13 November 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: ONCE UPON A DREAM

Other Disney films may have had more tortured productions (Alice in Wonderland), had a more dangerously inflated budget (Fantasia), or seen the animators angrier at their lot (Dumbo and Bambi, the two films made during the morale-devouring strike of 1941), but not a single one of them took longer to make than Sleeping Beauty, which hit theaters in the early months of 1959, following almost eight years of storyboarding, voice recording, animating, and scoring (it's record would be very nearly tied by The Black Cauldron, released in 1985). The four-year gap since the last feature was the longest break in Disney's feature animation history; it would shortly become routine.

Conceived as the third in the studio's highly profitable run of fairy tale princess movies, after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella, Walt Disney grew concerned that it would prove to be just more of the same if they didn't do something different. So that was his command to the story men and the animators: "Make it different!" - and then he skipped off to keep playing with Disneyland, leaving behind a project that many of the veteran animators who worked on it recalled in later years as a wandering, directionless project that suffered for having less of Walt's personal attention than any other animated feature created during his lifetime - though he still demanded final approval over everything, a process made positively agonising for the artists due to his perpetual absence from the studio. (It must be noted, though, that Walt was interested enough in this film that he gave it the best possible advertisement in his new sandbox, naming the iconic structure at the center of his theme park Sleeping Beauty Castle).

Chief among the decisions the boss man made as to how, precisely, Sleeping Beauty would be different was when he concluded after Lady and the Tramp that boring old CinemaScope just wasn't going to cut it, this time. Instead, Sleeping Beauty was to be shot in Technirama - Super Technirama 70, to be precise - a technology which used 35mm film running horizontally through the camera. This gave it a functional frame size approximately twice as large as normal widescreen processes, meaning that Sleeping Beauty would enjoy a virtually grain-free level of detail like no other animated film before it. And that meant that the animation and backgrounds had to be more detailed than ever before. Now enter Eyvind Earle.

Earle was a modestly significant artist and illustrator when he joined Disney in the early '50s, lending his distinctive style to the backgrounds in Peter Pan, "Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom", and Lady and the Tramp. It was after this last project that Walt gave him Sleeping Beauty, and when I say "gave him", I do truly mean it. For the first time in the studio's history, one man was given virtually autocratic control over every element of the backgrounds in a feature, not only as a designer but as practically the only individual to even paint them. It took days to perfect each one (typically, a background artist could complete about one per day), and it's not hard to assume that this had much to do with the film's lengthy production time. But Earle didn't just get to lord over the backgrounds: he was responsible in large part for every other element of the film's style, particularly the use of color throughout. At the time, this must have seemed the stupidest choice Walt could have made: besides the degree to which it marginalized the film's credited production designers, Ken Anderson and Don DaGradi (both of whom, it should be noted, had longer histories with the company), it took away no small amount of freedom from the animators, who were not at all used to taking orders from anyone besides Walt himself.

Another point should be mentioned, and this will require some quick background information. Into the 1950s, the way that most Disney features were produced was that several directing animators would lead on a particular sequence, and the whole thing would be monitored by a production supervisor: this role was typically filled by Ben Sharpsteen. Starting more or less with The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, the emphasis shifted from sequences to characters, so that each lead animator was responsible for one figure, in all their actions (though this was not a hard-and-fast rule). The character animation, effects animation, and backgrounds were all cumulatively guided either by a single director (in the package films), or by a team of three men (everything from Ichabod and Mr. Toad to Lady and the Tramp). Sleeping Beauty introduced a peculiar hybrid: in addition to the directing animators for each character, there were three sequence directors, taken from the ranks of the nine old men: Wolfgang Reitherman, Les Clark, and Eric Larson. Above these men, there was for the first time since Bambi a lone director in charge of all of it, in addition to a production supervisor. This privileged individual was Clyde Geronimi, as likely a choice as could have been picked: he was one of the short film directors from way back, and had co-directed each of the five features preceding Sleeping Beauty.

