Tuesday, August 30, 2011

DATE Night: Dumbo

It's already our fourth DATE Night! Things are coming along swimmingly dontcha think? I think this may even turn into something long-term. Don't tell Tom, though. He gets jealous since he's wearing my ring and all. This time around I'm taking you to the circus for Dumbo

The Background:

Artwork from the original Roll-A-Book.
Pinocchio and Fantasia were mad expensive and took a very long time to make, y'all! Gorgeous as they may have been, those big gambles did not exactly pay off the way it had been hoped that they would. The studio needed a project to follow them up that they could make quickly and inexpensively. They found their solution in the slight story of Dumbo the flying elephant that had been created as a Roll-A-Book, which was a scrolling toy/book hybrid. They expanded the story into a full-length feature, though at just over an hour, it is one of their shortest.

Simplicity was the name of the game. They worked quickly and economically and after less than a year they had the final product- Dumbo. It was released in late 1941 and was warmly received by critics, who saw the film as a return to form for Disney. The film was the most financially successful release of the forties from the studio, aided, no doubt, by the fact that it cost half as much as Snow White had cost them to produce. It weathered an animator's strike and being famously knocked off the cover of Time Magazine by the attack on Pearl Harbor to become one of the most beloved of the Disney animated classics. 

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 11: Dumbo. (Just came in at the library) Dumbo is precious. You can't help but love him and his mom and Timothy for protecting him. Though it almost feels more like a long short than a feature, it's quite sweet and nicely simple. "Baby Mine" is one of my favorite songs ever and so heartbreaking in context. And I want a sip of what made them see the pink elephants. What an amazing sequence!
February 6, 2010 at 7:23pm ·

The Art:

7/10. The art in Dumbo is a complete 180 from the style of their earlier films. It is less representational and more stylized, simpler and brighter. It almost feels like a feature film with the look of an exceptionally good short. That's not to say there aren't impressive effects or artistry, because there are. The watercolor backgrounds, the rain and cloud effects at the opening, the storm and lightning effects during the raising of the tents, and the stunning use of color throughout prove that this was crafted by skilled artists. Artwork this straightforward fits a story this uncomplicated.

I am terrified that they will eat me in my sleep.
Of course, no discussion of the art in Dumbo is complete without mentioning the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence. It is so incredibly far ahead of its time that I still don't think we've caught up with it. The hallucinogenic quality makes for an unforgettable experience that's unlike anything else Disney had ever done before or since, no matter how hard those Heffalumps and Woozles may try. This is truly groundbreaking artwork. It is ingenious and sophisticated and a complete contrast to the rest of the film. It is creepy and mesmerizing in equal parts and even cleverly pokes fun at Fantasia in the ballet portions.

The Story:

Those eyes...sigh...
7/10. Simple. Exactly as it should be. The slight premise was expanded just enough without over bloating it. It feels less episodic than Pinocchio, moving swiftly along as the idea of Dumbo learning to excel by embracing his differences, despite the discouragement of others, takes center stage. Each experience that our little friend goes through helps support that thesis without indulging in superfluous tangents. The only exception is the "Pink Elephants" section, but if they were going to go off the beaten path, I'm glad they did it in such a bold, visually impressive way. They knew they needed a showpiece to lighten the mood a bit, and they got it and how. The movement is lean and muscular, following a path so familiar that it is actually archetypical. No bells and whistles, just necessities. This kind of back to basics storytelling was a breath of fresh air after the experimentation of the last two films. It was much needed.

The Characters:

8/10. This is the area where the movie really shines. We see from go that the animals are going to have more human characteristics and the humans are going to be vaguely sketched in, which immediately gives us permission to empathize with the animals and see things from their point of view. The humans are cartoonishly evil (the ringmaster and the boys that taunt Dumbo), completely faceless voids (the roustabouts), or seen in silhouette. The animals are shown as more like humans and the humans are shown as more like animals.

Even the clowns are less like humans in the ring than an alien species biologically created solely for hijinks in the ring. It's rather creepy, in fact. By the way, I don't know if I've mentioned it before, but clowns terrify me to no end. Mama says that when we went to the circus museum when I was a little nubbin, I was so horrified that I spent the entire trip going from trash can to trash can peering in to avoid having to look at anything else. Therefore I find it rather amusing that clowns seem to be the lowest life form imaginable in this film. The worst punishment that could possibly dealt to Dumbo is that he be forced to be a clown. Sounds about right to me. Shudder.

Even one of the Real Housewives' plastic
 surgeons couldn't fix that.
The character of Dumbo is so amazingly animated, you just want to scoop him into your arms and love him forever. The fact that he doesn't utter a word for the entire film means that not only does he seem more child-like, but you feel more protective. Not to mention it means that the animator, Bill Tytla, had a massive task ahead of him. He had to animate the central character of the movie, who was a pantomime elephant, and make us fall head over heel in love with him. The result is some of the most lovely character animation ever put on celluloid. From his very first appearance, Dumbo's sweetness is palpable, with his teardrop-shaped, crystal blue eyes and eager and loving nature. When he sneezes and his ears pop out, you can't help but adore him. At every turn, from being forced to perform tricks in the circus tent to getting drunk, he is a curious little nugget whose openness and curiosity are an audience's window into the world of the story.

Don't mess with his mama, yo. She'll school you.
Your heart breaks for Mrs. Jumbo, Dumbo's mother, when she doesn't get her package from the stork at the top of the film. Then the lovely moments between Dumbo and his mother are so exceptionally touching they are truly able to establish a very real, loving relationship between them. When she takes those huge ears and swaddles him in them, you know that she is a mother who will love her son because of and not despite his flaws. You can feel the warmth. When they touch trunks, it has the truthful spark of a real mother/son connection. You adore the mother for protecting her son at any cost. When she lashes out against the children teasing Dumbo, she gets so upset that the blue eyes she and her son have in common turn red with anger. The devastation of her being locked up as punishment makes your heart sink. During "Baby Mine", when she cradles Dumbo in her trunk, a simple gesture becomes the ultimate expression of motherly love.

