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? Yeah...me 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.

Monday, November 28, 2011

DATE Night: Sleeping Beauty

I have been anticipating our DATE Night with Sleeping Beauty since we kicked the series off back in August. When I re-watched it for the first time as an adult in 2010, I was completely blown away. Whenever people would ask me how the Disney Project was going, I would cite Sleeping Beauty as the biggest surprise for me. As a kid, you just get wrapped up in the fairy tale. You laugh at the humor and get excited by the fighting. As a grown-up, you really appreciate the artistry on display in every aspect of the film. This week was also the first time that I watched it on Blu-ray and it was worth getting a player just to watch this film alone. The transfer literally took my breath away. The audio and visual are so crisp and clear that it almost feels like you are watching it again for the first time. 

The Background:

Busy but effective poster art.
After three unabashed successes, both financially and artistically, in Cinderella, Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp, and one artistic triumph that has finally been recognized as such in retrospect with Alice in Wonderland, the studio now sits squarely in the thick of its second golden age. Building on lessons learned with these four films, Disney made Sleeping Beauty as an artistically ambitious way to keep moving forward while still telling the kind of story that would resonate with a large audience. The film had been in production since early in the decade and was intended to be the greatest artistic achievement in animated film. Disney invested heavily in the picture, which, at six million dollars, was budgeted for more than twice as much as the last few films that preceded it. It was hand-inked and -painted, released in stereo and 70mm Super Technirama widescreen, and given a huge promotional push.

Surprisingly, the film did not fare so well upon release. Critics seemed unimpressed, finding it heavy-handed and slow. The audiences came, but not enough to recoup the massive cost. It was by no means an embarrassment, but was not the grand slam that the studio was hoping for. After re-releases starting in the seventies and home video are figured in, the movie is the second most profitable film of the year and it is looked on today with respect, if not outright awe, for this incredible work of art. Aurora has entered the ranks of the iconic Disney Princesses. History has most certainly proven the tepid initial response to the movie to be unwarranted. It is now unquestionably considered to be one of the top tier Disney animated classics.

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 9: Sleeping Beauty. The film is unspeakably gorgeous. I actually gasped at the beauty a few times. The artwork is stunning beyond words. The styling is impeccable from top to bottom. It's the last of its kind- the last Disney feature to be inked and painted by hand. The prince is dimensional. Aurora is lovely. The fairies are so adorable. Maleficent is the most terrifying Disney villain ever.
February 6, 2010 at 3:09pm ·

The Art:

Most of the art from here on is Eyvind Earle's.
Cuz it's stunning.
10/10. The art in Sleeping Beauty is untouchable. It is probably the richest, most beautifully styled art in any Disney animated film. The look of the film can be attributed to color stylist Eyvind Earle. Earle worked on many of the films that Mary Blair did the styling for, as well as some of the visually arresting Ward Kimball helmed shorts, like "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom". He had a very distinctive style. Very clean lines, angles and shapes. Layering of colors to create depth. Disney saw in him an artist with a singular vision and wanted to give him the kind of control over the look of a film that he regretted never giving to Blair, whose vision always got terribly watered down in the final project. He hoped that the result would be a moving illustration and a masterpiece.

Medieval tapestry at the Cloisters.
Earle married his style with the very flat look of medieval tapestries, like the famous ones of unicorns housed at the Cloisters in New York City. By Walt's command, he had the final say on anything having to do with the look of the film. Some of the artists chaffed at the idea of losing some of their wiggle room, but the result is a movie that looks, more than any other, of one design. From the backgrounds, to the animals, to the curls in Aurora's hair, there is a consistency to the look that has never been achieved so clearly in another animated feature. Earle's vision coupled with the artists' skill (including Earle's own, considering that he painted many of the film's backgrounds himself) make this everything Walt hoped it would be artistically. They created a masterpiece, indeed.

If I pointed out everything that I loved about the artwork, I would literally be describing every frame in detail. I would like to point out a few highlights with the understanding that this list is horribly incomplete. You have to see this film with your own eyes to appreciate the beauty, detail, and craftsmanship. That being said, here are few of my favorite bits and pieces. The way the illustrations in the opening storybook share the look of the film so that it feels like we are actually stepping into a storybook. The trippy gift sequences that are abstract in a lovely way- I still have no idea how they were done. The use of green as the color of evil in fire, eyes, background hue and saturation. All of the fire, lighting, thorns, clouds and other amazing effects animation. The tentacle-like movement at the bottom of Maleficent's dress and the lovely movement in Aurora's clothing and hair. The detailing on walls, stones, tapestries, cups, and everywhere that does not pull focus but deepens the experience. The way the forest parts to reveal the cottage. Aurora and Phillip's dance reflected in the water. The sunset behind the castle. The huge area of black as the fairies take Aurora back to the tower and how it eventually engulfs her as she approaches Maleficent. The jagged and terrifying design of Forbidden Mountain and especially its gargoyles. The Hironymous Bosch inspired look of the celebrating goons. The color shift when the kiss awakens Aurora. And of course that gorgeous dance on the clouds at the end, with Aurora's dress changing from pink to blue. Phew! This whole exercise was like trying to find the prettiest stone in a satchel of gems.

The Story:

9/10. I find the storytelling here to be crisp, clean, muscular and well-paced. The romance, humor, and thrills are perfectly balanced. The complaint that the story drags doesn't hold water for me at all. At an hour and fifteen minutes, it moves at a brisk clip, keeping all of its balls in the air skillfully. It can move from the pageantry of the royal scenes, to the hilarious slapstick quality of the cake and dress making scene (including one of my favorite bits in the make-it-pink-make-it-blue fight), to the battle with the dragon and have them all make sense together and flow from one to the next seamlessly. There are no scenes (besides that ratty "Skumps" bit) that do not keep things moving forward. There is no fancy storytelling technique. It is very straightforward. We open with the classic storybook and a narrator who tells us the tale, though he vanishes part way through to avoid being intrusive. A testament to how well the story is laid out is the scene with the three fairies at Aurora's bed after she has pricked her finger. I dare you not to get at least a bit misty during that moment. Emotional payoffs like that don't happen if you have crafted your story effectively. This aspect of the movie did not rely on being groundbreaking. The art was there for the wow factor. The storytelling here was all about doing what Disney knew how to do well and continuing to hone it. Here they came as close to perfection as any of the early animated features achieved.  