What follows is raw speculation, but I would guess that what was happening is that, with Walt himself being unable to devote more than cursory attention to the project, he wanted to have a single mind in control of what was already sure to be the most technically challenging project the studio had ever worked on. Besides, the Earle situation had created tension among the animators, and to give clear, undeniably authority over Sleeping Beauty to a man who'd been part of the Disney family since the mid-'30s was as much to say: "Don't worry, boys, I may be gone but this is still a Disney Studios project".

And what a Disney Studios project it was. Despite all that bureaucratic wrangling behind the scenes, Sleeping Beauty emerged as, by my reckoning, the uncontested masterpiece of the Silver Age, and one of the handful of Disney features that can be rightfully called perfect, or close to it. Walt wanted it to be different, and that it surely was: despite some feints towards the Snow White narrative model, the storytelling in this film is like nothing else in the canon, while the animation... dear God, the animation in this film is exquisite. Nothing will ever to me top the "moving painting" quality of Pinocchio, or the sheer ambition of Fantasia, but Sleeping Beauty fits in securely to my eyes as the third-best work in the history of Disney animation, which is as much to say in the history of animation generally.

But I was going to talk about the story. Like the two princess films before it, Sleeping Beauty opens with a beautiful gilded storybook sitting on a podium. It opens before our eyes, to reveal rich Technicolor illuminations and gold lettering, as a pleasant, unmistakably '50s white male voice (owned by Marvin Miller) narrates for us the story of how King Stefan and his unnamed queen finally were graced with a daughter, whom the named Aurora; and how the celebration of Aurora's birth was the most joyous event in the kingdom's history. And then, naturally enough, we cut to the reported joyfulness, and cue the movie.

Now, in the other movies, once the opening exposition is taken care of, the storybook framework falls away until the very end. Not so in Sleeping Beauty, for our narrator continues dropping for the first 20 minutes or thereabouts, and at one point the action even retreats from the "interior" of the book, showing us a few more illuminations, and then re-entering the action of the film. Coupled with the heavy stylisation of the visuals, especially in the first quarter-hour of the 75-minute film (about which I shall say more later), Sleeping Beauty never quite achieves the "activeness" of the other princess films - it is almost as though we do not see the characters directly, if you will, but always watch them through a framework by which they remain narrative objects. We're even confronted with this directly in a strange moment of meta-narrative funkiness late in the movie, when the villain taunts the prince by describing her plans for him explicitly using the language of a traditional European fairy tale.

Indeed, the more one reflects on this matter, the more it becomes clear how much of the film is structured to emphasise the film's "storybook" mode over a more conventional "dramatic" mode. There is, for one, the confused matter of the film's geography: it seems at first that the woodcutter's cottage where much of the film's middle takes place must be several days into the forest, but later we find that it's only about a thirty-minute horse ride. The distance from the villain's fortress to the good king's castle sounds like it ought to be an arduous journey across a valley floor, until the prince covers it in all of three minutes. Nothing "fits" geographically, unless we consider it according the logic of a folktale, where all journeys take place in the span of a sentence, or at most the turn of a page.

Or, the use of music; a certain type of music, I should say. From the very start, Disney films all boasted a heavenly chorus of singers, and if I am not quite mistaken, that trope ended here. But if so, it ended with its most rigorous workout ever: it seems like every five minute, that disembodied choir is piping up some brief patch of singing or another. Usually, this trick is reserved for the beginning or end of a film - sometimes just the opening credits - and peppering it throughout the narrative of Sleeping Beauty has the effect of setting up another wall between the viewer and the action. The singers are outside of the film, and if we hear them, it stands to reason that we must be outside the film, too.

