24 November 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: DREAMING IS STILL HOW THE STRONG SURVIVE

Soon after the 1984 takeover of Walt Disney Productions, when the future of the company's feature animation division was still in considerable doubt, Roy E. Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg nevertheless had enough faith that they would be able to pull things out that they concocted a truly extraordinary plan for the studio's future success: a plan involving the creation of a new animated feature every calendar year. That was ambition on a rather terrifying scale: back in the early 1940s, when Walt's animation crew was at the peak of their powers, such a frantic pace was possible, but the working conditions of the animation studio in the 1980s was a very different thing altogether. Broadly speaking, it took about three years for a project to reach completion: a bit less than one year for story development and character design, a bit more than two years to animate it all - and it took the studio's entire staff to get the films made.

The first issue that had to be addressed was the employment pool: 160 people were simply not enough to produce movies at that kind of pace, and so the company hired more than 400 new employees to swell its ranks, returning the studio to an army of artists not seen since the purge following Sleeping Beauty, more than 25 years earlier. This permitted three projects to be in production at once, in different forms of completion.

The second issue was finding someone that Katzenberg, Disney and Michael Eisner trust to run the animation wing of the company while they attended to the broader issues involved in running a huge entertainment corporation. They man they chose was Peter Schneider, who like Katzenberg and Eisner had no practical knowledge of animation whatsoever, coming from a background in theater; but he was a bright executive who knew something about what audiences wanted to see, and his tenure as President of Feature Animation directly coincides with the studio's most artistically and financially fruitful era since Walt's death. It is ultimately to Schneider that most of the credit must finally go for turning around the pokey culture of mediocrity plaguing the company, and providing a clear and direct vision for what the future of Disney animation ought to look like. The three film idea was a good one, but we can never know if it would have held up without Schneider's guidance.

The first feature released under Schneider's supervision was 1986's The Great Mouse Detective, although he had very little to do with its creation. I also don't know how great was his involvement with the multi-company Who Framed Roger Rabbit, an enormously successful live-action/animation hybrid that is customarily given credit for re-igniting the American interest in animation.. Rather, his first feature project, initiated in 1985, was an adaptation of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, given a rather drastic face-life in the latest attempt to prove that Disney animation could be popular and hip. Popular it certainly was: at $53 million, it set a very short-lived record for the highest-grossing animated film in U.S. box office history. Hip... well, hipness is such a transient thing. What was hip in 1988, who can say if it still would seem hip today? I was still a month away from my seventh birthday when I first saw Oliver & Company, so I surely couldn't tell you if it was hip or not. What I can tell you a month away from my 28th birthday is that it is very far from hip now: it is in fact quite insipid and wretchedly unengaging. Without knowledge of the back-stage wrangling going on, it would be easy enough to write it off as just one more in a long line of Disney misfires in the '70s and '80s, badly shamed by former Disney animator Don Bluth's The Land Before Time, which opened on the same date - and even that isn't a particularly swell movie, by Disney's standards or Bluth's. But taken with the knowledge that this was meant to be the first in a brand new way of doing things at the studio, it is a most inauspicious beginning, indeed. I know it made lots of money, and that was the only thing Katzenberg or Eisner worried about, but if I were Schneider, and the first thing I had to show for my snazzy new job was Oliver & Company, I'd be profoundly grateful that they let me come back for a second effort.

As the first Disney film adapted from an honest-to-God classic piece of literature written for an adult audience, Oliver & Company faced a peculiar and unique set of difficult choices for the writing team; a large number of men (and I do mean men: it was less of a boys' club than during Walt's life, but still a boys' club) that reads like a who's who of future people of great importance: Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale, Roger Allers, Kevin Lima, and the great, dearly missed Joe Ranft all helped to sculpt the narrative, most of them making their first appearance in the credits of a Disney feature. This was also the first Disney film with an actual screenplay, the kind that the animation-unsavvy bosses could actually read and understand the story: this was put together by Timothy J. Disney, James Mangold (yes, the future live-action director) and Jim Cox, the only one of the three who stayed with the company for another project.

What all these fine folk put together was not so much an "adaptation" of the Dickens novel as a very vague improvisation on its themes. Gone altogether were the novels themes of social justic and class struggle; in their place were a bunch of goofy jokes and talking dogs and a plot that wears its '80s-ness like a badge of honor, all of it transposed from London to New York (which is, at any rate, a good decision, assuming that the story absolutely had to be modernised). In this version, Oliver (Joey Lawrence) is a small orange kitten, abandoned on the mean streets - in a stroke of cynicism that even I can't quite stomach, Oliver & Company tries to sell us on the idea that New Yorkers are so callous that a pet shop literally can't give away a kitten for free - where he encounters a sassy mutt named Dodger (Billy Joel). Dodger brings the kitten, yet unnamed, to meet the other dogs in the employ of a miserable homeless man named Fagin (Dom DeLuise), who uses them as pickpockets; and right now, Fagin is in dire need of money, to pay off the thuggish gangster Sykes (Robert Loggia). The kitten ends up, through misadventure, in the company of a little girl named Jenny (Natalie Gregory), whose wealthy parents have left her in their huge 5th Avenue house alone but for the butler (William Glover). These strands all come together when the dogs "rescue" Oliver, Fagin decides to ransom him, and Sykes decides, in turn, to ransom Jenny, when she comes to save her kitty.