Contemplating where he left his pants.
Timothy is a great sidekick for Dumbo. He is the more gentle Jiminy Cricket to Dumbo's more relatable Pinocchio. He advises him, brings him out of his shell, and supports him unwaveringly. There is a great moment when Timothy uses one of Dumbo's tears to lather him the soap to clean him off as if to tell him to use his sadness to propel him forward and not hold him back. He was charmingly voiced by actor Edward Brophy, whose work in gangster pictures gave Timothy the sound of a mob boss with a heart of gold.

The other supporting animal characters are also distinctively animated and voiced. The moments showing the other baby animals with their mamas work like a charm. Disney has a knack for making little ones in the animal kingdom so squishy that you want to just eat them up. The goofy stork who delivers Dumbo is portrayed by Sterling Holloway, who would later voice Winnie the Pooh and the Chesire Cat. Verna Felton, whose voice is familiar as the Queen of Hearts and the Fairy Godmother, made the leader of the cruel elephant ladies icily horrifying.

The one on the right looks like he has
the glasses bird from the Tulgey Wood in
Alice in Wonderland sitting on him.
One other familiar voice is that of the head crow, named Jim Crow (yikes), who was performed by Cliff Edwards, who also provided the voice for Jiminy Cricket. All of the other crows are voiced by African-Americans. They are clever with their words, playful, and turn out to be Dumbo's allies. This leads us to the sticky wicket of the crows and the accusation of racial stereotyping. I will say that I winced a bit, but I don't see them as any more or less offensive than Sunflower from Fantasia or Song of the South. I find it interesting what Disney censors and what they don't. Once again, I think it's important to keep characters like this intact. They tell us about our history and are opportunities to open up conversations about the portrayal of minorities in film. And that's something that is still a hot topic

The Music:

6/10. The score, by Frank Churchill, who also wrote effectively for Snow White, does wonderful work again here, winning the Oscar for best score. It does a fantastic job of evoking the circus atmosphere and guiding your emotional journey through the movie. It also wonderfully underscores the action in wordless scenes, like the first moments of bonding between Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo.

I love the chick beneath the "B"
who's terrified of getting crushed.
Nice touch, poster artist.
The songs are half fantastic and half fine. Churchill wrote them with lyricist Oliver Wallace. "Baby Mine" is one of the most perfect lullabies ever written. It is still covered often be artists like Bette Midler (I'll admit it made me cry during Beaches, too) and Alison Krauss. "Casey Junior" is a fantastic theme which represents the anthropomorphized circus train. "Pink Elephants on Parade" is a vaguely sinister, completely weird ditty appropriate for a liquor-induced vision. "When I See an Elephant Fly" is jazzy tune of disbelief that turns into a triumphant blare at the very end. The rest of the songs, though not bad at all, fail to stand out or stand up to these fantastic numbers.

The Gay Scale:

Pride Parade float or Disney
Attraction? You decide. 
8/10. You have a youngster who is born different than all the other little ones. He is protected fiercely by a loving mother. He is torn away from his mother and finds an unlikely ally in another outsider, who unwaveringly stays on his side, reminding him that the things that hold him back will ultimately carry him up. He is judged by cruel grown-ups, who call him a freak that only a mother could love. They literally turn their backs on him, referring to him as their "shame" and saying that they wouldn't "eat at the same bail of hay with him". Finally, after he learns that his differences are what make him special, he finds his faith in himself. From there, what made him different makes him a star, which is the ultimate revenge for an outsider.

Any outsider narrative is bound to have an effect on a gay audience, and Dumbo is just that in it's purest, simplest form. It resonates deeply. It is very easy to read the movie as the story of a newly out young gay person into this film. All of these experiences are ones that we all go through at some point in the coming out process. What I love about Dumbo is how beautifully it reinforces that being unlike others is valuable and desirable. It also shows friends and family who are willing to fight to support Dumbo as he discovers his true self.

Pink elephant in drag. Still terrifying.
During the "Pink Elephants" sequence, Tom said "Those pink elephants are obviously gay. Wait...Now they're cars. I guess that has nothing to do with sexual orientation". He has a point. It really doesn't. But at the same time there is something indelibly queer about the sequence. It is over the top, proud of its freakiness, and pink as all get out. Oh. And they bellydance. Seems pretty gay to me.

The Bottom Line:

Best Dumbo Pin. EVER!
8/10. Dumbo is a movie that, though slight, is undoubtedly full of great characters and emotional impact. Add to that bright, colorful art, some fantastic songs, brisk pacing and humor in all the right places and you have a charmer without an ounce of fat on it. Just like Dumbo, who learned that what some considered a fault could be a major asset, Disney took a financial crunch and made it into an opportunity to focus on telling a simple story very well and creating outstanding characters. Instead of aiming for the clouds and falling short, it aims for your heart and hits a bullseye.

The Miscellanea:

Back in the early days of the Disney Channel, one of the flagship shows was Dumbo's Flying Circus. I have a vague recollection of the show and this theme song. Somehow it feels like I should be watching this with a big bowl of Fruit Loops in my lap while sitting way too close to the TV. Looking at it now, it amazes me what a different beast children's television programming is today. It also makes me appreciate how sophisticated Sesame Street always has been from day one and continues to be.

There was a sequel planned to Dumbo. A short trailer/making-of feature was on one of the DVD releases. The idea was abandoned and never came to be, and I must say I'm pretty happy with that decision. From the trailer it looks like it would have been another sequel by committee incorporating "important lessons that children should learn" and "characters designed to have specific characteristics that children can relate to". One day I'll give you an earful about how I feel about the direct-to-video sequels. Most of my opinions aren't terribly high. I'm grateful that Dumbo was spared this fate.

In Disneyland, they have a roaming Pearly Band, like the one that performs "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" with Mary Poppins. This is them performing "Pink Elephants on Parade". It is fully awesome.

