30 November 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: COME ROLL IN ALL THE RICHES ALL AROUND YOU

As hard as it is to fathom in retrospect, of the two Disney features put into development late in 1990, The Lion King was seen by most everybody at the studio as the runner-up, the less-prestigious, more kiddie-friendly picture; the one that you got stuck working on if you couldn't nab a job over at the "real" picture, the super-prestigious Pocahontas. Now, that was the film to be a part of! It was by far the most serious and important movie in the history of Disney Feature Animation: based upon a real even in history, attempting to redress the wrongs of generations of Hollywood films in their portrayal of Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages (it is likely no accident that Pocahontas was greenlit around the time that the equally serious & self-consciously politically correct Dances with Wolves was released). Emboldened by the critical success of Beauty and the Beast, Disney CEO Michael Eisner would even predict, before the film's completion or release, that Pocahontas would be the second animated nominee for the Best Picture Oscar, for it was clearly a more serious and significant movie than some old fairy tale love story. It was Historic! and of Nobly-Intentioned Politics! Doubtlessly, critics and audiences would respond to it like no other Disney feature before.

As my ironic exclamation points have probably suggested, things didn't work out exactly that nicely. Part of this is simply because The Lion King ended up grossing a jaw-dropping, record-setting $312 million, and everybody's expectations for Pocahontas dropped a little bit; upon its release, it received modestly favorable reviews, and grossed a perfectly satisfying and profitable $141 million - just slightly shy of Beauty and the Beast, three-and-a-half years earlier - to become the fourth-highest grossing film of 1995. Time has not been at all kind to it, however, and nowadays it seems to be the film of the Disney Renaissance likeliest to elicit a shudder of dismay from all but the most maniacal Disney buffs. There are two competing theories for what happened in 1995 that led to its success relative to its subsequent burial: one is that The Lion King was so successful that nobody really expected anything of Pocahontas, and so it received initially more love than it ultimately deserved (the theory of the people who shudder in dismay); the other is that The Lion King was so successful that people flocked to Pocahontas expecting it to be just as good, and started to lash out against it when it turned out to be even slightly less of an achievement, so that even now, a decade and a half later, it still suffers under the comparison for no better reason than being not as good as The Lion King (the theory of the maniacs).

For myself, I fit into the heavily marginalised third category that was so relieved in 1995 that Pocahontas wasn't as unpleasant to sit through as its heavily-praised predecessor that I was able, at the time, to convince myself that it was quite a fine little movie. I was 13 then, though, and did not know very much about cinema (also, in retrospect, I was exactly the wrong age to still be watching Disney pictures, but I do not and have never claimed that I was a normal adolescent). Now, of course, I have joined those who shudder with dismay, because to every objective measure, Pocahontas is a singularly problematic film; though handsomely animated - as every Disney film was in this period - it has story issues built into its very concept that not other Disney feature ever had to contend with, and virtually without exception, it fails to address those issues properly.

Telling the story of the love affair between English settler John Smith and the Powhatan Indian princess Pocahontas in 1607, and see, that's how long it took us to hit the problematic stuff. As anyone who took high school American history can tell you, Pocahontas was somewhere around 12 years old at the time she famously saved Smith's from being executed by her father - an event that very likely didn't occur anywhere but in Smith's overheated, sensationally narrative re-imagining of the early history of the Jamestown settlement. Let us not blame Disney too harshly for this wanton re-appropriation of history, though; romantic versions of the Pocahontas/Smith story had appeared for some two-hundred years before their film. All the same, there's historical romanticism and then there's historical romanticism. And given that Pocahontas is still ultimately a story for children, it could do with a bit more of an attempt to contextualise its historical inventions as just that, invention, instead of presenting what otherwise looks for all the world like a fact-based account of things. Not that it is: in fact, while the addition of a love story is easily the most immediately recognisable bit of fabrication in the plot, it might not even been the most damnable. After all, sexing up history is a privilege of dramatists since before there was an English language, and continues into the modern day. But Pocahontas badly mangles the details of the Jamestown colony and the relationship between the white colonists and the natives, and it this that I think to be the true crime against history: because you simply don't expect those kinds of changes to be made so readily. Some of these can be waved away as demanded by the need for compression; but some, like the wholly unfounded treatment of colony president John Ratcliffe as a sneering villain, don't sit as well (incidentally Ratcliffe died in a pitched battle with a Powhatan war tribe in 1609, and was not at all sent to England to be tried for crimes which, even in the film's narrative universe, don't actually seem to be illegal).

