made and yet the film somehow still works through sheer force of will, charm and fun. (The Aristocats, much?) Neither is the case for me here. Others, however, may see it differently. I went to a lovely holiday party not long ago (shout out to occasional DATE Nighters Stacy and Justin!) and chatted about The Sword in the Stone with a few of the folks there who gave me a very interesting point of view on the film. Stacy got all twitterpated when she found out which DATE Night I was on. When I told her how disappointed I was in the film, she told me that it was one of her favorites from childhood. When she was a kid she loved it because, along with Peter Pan (her other favorite), it was the only film until Aladdin that was a full-on adventure story that avoided getting weighed down with too much romance or sentimentality. Someone else offered that it's one of the films that he and his sibling still quote to each other even to this day and it wasn't until he read the book that he realized that it was just as episodic as the movie. All agreed that while it may not be the strongest story-wise or artistically, it offered a different kind of animated film for an audience who wanted something outside the classic fairy tale realm. So while I have a bit more appreciation for why The Sword and the Stone has loyal followers, I still think it is one of the least effective Disney animated classics in the canon.

The Characters:

Just a squirrel trying to get a nut.
5/10. To me, the characters in The Sword and the Stone are stubbornly unlikable. There is absolutely no one that I feel an emotional connection to. Wart, voiced by three separate actors owing, it seems, to the fact that puberty doesn't wait for production schedules, comes off as weak and a bit whiny. He is supposed to be the fellow that we root for, but when he has his emotional moment and weeps, it feels somehow unearned and empty. It certainly isn't as moving as it was clearly set up to be. Merlin certainly doesn't add too terribly much warmth and any that he has displayed flew out the window for me when at the end of the film he flat out abandons Wart after an abrupt blow-up. Archimedes, who is meant to provide comic relief, is rather an ill-tempered annoyance who seems to dare you to like him at all. Wart's caretakers are brutish jerks. It's a shame when the characters that pique my interest the most come and go in a flash because of the movie's bad structuring. I love the sassy sugar pot with attitude to spare who smacks Wart with a spoon. I was genuinely moved by the girl squirrel who broke my heart when she discovered through a fog of confusion that Wart was not a boy squirrel. The character also provides several dialogue-free moments of humor and imagination, such as the expression of attraction through hands on the face. And of course Madam Mim is fantastic. She's campy, crazypants and fully awesome, but she is seen only briefly in all her wackadoo glory before the story moves on to the next escapade. The voice work throughout is fine if not special, and the character design and animation is the same.  

The Music:

Higitus Figitus and so forth and so on.
5/10. This was the first animated feature that the Sherman Brothers worked on for Disney and the songs that they wrote are by no means top drawer. They may all function in the story, but they do not help propel it forward. They are flat exposition ("The Sword in the Stone") or show pieces ("Higitus Figitus" and "Mad Madam Mim") or lesson reinforcers ("That's What Makes the World Go 'Round" and "A Most Befuddling Thing"). All of this would be more forgivable if the songs weren't so forgettable. I would be hard-pressed to conjure up more than a very short phrase from any of the songs despite having seen it quite recently. Nothing is glaringly bad, but nothing is outstanding. Jazzy elements often throw you out of the time and place of the story as well. Considering the lack of clarity in the whole of the storytelling, I'm not surprised that these songs can't really find their place within it. I just can't help but get the feeling that these are minor songs by writers who are capable of more.

George Bruns, who I could write love sonnets to for scoring films such as Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians so incredibly, handles the score here as well, but really gets mired down in contrasting classic storybook versus modern jazzy stylings. Even in the beginning, we are watching a very solemn opening credit sequence with appropriate stately music playing, when a swinging overture plays bubbles up suddenly and makes us question exactly what kind of movie we are watching. Bruns' other scores elevate wonderful material. They serve as an emotional roadmap for the audience. Here, he is making what he can out of flat material and trying to abide by the "modern touches in a storybook world" concept that sinks the film. He is incapable of shoddy work, but this is far from his finest. Both he and the Sherman Brothers have made much more worthy contributions to the musical world of Disney elsewhere.

The Gay Scale:

And then there's this outfit.
5/10. There isn't much that is terribly gay about this film. There is plenty of effete British affectation in Merlin and Archimedes, but nothing in their actions suggests that it goes any deeper. Except maybe Merlin's pink boxer shorts. The characters actually seem quite asexual, which I guess makes sense considering that they are an owl and an old wizard, but hey, even Dumbledore was given a fun queer backstory. Beyond those characters, there is scant little eye-candy, which is sad considering that there is potential for hunky knights in shining armor. If the storytelling were stronger, then maybe it could have been interpreted as a gay man's journey. An underestimated and less-than-macho young man is taken under the wing of someone older and wiser who wants to guide him through an unfamiliar world, taught the ropes of life and love, and finally comes into his own, being respected in a man's world. But even that's a stretch. Of course, the gays love a good villainess and Madam Mim adds a bit of campy spice to the mix, but she isn't around enough to register that way she could have. I'm not sure whether I see less that's queer in this movie partly because I didn't enjoy it, or I didn't enjoy it partly because I saw less that's queer in it. Unclear.

