02 November 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: A WARM HANDSHAKE OR TWO

In 1942, a terrible fate hit the Disney Studios, from which the company perhaps never entirely recovered. The three "arty" features - Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi - represented a business model that could never, ever be sustained, but Dumbo proved that there was still a market for exquisite little gems without so much of the insane ambition for drama and visual enormity. The problem was, the cost of making the ambitious films tapped out the studio's coffers pretty well, and while the Dumbo profits kept the studio alive, they didn't do much else, particularly in light of the crises of '41 and '42: the animators' stike, and America's induction into the war, which cost the studio much of its talent, not to mention the deleterious effect the war had on the audience for animated fantasies.

The solution to Disney's financial woes has become known to history as the "package film": rather than one full-length story, the studio would assemble a handful of more-or-less related shorts, which could be quickly produced at a much lower quality level than the features demanded, and release the whole thing billed as a feature. The practice kept the studio financially afloat, as all the package films turned at least a small profit, it kept the animators in practice, and on at least a few occasions it allowed them to make a story that almost deserved actual feature treatment, if only the money had been there. Though no-one would argue that the package films represent the apex of the studio's art, it is also the case that no-one would call them outrageously bad, and at least a few of the shorts rank among Disney's best.

I call this a terrible fate for the studio not, then, because of some immediate and terrible reduction of quality brought about by the package films, but because this new cost-saving trick had the effect of arresting the growth of the studio's features. I mentioned that with Bambi, Disney had put out five all but perfect animated features in a row, and I see little reason to assume that the trend wouldn't have continued. But because of the abrupt stop, the development of Disney's feature film aesthetic was dealt a crippling blow, that the studio arguably never recovered from: when they returned to features in 1950, the technique was there but not the grace, which was only one back erratically and without regularity; certainly, there'd never again be a point when five, or even three, Disney films in a row could deserve the unqualified use of the word "masterpiece".

But I ought not let hindsight guide me in what is meant to be a forward-moving retrospective in the Disney canon; where we are now, all we know is that Bambi was costing a hell of a lot of money and taking way too long to finish. In 1941, when U.S. involvement in the war was imminent but not yet a present fact, the State Department approached Walt Disney about the possibility of him and some of his animators making a goodwill tour of several South American countries, along with a movie to be made about how great those countries were, and how much the United States loved them - Mickey and Donald and Goofy being as popular in that continent as in the rest of the world, this was thought to be an exceptionally good chance to win some hearts and minds. All of this was part of President Roosevelt's Good Neighbor policy, an attempt to treat Latin American with sincerity and good intentions, in the hopes of keeping them free of Nazi influence at a time when Germany was itself making offers of friendship to those countries. Thankfully, the Good Neighbor policy was so effective that no Nazis were ever permitted to find safe harbor in South America at any point during or after the war.

Walt was always a red-blooded American patriot, and he gladly accepted the government's offer to help; one assumes that the State Department's promise to help fund the eventual movie sweetened the deal considerably. And thus he and some of his loyalists left California right during the strike to visit Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Peru, to take notes and make sketches and otherwise prepare a series of shorts detailing some of the most wonderful elements of those countries' cultures. The result, Saludos Amigos, was released in those countries several months before its U.S. debut early in 1943, and it proved to be a sizable hit on both sides of the equator, despite running all of 42 minutes and only barely surpassing the definition of "feature length", which in those days I believe was still set as four reels long (it is now, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as the AFI and BFI, 40 minutes).

Saludos Amigos is not today a well-remembered bit of Disneyana, and I am not prepared to argue against the justice of that fact. Historically, the most interesting parts of the film aren't even the animated sequences, but the live-action documentary interstitials, which show Walt and a handful of animators (including the great concept artist Mary Blair, one of the only women to prominently figure into the oppressively masculine history of Disney animation; her most famous work is the design for the it's a small world ride) touring the countries, taking their notes, and making their drawings. Uncharacteristically, the film gives a slight but tantalising glimpse into process by which a Disney film is created, akin to the peculiar 1941 documentary The Reluctant Dragon, and while this is a very carefully audience-friendly look at how the studio worked, it is of keen interest to the Disney scholar as a precursor to the openness about his company that would became a hallmark of Walt's television series over a decade later.