It gets me all excited like because I am going to Disneyland with Tom in just two more weeks! Come to think of it, the last time that I went to Disneyland, also known as my first time, Tom and I went on Dumbo's Flying Elephants. I had never gone on it in my adult life. It always seemed like a long wait for a lame ride. Riding it in Disneyland was one of the coolest things we did that day. Just like the movie itself, sometimes the simplest things are the ones that will surprise you by being the most enjoyable. The sense of history riding the classic attraction and seeing all the little ones get so excited was magical. I can't wait to ride it again.

So, were you as charmed by Dumbo as I was or do you think that it's a little too lightweight? Do you miss the ambition of the past few films or did you appreciate that they dialed it back a little and simplified? Did you feel like you were tripping balls during the "Pink Elephants on Parade" section? Did you weep uncontrollably during "Baby Mine"? Come on, y'all. I know it's not just me!

I thought that next week maybe we could take a lovely walk in the forest with Bambi on our DATE Night. I'll pack the bug spray and if you come wearing cammo or bring a firearm with you, the date is officially canceled. Fair warning.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Pop Goes the Mousey

So, once again, I need to make a confession. Despite being unabashedly obsessed with pop culture, I am somewhat of an elitist about it. And I get pretty vicious about stuff that I'm not a fan of. Tom and I have gotten into some pretty heated conversations because neither one of us really has a filter when it comes to saying what we mean and meaning what we say. On top of that, we have wildly different tastes when it comes to most things- save Disney, of course. That's where our fandom converges and it's partially what brought us together.

I'm so surprised! I had no idea these huge
sparkly Mickey ears would be here, too!
That being said, one of the things that has irked me the most over the past few years is the new crop of Disney Channel stars and the mania that surrounds them. Recently, I have come to the realization that it's just my inner Carl from Up taking over. Who knew that you could get curmudgeonly at age 30? I moaned on about how Disney used to give us stars like Hayley Mills and Annette Funicello and now we get Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez? What the what? Back when I was growing up, they even gave us Xtina and Brit Brit. Grumble, grumble, blah blah blah.

One of the things I am most adamant about is that you should never judge anything before you have given it a fair shake. I realized lately that I have barely listened to any music by or watched TV shows starring these kids. It's been all blustering and knee-jerk reactions. In the interest of equity, I decided to give some of their music a chance and I was actually kind of surprised by what I discovered.

Firstly, let me say that if I look at it objectively, Hayley and Annette are not exactly supernaturally talented singers. Both have made it very well known that they did not consider themselves singers and were rather uncomfortable behind a microphone. I love listening to my Let's Get Together with Hayley Mills CD. It was part of a series, called the Disney Archive Collection, of classic albums that were re-released on CD in the late nineties in limited editions and are now out of print. They are all awesome, but the Haley Mills album holds a very special place in my heart. Check out this track from the CD.

Not exactly a masterpiece. And it's very typical of the album's sound. Hayley Mills singing is really just Hayley Mills speaking rhythmically. And I adore it. Never once did I ever dare to say, "Um, dude. She can't sing." The voice was not the point. The personality was. Her music is charming and instantly takes me to another time and place- one that I was never even alive during- and I love it for that.

Hayley Mills is like comfort food for my heart. There's something so adorable about her and the sound of her voice instantly puts me in a good mood. I am waiting very patiently for some of her unreleased Disney output to see the light of day on DVD. I am particularly a fan of Back Home and Parent Trap Hawaiian Honeymoon, which were both Disney Channel movies from the nineties. I am extremely tired of watching them in ten minute sections of YouTube, thank you very much.

Annette has an extremely similar effect on me, though not quite as strongly as Hayley does. Disney studio composers the Sherman Brothers, of Mary Poppins fame, wrote the hit "Tall Paul" for her when she was rocketing past the other Mouseketeers as the breakout star of The Mickey Mouse Club. Annette's voice was so small, they had to find a way to beef it up. They had Annette re-record the song several times and layered the vocal tracks to create what became an icon sound for the performer. Not much different than the auto-tuning and other forms of studio magic used today, huh? Once again, nostalgia does much to cover up the flaws.

Once again, this is not challenging, boundary pushing music from an extraordinary vocalist. It's pop music. It's frothy, fun, silly, and geared towards young people who aren't concerned with the sturm und drang of adult life. I am actually a huge fan of pop music. I love a great piece of fluff (Katy Perry) and challenging, forward thinking pop (Robyn) in equal amounts. So why was I being so hard on the latest crop of Disney talent?

Baby as Yoda. I say yes!
I think it probably started with Hannah Montana. The title alone triggered my gag reflex, though it did inspire a hilarious Amy Poehler punchline on the Weekend Update on SNL.

Amy: One of the hottest concert tours in the country now is Miley Cyrus, the star of Hannah Montana. While the least popular? Yoda Minnesota. 

Ha! Then there was the fact that the premise seemed posed to encourage young girls to aspire to be famous as validation for their worth. What happened to shows for kids where the kids we saw were just like us? I also had bad memories of her Achy Breaky dad from his mulletastic days. He made me think of unhappy times filled with huge, Confederate flag bumper stickered pickup trucks and cammo cap wearing country punks flipping me the finger and calling me "fag". These were the days before I learned to embrace my Southern heritage. Miley Cyrus seemed to me an awkward, not particularly talented, young girl who was famous because she was lucky enough to have a famous dad with good connections and a need for cash flow.

Wow. Reading that last paragraph makes me sad about what a total douchetool I was being. Hayley Mills had a well-connected dad, actor John Mills who starred in Swiss Family Robinson, who helped her get her break. Annette was an awkward everygirl who emerged from the Mouse pack out of sheer luck. Kids just gravitated towards her. There's no solid answer as to what it was about her. She had that intangible something that drew other kids to her. I still haven't watched an episode of Hannah Montana, so it's ridiculous for me to pretend to know how it handles the subject fame. And no one has any control over my past associations with ignorant rednecks. It was never fair of me to judge the poor girl so harshly.

