09 November 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: IT'LL DO MAGIC, BELIEVE IT OR NOT

In the first couple of years following World War II, as I have suggested, the Disney Animation Studios had begun to lose its way: too many cheap make-work projects that didn't challenge the animators enough and only barely broke even had inevitably led to a slipping of quality, and by 1947 or so, it was becoming more and more doubtful that the studio would be around for very much longer if something didn't happen to raise the quality - and profitability - of its output. Here I can do no more than speculate, for I have been maddeningly unable to find a solid date as to when Disney first began actively developing the story of Cinderella into a feature. But to judge from the film's early 1950 release date, I imagine it must have been in late 1946 or early 1947, though as fast as the animators managed to crank out masterpieces like Dumbo and Fantasia, it's certainly plausible that Cinderella didn't enter animation proper until sometime in the first half of 1948 - all of which would mean that it was certainly either in production or development alongside Melody Time and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, leading to my suggestion in regard to those two films that Cinderella had a certain morale-building effect on the whole studio.

For it was with Cinderella that Walt Disney announced, to them what heard the cry, that enough was enough. No more of this nickel and dime business, cranking out glorified short films; if the Disney brand name was to have any value, it needed to be applied to a genuinely ambitious project that actually had some money going behind it. The time had come for a movie that wasn't just something people were willing to see; now the goal was to make a movie people desperately wanted to see, an instant classic on the order of a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And, just as happened with that film, and Dumbo after it, Cinderella wasn't just a film to profit or die on its own: it carried with it the success of the whole Disney Studios. Walt decreed, ever the abysmal business manager, that it would be better to flame out making something he could be truly proud of, than crank out one more stop-gap mediocrity. And so he put his name and company on the line, hoping that audiences would once again flock to animation like they hadn't in some ten years; and he bet the future that he could roll the hard eight.

The hard eight came up.

Cinderella was by far the most successful animated feature in 13 years, pouring money by the bushel into the studio's vaults like nothing since Snow White. It inaugurated the Silver Age of Disney Animation, a period that only ended with Walt's premature death and the hesitation and confusion that followed hard upon it, and it is perhaps the quintessential work of that whole period. The money produced by Cinderella didn't just enable the studio to continue living, but permitted Walt to found his own distribution company (which bowed in 1953, ending the long tie between Disney and RKO), and to begin plans for an excessively ambitious theme park (which opened its doors in 1955). It is arguably one of the most important films in the Walt Disney Company's decades-long history; there was not before or since a single year that changed so much of the company's fortunes as 1950, and all of it because of this one timeless classic. And I, for one, don't particularly like it all that much.

Before an army of six-year-old girls who have been well and thoroughly indoctrinated by the stunningly effective Disney Princesses advertising crusade storms my home, ripping me apart like a wave of four-foot Bacchae, let me make it clear that I don't specifically dislike Cinderella. I just happen to think that it enjoys a prominence and classic status that it entirely fails to earn. In what I assume must be heresy, I don't think it's at all as good as its immediate "cheap" predecessor, Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Love Disney as much as I do, I cannot pretend that the studio doesn't have a whole lot of bad habits: some of them are specific to a particular epoch in its history, while others are more generally found through the 72 years of Disney feature films, and Cinderella exhibits much more than its fair share of those bad habits. It is practically a field guide to the most problematic issues in Disney, although in fairness, there's nothing about it that's actively racist, unless you count "an all-white cast", and that's much further than I'm remotely willing to go.

That Cinderella is consciously modeled on Snow White is obvious from the very beginning, or indeed, from the very concept. It is often claimed that Disney films are usually based on fairy tales, and this is a profound misconception. Of the 49 features that make up the Disney Animated Canon (including The Princess and the Frog), only five and a half are based upon classic Western folk tales (the half is "Mickey and the Beanstalk" from Fun and Fancy Free), one is based on a false fairy tale written by a Dane in 1837, one upon an Arabian story that was very possibly invented by a 18th Century French translator, one upon a Chinese legend, and one upon a Greek myth. Less than one-fifth of the total, and that's if we allow ourselves to be generous. And when Cinderella, the twelfth Disney animated feature, was released, it followed only "Mickey and the Beanstalk" and Snow White. The notion that animation = folklore was not at all the received wisdom of 1950, and for Walt Disney to make his company's grand return to prestige filmmaking a fairy story must be seen as a willful desire that audiences should recall that it was in this genre that he'd had his greatest commercial success.