By far the most effective means by which Sleeping Beauty is kept at a remove from us, though, is the design, particularly given the truly rigorous workout that the filmmakers, by which I almost certainly mean Eyvind Earle, gave the Technirama frame (incidentally, the film was animated at 2.55:1 but only distributed at 2.35:1; the first time the full animation frame was seen by the public was in the 2008 DVD and Blu-Ray. That Blu-Ray, by the way, is one of the most staggeringly lovely things currently available in high definition, although there are certain questions about its color timing). This is a ruthlessly formal film, with a strict adherence to axes of composition and geometric space that can be found nowhere else in Disney - everything about Sleeping Beauty lies in contrast to the round looseness usually practiced by the studio. It's also very flat: action almost always takes place along the plane of the frame, not back "into" the film, and the backgrounds share this flatness, exhibiting none of the graphic depth found in most of the Disney features. It seems clear enough to me what the filmmakers were trying to achieve by all this: the film itself is like a medieval illuminated scroll, a series of actions left-to-right or right-to-left along a single plane (and thus, in one of those comparisons that I never expected to find myself making, it can be rightly said that the use of camera movement against the background in this film is both visually and functionally similar to the lateral tracking shots for which Japanese filmmaker Mizoguchi Kenji is so famous; I am quite unprepared to believe that the Disney animators would have seen any Mizoguchi films by the time this film was completed, however). The use of bold colors and a reasonably limited palette only serves to underline this notion.

I might well go ahead and say that this film has the most compelling use of color in Disney history - my apologies to the animators of 50 years ago who felt that Earle was stepping on their toes, but he was perfectly right. The color-coded fairies are an obvious example; the way that the soothing teal used to represent the fairies' magic sleep is contrasted with the nauseous green of the evil Maleficent's spells is perhaps less obvious, but no less effective. Even the most significant dramatic shift in the film, by which the heroes' plot is discovered, hinges on a duel perpetrated over the use of color! And of course, nobody who has seen the film can rightfully denying having a particular stake in the pink dress vs. blue dress battle. Me, I absolutely side with blue, it sets off Aurora's golden hair much better, and the pink is just a bit too shockingly hot for my tastes, anyway. Besides, the blue fairy Merryweather is my favorite of the three.

The character design in the film is quite different from anything that had preceded it at the studio, although some of its innovations were taken up in various later projects. The first thing you notice is how angular the people are, especially Princess Aurora herself. She's quite fluid, and the use of a reference model paid off here like never before: look at how her dress swirls around! But there is a sharpness to her lines which is distinctly non-human, and it's striking and lovely, and a rather good blend with the impressionist-realistic backgrounds. This is going to sound like a psychotic thing to say, given that she has the smallest on-screen performance of any title character in Disney, but Aurora honestly has some of my favorite animation of any princess character in the company's body of work. She is a real triumph for Marc Davis, who picked up right where he left off with Cinderella as Disney's female movement expert par excellence.

In fact, Davis's work on this film was such that he'd been obliged to sit out Lady and the Tramp; but not because of Aurora. It was rather because of his work creating the film's villain, one of the top characters in American animation: Maleficent the dark fairy, voiced by the irreplaceable Eleanor Audley. It has become almost trite to call her the best villain in Disney, although I don't know for certain if I subscribe to that belief - I don't even know if she's Marc Davis's best villain, as we'll see when I get to the next film. But if she's not their best, she's unquestionably a finalist.

Maleficent combines the three things that go into making all of the best Disney villains:
-She is a woman
-She uses magic
-She is defined by the color black.
Black as the pitch of night, that's what she is: sleek, flowing black lines, edged with royal purple, against a sickly green background, with cadaver-pale skin and yellow eyes, Maleficent is pretty much the least-subtle evil being possible, but she is also the most commanding visual element in every frame that she occupies because of it. Black is the most profound statement to make in a visual language based on the projection of light, and to have seen that great, sleek black shape projected in Technirama must have quite a privilege indeed. Even on television, whether a high-def disc or 25-year-old VHS, that much black, leeching the light out of everything surrounding it, is something dramatic on a much more primal level than simple formal analysis can account for.