The Characters:

8/10. They did an exceptional job on the characters in this film, starting with Aurora herself. Some people argue that she is by necessity unremarkable, since she is asleep for a third of the film. I beg to differ. Her design is lovely and distinct from the other princesses, with touches of the Eyvind Earle styling. In her limited screen time she is quickly but clearly established. There is no need for a lot of subtext. She grows up isolated, falls in love, is denied her love, is put to sleep and finds her love again. What really sets her apart, though, is Mary Costa's gorgeous vocal performance. Her singing is sublime, her speaking voice is gentle yet sassy, and both retain just the slightest hint of twang ("walk together and talk together"). That voice and some really smart moments in the animation (her arched eyebrow while under Maleficent's spell and walking towards the spindle, betraying a bit of cognizance about the danger despite her trance) fill in the details that the archetypical story leaves out.

Prince Phillip, on the other hand is easily the most dimensional prince Disney had made up until that point. We see that he's going to be different from the moment he makes a stank face at his future bride in her crib at their first meeting. After that we see his playful banter with his horse, Samson, who is also drawn with a lot of personality and humor, his charming way with Aurora, his headstrong attitude with his father ("You're living in the past. This is the fourteenth century!"), and his great bravery fighting Maleficent / the dragon. A case can be made for Phillip being a bit more dimensional than Aurora even, but after their short yet potent courtship, there is no doubt that they are meant for each other and no point to such an argument. The other royals are also distinctive, with the kings and minstrel given their own moments in the forefront (for better or worse).

The three fairies are my favorite characters in the movie. They bring the real heart and humor into the story. From their magical appearance, leaving a trail of sparkles, to the one last make-it-pink-make-it-blue argument, they are charm personified. Two of the voices are provided by Disney vets (Verna Felton from Cinderella, Dumbo, and Alice in Wonderland as Flora and Barbara Luddy, who voiced Lady in Lady and the Tramp as Merryweather) with Barbara Jo Allen as Fauna completing the trio. Each has her own personality (Flora takes charge, Merryweather is feisty, and Fauna is the clueless but kind one) and all of the charming quirks that come with. Merryweather's shuffle of frustration, Fauna perched on the table with wisps of hair falling out of place and Flora's insistence on outfits being pink come to mind. At the core, their goodness and love for Aurora, even sacrificing their powers for 16 years to care for her, shine through and give the story its emotional core.

Last but certainly not least is Maleficent. To my mind, she is the most terrifying Disney villain of them all. She is absolutely and completely evil with no cause whatsoever. She's mean to be mean and vengeful out of spite. Surrounded by her pack of awesomely creeptastic goons, she combines the anger of the Queen of Hearts, the stillness of Lady Tremaine (who, like Maleficent, was also voiced by the brilliant Eleanor Audley), the maniacal nature of Hook, the scary presence of Chernabog and the magical abilities of the Evil Queen. There are moments when she skitters back and forth between these elements in a rapid-fire way that is terribly unsettling. She is just as horrible when she is being exacting and precise as when she's a gigantic, attacking dragon. When she conjures "all the powers of Hell", you know that you are dealing with a singularly horrifying baddie. Whenever I think of who is the best Disney villain, I always answer Maleficent because I literally get chills up my spine every time I watch her. That visceral reaction never goes away. OK. I need to stop talking about her. I'm wigging myself out!

The Music:

9/10. The music here is adapted from the Tchaikovsky ballet by George Bruns, who also co-wrote "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" and "Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me)" among many other works for Disney. I have never seen or heard the original ballet, but using that music was yet another way that the movie reached back into the past to create something that pushed the art form forward. Each note of underscore feels as though it were specifically created for the film from the ground up. As all great scores do, it highlights important moments, serves as an emotional guide and heightens the sensations built into the story. Think of the processional music giving you a sense of place and time, the twinkling music that plays as the fairies appear, and the tension created during the battle between Maleficent and Phillip.

Additional music and lyrics were provided by Tom Adair, Winston Hibler (of the True-Life Adventures), Ted Sears, Sammy Fain and Jack Lawrence. Almost all of it is pitch perfect. A chorus is utilized as a sort of musical omniscient narrator, introducing the love theme, "One Upon a Dream", foreshadowing important events and ideas ("for true love conquers all"), singing a lullaby as the fairies induce sleep from the kingdom, adding magic to the gifts bestowed on Aurora, as well as providing musical layers. That stunningly gorgeous love theme also serves to move the plot forward by establishing a connection between the romantic leads. "I Wonder" is Aurora's "I Want" song, establishing her as a young woman in search of love and her identity.

The only misstep, in my opinion is "Skumps". It's halting, sing-songy melody is off-puttingly shoehorned into the scene between the two kings. It feels like the song could be removed entirely without any real effect on the story. The bright spot of it is the introduction of the amusingly drunken minstrel, but that's not enough to keep me from wanting to press the skip button on the remote. That odd duck aside, the music is incredible. If the artwork roots you firmly in a wondrous time and place, the music provides the blossoms. It cements the film as in incredibly immersive experience. I look forward to one day going to the ballet and listening to the music in its original form, but I doubt that it will ever be able to move me as much as it does in its Disney incarnation.

The Gay Scale:

8/10. There are a few essential elements in Sleeping Beauty that keep it gay. First off, any time you have a princess film, you have a gay film. Gay boys are perpetually drawn to princess characters from a young age. We aspire to be like them. As I've grown older, I've been fascinated by the way that their narratives can be interpreted to speak to a queer audience. In Aurora's case, you have a young woman who has been sheltered from the world to protect her. After years of ignorance, she falls in love with someone and is promptly told that she cannot love him because she has grown old enough to take her proper place in society and marry the person she is intended for. Most young gay people similarly feel socially isolated from their peers and feel thwarted when they fall in love with someone of the same sex only to realize that their love does not fit into the life that has been laid out for them. What I think is so lovely in this specific case is that Aurora ultimately finds out that the man she loves is the person she is destined to be with after all.