Then this summer rolled around. For one reason or another, I listened to a Miley Cyrus track from a 2009. I'm sure you've heard it. It goes a little something like this.

Yes, folks. I am no longer afraid to state that two years after it was released, "Party in the U.S.A." has become my summer jam of 2011. It is kind of a perfect pop song. (It was co-written by an awesome British pop singer named Jessie J, who you need to give a spin if you don't already know her, cuz she's awesomesauce. Start with "L.O.V.E.", "Price Tag" and "Do It Like a Dude" and go from there. You're welcome.) It makes me strut down the street when it's own my ipod. It's just a breezy, karaoke-ready good time. And now it sits comfortably in my Top 100 Most Played Songs.

And as for the young lady who sings it, I have a helluva lot of respect for her. Her awkwardness is endearing to me now. I'm fascinated by watching her mature from a gawky pre-teen into a young woman trying to define herself as an artist and person. The year is different, but, once again, the story hasn't changed. Miley sexing it up a bit isn't far removed from Annette doing the Beach Party movies. And of course, what really endeared me to her was the tattoo she got in support of marriage equality and the twitter conversation that followed where she stood firm in her beliefs. On top of all that, she has a good sense of humor, as evidenced when she appeared on SNL during one of the fully hilarious "Miley Cyrus Show" sketches. She gets major snaps for that. Anyone who is able to laugh at themselves seems like good people to me.

From there, my interest spread out to Selena Gomez, from the Disney Channel series Wizards of Waverly Place, and her new album. I have become kind of obsessed with "Love You Like a Love Song".

Once again, this is a damn fine pop song. And the video is fully fantastic. This and "Party in the U.S.A." have been in constant rotation all summer. Little by little I've listened to more of their albums, and, be still my heart, they are actually pretty darn good. It makes me feel completely foolish for being so reluctant to giving them a spin before now.

I can't say that I understand the system that creates child stars, but however it works, the pattern has always been basically the same. Normal kids are plucked from obscurity and thrown into a spotlight. Some are talented, some are not. Some have that indelible spark that is capable of being cultivated into celebrity, some do not. And all of them have to grow up and navigate the waters of either stardom or obscurity. It's not an enviable position to be in and they deserve the benefit of the doubt more often than not.

Except Lindsay Lohan. I'm done with her. Emma Stone found her career and seems to be actually making something of it. Sorry.

All of this also brought back to mind a Disney Channel actor from my childhood. We all know about all of the stars who emerged from MMC. I, however, used be particularly enamored with Kids Incorporated. A few stars broke out of that show, namely Stacy Ferguson (Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas) and Love Hewitt (before she added the Jennifer). But one of my favorites on the show was always Martika. But mostly I adored her for her big hit after she left the show, called "Toy Soldiers". It's a fantastic eighties-licious pop song. Yes, I know Eminem sampled it. Please don't judge her harshly for that.

Ultimately, I think the moral of the story here is that I need to stop being such an old fuddy-duddy. Times change and unless I want to be that old dude waving his cane and griping about how much better things were back in the day, I need to get off my high horse and stay open to new things. In fact, I bought a Jonas Brothers and a Demi Lovato CD today. And maybe one of these days, I'll actually watch an episode of Hannah Montana. Preferably one where Dolly Parton is guest starring.

I shall leave you with two more niblets to enjoy while I prepare for an impending hurricane heading towards New York City. The first is part of a motivational video for teens with Mr. T called Be Somebody...or Be Somebody's Fool. No I'm not joking. This section focusing on Mr. T giving fashion advice. Nope. Still not kidding. Pay attention to the young lady following Xena and Zena, the opening duo of models. No! I promise I'm still not kidding! It's a young Martika, then known as Marta, taking the A train to fashion. It's amazing.

And lastly, if you've never seen the Bad Lip Reading videos on Youtube, you are missing out. My favorite one is "Gang Fight" based on Rebecca Black's "Friday". They take the videos, remove the sound and then write a new song based solely on what it looks like the singer is saying. This is the one that they did for Miley Cyrus' "Party in the U.S.A."

So, have you given these kids a shot? And are you over the age of 20? What have your thoughts been? Oh! And if you're under the age of 20, same question! Anybody else find themselves surprised? Or is my third-life crisis just making me find weird ways to stay young? Is Miley Cyrus my red convertible?

That's all, for this week, kids! Assuming I haven't blown away in Hurricane Irene, our next DATE Night will be on Tuesday. Hop a ride on Casey Jr. and visit Dumbo with me!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

DATE Night: Fantasia

No. It's got nothing to do with American Idol.

Before we get started on our next DATE Night, for Fantasia, I need to get a little bit of a rant out of the way, please and thank you. I dunno whether I've mentioned it before, but I have a lot of DVDs. My media hoarding started at around the same time the format really, really took off. The idea of switching over to Blu-ray and re-buying DVDs that I already own makes me itch. Thanks to my amazing mama, however, I finally got a Blu-ray player last Christmas. It was just in time since Disney has started to actually push the format down our throats a bit.

I am also a huge special feature consumer. I love to get all of that extra contextual content. What put me over the edge about switching formats was the fact that Disney, whose DVDs make up a significant chunk of my collection, was starting to release bare bones DVDs and holding all of the significant bonus features for the Blu-ray. (I'm sorry Disney, but the punks from The Suite Life of Zack and Cody extolling the virtues of Blu-ray does not a good bonus feature make.)

I was getting upset at the trend, but when I got the Blu-ray player and saw the fantastic features that Disney was including in new releases (Second Screen, Disney View, Cine-Explore), not to mention the amazing picture and sound quality, I got over it. I don't have an extensive Blu-ray collection and really only buy releases on Blu-ray when the artistry of the film warrants it or the special features are exceptional.