The Bottom Line:

Sorry Walt. Not quite. But nice tree!
5/10. The Sword in the Stone is a major disappointment for me. The people behind the film seem to be aiming to wring cleverness and unexpectedness out of contrasting the modern sensibility of the art, music, storytelling and humor with the classic story set in olden times. Instead they came out with a dated mess of a movie that loses much of the timeless charm that defines the best of the Disney animated features. The style of the film seems to spring from economic need rather than artistic inspiration. The storytelling is disjointed, episodic and ineffective. The characters are unlikeable and do not make an emotional impact. The music doesn't help to tell the story, nor is it fun enough to be a joyous lark. After a decade of triumph after artistic triumph, the studio was bound to stumble, and they stumbled hard. They will recover a bit with The Jungle Book, but it will be decades before they are really able to get their moviemaking mojo back.

The Miscellanea:

This is an awesome video, called "White Magic" posted on YouTube that takes vocal and soundtrack elements of the movie and stitches them together to create a whole new beast. I devoted an entire blog entry to the many videos that this person has done (Odd Disney World: Disney Remixed). If you enjoy this one, you should check it out and see some of the remixes they've done for other films, which are all pretty spectacular.

This is the Sword in the Stone Ceremony at Disneyland (the show itself starts at the two minute mark). It's the only real presence that the movie has in the parks, which isn't terribly surprising, since the film isn't really popular enough to warrant a full attraction. But almost everyone has the ubiquitous trying-to-pull-the-sword-out-of-the-stone picture.

I love the "Darth Vader Goes to Disneyland" ad campaign that the parks did not too long ago leading up to the unveiling of the newly revamped Star Tours in the parks. It was simple and hilarious. The juxtaposition of this character in the happiest place on Earth doing typical theme park activities really tickled me. Here he tries his hand at dislodging that stubborn sword.

This is an extended version of "Legend of the Sword in the Stone" from the beginning of the film. I'm not sure where this version comes from, though it's probably from a record released around the same time as the film, but it's interesting to hear the additional lyrics.

So what was your take? Were you as put off as I was by the film's lackluster construction or were you happy that it ventured out of the box? Did you find the art derivative or appropriate? Did the "current" references throw you off or charm you? Did you find all the characters in the film as unlikable as I did or is that what you made you dig them in the first place? It seems like this film tends to really divide Disney fans. Do you think it marks the end of the second golden age, like I do? Or do you feel that it comes down the road a bit? On our next DATE Night, we'll be traveling to the India for The Jungle Book. I would appreciate it if you could please come dressed like you just came from speiling on the Jungle Cruise, pith helmet and all. I will take pictures and post them all over your FaceSpace for the world to admire and/or possibly giggle at.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

DATE Night: 101 Dalmatians

First off I want to say to any of my regular blog readers that I am grateful for your patience and kindness. As you can tell from my post on The Muppets, life is a bit on the challenging side for me right now and I needed to take a brief siesta of sorts to recharge. This blog has been a passion project from go and a way for me to flex some creative muscles that I was afraid would atrophy, but, when all is said and done, it's just lil' ole me. One dude behind a computer sending his Disney musings out on the interwebs and hoping that some people find enjoyment in them. I've even had the pleasure of guest blogging on This Happy Place blog about Walt Disney, the man, for their Walt Wednesdays series (Please check the posts out- one is on Walt and trains, another is a review of a documentary about his life and the most recent is on the WWWD- what would Walt do?- phenomenon) and I hope to keep contributing to blogs outside of my own in the Disney blogging community. Moved by the Mouse ain't going nowhere, but I have made a promise to myself that won't get into a tizzy over my own self-imposed deadlines, as I am sometimes wont to do. I have enough work at work. This blog is all about joy, connection and fun. So how bout promise to keep reading and I promise to keep writing, ok?

Way to milk the "one" pun.
Our DATE Nights are especially important to me and I will keep watching one Disney animated classic every week. I will continue to post my blogs about them as soon after watching as I can. So let's get down to business (to defeat the Huns). After spending last week with Sleeping Beauty, we are doing a complete one-eighty and taking a look at 101 Dalmatians. Storybook to modern. Precise to sketchy. It really is a changing of the guard artistically, even if many of the nine old men were still behind the pencils. This movie is both a new beginning and the beginning of the end for Disney animation's second golden age. The technological innovations discovered (Xeroxing) would be utilized only because they were economical, forgetting that they work so well here because they serve the story so well. Gone is hand inking of lines on cels and the department that went with it, and it's sad. (If you want proof, take another look at Aurora. Even something as basic as the the hand-inked lines of her hair are in another shade of gold. The inking is exquisitely done and treated as an important part of the whole.) For now, though, let's rejoice in the fact that with 101 Dalmatians, the Xerox line is just as beautifully rendered an artistic statement and that the film as a whole is a complete triumph!