Next, we have a completely dreamy prince. Phillip is terribly handsome, sings beautifully and is swoon-worthy. We also have a set of fairy guardians, who are like a trio of dotty but lovable Aunties, and who help the prince by turning boulders into bubbles, arrows into flowers and cauldrons of scalding who-knows-what into a rainbow. And of course we have a larger than life, diva-like villain who is both beautiful and evil. She's a Dynasty-worthy, cold-hearted, glamorous antagonist. Plus she makes a great drag character. All of these characters populate a world that is bright, bold and beautiful. It's the kind of fantasy world that makes you want to escape into it. It is all underscored by music based on the work of a classical queer icon- Tchaikovsky. There may be precious little camp, but when emotions are so expansive and everything is so pleasing to the eye there is no need for it. 

The Bottom Line:

9/10. I adore every frame of this movie. With every inch of my being. All of the things that I treasure most about Disney animated films are here in spades. The artwork is beyond incredible, the story is emotional and exciting, the music transports you. Strangely, I don't remember seeing this film too much when I was young. I chalk it up to a combination of having a memory like a sieve and possibly being so terrified by Maleficent that I blocked it out to avoid the high cost of therapy. Coming back to Disney within the last several years, this film has quickly risen to become one of my top five favorite animated classics. It makes sense when you consider the sophistication of its construction. Though there may be a few films that I would rank above Sleeping Beauty (my number one is yet to come), nothing will ever be able to touch the craftsmanship and skill that is apparent watching this movie. There is no other film before or after that looks and feels like this one. But it's Aurora's many little fans, dressed in their pink medieval-style gowns, who assure me that the film is not too highfalutin' to speak to children. The movie will remain essential viewing for generations of children to come. Just like me, they will turn to it when they want to feel like getting lost in a fairy tale world where good triumphs over evil and despite seemingly insurmountable hardship, there is always a happy ending.

The Miscellanea:

Aurora and I beveling like princesses.
Quick anecdote for you. One of my favorite character greeting experiences was with a lovely Aurora in the Magic Kingdom. I was there with my family and we waited in the queue to meet the princesses. Belle, Cinderella and Aurora were there and we all took turns posing with them. My sister, Kelly, was being princessy and I was standing tall, arm crooked, being a model prince. Finally, Mama, who was snapping photos, looked at Aurora and I and said, "Do what she's doing!" Aurora looked a bit perplexed and said, "No, no. Princes should stand like this." Mama laughed and said, "No, no. Really. It's OK. I want a shot of the two of you being princesses together." It was like a lightbulb went off in Aurora's head. No stranger to gays was she, which isn't surprising considering she was a Disney cast member. A huge grin crept onto her face and she said, "Oooooh. Of course! Well then, if you're going to be a proper princess, then you will have to bevel. You do know how to bevel, right?" She proceeded to teach me how to bevel like a princess and gave us a priceless princess moment. It was fully awesome.

Here is some footage of Helene Stanley, who was the live model for Aurora as well as Cinderella and Anita in 101 Dalmatians, twirling about while animator Marc Davis sketches.

Mary Costa, the voice of Aurora, went on to have an enviable career in opera. You can obviously hear the technique in her work on Sleeping Beauty, but it's pretty remarkable how different she sounds in hardcore operatic mode. Here is a clip of her singing an aria from Faust on TV in 1962.

Program given to early visitors to
the walkthrough. 
Don't forget that the original Disney Park castle is Sleeping Beauty's. The park was built in 1955, as production on the film was well underway, and the castle was part of the promotional push for the film that would be released four years later. One of my favorite little gems in Disneyland is the Sleeping Beauty Castle walkthrough. There is extensive coverage of the new version in the Blu-ray special features, which reveals that the latest remodel makes it essentially the same as it was when it was first installed in the castle in 1957. It is gorgeous, incorporating a lot of Eyvind Earle styling, immersive atmospherics, and imaginative visuals. Don't skip it. I have never seen a line for it and it's terribly charming. Disneyland is Tom's home park and he had been going for years and years but didn't even know it was there until we went together for the first time a year ago and it was near the top of my list of things to see. He was as enchanted by it as I was. (PS My favorite touch is the very final make-it-pink-make-it-blue moment as you exit.)

I got curious as to what the previous incarnation of the walkthrough, which lasted from 1977 until it was closed in 2001, looked like. I knew it featured more dimensional characters but little else. I scrounged up a pretty clear video of what the attraction looked like in the eighties and nineties. Me no likey. It looks like a cheesy window display. Personally, I'm glad that it went the way of hair bands and neon scrunchies. The version that is now inside the castle lives up to the exterior's magical promise.

I heart bossa nova. I heart Sleeping Beauty. Therefore, I heart this awesome cover of "Once Upon a Dream" from the Japanese Bossa Disney Nova album. This recording is by Wanda Sa and Joao Donato. Pull out the tiki torches and enjoy!

Amateur covers tend to get on my nerves. It mostly seems to be over-eager pre-teens searching for their identities or over-eager twenty- or thirty-somethings drenched in flop-sweat and desperate to be discovered. It makes me uncomfortable to watch either way. However this version of "Once Upon a Dream" played on solo acoustic guitar is absolutely lovely. Kudos.

As a rule, I don't enjoy putting up videos that I full-on think are bad. It feels mean-spirited. But this version of "Once Upon a Dream" is so completely wackadoo (and is produced in a way that makes it seem like this young lady has her eyes set on the Big Time) that I felt like I had no choice. (I especially love the dude with the broom walking between the camera and the young lady at the top of the video and the exceptionally bad syncing.) All I know is that there is a lot of awkward posing going on, her fluttery vibrato runs rampant and I'm pretty sure she says "...the gleam in your eyes is so familiar and gleam." Otherwise, I am perplexed. If you understand, please explain. Please and thank you.

Rory is amazing. I don't know this lil' southern girl but she's rad beyond compare. Rory sings "Once Upon a Dream" and wipes the floor with that last chick. I still clap at the end of this video every time I watch it.