No, it doesn't have much to do with Dickens, although that's not really a problem: Pinocchio didn't have much to do with Collodi, and that turned out pretty well. But Oliver & Company doesn't ultimately have much to do with anything else, either. As near as I can tell, the idea was, "let's make a comedy with a lot of famous voice actors, and some really contemporary musical numbers", and the story was built to function only as a vehicle for that end. Certainly, as a character-driven narrative, it is the shallowest of all Disney features, for it hardly seems to possess characters at all. There are certainly figures in the movie to whom events happen, but we never really get any sort of bearing on who they are or what they want, except for perhaps Jenny; even Oliver is just sort of shuttled from scene to scene, expressing dismay when he is taken out of his loving home, but otherwise given no chance to show personality. Nor is the film at all effective as a drama: until Jenny is snatched near the end, the only real conflict is between Fagin and Sykes, two secondary characters at best.

The problem, maybe, is that the film is too slight to let any kind of meaningful content develop. With a running time of 74 minutes, there's just not that much space left over for plot once the marketing business has been taken care of. I wouldn't mind that, if the allegedly "hip" elements of the film worked; but of course they do not. Celebrity casting is always a dangerous trick to play, for a start, and Oliver & Company has one of the most famous casts in Disney - besides the people I named, Cheech Marin and Bette Midler also drop in. Sometimes this works, as Pixar has demonstrated a number of times. Sometimes it doesn't. Is there, really, any value to having Billy Joel voice a dog in a cartoon, other than the subsequent ability to have Billy Joel sing? Certainly none that I can name, and Joel is, bless his heart, not much of an actor. He's easily the weakest link in the cast, mind you, but I still don't know having Marin, for example, do his standard "fast talking Chicano" bit in the form of a chihuahua makes Oliver & Company a better bang for my entertainment dollar.

The music, though, now that's a wasted opportunity. This was the first pure musical, with characters singing and dancing on-screen, that the studio had released since Robin Hood, 15 years earlier( we could even argue that Robin Hood doesn't count, and we have to set the bar back another three years, to The Aristocat) a self-conscious attempt to return Disney animation to its feature roots. Unfortunately, the music is not very good; I would go so far as to say that two of its songs are quite atrocious, these being "Streets of Gold", a "hey, isn't New York life sassy" number written by Tom Snow and Dean Pitchford, and the queasy-cute little girl ballad "Good Company", which at least has an excuse: it's writers, Rob Minkoff and Ron Rocha, were an animator and a production manager, respectively. Bette Midler's "Perfect Isn't Easy", by Barry Manilow, Jack Feldman, and Bruce Sussman, is dimly amusing, but you're not going to find yourself humming it; and the big number that is probably the film's most famous, for a given definition of "fame", Billy Joel's "Why Should I Worry?", by Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight, pops along well enough that it would be one of the lesser moments in a great soundtrack. Only "Once Upon a Time in New York City" the opening number that narrates Oliver's early travails, comes close to really working: it is surely not any coincidence that the lyricist was a certain Howard Ashman (music was by Barry Mann), a Broadway veteran who would in short order prove to be the most important human being who ever set foot on Disney property after Walt died. Event this song, though, has a couple banal lines, and refers to the cat by name almost half a movie before he is thus christened. It's real flaw, though, is that it was sung by Huey Lewis, an artist of such era-specificity that I imagine he already sounded dated in 1988. Taken all together, this is a pretty crappy slate for a musical: none of the songs have much of anything to do with plot, excepting that for two of them, it's the closest we're ever going to get to character development. I'd say that they also bring the film's narrative momentum to a halt, except that Oliver & Company never has any momentum.

The animation and design are fairly sub-par, as well: the backgrounds are especially hideous, using the same xerography pencil sketch style last seen in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, apparently on the sense that since this was also a comedy with a modern setting and attitude, it made sense to copy the look of the last film in that mode. Except that in Dalmatians, the backgrounds matched perfectly to the sketchy look of the characters, whereas in Oliver & Company, the characters have been drawn according to a completely different set of rules: so the effect is merely jarring and ugly.