The Background:

Pongo standing guard at the All Star Movies
Resort in Orlando.
101 Dalmatians sits at a very odd juncture in Disney history. Sleeping Beauty had been a extravagant artistic masterpiece but commercially was met with a resounding "meh". Out of necessity, drastic cuts were made in the animation department, leaving them with a fraction of the talented team that they had. By this point, Walt himself was also busying himself with other projects. Live action films were becoming more and more prevalent on the studio's slate. The Disney presence on television, which Walt was wise enough to embrace early, was now secure and significant. And above all else, Walt turned his attentions to Disneyland, which was by now a bonafide smash. Animated films were now no longer the entire meal, but one of many cups in the Lunchables tray.

By using the Xerox process, which Ub Iwerks adapted to use in animation, the animators were able to cut costs significantly. The creators of the film were faced with a challenge that forced them to adapt their process in a way that was both artistically robust and economically feasible and, bless their souls, they were able to do so. Walt, however, was not terribly happy with the look of the film. Considering that this would be the overarching aesthetic for Disney animated features for the foreseeable future, you can only assume that Walt would have been none too pleased. Critics and audiences, on the other hand, embraced the film. It was the tenth highest grossing film of 1961 and was re-released into theaters several times before its was available to watch at home. After all is said and done, it stands as one of the most successful animated films in history.

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 10: 101 Dalmatians: The cool thing about watching these in chronological order is watching the progression of the animation. The style is so different from Sleeping Beauty. It's the first modern feeling Disney film. I enjoyed this much more than I remember enjoying it as a kid. Fantastic, non-traditional artwork. Great characters and story. A fascinating departure.
February 6, 2010 at 3:20pm ·

The Art:

Hi there, dreamy Roger.
9/10. I have already brought up how the use of Xerox technology affects the look of this film and it is a factor that is hard to overstate. Instead of inkers coming in and tracing the original artwork, giving it a smooth and polished look in the process, the cleaned up original artwork is what you saw onscreen. This was wonderful for the animators, who saw their creations appearing with one less middleman to be filtered through. The result is a startlingly different look in the animation. There is a sketchy, imperfect quality to the lines where you can see flashes of stray pencil marks left untouched. And where better to employ this than in a film populated with thousands of black and white spots that probably would have been too time-consuming to do otherwise. We have clearly ventured outside of the fairy tale land of clean, detailed elegance and entered a gritty city where specificity and impressionism clash in fascinating ways.

The backgrounds are especially fascinating for me. They are impressively composed with lots of telling details laid over blocks of color that do not always stay within the lines. It is especially lovely in shots of the interior of Roger and Anita's flat (when it is dark, the coloring shifts solely to shades of grey) and of the rows of buildings. They have a fine art quality that makes them look like they could fit nicely in a gallery. The use of color to telegraph emotion which first came to prominence in the Mary Blair era, leaves its mark here as well. Note the shot of the dogs crossing the river, where the scene is washed in shadows with red puncturing the horizon and the all-red backgrounds when the pups are about the be attacked.

Disney can still work a gorgeous landscape, huh?
This works in tandem with the stunning effects animation (smoke, storms, water, stars and snow) and landscapes (the city with its flashing neon, the country during the twilight bark) to give us shots like London shrouded in fog (less detailed than we're used to, which adds to the mystery). We also have the technological advancements in the animation of the cars, which involved filming three dimensional car models in black and white and adding color to the cels, giving them a fascinatingly realistic look. Other beautiful elements include the stained glass at the wedding and the gorgeous final shot of the city windows lighting up. All of these elements come together to give us a film that does't look like any feature we've seen before. The art in this film is refreshing, modern, pitch-perfect and eye-poppingly brilliant. The films that follow fail to employ this style of animation as artfully and organically and it will be quite a while before Disney animators are able to establish a new, powerful visual identity or gain a significant new piece technology in computer animation. 

The Story:

For Tom, who loves Cake Wrecks- How not to
do a 101 Dalmatians cake...

9/10. Starting with the incredible opening sequence, we know that this is going to be a story unlike any we've seen in a Disney animated feature. A new-fangled visual style and saucy underscore, timed to the animation, playfully incorporates the credits, slyly winking at the fact that we're watching a film. When we see the score credit, dalmatian spots become musical notes, etc. (It's probably my favorite opening sequence in all of the Disney animated features.) This brings us to the first modern, urban story told in animation by the studio. It's divided into two halves- a comedy of manners at first, morphing smoothly into a tense adventure story as the puppies are rescued. The major storyman on the project was the great Bill Peet, who had worked on many of the Disney greats.

Along the way we get robust moments of humor (Pongo drunk with joy at the puppies' birth), sadness (Pongo and Perdita under the stove), anticipation / release (the expectant fathers and their subsequent happy dance), and joy (the dogs' return home). The movie never sags and manages to make all of its beats flow together seamlessly. I have not read the book that the film is based on, but its author, Dodie Smith, was even known to have said that she felt like the Disney artists improved on her story. If that isn't high praise, then nothing is. The spark, the emotion and the charm that defines the best of the animated classics is abundant here.

