23 November 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: TRICKY AND WICKED OF COURSE

When Jeffrery Katzenberg was plopped in charge of the Disney Animation Studios in 1984, he didn't only inherit the massively blighted production that was The Black Cauldron - there was another story that had been pushed reasonably far into pre-production before its sister project's cost had forced a temporary shutdown.

In the impersonal warehouse where the new executives had relocated the animators immediately after the takeover, Ron Clements (a character animator on The Rescuers and supervisor for The Fox and the Hound) and John Musker (a character animator on the latter) had a bit of a surprise set up: a wall full of storyboards for an adaptation of the Basil of Baker Street children's mystery novels by Eve Titus. Neither Katzenberg nor Michael Eisner really knew how to read a storyboarded movie - they'd been trained in an aesthetic that favored screenplays - but they happened to have a certain Roy E. Disney, who had been surrounded by storyboards his whole life. And he thought that the project showed a great deal of promise. So it was that, after a fair amount of executive meddling, from removing some of the incidental gags that did nothing for the plot, to changing the title to the more dynamic if also more generic The Great Mouse Detective, the project was approved, with Clements and Musker making their directorial debuts, aided by storyman and animator Dave Michener (who, having worked on "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day", was the most senior member of the directorial team) and storyman Burny Mattinson, the only one of the four who'd ever directed anything, the 1983 short "Mickey's Christmas Carol".

I rather doubt that expectations for The Great Mouse Detective were terribly high; but "nobody expected much from any movie to follow the enormous failure of The Black Cauldron" isn't the precise kind of sentiment that appears in the Disney histories, so I'll have to stick with this as just a hunch. But I think it's a good one: the animators had just proven that if they did their very best work, the result could be a confusingly artsy movie that alienated viewers and befuddled critics - so what was to be hoped for from another damn cartoon about anthropomorphic animals? But expectations or not, The Great Mouse Detective also had a lot riding on it: after the huge bath the company took on the last film, it seems quite likely that no matter what Katzenberg, Eisner, and Roy E. Disney wanted, they wouldn't have been able to justify keeping the animation studio open if they'd produced another costly failure.

To this end, The Great Mouse Detective was made on the cheap; for a start, although I have literally no proof one way or the other, it seems quite obvious to my unprofessional eyes that it didn't utilise the APT process pioneered in The Black Cauldron for smooth and glossy copying of animators' sketches to the cels; it has the distinctive rough black lines and occasional scratchy quality of the old xerography. The film was also rushed through production as quickly as any Disney feature in literally years: from the time that the new regime green-lit the revival of the project to its release in July, 1986, only two years had passed, in which time all of the voice recording, animation, and painting had to be completed on what I assume must have been a punishing schedule; though it surely must have helped matters that the company hired a new crush of animators to help augment a plan of frankly quixotic ambition, given the state of things in 1985; but the details of that plan are best kept for next time.

If I could, I'd look back a few years to compare The Great Mouse Detective to another mouse cartoon from the 1980s; Don Bluth's The Secret of NIMH. Both films were produced rather quickly and rather cheaply, and both had an animation staff that had an unfair number of relative green artists. There are two primary differences between the films, for my current purposes, and at first glance they seem essentially antithetical. These are: The Secret of NIMH had a significantly smaller staff; The Secret of NIMH has significantly better animation.

After puzzling this one out for a bit, I can't come up with anything that isn't ultimately floppy and romantic, but here's my theory: Bluth's film was produced out of sheer passion. The director and animator knew what he wanted to achieve, and started his own company for that purpose; and though may have been only one inspired man, inspiration is a contagious thing. The Great Mouse Detective, in contrast, was made by people who were, unquestionably, a bundle of jangled nerves. Even though the four directors hadn't been involved very deeply with The Black Cauldron - Michener hadn't taken any part in its production at all - the trauma of making that film had saturated the entire culture of the studio by the time The Great Mouse Detective entered active production. Moreover, Katzenberg and Eisner still had the stink of foreigners about them, and having to answer to such men couldn't have been terribly pleasing. Mix in the fact that Glen Keane was now the "old man" of the animation staff, and that his three fellow supervising animators had barely any experience to speak of - in descending order, Hendel Butoy had worked on two films, Mark Henn on one, and Rob Minkoff could only boast about being an inbetween artist (one of the lowest rungs on the ladder) on The Black Cauldron - and the inescapable conclusion is that, while it might have had the hierarchy back in place after the free-for-all of the last project, it was still a project being made by fairly young artists whose desire to good work far outstripped their functional knowledge of what goes into making a Disney feature.