Boy, those characters: there's not really a single one of them who leaps out as a particular triumph of design, with Jenny standing out as one of the least appealing human protagonists in a Disney film (she ain't got no pupils in her eyes! Not cool!). Fagin is a gangly, unattractive caricature like nothing else in the film, and so just comes across as grotesque; Sykes, meanwhile, is one of the most failed villains in the Disney canon. His supervising animator, Glen Keane, admitted as much, declaring afterwards that Sykes needed to be powerful and mysterious, a dark shape in the shadows, but too much of his movement and design just makes him seem like a big lumbering guy. He is never threatening, though his dobermans kind of are, I suppose; he also gets an excessively gruesome (though G-rated!) death.

The animals are pretty much just animals: Lady and the Tramp this is not, where the animal animation is so well-observed, fluid, and physical that it counts as an art form all to itself. These animals aren't as blandly cartoony as Tod and Copper in The Fox and the Hound, perhaps, but they have no depth to their design or style, no heft, and no personality that comes out of their facial expressions. All they are good for is the presentation of slapstick gags that were old years before the movie was ever released.

If the animation ever has much of a point, it's this: the film provided a good test for computer generated objects, for nearly every inanimate object we see: cars and trains and construction sites and buildings and a piano. These objects accordingly have a sleekness to their straight lines that doesn't gel all that well with the characters, but the technology does permit the use of some extremely ambitious "camera moves" like nothing else we've seen in Disney - and this is a truly important turning point, not worth dismissing. Still, if the best you can say about a film's animation is, "the point when the camera pans around a piano and out the window is exquisitely done", you have found yourself a movie with shoddy animation.

The one thing that I find truly bizarre about Oliver & Company is that by any sensible ordering of things, it's not really part of the stretch of misery that began in 1966. It is in so many important ways other than the most important - it's not very good - much more closely aligned to the subsequent films of the Disney Renaissance in the 1990s. I've been trying throughout this Disney retrospective to avoid looking forward, but I think I need to, in order to properly contextualise the many things that Oliver & Company kicked off, and if I might, I'd like to restate them all in one place: the first film with a screenplay, the first film to use CGI in a manner that allows for more ambitious shots, the first film of the one-per-year plan, the first film with McDonald's tie-in marketing, the first film since The Jungle Book to extensively use celebrity casting as a short-cut to creating character personality (though Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective counts, I hardly think Vincent Price was cast from a marketing standpoint, as was often the the case going forward), and most importantly, the first Broadway-style musical in a long while. Not that the music is Broadway-style at all; but the way that the music is utilised is; and this would be arguably the chief difference between the '90s films and the decades on either side.

It's a pity, then, that Oliver & Company sucks, because it does rather deserve some place in history, and it's nicest to reserve those places for good films. But still, we can't quite say that the Renaissance really "ought" to have started here, because the most important piece was still missing: compelling characters in an interesting, entertaining story. Ah, but they were close, were the Disney people. It was just one short year until their tradition of excellence came roaring back in a way that hadn't been seen since World War II.

7 comments:

Marc said...

For what it's worth, I have only seen this movie once and have never forgotten "Perfect Isn't Easy."

Did I mention I kinda hate Bette Midler?

javi75 said...

I agree with everything you say about his one, as I remember it.
I seem to recall one of the most exciting moments of CGI was the climax, where the whole railway and iron structure around it makes for a very 3D roller-coaster kind or ride. Shades of Temple of doom?

Broklynite said...

I actually think that the shoddy animation works for this movie. It's hard to imagine these days after the clean-up of New York by Gulianni, but the city was a dirty, filthy place in every sense of the word. The sketchy characters, the pencilling left all over the place- it makes everything look dirty to me, and that's pretty much exactly how I remember New York in the 80's looking. I suppose that I should mention that I'm particularly thinking of the opening sequence with the zooming in to the streets and such.

Briguy128 said...

I watched this film the other day with my son and boy, I couldn't agree more. The animation and backgrounds in this film are hideous from start to finish with bland, muted colors and just plain ugly characters (look no further than Louie the hotdog vendor). This movie seems more like a special made for the Disney Afternoon programming block than a theatrical release. And yes, for a musical loaded with stars that were considered contemporary for its time, the soundtrack sucks. There's a reason this movie didn't really stick with me from my childhood.

Brian said...

On one hand, I'm fairly certain this was the first Disney movie I saw in a theater. I am quite certain it's the first one I remember when it was coming out, having turned 7 just about two months before it's release, and thus having gotten the McDonald's toys and such.

On the other hand, I remember the toys and the marketing significantly more than I do the, you know, movie. I don't think I have ever re-visited it in the nearly quarter century since. This review leaves me with little reason to.

Tim said...

Was this the one with those horribly uncomfortable little plastic finger puppets? Where you put your finger in the back of your head, and it didn't even make sense how you were meant to play with them? Becauase I remember those being the McDonald's toys for one of them.

Brian said...

Yes, yes they were. I guess they were supposed to be finger puppets, maybe? Something, they were weird and bad and I needed them all as a 7 year old.