But anyway, the film opens in 1607, with the departure of an expedition that actually left in 1606, taking a number of settlers to establish a colony on the North American continent, with the purpose of finding gigantic sums of gold to bring back to England (this was only a half-goal of the historic London Company, later Virginia Company; the establishment of a permanent English presence in the New World for the sake of further exploration and conquest was very nearly as important. But I am going to stop bringing up trivial historical inaccuracies now). Among these men is the great Captain John Smith (Mel Gibson), a noted adventurer and scoundrel, whose presence is a delight and comfort to all the crew. One very arduous journey across the Atlantic later, the decimated company makes landfall on the rugged cliff-lined shores of Virginia (can I have just one more trivial inaccuracy, please?), with Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) establishing a settlement named Jamestown in honor of King James (named "King James the First" in dialogue, which he would not be called until after the existence of a King James II, OKAY I SAID I'D STOP I'M STOPPING NOW).

Cut to: the Powhatan capital, where Chief Powhatan (Russell Means) has just led a successful war party to utterly destroy their worst enemies. He wishes to celebrate with all his people, except that one particular person is missing: his willful daughter Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), who would much rather play out in the wild with her animal friends, a raccoon named Meeko (who does not speak, but his chirrups and squeaks are vocalised by Jon Kassir) and a hummingbird named Flit (Frank Welker).

It is thus immediately clear that Pocahontas is derived from a very particular tradition: she's not just a Disney princess, she's a very particular kind of Disney princess who is noted especially for her uncommon rapport with little woodland creatures. This is something that is customarily noted in the skill set of all Disney princesses and thus unworthy of notice, you might think - but 'tis not so. The heroines of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty all have this skill, but Ariel of The Little Mermaid and Belle of Beauty and the Beast absolutely do not: Ariel is a sea creature communicating with other sea creatures, subjects in her father's kingdom, while Belle (who, like Cinderella, is not actually a princess) never even tries to speak to woodland creatures. In Aladdin, both Aladdin and Jasmine (both of them fulfilling a part of the princess paradigm) speak with their companion animals, but this is much more like having a pet than having some kind of natural affinity with all the animal kingdom. So when Pocahontas goes about the Virginia woods palling around with critters, she is representing a tradition of representation that, notwithstanding its importance to the Disney cliché (even Disney knows this: cf. Enchanted) had been dormant for over 40 years.

Of course, as will become sickeningly apparent in very short order, Pocahontas's unusual affinity with forest animals isn't just her function as a sickly-cute Disney princess: it's because she's a Native American, and Native Americans as you obviously know have a much deeper, more spiritual connection to the Earth and Her creatures than *sniff* white people. Which, sure, as a sufficiently liberal white person, I think that's a pretty fair cop. It is the very central matter in things like e.g. Plains Indians hunting bison for food and clothing and treating it as a very serious matter in which they owed a debt of gratitude to the animals' spirits for dying for the hunters' sake, versus white settlers slaughtering bison by the hundreds because it is an efficient way to starve out the Plains Indians. But to say that "significantly greater appreciation and respect for the natural world and its inhabitants" implies that the Powhatans are capable of, just to pluck out the obvious example, casting magical spells, that is where you have lost me, Pocahontas.