When I say that the animation isn't so good as in Bluth's film, I'm not saying that it's as wretchedly unaccomplished as in something like Robin Hood - only that it is clearly not top-of-the-line stuff. Granted, The Black Cauldron suffered from the same flaw, but at least that film had rich enough design to make up for it. The much sketchier aesthetic of The Great Mouse Detective does little to hide the seams. Sometimes, it's not any worse than any of the xerography films, marked only by a distinct lack of detail in the character design and coloration. Often, it's the same problem that was widespread in The Secret of NIMH: technically proficient execution of unbelievably broad gestures, like everybody is an old mellerdrammer actor (this works very well for one character in particular, though). Only rarely is the animation just flat-out stiff and bad; the easiest place to see this is during a sequence in a bar about two-thirds of the way through, where for five straight minutes we're subjected to legions of mice whose faces and bodies have the approximate fludity and grace of those motorized dolls that get marketed around Christmas as decorations, the ones that bob their heads gently and move their arms back and forth.

In essence, we're right back to where we were throughout the 1970s: very simple animation of boldly colored animal characters; it's a kiddie movie all right, a retreat to the safety of the known after the expensive experimentation of The Black Cauldron. But, as The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and The Rescuers demonstrated, being a kiddie movie doesn't have to be a fatal flaw, if the story is there to redeem it; because every Disney movie is ultimately all about its story and its characters. And in my estimation, The Great Mouse Detective manages to succeed on that front: it's absolutely not on the A-list of Disney films visually, nor even on the B-list, but as far as their animal comedies in the 1967-'88 interregnum go, I'd be hard pressed to name one this entertaining, and I'm absolutely positive that none of them had such a lip-smacking villain. But we'll get to him soon enough.

Based more upon the spirit of Titus's novels than anything to happen in them specifically, The Great Mouse Detective opens in London, 1897; "the year of our queen's jubilee" in the words of the narrator, who promptly reveals himself to be a mouse recently back from the Afghan wars: Dr. David Q. Dawson by name (Val Bettin). But that doesn't happen until after a pre-credits sequence in which a pleasant mouse toy inventor named Hiram Flaversham (Alan Young, transposing the Scottish brogue he perfected for Scrooge McDuck with very distracting results) is kidnapped by a grotesque bat (Candy Candido, whose voice reminded me of the "Every cradle" monster in Sleeping Beauty, for what proves to be a good reason: he's the same actor), leaving Flaversham's daughter Olivia (Susanne Pollatschek) calling out into the night for her father.

Dawson and Olivia meet up, and he promises to help her find the famed Basil of Baker Street (Barrie Ingham), the greatest mouse detective in London. Given the date and the street, I cannot imagine that even if you haven't seen the movie, you couldn't tell what famous literary character Basil turns out to be based upon; and the rest of the film proves to be an entirely satisfactory riff on no Sherlock Holmes story in particular, although it has trace elements of a number of them. Really, it feels most of all like an animated remake of one of the Universal Holmes movies from the 1940s starring Basil Rathbone, who accordingly has a cameo line of dialogue sampled from one of the Universal films, I do not know which (it would shock me to my core to learn that Basil the mouse was not named for Basil the actor). This particular escapade involves a plot to remove the Mouse Queen (Eve Brenner) from her throne on the day of her 60-year anniversary as monarch, an unlikely figure that I will quietly overlook on the idea that in the Disney universe, you don't get to die if it doesn't make things harder on a small child.

The villain devising this caper is the notorious Professor Ratigan, a Moriarty clone voiced (and how!) by Vincent Price, in a role that he supposedly claimed as one of his all-time favorites. Not hard to believe: even at his floweriest, in live-action there is a certain upper limit to how much operatic camp you can stuff into a performance, and Price made a career out of finding that limit. But a cartoon lets you do so much more, and it is quite possibly the chief pleasure of The Great Mouse Detective - certainly if you're also a Roger Corman fan - to just sit and listen as Price rolls one line after another all around in his mouth like he's tasting the finest wines. His grand gestures in the recording booth inspired the animators to give Ratigan a similar tendency towards huge movements, and so does the calculated bad acting that makes Price one of the treasures of B-cinema find itself copied precisely into animation, creating one of my personal favorite Disney villains along the way. Glen Keane supervised Ratigan, and demonstrated for the second time how wonderful things get when you turn that animator loose on a large, imposing animal with a tendency towards violent outbursts; nor was it the last, and his final gesture in that direction would prove to be one of the most immaculately animated characters in the Disney canon. But we're not there yet: we're still at Ratigan, who snarls and pounces, who grins evilly and laughs with his whole body, propped up on its tiny legs. Ratigan, who in the final moments becomes arguably the most genuinely frightening villain in any Disney film since Walt's death, as he morphs almost before our eyes from a dapper gang boss with a tail to a rabid sewer rat.