To that end, the 1950 film opens in virtually the same strokes as its 1937 ancestor. The first thing we see is an elaborate, gilded storybook, that opens to a lovely series of illuminated drawings explaining the plot, with the aid of a helpful narrator: there was a girl with a loving father who died, leaving her at the mercy of a wicked stepmother. The first we see of our heroine is as she sings her animal friends a song about the power of wishing, and we'll later discover that her wish is to be taken away to a beautiful castle by a handsome prince. As far as the exactly specific details go, this is as far as I can take the comparison between the two; but in a 75-minute film, five effectively identical opening minutes counts for a decent amount.

Now, about those animal friends. The opening sequence of Cinderella, in which she sings "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes", and greets her little companions, birds and mice, who then prepare her morning bath and lay out her clothes, is one of the most saccharine sweet things in all of Disney. Snow White had a tremendous rapport with animals, and she certainly did talk and sing to them, and they responded; but they didn't talk back. And they damn well didn't wear little clothes. Oh, and when they didn't talk back, it wasn't in a hideously annoying argot that sounds half-way between Scooby-Doo and Alvin the chipmunk, a comparison that would have been utterly meaningless in 1950. The mice are to me this film's Ewoks - an even worse comparison - the inanely cutesy element aimed securely at children, who nearly manage to make the whole thing useless for the grown-ups in the audience. I hate them so much, and I hate them most of all in this twee little "morning toilette" sequence. Oh, that's not at all true, I have forgotten the "making a dress sequence", where in addition to squeaking in their awful little lisps, they forcefully commit themselves to sexist frames. When reviewing Bambi, I suggested that Thumper, a master creation, would ultimately lead to the creation of a "line of insipid Disney comic figures", and I had two films in mind when I said that (it will be almost fifty years until we hit the other one, but there will be insipidity to spare before that point).

Before I leave behind this sequence, permit me a word about cartoon nudity. This is the second time in a Disney feature that a female was naked and bathing. The first happens in "All the Cats Join In", a segment from Make Mine Music, and of course it's not any kind of pornographic bit, but it has an amount of naked flesh that I think would never have gotten by in a live-action film, and combined with the general audience sexiness of the number, it's not hard to suppose that the girl is, well, a girl - that behind her towel and dressing screen, she has naughty bits that we just barely don't see. There is not a trace of that in Cinderella: though we can certainly conceive of Cinderella naked as she is splashed with water, she is utterly sexless, and featureless altogether: mere seconds later, we see a close-up of her foot slipping into a shoe, and it is hideously and grotesquely absent anything remotely like toes. If a woman lacks even the slightest indication of toes, it hardly needs mentioning that she cannot have a vagina, but that's just fine given the pronounced tone of rigorous asexuality that defines Cinderella, and would come to be one of the most readily identifiable characteristics of Disney animation.

Might as well have the conversation now. The sexual politics of the Disney canon has been one of the most celebrated ground for any number of feminist media critics to make a stand, and while these criticisms have their merits, I honestly don't usually care about them - they simply aren't part of what I think about when I watch these films. But for Cinderella, I make my one exception. Of all the Disney princesses, she's the one who seems to well and truly lack any other element to her personality besides "wants to be in love with the prince" (as for the poor damn prince himself, the biggest cipher of all the male romantic leads in Disney: at least he has no dignity to be insulted). That, and she wants to wear a pretty dress. I am, to a degree, impressed by how forthright the film is about its character motivations: the King, the prime mover who is petrified about his son's lack of wife, does not even attempt to disguise the fact that he views any future princess as nothing but breeding stock; Lady Tremaine, the wicked stepmother, views her own daughters primarily as a device by which to increase her own stock in high society. I know, it's a fairy tale; all simple motivations and elemental situations. That works in Snow White, which exists in a timeless Germanic dreamscape, but there is a very concrete Frenchiness to Cinderella, which feels to me like it should be peopled by, I don't know, people - characters with full sets of motivations and personality traits. But everyone is reduced to a single motivation, and the message is quite certain: "Girls, dress pretty and impress the prettiest boy! And boys - fuck you, nobody gives a shit about boys."

At any rate, the fact of Disney's pervasive chauvinism is quite undeniable; the only real discussion to have is whether or not it is worth getting bothered about. Here, it bothers me. Ordinarily, it does not. Your mileage may vary.

As long as I've accidentally top-loaded this review with all the things that I don't like about the film, let me just push on the rest of the way: only one of the songs works, and that one, "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" is one of the gems of Disney music. But the others - particularly the soporific love ballad "So This Is Love", have gotten me itchy to hit the fast-forward button since I was but a wee animation buff, my age still in the single digits. I also find the film's narrative structure unforgivably flimsy: after 45 minutes of Ruritanian domestic drama, there's ALL OF A SUDDEN a magic lady in a blue robe who fixes everything and vanishes. This never occurred to me before I watched the film for this review, but my God, have you ever really thought about it? There is not a hint of magic anywhere in the movie except for literally that one scene. And the "stroke of midnight" scene that follows. None of the studio's other fairy tale movies have this particular flaw.