As for the shorts themselves, they are all fairly simple, unexceptional whimsies, amusing enough but not terribly memorable - it is no accident that unlike some of the later package films, nothing from Saludos Amigos has enjoyed a robust life excerpted as a stand-alone project in any of Disney's many short film collections or TV programs.

The first item is the Peruvian short, titled "Lake Titicaca", and springing from the narrator's observations about the prominence of Incan influence even in the modern - that is, 1941 - life of Peru in its culture and design. But really, it's a Donald Duck short. Some context for those of you who don't have the exemplary Chronological Donald DVDs to hand: Donald had rocketed to prominence in the second half of the 1930s as the most popular of the all the Mickey Mouse series side characters, quickly supplanting the mouse himself as the most popular character in the Disney stable. The best Donald starring vehicles, broadly speaking, were produced in the period from 1937-'41, with one of his very finest solo shorts, "Truant Officer Donald", coming near the end of that period. Afterwards, he was placed largely into a series of generally underwhelming propaganda shorts, but "Lake Titicaca" was born within that golden period, of only by the skin of its teeth. Unfortunately, it's a fairly pedestrian affair, heavy on slapstick and, with one exception, low on the duck's trademark slow burning impatience. The plot involves Donald's vacation to the area around Lake Titicaca, where he finds himself fascinated like a good Ugly American by the weird customs of the locals (the film makes a fair stab at mocking the American tourist mentality), and spends a good half of the short fighting with a placid llama that has little patience for the airhead duck on its back. There's not much too it, although it has some oddly reductive treatment of the Peruvians as Exotic Others for a film theoretically aimed at a South American audience; reaffirming my belief along the way that it can't just be the racism keeping Song of the South off of DVD. Because this film - and several others, and you damn well better believe I'm going to point it out every single time I spot it - has a pretty un-modern view of nonwhite people, being inordinately content to paint them as colorful, silly folk, with their customs and art and things that aren't American.

Case in point: the second short, a tribute to Chile, inspired a native cartoonist named René Rios Boettiger to create a counter-character named Condorito, believing that Disney was slighting the Chilean people as incompetent and childish. Ironically, "Pedro" is the only one of the shorts that I don't personally see as being significantly crypto-racist; though it is probably the dullest of the four, so if that's what bothered Rios, then I can't blame him for a thing. If it has any representational problem, it's that there's some latent chauvinism, but if I want to flog that horse I'll have much better chances later in this retrospective. The film is about a family of anthropomorphic mail planes, Papá, Mamá, and little Pedro, and it raises the question I always have when Disney (or anyone else) made a cartoon about baby anthropomorphic inanimate objects: how are they meant to grow in size? This is a problem I've had since I was around six or seven, incidentally. So yeah, there's one great sight gag, of Pedro drinking from a gas pump like a bottle with a straw, but otherwise this is a straightforward "little guy makes good" story that would later be vastly outdone in another one of the package films. See, Papá plane is sick, and Mamá plane can't handle the high altitudes, so Pedro has to cross the Andes one day, facing the horrific storms around the great mountain Aconcagua, and he makes it back okay. Taa-daa! The best I can come up with is that the film is meant to teach us about the fact that there are mail planes in the Andes, but I don't suppose that the Chileans needed to learn that, and Only Angels Have Wings was a mere three years old. The design is nothing special - it never looks exactly right when the Disney animators give cars or planes faces, if you ask me, and you implicitly are, since you're reading this - and all in all "Pedro" is the weakest of four less-than-outstanding shorts.

Off to Argentina, and the relative strongest sequence: "El Gaucho Goofy", inspired by the work of artist Florencio Molina Campos. This is perhaps the most "othering" short of them all, taking as its explicit theme, "what if we took a normal cowboy, and made him into one of those 'gaucho' cowboys that they have on the Argentine pampas?" But it's also reasonably funny: taking its cue from the then-current "How to" Goofy shorts, in which the hapless fellow is put into some simple situation, especially in those days a professional sport, and beaten up a lot while trying and desperately failing to demonstrate the correct way to go about performing a simple action. If "Lake Titicaca" is a mediocre Donald short, "El Gaucho Goofy" is a pretty average Goofy short, which means its pretty fun, but not an endlessly memorable comic gem. Of all the sequences, it's also the one with the most standard visuals: Goofy is of course a known quantity, but the animals we see in the short are all stock Disney designs, and other than the admittedly lovely backgrounds, this once again looks pretty much like a Disney short: smooth lines, round squashy shapes, solid colors.