...and how to do a 101 Dalmatians cake!
I love the familial feeling that binds the film together. Pongo, Perdita, Roger and Anita blend their family and welcome the new additions. When the little ones are taken away they stop at nothing to bring them home. They protect each other. They keep the home fires burning. It's a lovely statement about the strength of the bonds of both the families that we choose and that we are born into. That extends into the animal community, where other dogs, along with cats, geese, horses and cows create a chain of aid for the escaping pups. The film is showing the importance of being surrounded by a group of peers that is willing and eager to help when the mess hits the fan, in this case to send a message in barking morse code though the outcome may look bleak. It's a subtle and lovely lesson to be taken away from a stylish comedic adventure story that doesn't slow down long enough to bother with sounding preachy.

The Characters:

They're gonna have a lot of soot to clean up.
9/10. In the same way that Lady and the Tramp is built around a pair of dogs at the center of the story, 101 Dalmatians features two canines as leads. The major difference here is that they made the effort to keep the humans in the story as dimensional as their companions are. Pongo refers to Roger as his pet, and there is a wonderful sequence showing owners and their suspiciously similar-looking owners. (The moment when Cruella gets pen ink splotches on Roger makes it plainly obvious how much he resembles Pongo.) The central quartet is comprised of two couples that genuinely love each other. Roger and Anita are lighthearted and sweet while Pongo and Perdita are loving and protective parents. Their relationships feel lived-in and real. They are all gorgeously designed, fabulously animated and wonderfully voiced. It takes real artistry to capture such fully realized moments as Anita's half-sit in shock when she hears the number of puppies who have returned and her rise back up to avoid squashing one of them, the anger turned to laughter when she and Roger tumble into the lake, or the moments of tenderness between Pongo, Perdita and the pups.

Sweetie, you may need to see an optometrist.
This brings us to the other central character to the plot, and that's the villain Cruella De Vil. She was deliciously created by Marc Davis, who, as an Imagineer would contribute significantly to The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Country Bear Jamboree. Cruella was his feature animation swan song and, whew, did he go out with a big, fantastic bang! From her first appearance in silhouette, she is one of the most formidable villains of all time, with her black and white fright wig hair, bony and exaggerated form and face (Those cheekbones! Ouch! You could slice someone open with them!), the singular harshness and angularity of her design, her evil laugh, and dramatic demeanor. Emotions are perpetually turned up to eleven for her. When she's angry she seethes and when she's satisfied she's creepily blissful. I love telling moments like when she pushes Roger's pipe to the side so that she can get in his face, looks in the broken windows like she's hungrily hunting for her prey, and gets crazy, swirling red eyes as she tail-ends a truck that is harboring her victims. She may be larger than life, but she is very human in her cruelty. She is awful in a completely real way with no sorcery or witchcraft involved. It's the same mean-spirited spite that can be found next door in any city, any day. And that is probably the scariest thing about her.

Nanny's so cute!!!
The supporting cast of characters are all great as well. I'm especially partial to the lovably sweet Nanny, who is feisty when fighting off the intruders ("You got cloth ears?!?!") and is palpably devastated when she finds the puppies gone. Cruella's henchmen, with their oversized hands and noses, are blundering but intimidating and seem fully capable of violence. The animals participating in the twilight bark all make an impact with minimal screen time. (The goose who wags her tail feathers like an excited dog and holds up her friends ear so he can hear is my favorite.) And, last but not least, the puppies are adorable. They wisely use children to voice them to great effect and give us a central group to focus on, ably differentiating the perpetually hungry one, the rambunctious one, the curious one, etc. It is impossible not to fall in love with them, which is essential for a story that hinges on whether you are engaged with them enough to care about whether they are rescued. By the time one of them says that his "toes are froze" in a snowstorm, you are so smitten that you have to stop yourself from trying to reach into the screen and give him a hug to warm his bones.

The Music:

The amazeballs opening credits.
8/10. Examining the music in Disney films over the course of our DATE Nights, one of the things that has really stood out for me is the impressive scores from the Disney animated classics. One of the truly brilliant Disney composers is George Bruns and he has done some truly fantastic work here miles away from his work adapting Sleeping Beauty from Tchaikovsky. The sound is a bridge between the the classic original Disney film scores, perfected in Lady and the Tramp, and the distinctive sixties Disney sound that you would soon hear all over the music for the 64-65 New York World's Fair. It is a completely new sound appropriate for a modern day urban tale, mixing pop and jazz idioms into an emotionally resonant film score that fully supports the story being told.

Think of the opening credits, where the music that you hear signals that this will be unlike any other Disney animated film. Or the sweet music that peeks it head out from under the steady tic-toc of the clock and uneasy sound of thunder at the same time little Lucky emerges alive from the cloth in Roger's hands. The music in contrast to the preceding lack thereof mirrors our relief and joy in this sweet, sad moment when a puppy is almost lost.