Still, I don't specifically dislike Cinderella. It is, without question, a delight to see a Disney film that had some money spent on it for the first time in eight years, and one must wonder: if World War II hadn't happened, would this have been the state of Disney animation in 1944? '43? Inarguably, the package film interregnum had a crippling effect on the evolution of the studio's art, perhaps decisively so; for if we compare this film to Bambi, it lacks the same wild, unsupportable ambition that drove that film's aesthetic, and that ambition was only erratically present ever after. But even as I concede that fact, I will not claim that Cinderella is anything but a smashing success of animation and design. First and above all, let us sing praises to Mary Blair, a name that has cropped up before and will again, although she has never had much fame outside of animation buff circles. I think that a strong argument could be made that this film is her masterpiece: she is responsible above all for the gorgeous storybook look of the royal castle, with its graceful spires and strong vertical lines that have since come to stand in as a shorthand for All Things Disney, having been given physical form many years later in the midst of a Florida swamp.

But why single out one individual element in a film as rich in setting as this? No Golden Age film is this, but it still boasts an endless array of marvelous backgrounds, mostly involving the Tremaine chateau, which is at once both touchably real and whimsically heightened: full of old-money opulence and a labyrinth of rooms that have more to do with what a wealthy landowner's home ought to look like than what it probably did - for example, the dramatic, shadowy tower where Cinderella lives, with its nest of step, rickety stairs (to those who read the tower as a phallic object: if you really want to force sex into this most neutered of films, please have fun).

To accompany this wonderful background design, the film lays claim to the richest character design and animation since - once again - Bambi. Cinderella herself marks an important moment in Disney history: she was the first woman to be primarily animated by Marc Davis, who became something of a specialist in female characters during the 1950s. She is also generally conceded to be the most wholly-rotoscoped character in the studio's history; rotoscoping here not consisting of animating directly over live-action footage, as is often held to be the cast (and as often happens, in cheaper films than this); rather the animator traces over live-action footage, closely studying the movements involved, and then, for final animation, exaggerating those movements a bit - for as Davis himself observed, animation that precisely mimics human action looks stiff and small. It has to be broader than real, in order to look real; and so does his Cinderella move with real-seeming fluidity that rivals any other human character in all of animation. I am not wholly taken with her design; much as Snow White looked of her time, so does Cinderella look like an actress of the late '40s - but on the fussy, conservative, prim, white side of that spectrum.

Milt Kahl was responsible for the film's trio of straightforward comic figures, the King, the Grand Duke, and the Fairy Godmother, and while I cannot begin to accuse any of those characters of approaching his characteristic work, he admirably demonstrated a command of round, cartoon caricatures in these figures that serves the film well: if we concede that the mice are a trainwreck of comic relief, then it's only this trinity that provides humor to the simple, serious romantic drama, and they do so well: the King in particular sets a precedent for physical comedy that would be repeated throughout the decade.

But the two greatest characters are the villains, setting another precedent that would sometimes have deeply unfortunate implications: Disney villains are infinitely more interesting than Disney heroes. The first of these two figures is Lucifer the cat, directed by Ward Kimball (who was also responsible for Jacques and Gus, the two main mice; but I do not hold that against him), and based upon Kimball's own very fat, very content, very spiteful cat - according to legend, at Walt Disney's personal suggestion. Lucifer is a truly outstanding comic villain, and an even better animated feline, the dark twin to Pinocchio's Figaro. His every move, even the most anthropomorphic and self-aware, is absolutely recognisable as the movement of a cat, smugly pleased with itself and aware that no matter what anybody things, it is the undisputed master of its domain. There is a little Lucifer in every cat I've ever met, which isn't a slight on any of them; that's just the nature of catdom. The cat deserves what the cat wants, and if you can't appreciate that, why by God that is your problem. Lucifer's cruelty and calculation are the stuff of being a feline, and I continue to be in some kind of awe at Kimball's perfect capturing of that spirit in what is still, unabashedly, a cartoon - the scene in which he slinks up the stairs is one of the great moments in Kimball's career.