Oh!!! That's how it works!
While watching Fantasia on Blu-ray, I decided that I wanted to watch the making-of featurette. Nothing wackadoo or terribly specialized. Just the same fifty minute documentary that came standard on the last DVD release that I didn't buy before it went out of print. Along the way I had acquired Fantasia 2000 and the Fantasia Legacy discs, but never the original. To accomplish the simple task of watching this one basic feature, I (meaning Tom) spent over two hours trying to find it on the disc menus, realizing that the player had to be connected to the internet, connecting said player to the modem across the room so we didn't have to leave the apartment and spend $60 on a wireless whatever-it-is, realizing that I needed an extra memory card in the player, getting that memory card from a camera after fruitlessly searching for a USB memory drive thingee, configuring everything, and finally getting to the darned documentary.

How were we rewarded? The special feature I wanted to watch was in the Virtual Vault. Sounds neat, right? It isn't. It means that it's not actually on the disc. The disc connects you to the interwebs, which hold the feature in cyberspace. (If you look at a disclaimer, it warns you that the contents of the Vault can be changed at any time, meaning one day it might be gone and not accessible anymore.) You then select it, it buffers, then plays. And it plays in a tiny window that takes up about a tenth of the screen. And you can't make it full screen. I was so angry I wanted to scream. I couldn't enjoy or get much out of the documentary because of the annoyance of getting to it and the teeny, tiny size of the screen it played on.

So it's about Mickey, an ostrich,
mushrooms, and...fruit?
I appreciate that Disney is doing a lot to take advantage of Blu-ray technology and push the envelope of what they are including, but I have limits. I now have to buy the last Fantasia release on DVD just so I can watch the making of full-screen. And now there are special features that are only being put on 3D Blu-ray discs. 3D gives me headaches. I will never spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for 3D enabled TVs or Blu-ray players. Disney needs to slow their roll and stop punishing people for not having excessive amounts of money to burn. Please, please, please. Phew. I'm glad to have that off of my chest. Now on to the matter of Fantasia, which, if you hadn't previously heard, will apparently amaze-ya! (Yes. They actually used that as a tag line at one point. Eek.) Hrm...we'll see about that...

The Background:

Coming off of the financial disappointment of Pinocchio, which wasn't a failure, but also not the hit that Disney hoped for, stakes were rather high for Fantasia. They needed a hit to sustain everything that Snow White had built. Rather than taking the easy way out for their third animated feature, all the stops were successfully pulled out to make Fantasia unlike any other film. You can never really accuse Walt Disney of repeating himself.

After developing "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment as a short for Mickey Mouse, who had been upstaged of late by some of his animated cohorts (namely Donald Duck), it was determined that they could never make money back on it and it might be more financially responsible to make it part of a full film. Around the same time, famous conductor Leopold Stokowski, who had led the orchestra for the short, suggested a film that would interpret other pieces of classical music visually. Despite initial reluctance, Disney moved ahead with "The Concert Feature".

Mickey and Stokowski.
Working with Stokowski and music critic Deems Taylor, who serves as onscreen host for the evening, they decided on a slate of classical music pieces that would be interpreted by the animators. They wanted to create an event rather than a movie, so they released it in select theaters at premium prices, giving patrons programs and reserved seating. They also designed a new sound system to be installed at each screen called Fantasound, essentially making Fantasia the very first movie to be shown in stereo. The goal was to keep the movie in theaters perpetually, adding and subtracting segments periodically to keep it fresh, so that it was a film that would never be finished. Much like when Disneyland was created with the idea that it would be allowed to constantly change fifteen years later.

Then the problems set in. The biggest was World War II, which confiscated the Fantasound systems for use in the war effort and kept European markets out of reach. In order to keep money flowing in, RKO got the rights to distribute a version to wide release. It was in mono and cut from two hours to less than one and a half, which did the movie no favors. Audiences didn't seem to know what to make of it. High brow audiences balked at its desecration of the classical repertoire. The masses felt like it was above their heads. The critics were split.

Eventually, with re-releases, Fantasia ended up being profitable, but even Walt himself questioned whether the film was a mistake. Planned sequels fell through until Fantasia 2000- sixty years later. The film did not stay in theaters indefinitely. The movie fell into favor of audiences in the sixties who wanted some visual stimulation whilst they were under the influence. Now it is widely recognized as a classic and is regularly honored as such.

The First Impression:

The Disney Project-Part 43: Fantasia. "Sorcerer's Apprentice" was clever. "Nutcracker Suite" was fantastic and I want my very own Hop Low. Impressive artistry. Feels like it's a more high-toned string of Silly Symphonies. Lacks the strength of telling a great story that Disney (even in its shorts) excels in. Ahead of its time in some ways, but not at the top of my list. Easier to appreciate than fall in love with.
January 22 at 9:43pm ·

The Art:

Sparkle, Neely, Sparkle!
9/10. Amazing. Every cel is full-on work of art. The film was focused on visual flourish and technical skill and shone in both of those departments. There are so many stunning elements. The abstraction of "Tocata and Fugue" left me speechless. It's incredible that they created things like the striped rolling hills without the aid of a computer. The craftsmanship throughout is bewilderingly awesome. There is a moment in "The Nutcracker Suite" where flowers are drifting towards the water that blew my mind. This was just as lovely as the lamps drifting towards the water in Tangled, after much time and technology had come and gone. 

Special effects are sprinkled liberally throughout the movie, rendering things such as smoke, lava, water, light, dimension and ghosts so convincingly that you'll spend the whole movie contemplating, "How did they do that?" There is a grace and beauty to everything in this film that has kept it an artistic touchstone even now. You can see the artistic influence in everything from later Disney films, such as Dinosaur and Hercules, to audio-animatronics in the parks, (the dinos in the "Universe of Energy" in Epcot and "The Primeval World Diorama" in Disneyland). Words cannot and will not do Fantasia justice. It has to be seen to be believed and appreciated.

Nope. Not courting hallucinogen users at all.