Poor Basil never has a chance to claim our attention in the face of an overpowering villain like that, though Mark Henn (who may or may not have supervised all of Basil's scenes - the history is a touch fuzzy on this film, and I'm trying to remember things from a lecture I attended something like 13 years ago) did a fair job on his first big job, before he became shanghaied as Disney's girl expert, much like Marc Davis did in the 1950s. Indeed, all of the three heroes - Basil, Dawson, Olivia - are animated well enough, with facial expressions that are, I would deem, sufficiently expressive and emotional; at any rate they're the most sympathetic protagonists of any Disney feature since The Rescuers, though the ability to make truly sympathetic figures would elude the new guard at Disney for a little while longer yet.

If the film, yet again, fails to click on all the emotional levels that Katzenberg, Roy Disney, and the animators might have wanted, at least it's a brightly-paced bit of comedy and fun. For the first time in a while, there are legitimate songs performed by on-screen characters, though it would be bending the definition of "musical" to describe The Great Mouse Detective by that word. One of the songs, "The World's Greatest Criminal Mind", is the first in a long line of "showstopper" numbers that would really hit their stride in 1989; the big song and dance that has all sorts of silly choreography and big splashy action, and typically ends with a wide shot of dozens or hundred of characters all striking a pose. There were early attempts at this style scattered across the history of Disney musicals; this one really got things rolling, though, and it's a lot of fun - it helps that Vincent Price sings, and that the music, like the upbeat score, is by Henry Mancini in a fairly effective mode. The other big song, "Let Me Be Good To You" prefigures the next film by giving singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester a chance to do her thing; this was the really atrociously-animated sequence I was talking about before, and I suppose one could argue that the animators were just trying to blitz through it as quickly as possible, so they could stop listening to Manchester's warbling.

The comedy is mostly good, though it tends rather heavily towards slapstick (I have read, to my incredulity, that the humor in the film was inspired by Monty Python; if so, then we could just as soon argue that the Marx Brothers inspired John Waters); but is a children's movie. The adventurey bits are probably better, especially the outstanding climax in the gears and on the face of Big Ben; a scene that was the first real work-out for CGI, though not as it was used later. The gears were animated on a computer as wire frames and then solid shapes, and those shapes were traced over by hand, so that they'd match the characters. Whatever the case, it works to make a damn memorable sequence, with plenty of dramatic angles and movement, and some truly inspired sound design. I should have maybe mentioned before, that much of the film was plotted out using computers beforehand, and this helped to speed it along its extremely cramped production schedule.

The very worst thing you could say is that the film is appealing without being tremendously ambitious; but that is no sin, really. It's a fun movie when you just want to see a cartoon adventure, and by 1986, that was not something that a Disney fan could even begin to take for granted. The audience response was reasonable, if a touch muted: it took in $25 million, enough to put it in the Top 40 films of the 1986 at the box office, and certainly enough to prove that, given a sufficiently restrained production (it cost around half that amount), Disney feature animation could remain self-sufficient, though that's certainly not what the executives at The Walt Disney Company (for so Walt Disney Productions was renamed in that year) wanted: they wanted the artistry and charm of Walt himself back, but it was going to take something a bit more risky than this for that to happen. And before 1986 was out, the threatening form of Don Bluth would rise again, mounting an even more damning challenge to the domination of Disney animation in American cinemas.

4 comments:

javi75 said...

I agree about Vincent Price, but I seem to remember the songs absolutely kill the momentum and the characters never engaged me after the benefit of the doubt you can always give for first act. I guess some kiddie movies appeal to us and others don't, and it's not always (ever?) a rational thing.

The climax inside the Big Ben is certainly exciting and I always thought it was the first use of CGI in Disney movies until I read your previous review in this retrospective.
I seem to remember there's a lot of CGI in the next one. Considering it was the 80's and neither the techonology nor the audience's love for it had bloomed yet, I was very surprised. I think you could argue a few of their 90's movies use less of it, considering.

franklinshepard said...

I just rewatched this...does anyone else see a little bit of a caricature of Katzenburg in Fidget, the bat? Especially when he wraps his ears around his head, I thought he looked a lot like the sketches the animators made of Katzenburg in Waking Sleeping Beauty.

StephenM said...

Surprised you didn't mention that the clockwork scene is inspired by the similar climax of Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki's first feature. At least, I think I read somewhere that it was, and considering the similarities and the fact Lupin definitely came first by several years, I don't know how their wasn't some inspiration/stealing involved.

Tony Frazier said...

Sorry to comment so late. The thing that always strikes me as funny about this film is that the title was chosen after an in-house contest. Basil of Baker Street was considered too obscure a title for general audiences, so they had a contest where employees could submit titles, and the oh-so-generic The Great Mouse Detective was chosen as the winner. As a long-time Disney fan, I thought the film was a step up from the last couple, but the new team was obviously still a work-in-progress. Haven't seen it since it was originally in theaters, though, so it might have aged well.