Sleeping Beauty came out just after the Mickey Mouse Club had ended it's phenomenal run in the late 50's. One of the Mouseketeers, Darlene Gillespie, was being groomed for a kind of stardom that she unfortunately could never seem to attain. As the lovely blonde who was a triple-threat singer, actor and dancer, she watched the lovely in a real-girl kind of way Annette Funicello's star rise as she struggled to establish herself post MMC. Her life took a rather tragic turn later, marked by several run-ins with the law. Before things went south, Disney tried to give her career a boost by featuring her on albums of sings from Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty. Here are a few tracks from the Sleeping Beauty album. Her voice is quite lovely and very strong and the arrangements are lush. It makes me sad to hear a young girl with such promise knowing that her story doesn't end in a happily ever after. First off is "Once Upon a Dream" and after that is "I Wonder".

This next track is also from the Sleeping Beauty album that featured Darlene. It is the "Sleeping Beauty Song" and was credited only to a Disney Trio. It features more gorgeous orchestrations and exceptional harmony and really spotlights this song in a way that does't necessarily happen in the film.

Here we have an episode of Disneyland that aired in 1959- "The Peter Tchaikovsky Story". It was a dramatized biography of the composer broadcast to help promote Sleeping Beauty. The chunk that I've watched looks quite good. It once again makes me wish that Disney would open up its vaults and release some of this classic material. Grant Williams, who plays Tchaikovsky as a man, was matinee-idol dreamy and, considering the fact that the real Tchaikovsky was a gay man, there is certainly a queer interest factor in the episode. It is also included in the Platinum Edition reissue of the film from a few years back.

In looking for Disney's Sleeping Beauty related nuggets, I came across this clip rightcha here. (Embedding wasn't allowed, so I'm afraid you're going to have to click on the link. Sorry bout it.) It is of a Canadian singer named Gisele MacKenzie performing a song called "Spinning" from a television live-action adaptation of Sleeping Beauty. It's quite a fun little number (if a bit too schmaltzy for my tastes), but it really makes me appreciate the sophistication of Disney's adaptation even more. It elevated the tale to something more appropriately elegant than musical comedy.

Sleeping Beauty marks the end of an artistic era. Never again will Disney invest the kind of resources into an animated film. In many ways, this film is the pinnacle of hand-crafted, traditional animation. Starting with the next film, 101 Dalmatians, more and more technological innovations will allow animation to be done more quickly and more economically and forever change the look of animation, for better or for worse. Things will never be the same. So how bout next week for our DATE Night we'll do a complete one-eighty and take a jaunt to London and spend some time with another set of canine companions? What do you think of Sleeping Beauty? Did it take your breath away or is it just another princess film to you? Is it the pinnacle of the animated feature or are you ready for them to take on a new look? Would you rather make it pink or make it blue?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Bucket List NYC: The Museum of the Moving Image

I have been meaning to make it out to the Museum of the Moving Image for years, but other things always ended up taking precedence on the weekends. Those things usually involved my rear end, the couch and my DVR. It is insanely close to me in Astoria, Queens, so I don't even have to go into Manhattan to get there and everyone I've talked to has said that was great. All it took was some kind of can't-miss exhibit to get me there. Over the summer, they installed an exhibit centered around Jim Henson of Muppet and Sesame Street fame. I knew the time had come to put down the remote and go.

The entrance to the museum.
I really, really love the Muppets. I've been waiting with bated breath for The Muppets, which will finally be released next week (Yay!), so it seemed like a perfect time to travel three stops down on the N/Q to visit the museum to help give me a Muppet fix before the movie comes out. What I wasn't prepared for was how amazing the whole museum would be. I thought I'd share some pictures and thoughts on the Henson exhibit and the museum as a whole, as well as share some Disney-adjacent pictures I took while we were there.

We'll start with the Henson portion, which was spread over about half of the third floor. It was quite an impressive collection. It included several of the puppets, props, some video, and many, many drawings (my favorite was the original sketch of Big Bird), sketches, storyboards and notes. The volume and diversity of materials that was on display was impressive. There were early theater posters that he designed, experimental films that he made, and advertorial works. It was pretty fascinating to see the early non-puppet work. They also showed a short film featuring Jim Henson in his own words, which gives about a 15 minute overview of his career, that was very well done.

My big quibble with the exhibit is that it didn't feel very well structured. There were three different ways to enter into it and your experience seems a bit haphazard. There was no rhyme or reason to the way you made your way through. It wasn't chronological and it was very unclear what story they were trying to tell. Considering that the rest of your journey through the museum is impeccably set up, this felt a bit jarring. It feels like a lost opportunity, since instead of really telling Henson's story in a clear way through the artifacts, it felt like a catch as catch can labyrinth. The kind without David Bowie at the center. We had to go through a few different ways just to make sure that we didn't miss anything. It's a small quibble in the grand scheme of things when what is on display is so fantastic, but it affected my experience nonetheless.

The stars of the show, of course, were the puppets that were there. It's kind of surreal seeing these guys up close in this way. They played such an important role in my childhood and are still very close to my heart. I will readily admit I got rather misty being inches away, examining the felt up close and really being able to study them for a moment. Their texture and construction. It feels like at any moment they could start a conversation with you. Or at least give you a rousing chorus of "Mah Na Mah Na". It is magic just to be in their presence.

Miss Piggy.
The Mah Na Mah Na gang.
Gobo and Mokey Fraggle.
Tom and I. Uh...wait. I mean Bert and Ernie!
The Henson exhibit may have been what lured us in, but it was actually the rest of the museum that really churned our butter. It is one of the best museums I have ever been in. It is well-designed, interactive, fun, and informative. It is organized by areas that focus on different aspects of film and television. It starts with with playfully executed tributes to the artists who create films. The stars, directors, make-up and hair artists (The Bride of Frankenstein's wig, The Elephant Man and Mrs. Doubtfire makeups), production designers (models and designs from The Wiz and Silence of the Lambs), and costume designers (costumes from Chicago, Mork and Mindy, Dangerous Liasons, Cliff Huxtable's sweater) all get a section.