The Story:

4/10. Only two of of the segments have a really strong sense of story- "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and "The Pastoral Symphony". Some of the segments stray so far from traditional story that they are fully abstract, like "Tocata and Fugue". "Rite of Spring" tells such a sprawling story, from one-celled organisms to the dinosaurs, and with such realism, that it feels like a documentary. Others just depict a situation or tell a fragment of a larger story that we never get to see. It can be argued that telling a story was not the goal of the film as a whole, nor the goal of some of the segments, and it's the truth. As interesting an experiment as it was to create a film in this non-traditional manner, I'm partial to a stronger narrative. Even the later package films and Fantasia 2000 improved greatly in this regard and it made for much more enjoyable movies.

The Characters:

Yeah. Um. Sorry bout that, sir.
6/10. Since this is a series of short pieces, rather than one longer story, character development is tricky. Many of the best Silly Symphonies are able to establish fantastic characters quickly, but in Fantasia it feels as though since they were so concerned with interpreting the music and didn't have the ability to use dialogue to establish character, they were content to let the creatures populating the screen remain a bit lacking in dimensionality. Also, for the most part, the characters are just a means to help set a mood or add detail to the scenery rather than serving to propel the story forward, since there is little story to begin with.

Some characters still managed to make an impact. Mickey in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is a different Mickey than what the public was used to seeing. He had become the good guy, and thusly, kind of boring. This new Mickey was redesigned to be more expressive (by doing things like giving him traditional eyes with pupils) and was made mischievous, interesting and relatable. He was rewarded by becoming one of the most iconic incarnations of the character. The Sorcerer himself, named Yen Sid (read it backwards), with candle flames in his eyes, is appropriately mysterious and brooding.

Hop Low considers himself more of a mover than a dancer.
There are other creations that really stood out. My personal favorite is Hop Low, the adorable little mushroom in "The Nutcracker Suite" who can never quite stay in step with his shroom friends. The Soundtrack from the "Meet the Soundtrack" section is a line that represents visually what we hear and is imbued with a lot of personality. Though it's awesome that they can make a line that dimensional, I wish they had spread the wealth a bit. "The Pastoral Symphony" is full of great characters from the cute, bare-bootied cherubs to Bacchus and his donkey sidekick to the lonely blue center and centaurette who find each other. The animals in "Dance of the Hours" are interesting, especially the hippo ballerina who constantly tugs at her skirt in an effort to stay modest, but they never evolve far beyond sight gags. "Night on Bald Mountain" has appropriately creepy demons. (Notice that the evil demons are allowed to have nipples, while the good fairies and centaurs aren't. Message: nipples are evil?)

The Music:

5/10. Now, before you get all huffy about this, full disclosure- not only am I not an expert on classical music, I don't really even enjoy it all that much. I know that there was a big ole brouhaha about the liberties that were taken with arrangements in order to support the animation when this movie was first released. I do not have much of a connection to this music and feel much less protective about how the music is interpreted. I think they did an admirable job of doing unexpected things with the music, really making the songs their own. I cannot hear "Night on Bald Mountain" or "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" without seeing the imagery from the movie. I think that speaks to how effectively they handled the task. On the whole, though, classical ain't my jam.

The Gay Scale:

Fire crotch, indeed.
6/10. There are a decent amount of gay elements sprinkled throughout the film. This is for sure an artsy, pretentious queen's wet dream, what with all the classical music, ballet, mythology, and science. If Fantasia were a gay pick-up spot in NYC, it would be Lincoln Center post-performance. Plus Deems Taylor has that whole handsome, well-spoken, intelligent college professorial vibe down. He's kind of a Tim Gunn figure. There is also an abundance of sparkly fairies in "The Nutcracker Suite" and there is something sexy about the devil Chernabog in "Night on Bald Mountain." He's got a rockin' bod. Some guys dig bad boys and boys sure as hell don't get badder than Satan.

Even the staff is a rainbow.
However, "The Pastoral Sympohony" on its own would rate an 8/10 on the gay scale. It is so bright and candy-colored that I'm surprised it hasn't inspired a Katy Perry video yet. It's got everything little gay boys used to put puffy Lisa Frank stickers of on their Trapper Keepers- unicorns, fauns, cherubs, centaurs. And of course rainbows. Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, even makes an appearance. They frolic in rainbows, fly through rainbows (making for some impressive color work), even drink rainbows.

There is partial nudity (But remember our lesson about nipples. They are what? Evil. That's right class. So they don't exist on the centuarettes.), drinking and canoodling. The centaurettes do a little runway show after the cherubs have styled them in Gaga-esque headwear. Plus the centaurs are super handsome, though they are mysteriously nipple-less. Maybe to keep it uniform they have envisioned the centaurs as a nipple-free species. Zeus is a silver fox and Vulcan is ripped from hammering all that lightning. There's even a Diana, goddess of hunting, who is something of a lesbian icon.

No nipples = good.
Most importantly however, the segment embodies an intangible queerness. It has something to do with its campiness, celebratory nature, flourish, playfulness and joy. It is also (surprise, surprise) my favorite segment of the film. Whereas most of the others impressed me artistically, this one has the whole package. Along with the visual impact, which is like the clouds breaking after a dark storm, the charm and humor are there as well. The characters are specific and full of personality. The storytelling is closer to the mark, with light touches tempered with a bit of dramatic tension and a fabulous button at the end with Morpheus cloaking the world that's been beautifully created in night.  

The Bottom Line:

Nipples = bad.
6/10. I have nothing but respect for Disney undertaking such an ambitious film. On the whole, though, this film is a bit of a yawn. It's all very artsy-fartsy. It's as if after Snow White, Disney was determined to be taken seriously so they made an overly dark movie (Pinocchio) and an overly serious one (Fantasia). In the process, they sharpened their artistic and technical skills, but, as formidable as those were, it didn't make up for the fact that they let the storytelling skills fall by the wayside. There is so much to love visually about this movie and there are bits and pieces that I adore. This was not one of the movies that I was terribly excited about revisiting and my opinion of it did not shift much after another viewing. A lot to admire, but little to love.