In stark contrast, the stepmother is as wholly real-looking as any figure in any Disney movie. A rare villain for animator Frank Thomas, whose best-known work tends towards the inordinately charming (Pinocchio's song "I've Got No Strings", Bambi and Thumper on the ice, Lady and the Tramp's spaghetti dinner), he was given the challenge his career in bringing Eleanor Audley's outstandingly wicked voice performance as, arguably, the most flat-out mean-spirited villain in Disney's canon, cruel just for the sheer pleasure of watching Cinderella in her unhappiness. She moves but little, expressing herself almost exclusively through tiny gestures of her thin lips and angular face; all of this done with a precision that can make you shudder involuntarily at the sheer malice that can be dragged out of the simple act of narrowing one's eyes, when the animation is strong enough to support it. I once had an opportunity to see twelve original animation drawings (the pencil-on-paper form that precedes the celluloid copy) by Thomas, of the brief scene of Lady Tremaine understanding the import of Cinderella's joyful humming upon learning of the mystery of the glass slipper; it was a particularly glorious moment, and I have a very special story about those drawings that I'm not going to tell you just right now.

You know, I swear that I don't intend for these Disney essays to get so freaking long, and if you made it this far, I thank you for your patience. Let me just go ahead and sum things up, and we can all go home: Cinderella: great animation, but not quite as great as the pre-war standard; deeply problematic gender issues in a reed-thin story; some brilliant characters, a lot of fairly dull ones, and a few excruciating anthropomorphic animal friends that mire the film in the children's animation ghetto. And this last point might be the most important of all the things true of Cinderella: it marked the third phase of Disney animation, and those which followed, as kid's stuff. Sometimes truly exquisite kid's stuff, mind you; but, following hard upon Dumbo's example, this proved that a surfeit of ambition wasn't important if you could make something fairly entertaining and quite glossy. I actively enjoy the great majority of the Disney films made according to that principal, but it can hardly be an accident that the greatest artistic triumphs in the studio's history all came from the early period when ambition was the watchword; nor that the only film in the forty years following Cinderella that, to my eyes, meets those first five movies' achievement is the only one that had a truly idiotic degree of over-production, and little of the playful, childish easiness that made Cinderella a smash hit.

6 comments:

Cameron said...

what, animation/opera geek, do you make of the potentially Disney-animated Aida? i have heard that it may come in 2010.

javi75 said...

That Cinderella is consciously modeled on Snow White is obvious from the very beginning, or indeed, from the very concept.

That's so painfully obvious, it's my main problem with the movie. And "Sleeping beauty" too.

Snow White had a tremendous rapport with animals, and she certainly did talk and sing to them, and they responded; but they didn't talk back. And they damn well didn't wear little clothes.

And why exactly doesn't this bother you in "Pinocchio"? There you have a world apparently populated by humans, and dressed crickets than can talk, although there are a cat and a fish that don't do either, and later suddenly an extra-sized fox and a cat (I'm guessing that one) appear who can also talk and are dressed and interact with humans as if it was the most normal thing.
Oh, I get it, it's just their annoyingly cutesy children-bait nature that irks you?

we see a close-up of her foot slipping into a shoe, and it is hideously and grotesquely absent anything remotely like toes.

How weird is that, and I didn't remember it at all.

nor that the only film in the forty years following Cinderella that, to my eyes, meets those first five movies' achievement is the only one that had a truly idiotic degree of over-production, and little of the playful, childish easiness that made Cinderella a smash hit.

You love to tease.

GeoX said...

I do sort of wonder what would have happened has this movie failed. The animation studio may have been struggling, but as early as 1942, Walt Disney's Comic and Stories was a big seller, and by 1946 it was the best-selling comic book in the country. The relationships between the different branches of the company are somewhat confusing to me, but it seems as though it would have continued in some form, even if the animation side continued to lag. I could be wrong.

Tim said...

Re: animals in Cinderella vs. animals in Pinocchio.

There's a baseline realism in Cinderella that is totally absent from Pinocchio - Cinderella is I'd say one of the most grounded of all Disney films (it's why the fairy godmother scene is such an abberation). The mice violate that realism.

Re: teasing. I'm afraid that the film I had in mind happens to be a film you slight in the very same comment.

Re: the future of Disney as a corporation. I am certain they would not have flat-out closed up shop, but I think the animation studio would have been reduced to making cheap Goofy shorts for the rest of time, until like Warner Bros. they just gave up.

Re: Aida. I desperately hope you're not talking about that dreadful Tim Rice/Elton John thing from the 1990s

javi75 said...

Oh, I like both movies I slighted, make no mistake. But in concept and purpose, they do seem like covert remakes of Snow White, designed to cash-in on it, especially Cinderella. And it makes sense, considering the studio's financial situation at the time. So maybe they're a little pointless. But I do enjoy them. At least Sleeping beauty did try to do something new visually.

Trish said...

"When reviewing Bambi, I suggested that Thumper, a master creation, would ultimately lead to the creation of a "line of insipid Disney comic figures", and I had two films in mind when I said that (it will be almost fifty years until we hit the other one, but there will be insipidity to spare before that point)."

Let me guess: either the "Hunchback" Gargoyles or the "Dinosaur" Lemurs.