The double-edged sword of political correctness - a phrase I do not like to use, except when it seems obvious that the people in charge of the movie seemed to be using it themselves - is that you can easily go too far in the wrong direction. All Indians are murderous half-animal savages is a bad representation. The solution to that is to treat an entire native population the same way you'd show anyone else: individual personalities, some nobler than others, some more wicked. It is not to go all the way to the other direction and present every last Native American as some kind of awe-inspiring saint whose wisdom and preternatural goodness can hardly be understood by slavering, materialist honkies. It's still turning them into an Other; a "good" Other, maybe, but that's hardly as good as making them no Other at all. This is not a problem unique to Disney; if I remember rightly, Dances with Wolves suffers from it as well, along with plenty of other films.

In a film like Pocahontas, this isn't just obnoxious because it deprives a whole civilization of its humanity, although that's the worst part of it: it also leads to tiresome, thump-you-on-the-head message movie moralizing, and boy howdy, Pocahontas is full of that. It is akin to the ten-years-later Crash, a film so horribly devoted to its theme that there seems to be little other plot than what will go into furthering that theme, and no characterisations that are not ultimately related to how the individual character feels about people of other races.

And so it is that Pocahontas, conceived as a great post-Beauty and the Beast love story, is no great love story at all; for when the two lovers must fit into the machinations of a heavily deterministic plot, it is hard to think of them as particular individuals, nor to engage with the depth of their emotions, which hardly seem to exist anyway. I would be remiss in not pointing out that in at least one respect, Pocahontas is one of the most interesting Disney heroines: she begins the movie by disrespecting her father's wishes to marry and have children, and ends it by deciding that there are more important things than having a man by whom to define herself; and for both of these reasons the film praises her. Making her, at least arguably, the most successfully feminist woman in any Disney film to that point, although this it not, for 1995, a full-throated roar of feminism.

The only characters that work at all are the three comic animals, which is a weird thing given how frequently the comic sidekicks are the worst element of any given Disney feature; or at least, not at all the best part. Meeko, Flit, and Ratcliffe's dog Percy (Danny Mann) are three very well-defined personalities, whose slapstick gags (just about the only funny moments in this deeply serious movie) are actually sometimes pretty funny, and who always seem like the animals that they are, and never like little silent people in fuzzy suits. All three are exceptional examples of character animation, precisely because they are pantomime clowns; particularly Meeko, led by supervising animator Nik Ranieri (who had previously demonstrated his character-defining skills with Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast), who has quite an extensive range of expressions for an animal that never once ceases to look like a raccon.

Indeed, the animation in Pocahontas is just as good as you'd expect from a studio in Disney's position in the early '90s; but not a trace as hypnotically beautiful as The Lion King, nor perhaps even as well-done as Aladdin. What one notices first is that the film has a very different stylistic mentality than the earlier films in the Renaissance: other than the animals and certain of the more funny humans, the character design is tremendously realistic, to the point where it's so realistic that it seems stylised again. Indeed, my first inclination was to compare the characters to those in Sleeping Beauty, by far the most stylised Disney feature up to this point.

This stylisation doesn't always suit the movie, particular in the case of John Smith, who ends up looking like a Ken doll more than anything else. For this I do not blame the animation team, for they were stuck with a hyper-realist mission statement that left them unable to do any of the slight exaggerations of gesture that animation does best. You can almost see the animators struggling to find anything to do with him, and I must credit the wasted attempts of supervisor John Pomeroy to do something with an unworkable character... waitaminnit, John Pomeroy? Don Bluth's right hand man, who left Disney in an angry storm in 1979? My God, Pocahontas must have been a big old prestigious deal if Disney and Pomeroy were able to patch things up!

The real triumph of character animation, after the three animals, is Pocahontas herself, lead by Glen Keane (one of the few big names at Disney to do no work at all for The Lion King); she is one of the great examples of realistic human animation to come out of the Renaissance, along with Belle, and her own range of facial expressions is more than a credit to Keane, who had already started to prove with Aladdin and the Beast that he was just as good a facial actor as he was at creating massive, weight creatures. It is worth mentioning that Mark Henn, having finished up his work supervising young Simba, took a demotion to work as a mere character animator for Pocahontas; that is how much more exciting this project was at the studio.