The Miscellanea:

As I have discussed before when I reviewed The Help and Snow White, I am a supporter of confronting social issues and learning from them rather than sweeping them under the rug to try and convince ourselves that our past isn't checkered. Since the late sixties, a character in "The Pastoral Symphony" has been edited out. She is a centaurette named Sunflower and is portrayed as a young black servant girl. I wish that instead of hiding these kind of things, Disney would give the option to experience them as they were originally intended, warts and all, and contextualize them. Censorship of any kind doesn't sit terribly well with me. I would rather be engaged in a conversation about why these things are wrong than be asked to believe that they never happened. This is the kind of thinking that has kept Song of the South in the vault for decades.

Warner Brothers produced a quite wonderful parody of Fantasia, called "A Corny Concerto", featuring Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck, that is actually quite wonderful. Lots of classic sight gags, great referencing of the source, and really effective storytelling. In that way, they kind of succeeded when Fantasia failed, though admittedly, the art is not even close to nearly on the same level.

Last but not least, an entire segment was animated for the film set to "Claire de Lune" but was cut from the final film for reasons of length. It is a lovely piece set in the Everglades, the future neighbor of Walt Disney World. It was later included in a later package film called Make Mine Music with different accompaniment. This is the clip as Walt intended for it to be seen originally.

What did I learn on this DATE Night? Don't take me to a classical music concert unless you intend for me to nap. Disney is still trying to find its narrative footing. Nipples are the work of Satan. How about you? Am I being far too hard on Fantasia? Do you love it? Holler at me!

Next week, we'll go on a DATE Night to the circus with Dumbo! If I get too drunk and start seeing pink elephants on parade, for heaven's sake take me straight home and put me to bed. And do not try to take advantage of me. I'm a gentleman, thank you.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Disney Summer Movies 2011: Help Yourself

I'll be walking along in NYC and this
cuts through the concrete like sunlight
through the clouds. I love it. 
I cannot tell you how glad I am that I didn't blog about The Help last Friday like I had originally intended to. What a difference a week can make. I finished re-reading the book at the end of last week (still amazeballs), went back to see the movie again on Saturday, did a lot of thinking and a lot of discussing and my blog entry now has taken a huge shift from what it would have been. I was completely prepared to spend this entry focusing on the controversy that has surrounded the release. I realize now that that would just be counterproductive. And I am not fan of hollering into a bottomless well, fighting to convince someone of something when they don't want to be convinced, and so I won't.

What I will say after revisiting both the book and the film is that they are both works of fiction and should be taken as such. When you start demanding that authors and filmmakers bend their stories so that they are completely historically accurate, you will have a twisted knot of soulless historical fiction tied by committee. And no one wants to read that. Art is born of the artist's imagination. It is sometimes influenced by history in order to confront and explore the past, not so that it can revise the past. That kind of revision was never anybody's intention.

I have to equate the knee-jerk reaction to my own experience with Brokeback Mountain. As a gay man, I had a choice. I could cock my eyebrow at people's intentions, wag my finger about how the last thing we need are more tragic gay characters, even if they are brilliantly portrayed and question how accurate it is to the story of real gay men in that time and place, whose stories have been mostly unexplored, never recorded and/or lost. Or I could choose to appreciate the fact that a stellar team of artists, all of whom, from actors to director to screenwriters and author, were (as far as I know) straight, had come together to passionately tell a story that they felt was important about human experience that both transcended and honored what makes us different.

I can nitpick about the movie, but by and large I thought it was wonderful and I'm grateful that it got people talking and maybe looking at their own lives and the lives of others in a different light. I know what it's like to be starved for representation in the media. It's so important to see a face like yours on TV, in movies, music or literature. You are overcome with joy when they get it right and devastated when they get it wrong because heaven only knows when the next opportunity will come along.

The British book cover. More
evocative than three birds, huh?
If The Help is not the story you want told, then create your own story, tell it wonderfully and make it heard! I want to hear and see and read it! This is an opportunity to engage and I hope that people take advantage of that. If there are people who refuse to see the movie or read the book, that is their choice and I respect that, but they have no right to judge. I never fail to vote because I feel like if I don't, I have no right to celebrate or lambast the outcome. If there are people who have seen or read it, and, rather than engaging in a dialogue about it, dismiss it, they are simply getting in their own way.

A lot of the things that I feel about the controversy are very succinctly stated in an article by Owen Gleiberman from Entertainment Weekly. It gives counterpoint to a lot of the issues that have been brought up regarding the movie and book. Take a moment to read it for a very well thought out and level-headed piece that is far less mired down in the reactionary emotions than the monologue that I would have unleashed upon your poor ears. I'm grateful to him for articulating a lot of what I feel so articulately. Kudos, Owen.

So, after my my first experience with The Help, I was underwhelmed. Immediately after, Tom and I talked at length about its imperfections and how it could have been improved. I now know that this was brought on by a combination of months and months of anticipation, high expectations for an adaptation of one of my favorite books, the fact that I was watching a two-and-a-half hour long movie at midnight after a long day, and a bad experience in a theater where someone was snoring as loud as humanly possible through the majority of the film.

They got the poster right this time!
I'm not going to lie and say that the movie is perfect. It's not. I will say that we were way harsh, Tai, at 3am after that first viewing and it wasn't really the movie's fault, especially in light of the fact that when I revisited it, I adored it. To be honest, the things that we complained about are not even worth mentioning even if they are valid. I lamented things that were inevitably cut from the story. We discussed how it took a bit of time for the film to find its footing at the beginning. And stuff like that there.

When it comes right down to it, what matters is that the movie is emotional, probing, uplifting, funny, and beautifully crafted. Ultimately, it does justice to the book it's based on and the lives that inspired it. I was not a huge fan of director/screenwriter Tate Taylor's first movie, Pretty Ugly People, but had faith that he was at the helm for a reason. He grew up best friends with the author of the book, Kathryn Stockett, in Jackson, Mississippi, which gave him a solid understanding both of her storytelling voice and the time and place.