My adorable husband as we watched Eileen Brennan
be brilliant on Laugh-In. Video games in the background.
There is a section devoted to the theaters that films played in, including a artfully designed small movie house/screening room with a Egyptian folk art theme which was commissioned by the museum and is hard to describe. You have to see it for yourself. There is an area devoted to video games (you could play Mario on an old-school Nintendo!), a sunken 60's living room with Laugh-In playing on the TV, displays of special effects props (including a full-sized Regan from The Exorcist- shudder- which I wouldn't get within five feet of), cameras from early to modern day and old-school movie machines showing Chaplin films on flip-books that you cranked. The sheer comprehensiveness was pretty astonishing and it was brilliantly presented, flowing from one area to the next with a sense of narrative.

The interactive stations were also awesome. There was one set up so that you could learn about great film composers and hear parts of their scores. One allowed you to add sound effects to film clips and one did the same with music. It really shows you how much the sound can change the feel of a scene, subtly and obviously. When a velociraptor brays like a donkey it becomes funny and Sharon Stone's walk across a casino floor can shift from one shade of sexy to another with a different song playing. They had another station where you could dub lines into School of Rock. These elements of the museum really get you involved in the process of filmmaking in interesting ways. Hollywood Studios may be more immersive with its theming, but they could still pick up a thing or two from some of what is on display here and how it is presented.

Finally there was my favorite station, which provided you with a very simple set-up to make your own stop-motion animated film. A camera was pointing down at the white background on the counter top. You were given cut out shapes and a simple interface with buttons that you pressed to take a shot at a time, 8 per second, and emerge with your own creation that they email to you free of charge. I had a blast and really felt a sense of accomplishment when I saw my (admittedly weird and silly) finished product. It was almost as much fun watching the other kids (including my husband Tom) making their own movies. So, I now present to you my creation. I am clearing off a place on my shelf for an Oscar as we speak.

We spent a good three hours experiencing everything, seeing most things twice, and really exploring. If you are in the NYC area, I highly recommend a visit. There were a few Disney related pieces in the museum, though it was one very small piece of the puzzle. The studio itself does such a wonderful job of archiving and finding ways to give the public access to its history it does't need to rely on outside institutions to do it for them. It is interesting, though, to see it as one part of the huge tapestry of film and television as a whole. Here are some shots that I took that my fellow Disney fans may find interesting.

Set model for The Muppets Take Manhattan
in the permanent collection.
Several pieces of Disneyana in the display
of promotional items and merch.
More merch. Hey, Pluto!
Sheet music for Snow White.
The interactive film score station didn't have Disney scores,
but composers like Thomas Newman (my fave), Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams are represented. Awesome.
Mickey and Minnie depicted in a mural in the screening
room / mini folk art Egyptian movie palace.
Chewbacca mask.
Tons of Star Wars merch.
I may have a dirty mind, but this C-3PO tape
dispenser looks a tad inappropriate. And if you've
seen Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking,
you'll appreciate the Pez dispenser.
Yoda animatronic.
The Jim Henson exhibit runs through January 16th, 2012 and is absolutely worth a visit to Queens to see, but even if you miss it, the Museum of the Moving Image is a place that you should visit for its permanent exhibits alone. It is very reasonably priced, easy to get to and completely amazeballs! Have you visited the museum for the current Henson exhibit? What did you think? Was it more navigable for you or do you think that I'm a dum-dum cuz it was problematic for me? How about the rest of the museum? Wasn't it rad? And most importantly, how did your stop-motion animation piece stack up to my own "Bushwoman"? Don't be ashamed. I know that I'm a burgeoning genius in the field. I just like the affirmation.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

DATE Night: Lady and the Tramp

Color inspiration for The Help?
I am so excited that for this week's DATE Night we get to watch a real, honest to goodness romantic comedy! I don't feel like Lady and the Tramp is given enough credit for being such a bold creative departure for the studio and I've been looking forward to revisiting it. I watched it with my roommate Katie, who had never seen it before and Tom, my husband. It is one of his favorites and the first movie that he ever saw on the big screen. I've seen it several times and even still made new discoveries while watching it, which is one of the reasons why I feel like it fits neatly with the best of the Disney animated classics.

The Background:

The seed of Lady and the Tramp was planted by Joe Grant, the deservedly revered Disney story man and artist who created the Evil Queen from Snow White and played a major role in the creation of all the animated features through Dumbo, in the late thirties. He had done a series of sketches depicting his springer spaniel Lady's antics that had promise but failed to parlay them into a story that passed muster in Walt's eyes, so the idea was shelved by the studio. Early in the forties, Walt came across a short story by Ward Green in Cosmopolitan (whether it was before or after taking the quiz about whether he's just not that into you is unclear) about a dog who would later be morphed into Tramp.

Very early concept art by Mary Blair.
By the fifties, a story began to take shape incorporating sketches by Grant, who had already left the studio and would return in the late eighties to work on Beauty and the Beast, and Greene's story into a single narrative. Walt then had Greene write a novelization of the movie which was released two years before the film came out so that audiences would already be endeared to the story and characters by the time the movie came out. Pretty genius move in the humble opinion of someone living in the Age of the Spoiler Alert.

Disney released the film in 1955 as the first CinemaScope (aka widescreen) animated feature, and since not all theaters were set up to show CinemaScope features yet, they had to create a separate version of the film that could be shown on traditional screens. Despite tepid reviews, many of which remarked on a lack of artistry (Gasp! Lemme at 'em! I'll shred 'em to bits!), Lady and the Tramp became one of the biggest hits of the year and, after figuring in re-releases, is the top-grossing film of 1955. It it now very highly regarded by both critics and audiences alike.

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 8: Lady and the Tramp. Disney leaves the world of fantasy and visits a lovely, small-town America. This movie is full of grace and is a gorgeous dog meets dog love story. Quite an grown up story, really. More detailed and wonderful artistry. Another lovely winner.
February 5, 2010 at 1:25pm ·

The Art:

Stunning landscape art. Wowza.
8/10. After a run of artistically bold, visually impressionistic films (thanks in part to our beloved Mary Blair who departed the studio after her work on Peter Pan), Lady in the Tramp is a startling change of pace. The look shifted from abstractly highlighting subtext to realistically supporting the story, which is exactly what this particular tale calls out for. We are no longer in Wonderland or Neverland, but rather we are on Main Street USA. There are so many lovely landscapes that look like they should be hanging on a gallery wall. The town covered in snow, the gorgeous fall colors, the park after "Bella Notte". I love the art is this film because it astounds quietly. It doesn't call attention to itself, preferring to render a world in such a clear way that you are completely enveloped by it without getting magpie syndrome making you look at all the shiny this'n'thats.