The songs, by Mel Leven, who would later go on to adapt Babes in Toyland for Disney (meaning we have him to thank for that awesome, multi-colored Annette Funicello walking on her hands number!), are few, but fantastic. His great contribution to the Disney (if not American) songbook is "Cruella De Vil". It's a fantastic way to get us to gird our loins for the character to come, and she does't disappoint. It also tells us a lot about Roger and his fun relationship with Anita. The song is playful and catchy enough to be played on the radio, as it later is in the story. The other songs in the movie ("Kanine Krunchies" and "Dalmatian Plantatian") are brief little larks, but effective for what they are.

It's interesting to me that a movie about a songwriter has so few songs. (Apparently Leven planned for there to be more, but they didn't make their way into the finished project.) But even beyond the score playing a major role in shaping the narrative, they use the idea of music to tell the story. Watching it this last time I noticed that Roger insists to Anita at the beginning of the film as he writes "Cruella De Vil" that the music comes first and then the words, but in the end when he writes "Dalmatian Plantation", it's the lyrics that precede the melody. It's a way for Roger to signal to us, in his own vernacular as a tunesmith, that their world has changed. It's details like this, combining music and character to relay information without exposition, that show storytellers at their most creative.

The Gay Scale:

What could be gayer than a Disney
themed Barbie doll? Nada.
8/10. Most of this high score can be attributed to three words: Cruella De Vil. If you want to talk about over-the-top camp in Disney films, the conversation would start with her by necessity. She is completely larger than life and the fact that she is a materialistic diva to boot makes her gay catnip (queernip?). From her initial appearance in a huge fur coat, three times the size of her slim frame, to her wild gesticulations and whisky and nicotine (from pink cigarettes!) branded voice, to the sight of her in her over designed bedroom, wild-eyed in curlers, Cruella is for all intents and purposes a drag character. She belongs in the same league as other self-important, glamorous, steamrolling, destructive dames like Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Her presence in this movie coupled with the fact that I have a humongous crush on Roger, who I think is a total dish, gives the movie a very high gay quotient.

The Bottom Line:

Bold, fresh styling. Wowza.
9/10. This movie is wonderful from start to finish. It is bracingly fresh, uniquely gorgeous to look at, with great characters, a rock solid story, a knockout score and a smattering of fun songs, one of which has become a standard. It is squarely unlike any other animated film Disney has done. The artists took what could have been a major setback (financial cuts) and found a way to flourish within their new boundaries. The problem will arise that not every story is suited to the look that was given to 101 Dalmatians. Could you imagine a Fantasia that looks like The Three Caballeros or an Alice in Wonderland that looks like Dumbo? They began to use the Xerox process, and the visuals that come with it, without really looking at whether the choice would support the story. I am not precious about animated style, but I am insistent that the style be carefully chosen because it is what the story, the characters and the world of the piece call for.

In a way, Walt got it right. The Xerox process did weaken the artistic boldness of the animated film for a spell. But here, in 101 Dalmatians, it is a technique that illuminates the story. That is where he got it wrong. Just as Sleeping Beauty was a bold artistic shift from Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians broke the mold of how an animated feature is supposed to look. We can't fault the movie that techniques pilfered from it for other movies would be far less successful there. This movie truly does get better for me every time I see it and it gets everything pretty spectacularly right. After having scant recollection of watching it as a child (probably because there were no pretty, pretty princesses), I am really floored by it as an adult. This easily ranks among the best of the best in the canon.

The Miscellanea:

The inevitable straight-to-video sequel, 101 Dalmatians 2: Patch's London Adventure, was released in 2003. It has something to do with rambunctious Patch wanting to be on TV like his hero, a dog named Thunderbolt. (Weird parallels to the 2008 Disney animated film Bolt much?) Cruella comes back with gay sidekick in tow and Jodi Benson (Ariel) voices Anita. It all seems a bit convoluted from plot summaries I've seen. I do find it telling that it has taken an original story whose main plot hinges on the power of community to vanquish a foe to a story about wanting to be someone special who stands out in a crowd. I think that says anything about the differences in values we taught our kids in the sixties versus what we teach them now. The importance of community over individuality as opposed to the exact opposite. Interesting.

I still have yet to see the 101 Dalmations live action adaptation. This trailer doesn't make a case to me that it needs to exist. What is there to improve on? Glenn Close seems to be having a blast and all, but, in the end, what is the point really? Just watch the original.

And here we have a questionable live action sequel to a unnecessary live action adaptation of an animated masterpiece. If the first seemed pointless, then 102 Dalmatians seems not only pointless, but also redundant and a bit lazy. Really? She reforms? But not actually? And she has some kind of gay sidekick? Now maybe my opinion on these films will change when I see them, which I'm sure I will one day, but they have a real uphill battle to fight if they want to win my good graces. (Do I sound like an old curmud...hey! Kid! Get off of my lawn! Sorry...curmudgeon yet?)