As for the backgrounds, they are beautiful but not especially precise; most Disney films have a particular guiding aesthetic behind everything, but there doesn't even seem to be a particular style of landscape painting that guides the overall look of Pocahontas. Still, what it lacks in a coherent vision, it makes up for with ambition: it uses CAPS with abandon, creating the most elaborate faux-multiplane shots used in that technology's history up to that point, and incorporating far more obvious CGI elements than The Lion King did, and when I say "obvious", I really do mean it: this film is undoubtedly a step back from the previous one, not just because the CGI looks like CGI, but also because there are fewer hugely ambitious lighting effects and transparency effects. Not to say that it lacks them altogether; but if you looked at Pocahontas and The Lion King side-by-side - or even Pocahontas and Aladdin - without knowing better, I suspect you would select Pocahontas as the less-advanced use of the technology.

As for the film's music, at least it brought back Alan Menken for the score, after the miserable Hans Zimmer experiment; but the songs, with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, aren't particularly memorable: quick, hum "Just Around the Riverbend!" The Oscar-winning "Colors of the Wind", is I suppose, hard to forget: but I might be inclined to call it the most awfully overrated song in any Disney movie, suffering as it does from twee lyrics, and an unusually sedate melody from the usually inventive Menken (I am also still angry that it stole Randy Newman's Oscar for the top-notch "You've Got a Friend in Me"). "Sedate" - that's exactly the word I wanted. The songs are all very sedate, even the show-stopper "Mine, Mine, Mine", even the big "let's fight each other" choral piece "Savages", which ought to be tremendously offensive for its particularly problematic representation and moral equivocation (Colonists with guns and Indians with knives are on exactly the same ethical plane? Gotcha), is mostly just boring.

The failures of the film are no-one's fault in particular, though it seems to have ended the feature directing careers of both Mike Gabriel (who co-directed The Rescuers Down Under) and Eric Goldberg, both of whom continued on as designer and supervising animator, respectively; but it is clearly a filmmaking-by-committee film, and that is exactly why it suffers. Of course, all Disney films are ultimately by committee, but usually there seems to have been a strong guiding hand: Ron Clements and John Musker in their films, or Howard Ashman, or so forth. Pocahontas seems more than anything to have been created out of the executives' whims that there would be a serious, historically-minded Disney epic, and the rest proceeded haltingly from that.

Despite a comfortably profitable run in theaters, Pocahontas was still regarded as the first significant box-office disappointment at Disney in years, and it was one of only two films to violate an otherwise uninterrupted run of Disney features each outgrossing their immediate predecessors that began when The Great Mouse Detective outperformed The Black Cauldron. Only 1990's The Rescuers Down Under (a film with only moderate marketing and no real expectations of doing more than returning its own cost to the company) joins Pocahontas in raining on this otherwise financially rosy parade.

It is tremendously satisfying (intellectually if not emotionally) to thus call 1995 the beginning of the end for Disney's dominance over the animated feature. Taken only as a function of box office, Pocahontas marks the beginning of the end of the smash hits: though it would take several years before Disney features started to regularly lose money on their production and advertising budgets, after this there would be no more massive successes on The Lion King's model: no future Disney animated film would pass $200 million at the box office, and only one managed to break $150 million.

There's more to it than just a simple matter of money, though: things were changing at a fast clip, more than Disney could keep up with. Previously, when they'd had their aesthetic missteps, there was nobody there to take up the slack; and when Don Bluth had threatened to move into Disney's space during their especially weak run in the 1980s, Disney recovered in a huge way that sent Bluth spinning into the abyss. But the late '90s didn't just see the company fighting off one former employee, although as coincidence would have it, a former employee was their biggest competition. Jeffrey Katzenberg, angry that he wasn't promoted to president following Frank Wells's death in 1994, had a very public falling-out with Michael Eisner that led to his leaving the company to form, with music maven David Geffen and Hollywood titan Steven Spielberg, a new company called DreamWorks SKG, complete with an animation division that would, within ten years, regularly trump whatever animated features Disney tried to put out at the box office.