The morning after.
The art here is unadorned and simple but detailed and clean. There is imagination at work here, but, despite the fact that the dogs (and cats) can talk, it functions in a very realistic way. The squash and stretch and human characteristics of the animals, the silhouettes and flashes of color behind the fight when Tramp protects Lady, the calendar sequence, the shadows in the pound making the dogs look like they are in prison uniforms, the way that the lightning illuminates figures during the storm are striking visual elements that do not have to jump and down trying to get your attention. This movie is not showy for the sake of being showy and every artistic element is utilized carefully to support the story that is being told in a subtly immersive way. The look of the film is rich, familiar and cozy. You see artists who have perfected a craft at the top of their game here and it is thrilling.

The Story:

8/10. Lady and the Tramp is a simple story of pup meets pup. It's a swoon-worthy romance with flashes of action and profound sadness, truly frightening and tense moments and lots of warmth and humor. Of course what makes it so unique is that it takes a very human, very complex, almost adult story and tells it from a dog's perspective. Much of the film is actually shown at a dog's eye view, encouraging empathy for them. By telling the story with animals instead of humans, you have been allowed to more easily project your own experiences onto the screen. You aren't comparing yourself to glamorous Hollywood types, after all, but to relatable, anthropomorphized animals. Who doesn't love an adorable pup? And now here we are, seeing our own story reflected in theirs.
Double feature = double puns.

I also love the fact that the film is bookended for us. It starts with a winter scene at Christmas and the powerful "Peace on Earth", whose lyrics include the lovely sentiment "Spirit of love and child of peace / Love unending that shall not cease / Peace, my children of goodwill / Peace, my children, peace, be still." It reinforces the cyclical nature of life, the universality of the story and the theme of love. We end as we began and we can begin again on another street in another town and find the same story being told. It's a story that all of us at one time or another have lived out ourselves. The story of our search for love.

One storytelling device that was utilized magnificently in this movie is the transition. Instead of always having a typical fade to black / fade up on next scene or crossfade, they used these moments as opportunities to to tell the story in potent and interesting ways. Lady goes to sleep at the foot of the bed as a puppy and wakes up the next morning as a full grown dog. In that one moment you understand that she is older, she has learned how to get her way, and she has status in the household. The whole segment after Lady is smacked on the bum (where the background changes behind her) as Tramp is describing life with a baby (where her steak becomes baby food and her spot next to the fireplace morphs into a doghouse) and the calendar is literally deconstructing around her is brilliant. The transitions between reality and projected reality are jarring and give us empathy for Lady's delicate state of mind. They are also a wonderful showcase for the artists.

Most romantic. Ever.
Of course, the movie also has one of the greatest animated moments of all time. Heck, it's probably one of the greatest and most iconic moments in all of film. I'm speaking, of course, about the "Bella Notte" sequence. We all remember the spaghetti that leads to a kiss and the palpable way that feel the two characters connect. You may also remember the back alley and the adorable cooks singing or the lovely gesture of Tramp giving Lady the last meatball. But what about the lovely moment where Italian Tony says what we've all been longing to say when he tells Tramp to "settle down with this-a one." Or the sequence right after it where everything is bathed in moonlight and they are in the gorgeous park with lanterns in the trees and swirling fireflies. Or the nextmorning, where the landscape looks like a painting and Lady's ear draped over Tramp subtly suggests that they spent the kind of night together that could result in a litter of puppies. And the amazing moment where Tramp tells Lady to "Look down there!" and the camera shifts toward the horizon, visually opening up a whole new world for her. Her reason for not exploring it? Who would look after the baby? Tramp concedes that she wins the argument. Loyalty trumps all for these characters.

The Characters:

8/10. The characters in Lady and the Tramp sparkle. Each one from the protagonists to the smallest of background players is designed to have immediate and maximum impact so that you get a real sense of dimension in a simple and effective way. Unlike Peter Pan, where some of the smaller roles read rather flat, everyone in the background from the distinctively heartbreaking dogs in the pound (even Nutzy makes an impression and we only see his silhouette), to the whistle-talking beaver, to the disgusting rat, to the Italian restauranteurs is designed and animated in such a way that they do not just fade into the background. They contribute in a powerful way to the story and environment.

Since everything is from a dog's perspective, the humans aren't as dimensional as the animals. We barely get to see their faces, but we glean much from the way they treat the animals. Darling (voiced by Peggy Lee) and Jim Dear, the dogcatcher, the Italians, the baby and Aunt Sarah (voiced by Verna Felton of Fairy Godmother and Queen of Hearts fame) are all filtered through the dogs' perception of them. The way that Lady feels about them in the moment is also the way that we are made to feel about them, whether she looks at them with love, suspicion, amusement or fear, and as those emotions change from one moment to the next, so does how we see them.

Sneaky lil' buggers, huh?
One interesting thing I noticed is that there are no real baddie here in the tradition of Hook, The Evil Queen, or Lady Tremaine. Sure Si and Am (both voiced once again by Miss Lee), Aunt Sarah, the chasing dogs, the rat and the dogcatcher are antagonists, but there is not a central villain like we have in many Disney features. There is no need for one. This is not a story of good versus evil, but rather a story of love and loyalty conquering all. Si and Am are especially well designed. They are conniving and evil, just as a dog, their arch enemy, would see them, but in a playfully drawn way that is delicious to watch for an audience. They are characters that you love to hate from their emergence from the basket to their knowing tail-shake behind Aunt Sarah.

Peg and Company.
The supporting cast of dogs are all surprisingly dimensional. Peg (you get three guesses who voiced the character of Peg and the first two don't count. ***coughpeggyleecough***) is the flip side of Lady- a world weary broad from the wrong side of the tracks sharing her wisdom with someone who doesn't know any better. It feels without malice, as if Peg is genuinely trying to do Lady a solid. Her pound-mates are made very distinctive with very little screen time and the whole pound scene is really quite sad. Many "awww"s were uttered in our apartment throughout that sequence.