There is an amazing album called Disney Bossa Nova. If it is not in your hot little hands as we speak, get thee to an online retailer of your choosing (it's out of print) and for heaven's sake buy it! The entire album is brilliantly produced and wonderfully arranged. I promise you will love it. Last week I brought you a bossa nova "Once Upon a Dream", but this week is the reigning champ of bossa nova Disney covers- Marcos Valle singing "Cruela Cruel". Chances are if Tom and I are singing this particular tune, we are singing Marcos' version and gently swinging our hips.

I will admit that I came around to appreciating Dr. John rather late. It was around the same time that I started gaining an appreciation for country music and my Southern roots. Of course, the deal was sealed a few years later when he was involved in The Princess and the Frog, which is steeped in the flavor of his native New Orleans. He did a funky lil' cover of "Cruella De Vil" for the soundtrack to the live action remake and I kind of heart it.

I've also come clean to you guys about my burgeoning affection for some of the Disney Channel tween stars. My two favorites are easily Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez. They have actually come out with some really great pop tunes. This is Selena Gomez's cover of "Cruella De Vil". She adds some "hard-edged" guitar sounds to tough it up, but it's pure bubble gum. I find it to be rather catchy and a good time. Tom finds it chasing him through his nightmares, poor thing.

This young man's name is Jonny May and he tickles the ivories at Disneyland. There are tons of great videos of his stylings, but this one is particularly delicious. I love that he really brings out the sexiness in "Cruella De Vil".

Just cuz they're always pretty much awesome, here are the Dapper Dans, Disneyland's barbershop quartet,  with their own rendition of 101 Dalmatians' signature song.

It seems that 101 Dalmatians also spawned a TV series in the late nineties set on the dalmatian plantation. I have no recollection of this show at all and it seems to have come and gone after two seasons without making too much of an impact. I can't say that this opening theme song sequence makes me feel too optimistic about its quality. It seems stylized in a Kim Possible kind of manner and full of hijinks, but there does seem to be a bit of imagination there. Then again, I did just take a look at the beginning of the first episode and when the first line belonged to a Jamaican rasta man, I stopped watching.

I will go on record as saying I wish there were more character encounters at Disney Parks. Not character greetings where you stand in line for an hour and a half to walk into a fancy room with vague theming and spend a few minutes with a princess, but random, magical character encounters when you aren't even seeking them out. Part of what is so wonderful about the experience of being in a Disney park is that you are somehow in a world where Peter Pan searches for treasure, Mary Poppins is making her way somewhere terribly important (if her impeccable posture is any indication), and Cruella De Vil could be around the next corner waiting to pop out at you. This is a world where characters from the entire Disney canon go about their business and make you a part of the magic while doing so. I direct you to the spieling Peter Pan in the Miscellanea from my DATE Night a few weeks back for further evidence. That's how you serve face character realness, ladies and gentleman.

That being said, this Cruella may not have the voice or look down perfectly, but the spirit is dead-on. And that's more than good enough for me- it's the most important factor. If you get the spirit of the character right, you are good to go as far as I'm concerned. Watching her as she poses for paparazzi that isn't really there, spooks people as they emerge from attractions, and barks orders at an adorable nugget behind the wheel of the stationary car outside Mr. Toad's Wild Ride is pure joy tinged with a healthy dose of schadenfreude. It's super rad.

Just when you thought it wasn't possible for Cruella De Vil to get campier, you see this video of her show in Disneyland Paris. All you had to do was flank her with two super gay backup dances and drop her into a French theme park show, et voila! Plus de camp! This show actually looks pretty cute and it's very interesting to see how they handle the language issue, speaking both in French and English. As a monolingual rube who wants nothing more than to visit the Disney parks in other countries, it helps me feel like I won't be completely lost at (Tokyo Disney)sea.

And now we come to a non-Disney duo of clips. First, we have a clip about a 101 Dalmatians musical that was completely unrelated to the Disney version. It toured the country a few years back and I actually caught it during its stint at Madison Square Garden. It was not good. There were real dogs. Plus there were actors playing dogs in dog costumes. Kids played the puppies. And people on stilts played the humans. The music was not memorable or appropriate to the story in the least and was written by a guy from the rock group Styx. Natch. The performances were ok, with Rachel York doing her darndest to make something major out of her turn as Cruella. She was quite fine, but I was constantly terrified she would topple over. Most of all I missed the Disney storytelling, amazing music and lack of treacle.

This is a clip of a band named Cruella DeVille of a song called "Two Dreadful Children". It sounds like like what would happen if Rocky Horror and Dresden Dolls had a baby in a production of Shockheaded Peter directed by Brecht. It's completely twisted, weird and awesome. The band wasn't prolific, were together for two years and were from Northern Ireland. Someone also put together a website gathering as much information as they could about the band, but apparently there isn't all that much. Suffice it to say that this song alone is enough to endear them to me and guarantee them a place on my Halloween playlists in perpetuity.