Taylor made the film look and feel authentically Southern, managed to admirably adapt the book to the screen without destroying it, and actually added things (powerful scenes between Skeeter and her mother, a strong final moment for Hilly and Aibileen) that strengthened it as a film. He was able to successfully guide us through a powerful emotional experience. It's nothing less than a miracle that he made it all work. Both times I saw the movie, during the final shot, which is purely brilliant, and Mary J. Blige's fantastic song "The Living Proof," I was crying so hard that I couldn't catch my breath. That's effective filmmaking.

Above everything else, he cast the hell out of this movie. There is not a weak link in the performances. Viola Davis had better have an Oscar on her mantle this year for her damn near perfect acting as Aibileen. Octavia Spencer, whose personality actually inspired the character of Minnie in the book, breaks out in a big way. Emma Stone, who strangely enough has still not responded to my marriage proposal, gives an unexpected performance as Skeeter that anchors the film deeply and is wonderfully different from any of her other work. Jessica Chastain, playing Celia, was luminescent and was the real discovery for me since I had never seen her in anything before. Work by Allison Janney, Bryce Dallas Howard, Cicely Tyson and Sissy Spacek and the rest of the mostly female ensemble is also fantastic.

I get misty just thinking about this scene.
For me, The Help is a continuation of the series of great, emotionally powerful, female driven, Southern films that includes Steel Magnolias and Friend Green Tomatoes. (By the way, Thomas Newman wrote the scores to both Fried Green Tomatoes and The Help. Steel Magnolias is by Georges Delerue. All three are knockouts.) Young Southern gay boys are going to be as passionate about this film, quoting it line for line, as I was about those two in my younger days. It connects Southern gays to our home, it connects us to our past, and it celebrates the powerful women who make us proud of our heritage.

I think the biggest testament to the power of the film is that I immediately wanted to talk to Mama about it. She was a child living in Tallahassee, Florida in 1963 when the movie is set. (Yes, kids. North Florida is the South.) The night that she saw it, Tom and I got home and immediately facetimed her. We talked for an hour about how the movie reflected her experiences growing up. I learned so much that I had never thought to ask about her past and what it was like to live in the South during the sixties. I realized that the movie had already done something important by encouraging me to explore the stories of those that are close to me and how they have shaped my values. It got me to confront what was ugly and learn from it. It got me to look at what wasn't ugly and celebrate it. My hope is that's what is happening to everyone who sees it.

We would have the cutest babies, right? I said, right?!?
That night, for the first time in forever, I talked to Mama about Icee May, who my family used to visit when I was a kid during our trips back to Dad's hometown of Eufala, Alabama in the eighties and nineties. Dad came from a poor Southern family, and doesn't have a racist bone in his body. He is very typically Southern in many, many ways, from the accent to the predilection for meat that comes in a can, but he never judges anyone based on the color of their skin. I think that this is why the character of Celia Foote intrigues me so much. I know that rampant racism and classism often made for unlikely Southern harmonies. Dad and our family's friendship with Icee May was a testament to that.

Icee May was an older black woman who lived across the tracks from where Grandma Muffin lived. In many Southern towns, though they are desegregated, races are often still somewhat separated. Mama told me that the first time Dad took her home to meet the family, they drove out to Icee May's. Dad introduced Mama, saying "Icee May, this is the girl I'm gonna marry." Icee May took a brief look at her, threw her arms wide and wrapped Mama in a tight hug, laughing and lovingly saying "Look at you! You're so fat!" Mama said that's the moment she knew she loved Icee May.

Her eyes alone should get an Academy Award for acting.
Going to Eufala as a child was always a bit strange. I always felt a bit out of place there, as any gay boy in the deep South is bound to, but visiting Icee May was always a highlight of our trips. She was always so excited to see us, squealing and hugging us close to her. What's sad is that, since I have a memory like a sieve, many details are gone for me. When I think of Icee May, I think of warmth and happiness. I can vaguely hear her voice and feel the cadence of her humor. But beyond that, I don't have a strong recollection of the specifics of our visits.

Mama told me that Icee May's experience was different because she had owned a store. My mind exploded. I wanted to know her story. There was so much that I didn't know. As a child, you don't think to ask about these stories. You just live in the moment of being in someone's presence. When you grow up, things like questioning your past often become buried under other priorities. That is what moved Kathryn Stockett to write The Help in the first place. A desire for understanding and connection. I hope that these feelings that the book and movie have stirred in me keep making themselves known, pushing me on to work towards the same.

Remember the moment when they first walk into the church?
So good! This all makes me wanna go see it a third time!
I cannot wait to talk to Dad and flesh out this piece of my past. And I want to keep talking and find out more. With both Mama and Dad. Their lives are literally a part of me. Their blood is my blood. Their history is mine. And the importance of excavating the stories of the past should never be underestimated. We should all dig around in our history more often and see what new journeys it can take us on. I encourage you to see The Help. Be ready to laugh 'til your sides hurt, cry 'til your shirt's soaked, and think about why you've been moved so much. Above all, be prepared to talk. What we all need is more exploration. More conversation. Not less.

Officially one of my top 5 books ever.
Just before Icee May died, Mama paid her a call. Icee May gave her two batches of quilt tops, one for me and one for my sister. Until I talked to Mama last week, I had no recollection she had made those for us and so when I was told, I could feel a lump in my throat and my eyes get teary. Now, I know what you're thinking. Do the world really need another quilt metaphor? And I say tough nuggets. That's what happens when you read a blog written by a Southern gay guy. There will inevitably be a quilt that takes on an elevated meaning. Sorry bout it.

Here I was, years after she made them, rediscovering these quilt tops because of a movie. I cannot wait to have them in my hands. Each one of those patches will come with an unknown history all their own. I will never have the opportunity to ask Icee May what their stories are, but I can do right by her and have them put together, as they were intended to be, to create a whole. And when I run my fingers over those soft patches, I know that my mind will drift to her, glad that she left them to me, to complete on my own, to remember her by, imagining what each one would say if it could talk to me. What stories would it share? And I am thankful to The Help for reminding me to look into my own life, gather up the patches of my history and get them sewn together.