Canine Bennetton ad. 
That brings us to Lady's protectors, Jock (voiced by Bill Thompson, who also voices three other dogs and a policeman in the film and voiced the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland) and Trusty. We love them right off the bat because of how loving and protective they are of Lady. How can you not be smitten after seeing Trusty going after that cute lil' caterpillar or Trusty hopping up and down to shoo Tramp after he is perceived to have wronged Lady? When Trusty puts his life on the line to save Tramp from being put down, it's enough to bring tears to your eyes. There is an innate desire in both of these characters to do what is right by those that are close to them that makes them both noble and empathetic.

I love a guy who's good with kids.
Of course, above all else we have the title characters who are so magnetic that you fall in love with them in their first moments (Lady in the hatbox and Tramp stretching the most satisfying stretch that's ever been stretched) and root for them through the inevitable happy ending. They beautiful melded instantly recognizable canine actions with relatable human emotions. What's brilliant about these characters is that despite the opposites attract angle, they really do a beautiful job of showing how they are a perfect fit beneath the surface. We very quickly see their loving nature early on with Lady's taking care of Darling and Jim Dear and Tramp's sweet reaction to the puppies in the window.

Talk about making an entrance.
The performances and animation on both Lady and Tramp are pretty much perfection. There's a sexy, roguish quality to Tramp, who was voiced by Larry Roberts. He's the ne'er-do-well bad boy with a heart of gold. He is funny, charming, adventurous and a perfect foil for a slightly pent-up, sheltered girl. It makes for a quintessential love story when he is paired with Barbara Luddy's performance as Lady. I love the slight rasp and warmth in her voice, especially in her imperfect singing on "What Is a Baby?" We watch her grow from a baby to a woman to a mother. We coo over her as she whines to be let into bed and struggle up the stairs. We laugh at her gardening skills. We swoon when she falls for Tramp. We cringe when she's referred to as "that dog". We well up when she's thrown in the pound and is relegated to the doghouse. we see her transformation through the course of the film. In the end, I would argue that she is one of the most layered female protagonists in the Disney canon.

The Music:

9/10. Lots of noise is made about the songs of Lady and the Tramp, and rightfully so, but I want to take a moment and give a quick shout out to the fantastic score that was, once again, beautifully done by Oliver Wallace. He scored more than a hundred films over his time as a house composer for Disney and every one that I've heard so far has been a winner. (Just last night I was watching People and Places: Disneyland USA on the Walt Disney Treausres Disneyland: Secrets Stories & Magic DVD when I realized that he wrote the iconic score for that as well. Listening to that music transports me into the park instantly and I love it.) No wonder the studio kept him on staff for decades. He was able to balance dramatics, playfulness, humor and suspense while never failing to support the action of a film. Genius.

Trippy, album cover. Trippy.
Think about the jaunty theme that often plays when we see Lady and how much it helps to define that character, much in the same way Peter Pan had his three note theme. It has a sense of controlled but exuberant joy sprinkled with upright propriety. Now think of how brilliantly it is used in collaboration with songs written by Miss Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke, who were already well-known jazz / pop artists. We hear the tentative "What Is a Baby?" showing Lady's unsure state after her world has shifted in the wake of the new arrival, which is cut short by Jim Dear whistling her theme as if he has co-opted her joy. Then the melody is overtaken by the lullabye "La La Lu" to shift focus to the baby and how everyone now relates to it, and to each other in new ways because of it. By marrying score and song with wonderful animation they told a complex emotional story with very little dialogue.

And those songs! Wowza! I always knew that Lee and Burke had written the songs for the film, but this time the scope of their contribution really hit me. The songs stylistically run the gamut from swelling Italian romanza to lullabye to musical theater to jazz to Asian-influenced to holiday music. That's quite an impressive range for a single picture from a single writing team, especially when each and every one is pitch perfect. "He's a Tramp" is now a standard because it works brilliantly outside of the context of the movie. What people don't always remember is that within that context it's a showstopper for a group of supporting characters that not only establishes their identities, incorporating their howls and scratches as part of the music, but tells us about the protagonists and moves the plot along as well. The other songs are just as well-crafted even if not as oft-covered (see The Miscellanea). Why "Peace on Earth" is not a Christmas Classic and "La La Lu" isn't on every sleepytime children's album I will never know. Each and every song here is a gem and Lady and the Tramp still easily stands as one of the best Disney animated features musically.

The Gay Scale:

Topiaries are pretty gay. And fully amazeballs.
7/10. To be honest, on the surface this seems to be one of the less queer Disney animated features and, though is planted pretty squarely on this side of the rainbow, for some reason the gays adore it. I've done some contemplating and come up with a few reasons. Gays love a romantic comedy, even before the era of the straight heroine's-gay-bestie archetype. Gays love snuggly, adorable animals (especially when they don't have to clean up after them or remove their hair from the couch in clumps). Gays super-dee-duper love a swingin' jazz diva and Miss Peggy Lee is one of the most iconic of them all.

But above all else, I think that gays can appreciate a story about loving someone that you're not supposed to love despite the dangers. We see the two main characters falling in love with someone solely because they were going where their heart led them, despite what was proper or expected, despite what others said and despite trepidation about venturing into the unknown. That's a story that has a lot of resonance for a gay audience and proves that you don't need to uncover an effete villain or camp sensibility to find a potent queer read. As a culture who didn't see themselves portrayed overtly, gays and lesbians learned to read between the lines. This movie would have given them a fascinating mirror to see themselves reflected in during the mid-fifties. And best of all, they got a happy ending.

The Bottom Line:

8/10. In case I hadn't already made it clear, I love this movie. I think it's a welcome and artistically solid shift for the studio in an era when they were not afraid of taking big risks. In this case, the pay off was huge. It has left us with one of the greatest cinematic love stories of all time. It has all of the basics of a great Disney animated feature: great music, beautiful art, strong storytelling and great characters, but what really sends this film towards the top of the heap is it's gigantic, beating heart. This movie has the kind of warmth that wraps around you like a blanket.