So there we have it! As we've entered the sixties things are changing and changing fast. Next week for our DATE Night we will be traveling back to the era of wizards and royalty with The Sword and the Stone. Full disclosure, y'all. Things start to get a little janky now. 101 Dalmatians marks the end of Disney animation's second golden age and from here on things get a little spotty. Some of the films over the next fifteen years will be out and out gems, some will be disappointments and some will rest in between the two, but I can guarantee you two things. 1) They will all be fascinating and b) there is a small lady with a fishtail (not to mention the third golden age) on the other side. Stick with me, kids!

What did y'all folks think? Are you as impressed with the film's more contemporary feel or do you miss the storybook world of many of Disney's past masterpieces? Did you prefer the hand inked and painted look of the older films or the new look that 101 Dalmatians ushers in? Do you feel like this film is the end of a golden age? Some would argue Sleeping Beauty and some The Jungle Book. What's your take? Have you ever sung "Cruella De Vil" under your breath to an insufferably awful boss? Maybe that last one is just me...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Other Side of the Rainbow

Can't hold them back, y'all!
I know you've been patiently waiting to hear my verdict on The Muppets, which came out last Wednesday. Your minds are spinning trying to figure out why I have yet to weigh in. Did he see it? Was he abducted by aliens for the two hours he had tickets? Did he see it and then get abducted by aliens who erased all memories of it? Did he decide it wasn't worth the trip and that staying at home to watch Muppets in Space would be a better use of his time? Now you know I'm bluffing since you know that, even with a Kathy Griffin cameo, Muppets in Space is not worth staying home and watching in almost any situation unless a drinking game is involved.

Truth is, I had a pretty spectacularly horrible, no-good holiday weekend and it's taken me a few days to process my feelings about everything that is going on in my life. When the wheels in my head starting turning, I came to realize that my experience with The Muppets couldn't help but be informed by my life outside the cinema's revolving doors. Now that I've had a little bit of distance, I would love to share some of my thoughts about the movie (among other things). So you'll have to forgive me if this "review" of the movie is a little more personal than most. But we're all friends here, right? Awesomesauce. In that case, it's time to play the music! It's time to light the lights!

I want to work here. Make that happen, please.
I've made no secret of the fact that my job makes me want to claw my eyeballs out, thread them on a length of ribbon and wear them as a necklace. Part of the reason that I am so ready to leave New York City is that I have spent almost a year in a job that has done everything imaginable to suck my soul out short of drilling a hole in my chest and putting a vacuum cleaner against it. When I finally leave, I will probably never talk about it publicly because a) it has been so traumatizing and 2) people who have too much money and too few worthwhile things to do with it tend to like to use it on lawyers, treating litigation like a sport. A rich-people sport like polo or fencing. Lawsuiting. I can't afford a lawsuit, so suffice it to say that I am living in a nightmare version of Devil Wears Prada, but worse. Yes, it's possible to be worse than Miranda Priestly. You haven't met Your Majesty. When you finally see me next, we'll have a cup of coffee or cocktail and chat (strictly off the record), I promise.

The Wednesday that The Muppets was released was the day before Thanksgiving. I left the office promptly at six-thirty and headed uptown to pick up tickets for my husband and I to see the movie, which I had been waiting to see for months. I even went to The Museum of the Moving Image a few weeks back to see the Jim Henson exhibit and get my Muppet fix while I waited. I bought the tickets and pulled out my phone to see where Tom was. Of course, there was a message from Your Majesty. The masochist in me decided to listen and I was treated to three minutes (which is long in voicemail time) of the most passive-agressive, self-important, and flat-out mean drivel I have ever heard in my life. After eleven months of working my tail off without getting any respect or appreciation, Your Majesty told me that he could tell I wasn't happy, and that if I didn't like the way he ran his business, then maybe I should't be working for him any more.

Or even here. I'd totally work here, too, yo!
What horrible transgression had I committed? Well I had left on time. That meant that ten minutes later, when he wanted me to do a fruitless, self-serving task for him that I didn't know I was supposed to do, I wasn't there to do it. Did you get that? either. So I snapped. I was done. I called Tom crying. Going on about how awful it all was and how scared I am of the prospect of being jobless, no matter how much I hate what I do, and how I just wanted to go home. This was not how I wanted to see The Muppets.

I got a call from another beleaguered co-worker who was still tied down to the office and had been asked to do the busy work I wasn't there to do. Since it was too difficult to explain how to do it over the phone, I felt bad for them and I didn't want to hear guff about the situation all weekend, I returned my tickets and went into the office to get it done. So my Thanksgiving break started by going into the office at eight at Your Majesty's whim. Gobble gobble.