In 1995, though, it wasn't just the looming spectre of Katzenberg that threatened Disney; nor was it the huge increase in popularity of anime, the Japanese cartoon imports that, starting with Akira in 1989, introduced Americans to the idea that animation didn't have to be family-friendly; it could indeed have ambitions both narrative and artistic that Disney would never consider for the most fleeting moment.

No, the single thing that happened in 1995, besides Pocahontas's stumble at the box office, to indicate the future decline of Disney's traditional animation, was the fault of Disney itself: in November, six months after Pocahontas, the Walt Disney Company distributed a movie that it had financed, but not produced: it was made by Pixar Animation Studios, the company that had helped to develop CAPS and oversaw the integration of CGI into the Disney animated features. This Pixar-Disney collaboration, a certain Toy Story, was the first full-rendered CGI feature ever made, and it was the highest-grossing film of the year; what followed is a matter of reknown, as Pixar swiftly, and crushingly, proved that they were far better at creating true masterpieces for the whole family than Disney had been since the early 1940s, maybe ever. There can be no better comparison than Pocahontas and Toy Story to explain why Disney's fortunes fell even as Pixar's soared.

But let us not be too harsh on Pocahontas: it is still a lovely movie to look at, and it has the bravery to look at a moment in American history too easily forgotten: those days in 1607 when whites and natives discovered that it's better to work together and be friends, and that is why there was never again strife between those two races for the rest of history.

MORE SERVICE NOTICE

My apologies: for the second time in two weeks, my computer died on me, and I've just now gotten it back on its feet. Regularly scheduled programming will shortly recommence, only one whole day late.

29 November 2009

CHRISTMAS CAROLS: THE CLASSIC

There have been literally dozens of adaptations of Charles Dickens's 1843 novella A Christmas Carol for stage, screen, and television, making it rather shocking that one version in all that glut should be cited with some unanimity as the best of them all: that being Brian Desmond-Hurst's 1951 film Scrooge, released in the United States under the story's original title (by that point, both names had been used a number of times for a number of different movies). Customarily, the reason given for this uncommonly uniform praise is that of all the many, many actors to play the miserly financier Ebenezer Scrooge or some variant upon that character, none were so great in the role as this film's Alastair Sim, a character actor who made some very fine movies in the years before and after, although this one performance dominates his career like few other starring roles ever have.

Far be it from me to disagree with conventional wisdom, at least when convention gets it right: though I haven't seen nearly all of the theatrical versions of the story, to say nothing of the seemingly uncountable number of TV adaptations, I can still very confidently say that Sim's take on Scrooge is by far the most perfect of all the ones I am familiar with: not only the interpretation that keeps the most part of the author's concept of the character intact, but perhaps richer and more psychologically well-defined than even Dickens might have imagined (I should at this point mention that one of the many versions I haven't seen is the 1984 telefilm starring George C. Scott, in a performance nearly as praised as Sim's).

For a character as apparently straightforward as Mr. Scrooge, there are actually a great many different ways he could be played, depending on what the actor and director want to say about human nature and greed. It is commonest, I thing, because it is the most fun to play and to watch, for Scrooge to be a proper monster, snarling out Dickens's famous misanthropic barbs - "If they are going to die, they had better do it, and reduce the surplus population" - until those ghosts come along and show him the true meaning of Christmas. Only in Sim's depiction do I see every inch of the character from the book: this Scrooge is an utterly broken man, who is not so much angry at the world as he is desperately sad. It just so happens that his sadness manifests itself as hostility. The difference is all in how he means it when he calls Christmas a "humbug" - the meaning of that word in Dickens, somewhat lost to history, is that Scrooge believes above all else that Christmas is a time for hypocrisy, the one day out of 365 when people act nice, against their natures and inclination. All the cheer and goodwill are contemptible fakery. For Sim's Scrooge, that is a profoundly upsetting thought, and when he says "Humbug!" it is not spat out like an invective, but wrung out of his body like a tearful cry from an angry child.