At it's core, it's a story about loyalty. We can learn a lesson from these dogs, who go to great lengths to protect each other and their humans. It shows how at the center of our beings the greatest asset we posses is the kindness that we show to others whether they be our children, friends, caretakers, families, pets, strangers or lovers. By sharing this one specific story of profound goodness happening on Main Street in Anytown USA, we hopefully see that stories like this can happen everywhere, every day. It also reminds us to open our eyes, seeing goodness affect others and open our hearts, actually letting goodness come from us.  

The Miscellanea:

I managed to dig up some really fascinating nuggets for y'all this week. Once again, not quite as many old-school song covers as I would like (though the interwebs are teeming with modern-day amateur covers, which proves how sturdy the songs from this film are) and sadly, no "La La Lu" covers at all. First off are two clips from a promotional piece (that is also on the Platinum Edition DVD) with Walt and Peggy Lee. The first features Miss Lee singing singing "He's a Tramp" and the second focuses on "Siamese Cat Song" and the process they used to record it. Both are quite interesting and it's a blast to see Peggy Lee herself performing the numbers. Va va voom!

This next video is part one of an episode of the Disneyland TV series called "A Story of Dogs" which was aired to drum up interest for the film and show some behind the scenes footage of the artists at work. It also branches out to cover Pluto and other early Disney pooches.

In 2001, a sequel to Lady and the Tramp was released straight to video. It was called Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure and is apparently a role reversal in which Lady and Tramp's puppy Scamp decides he wants to get in touch with his bad boy roots and encounters a girl pup from the wrong side of the tracks. I have yet to see it and though I never have very high expectations for these releases, I have heard tell that it's one of the better ones. Some great singers (Jodi Benson, Susan Egan, Roger Bart) were involved and there are several "stars" in the voice cast. Alyssa Milano! Scott Wolf! Remember them? Here is a trailer. Doesn't look vile, but doesn't look stellar either.

Ooh goody! Time for some covers! This first video is of the Disneyland Band doing a Lady and the Tramp Medley. Fantastic arrangement. These guys never disappoint.

Here we have another Disney park institution, the Dapper Dans, doing a barbershop version of "Bella Notte". It's a bit slow for my taste, but, my heavens, what flawless harmony and that modulation gave me goosebumps! I eat this Main Street USA goodness up with a spoon.

I had nary a clue who Rolly was. A quick Google search informed me that he is a Japanese rock star who once fronted a band called Scanch and that he owns a Jack Skellington costume. The search also lets me know that since I can't read Japanese I won't be able to find out too terribly much else. That  search sure as shootin' didn't explain this clip wherein Rolly visits DisneySea about thirty seconds in and sings "Bella Notte" as Mickey and Minnie act out the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet in Renaissance garb. It also doesn't explain why he's decked out in a white blouse, tight black pants and white platform shoes, has a fashionable bob and sports more makeup than Minnie does. Fascinating. (PS There's another version on YouTube where he's in a nightclub suspended in the nothingness stretching the song out to five minutes with the addition of an extended electric guitar solo. Yup. That happened, too.)

Here we have Edna Savage, a pop singer from the UK who never really had much of an impact, doing a cover of "Bella Notte". It sounds like something that should be playing at a fifties prom. Hands above the waist, make sure sure you're dancing a ruler's width apart, and enjoy, boys and girls.

Now all of a sudden we hit "He's a Tramp" covers and things get mighty queer. First off is a cover that Bette Midler did for her Peggy Lee tribute album, which I quite enjoyed. Then again Bette Midler could be doing just about anything and I would be riveted. (Side note: Tom, Katie and I watched two of Bette's classic Touchstone comedies from the eighties recently- Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Outrageous Fortune. Verdicts were that Down and Out was overrated, tonally odd and kind of meh while Outrageous Fortune was a hoot that really utilized both Bette and Shelley Long's personas perfectly.)

I don't know what this is from or why it exists at all. It seems like it's from a high school or college production of something or possibly from a showcase. It's two boys doing a very campy "He's a Tramp" and it makes me giggle.

This is my favorite find this week. It is Shirley Bassey doing a Disney Medley that includes "He's a Tramp" while wandering through the Main Street USA in costume. It is surreal and magical. Please soak in every moment of this wonderfully wackadoo weirdness. It is pure camp bliss.

If the "He's a Tramp" covers tended towards the gay, the "Siamese Cat Song" covers tend towards the odd. Here is a video that was made for a Bobby McFerrin cover from the early nineties Disney cover album Simply Mad About the Mouse. No, you're not high. It really is just that trippy, with it's acapella arrangement, CGI landscapes that have nothing to do with the lyrics, and chorus of Bobby-in-dashikis.

Here we have the Lennon Sisters on the Lawrence Welk Show singing the "Siamese Cat Song" in 1958 with their fur festooned heads peeking out from behind a cutout of four headless siamese cats on a sofa. They can smile, purr and lick their lips all they want, but you know that they couldn't have been comfortable.

Lawrence Welk must have really loved the song though, because he had three more ladies sing it in 1973, but this time in full on cat suits (not sexy, tight outfits, but full-on Halloween costumes) while in a huge basket. Just as weird, but at least this time the ladies didn't look like floating heads.

Last but not least is my favorite "Siamese Cat Song" cover by Freddie and the Dreamers from their In Disneyland album. It's very interesting to see how each cover tries to give their own spin to the obvious Asian influences of the number, filtering it through nineties world music, fifties and seventies white bread girl pop and, here, sixties British Invasion sounds. Apparently this band from England featuring 5'3'' lead singer Freddie Garrity incorporated crazy dancing into their stage act to set them apart from the pack. Without the visuals, all that is left is a completely unique track that is a playful time capsule of a specific musical era.

So there we have it! We've survived fifteen DATE Nights together. Hopefully you aren't sick of me yet. What did you think of Lady and the Tramp? Do you feel as strongly as I do that it's top-tier Disney or do you feel like it's more middle of the pack? (If you think it's towards the bottom then I'm afraid we can't see each other any longer. I want my Treasure of Matacumbe DVD back, please and thank you.) Next week we get to what is arguably the greatest Disney fairy tale feature of all time- Sleeping Beauty. I am especially excited because this is the first time that I am going to watch it on the Blu-ray that I acquired not too long ago! Can. Not. Wait!