The final short makes up for it with some genuine visual creativity. Titled "Aquarela do Brasil" ["Watercolor of Brazil"], it is inspired by a song of that name written in 1939, and mostly ignored until this very movie made it a smash hit in its home country and elsewhere not so, see comments; today in English we know it as "Brazil", and in that guise it provided the title and soundtrack to another film with genuine visual creativity, a bit more in fact that Walt Disney would have ever permitted.

"Aquarela do Brasil" is a semi-abstract evocation of life in Rio de Janeiro, with Donald Duck back, this time given a host in the brand-new character of José Carioca, a samba-loving parrot who speaks Portuguese almost as quickly as Donald's English. After the vaguely painful introduction of the new character taking up solidly half of the piece, the sequence settles into a fairly decent groove, moving through the colors and patterns of Rio in a fairly appealing samba-driven routine that ends in an explosion of color, lines, and music that actually makes Brazilian art seem like more than just a queer thing for Americans to mull over from the comfort of their proper civilisation. It also makes extensive use of a paintbrush interacting with the narrative, anticipating the magnificent Chuck Jones Looney Tunes short "Duck Amuck" by eleven years. The whole thing is also as insubstantial as a puff pastry, however, and despite being the loveliest passage of Saludos Amigos, it's also the easiest to forget.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the second stage of Disney feature animation began: with a mostly forgettable collection of half-way acceptable short cartoons made for unabashedly propagandistic reasons. Saludos Amigos isn't a bad movie, nor is it badly animated; but it hasn't any meat on its bones whatsoever, and in the context of the studio's developing art, it points the way to a rather dismal future as Walt and company struggled mightily to keep ahead of debt, always letting art stay one or three steps behind the immediate needs of commerce.

4 comments:

Daniella Thompson said...

Far from being mostly ignored, "Aquarela do Brasil" was a smash hit in Brazil from the time of its release in 1939 -- so much so that it became the country's unofficial anthem and remains so to this day. Its tremendous popularity was the reason that Disney heard it as soon as he arrived in Brazil and why he decided to license it for his film.

A little information on the song and its composer:
http://daniellathompson.com/ary/

J. B. Kaufman's new book, "South of the Border With Disney: Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program, 1941-1948," provides an excellent (and accurate) narrative of the period you're discussing.

Tim said...

Damn! The Wikipedia has failed me yet again. I got the sense there that it only became the unofficial anthem of Brazil starting after the war.

I haven't picked up that book yet, though it's been enticing me.

javi75 said...

Though no-one would argue that the package films represent the apex of the studio's art, it is also the case that no-one would call them outrageously bad,

Well, not outrageously, but these movies don't do much for me, since they're basically compilations of shorts, and Disney's comic shorts are very much hit or miss, for my taste (I went through most of them with the Disney Treasure dvd-s).
I think "Pedro" is the most watchable for me, but I don't remember much of the rest.

Walt was always a red-blooded American patriot

Having watched the Disney Treasure dvd set about WWII, I think if you're mentioning Walt's patriotical disposition and the effects of WWII in the studio, you should have mentioned the great lengths that he went to, producing all of those educational shorts for the military and all that stuff.
He even produced that feature-lenght thing, about aerial daylight bombing. So that's feature-length, and I guess it was released in theaters, so are you reviewing that?

Tim said...

A decent discussion of the Disney Studios' war effort would terribly imbalance my current retrospective (which is long enough as it is!), but I can easily see myself taking a look at Victory Through Air Power sometime in the future.

By "red-blooded patriot", I meant to refer to Walt's ardent love of all things American, no matter how kitschy (Main Street U.S.A., anyone?), and of course his propaganda work in the war was a huge part of that.