Oh, and she turns into a dragon, animated by Wolfgang Reitherman, and become even more black.

So, um, my point being, Maleficent is a well-drawn villain.

It would take one hell of a protagonist to balance her ought, and contrary to the fairy tale basis of the story, that hero is actually trio of fairies: Flora, the red one who is bossy (voiced by one of Dinsey's great talents, Verna Felton), Merryweather, the blue one who is the most sensible and pragmatic (voiced by Barbara Luddy, also behind Lady the dog), and Fauna, the green one, who is, the, third... one? (accordingly, she is voiced by '30s radio star Barbara Jo Allen, who had no otherwise interesting history with Disney). It was Frank Thomas's innovation to give the three different appearances and personalities, though if I don't miss my guess, it was Thomas's regular collaborator Ollie Johnston who provided the details of their design: they are nearly the only rounded characters in this very stylised, somewhat un-Disney film, in a manner that recalls Johnston's particular gift for appealing, soft human shapes. As such, they provide a sometimes-necessary counterpoint to the formal iciness of the studied backgrounds, and the graphic lines of the princess, pricne, and villain, as well as most of the supporting characters (only the pudgy little King Hubert , animated like the angular King Stefan by John Lounsbery, has a similar lack of sharp lines).

Now, all this visual excellence and stylisation came at a certain cost: Sleeping Beauty is one of the most emotionally chilly Disney features, with only some comic bits involving the three fairies fitting into the more common sort of Disney entertainment. I well remember in my youngest youth finding it almost impossible to sit through it before the third act begins in Maleficent's castle - the appeal of the film is almost exclusively aesthetic, and I think this is by intent. Considering how child-oriented Walt Disney Productions had become in the 1950s, Sleeping Beauty is shockingly grown-up: the excellence of its visuals is a nicety not apt to be noticed by a younger audience, and the music, all derived with I think great success from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's excellent Sleeping Beauty ballet, is thus all classical music: beautiful and used as well as the music in any Disney film since the end of World War II, but fussier than most children's musicals by far.

There's no way around it: this is a pretentious, artsy movie, more than any other Disney feature since Fantasia, and telling an emotionally rich story in a way that would be instantly appealing to families just isn't part of that program. Somehow, the film still managed to make an healthy sum of money: around $21 million in 1959 dollars, the second-highest grossing film of the year after Ben-Hur. Clearly, somebody must have liked it - maybe absurdly beautiful formal exercises used to be a bigger draw than they are these days.

4 comments:

javi75 said...

appeal of the film is almost exclusively aesthetic

I think that's a good summary. I also had trouble not getting bored by the movie until I watched it recently in high-def, and the visuals enthralled me.

and I think this is by intent

I don't know. I still think the story-line doesn't add much new over Snow White. You mention all the devices that make a "story-book mode".
The movie is definitely artsy but maybe it just stemmed from the effort of trying to do something different. And I think they probably believed the story would still work the same way as before.

wynnyelle said...

"maybe absurdly beautiful formal exercises used to be a bigger draw than they are these days. "

...Not sure about that one--'Avatar', anybody? XD

{{By the way, I have this blog bookmarked--it's one of my all time favourites. Keep up these excellent articles, this sort of thing is a rarity anywhere.}}

bobdylanfan said...

{{By the way, I have this blog bookmarked--it's one of my all time favourites. Keep up these excellent articles, this sort of thing is a rarity anywhere.}}

rkwittem said...

I gotta give it up for the 2nd-to-last paragraph. Your claims about the movie being difficult for younger viewers and its emphasis on the aesthetics much more than the emotive elements of the film struck a chord with me. I remember being a youngster watching this film with my sister and parents, completely uninspired by the film (until the final scenes). However, now that I'm older and have seen my tastes in the realms of art and music mature, I much more fully appreciate and enjoy the art of Sleeping Beauty, as well as its fantastic use of Tchaikovsky.

For my money, this is the preeminent Disney film. I love its art, music, and the villainess.