The upside was that I had time to calm down and realize that, dammit, I had waited for months to go see The Muppets on opening night and I'd be galldarned if I was going to let Your Majesty muck it up for me. Tom and I went back uptown, got our tickets anew and sat down in the front row of the mezzanine (!) for the ten o'clock showing of the movie. Before you are enveloped by the overwhelming and comforting smell of buttered popcorn and after you step out into the brisk late-fall air outside the theater, real life takes hold. But for those two precious hours, if all of the creative artists have done their job well, we are able to leave it all behind. And that night we were absolutely transported. From the opening Toy Story Toon to the end credits I had a huge smile on my face, I was ugly-laughing like my life depended on it and I did not think about Your Majesty once the entire time.

Hi. My name's Woody and I'm...
The Toy Story Toon, called "Small Fry" is hilarious. It imagines a support group meeting for tossed aside fast food kid's meal toys. The toys include a nod to Disney live-action film Condorman and Jane Lynch voicing the mermaid-on-a-rock leader of the group. It is a great riff on the Toy Story franchise without rehashing the same ideas. You do, however, get to spend a bit of quality time with your favorite characters from the original movies, including the adorable Bonnie, who just makes me feel like I'm get a big ole bear hug from one of the radtastic nuggets in my life, who are too far away to get a real bear hug out of at the mo. (Shout out to Dyllan and Sophia!!!) It's a perfect amuse bouche to get the party started.

Gratuitous Sarah Silverman shot for my hubby.
Then comes the main attraction- The Muppets. I can safely say that it's the best time that I've had in a movie theater in a long, long time. I was worried because some of the buzz surrounding the film's fidelity to the Muppets' spirit had been called into question. It seems to me that some people were being a bit too precious with our felt friends. I understand the impulse. None of us want to see these characters done wrong by. Luckily, they haven't been. The Muppets' history was respected and they were made relevant for a generation who has yet to meet them properly.

By telling the story of the Muppets reuniting for the first time in years, they were able to give us something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. By which I mean we got the old-school antics we expected to get as we catch up with what these guys have been doing, fresh characters introduced seamlessly into the mix, plenty of cheeky cultural referencing and celebrity cameos, all peppered with nostalgia and a big dollop of emotion on top.

If you've seen the movie, you know why this
shot makes me laugh out loud.
All of the performers are winning, but especially Amy Adams (Giselle from Enchanted) in one of the lead roles. There is nothing that this woman can't do. She can sing her face off, be really touching one minute and off-the-wall hilarious the next. Jason Segal is not usually my cup of tea, but he acquits himself quite well here and it is his passion for the project, which he also co-wrote, that got it off the ground. The new Muppet character, Walter, is very charming. I really came to care for him. Plus his human doppelgänger is the geek-dreamy Jim Parsons, so he's got that going for him. Chris Cooper and Rashida Jones also make unexpected and effective turns playing against their types. The music is fun, it looks great, and, when I saw it, the entire audience was guffawing, clapping and awww-ing wholeheartedly.

I just welled up adding this pic. Seriously.
I must say, though, that the big lump in the throat came late in the movie and it's one of the simplest moments. It involves a frog, a log, and a song about a rainbow. I'm sure that you all know what I'm talking about. Not to disparage what's new and fresh about the movie, but it's really hard to top "Rainbow Connection", written in 1979 for The Muppet Movie. It's a big, beating, muscular heart of a song. It's slightly cynical, but ultimately hopeful. It's gentle, but earth-shattering. And last Wednesday night, after almost a year of feeling beaten-down to the point of breaking, it was exactly what I needed to hear.

Best. Road trip. Ever!
People can debate the details of the movie, angry that they got x, y, or z wrong about it, but in the end what matters is that they took a guy who was feeling just about as low as he could possibly get and, over the course of a single movie, and let him (in the words of another fantastic Henson creation) dance his cares away. Worries for another day. For that, I will always be very grateful.

The Muppets were there when I needed them most, reminding me that there's a good reason that we always keep what's at the far end of the rainbow in our periphery. It's the promise of something greater. A time and place where we will be again be as happy as we were (the lovers, the dreamers and me...and my amazing husband) in that dark movie theater just hours before a day we set aside specifically to give thanks. That's worth far more than box office receipts or merchandising revenue. That's the power of a great movie to help change lives.

The rainbow in my room.
In the days since I saw the movie, I was still feeling a bit down. Real life has a tendency to come back and hornswaggle you despite the exceptional efforts of any great artistic endeavor to keep you up. It's always a struggle when you are in an emotionally unhealthy place forty hours a week to not get dragged back down. However, this morning, when I woke up, I turned over and was greeted by a rainbow in the corner of my room. It's like the Muppets were sending me a gentle reminder as insurance in case all of this soul-searching does take hold. It made me smile first thing in the morning, which is usually the last time that you will find me smiling when not on Disney property, no matter the circumstances. So if someone or something is up there, trying to guide me, I am saying out loud, into the universe, that I am choosing to believe that there is something magical and wonderful on the other side of that rainbow and I will keep moving forward until I get there. Thanks Jim. Thanks Muppets. Well-played, all.