Later, on, when Scrooge is confronted with the darkest moments of his life, we see the usual moment when he begs the Spirit of Christmas Past (Michael Dolan) not to show him any more visions; usually, this is played as shame and self-loathing, and both of these are present in Sim's performance, but he adds to this a feeling of real and considerable pain, as though these memories were carefully and deliberately hidden away, and reliving them is causing him much more severe emotional distress than just normal humiliation at recognising one's great failures. Everything in Sim's performance here and throughout, especially his baggy, sorrowful eyes, suggests suffering and anguish that makes Scrooge seem like a wholly-rounded human being even in the earliest part of the story, when he is at his nastiest, and this makes his ultimate redemption all the sweeter and happier.

It is the usual thing for most considerations of the film to focus on Sim's extraordinary performance (including mine), enough so that sometimes one almost forgets to notice how very good the rest of the film is outside of that man. Director and producer Desmond-Hurst's mounting of the story is quite handsome in all regards, most especially in its excellent rendering of 19th Century England: though it seems likely that the film was not produced with much of a budget (it is quite set-bound), the details of what we see are very precise and evocative, and C. Pennington-Richards's black-and-white cinematography captures those details with a beautiful, film noir palette of light and dark that gives the film a darker, moodier feeling than most Christmas Carol movies; particularly in the sequence where Scrooge meets the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come (C. Konarski), where this film manages the oft-ignored feat of recalling that to Dickens, this was a scary story as much as a heart-warming fable (in this, though, the film still cannot compete with the 2009 Robert Zemeckis adaptation, which turns into a full-on horror picture in its last third). For the standards of British cinema in 1951, Scrooge exhibits some remarkable visual effects in its depiction of the various ghosts; these show their age in some shots, but are mainly quite effective and otherworldly, even today.

Noel Langley's screenplay wins points for being an unusually faithful treatment of both the letter and spirit of Dickens, but there are a few key changes made, mostly in the flashbacks to Christmases past, and these changes serve always to increase our sense of Scrooge as victim. The first of these is the invention of a subplot in which young Scrooge (George Cole) and his friend, Mr. Marley (Patrick Macnee, played as an older man and a ghost by Michael Hordern) start to learn of fiscal theory, and eventually use their new skills to take over their old employer; this serves to answer one of the great holes in most tellings (including Dickens's), of how it was that the young romantic turned into a conniving miser. The second major change is that Scrooge is made to be younger than his sister (Carol Marsh), so that his mother could have died giving birth to him. This of course explains much better why it is that Scrooge and his father had a falling-out, and gives some more reason to pity the loveless young man, and to understand why he grew up to be so dysfunctional. All told, the changes make Scrooge, if I dare to say it, a more dramatically successful work than Dickens's novella; something that I do not believe true of any other adaptation of a Dickens work.

It's a fairly top-notch mixture of narrative, style, and performance (even though it's a one-man sort of thing, the ensemble cast is all quite good, especially Hermione Baddeley as Mrs. Cratchit), and by being more than just an illustration of famous scenes and lines, it makes an argument for its own merits in a way that few of the other equally faithful Christmas Carols have managed.

CHRISTMAS CAROLS

I'm not doing enough blogging. So for this and the next three weekends, I am going to pay tribute to Robert Zemeckis's irritating, unnecessary adaptation of A Christmas Carol from three weeks before the Christmas season began by looking at four different approaches that other filmmakers over the years have thought up to approach that oft-filmed novella. First up, today, is the classical approach, as embodied by what many people believe to be the all-time best cinematic treatment of any Dickens text. Future weeks will see a musical, a modern-dress version, and a kid's move all take their turn at bat.

DISNEY ANIMATION: TILL WE FIND OUR PLACE ON THE PATH UNWINDING

The second-highest grossing film of 1994, and at the time the record-holder for most successful animated feature ever released, The Lion King occupies a very special place in my development into the angry contrarian that I am today, for it was the first time that the twelve-year-old me had ever felt something that I've come to expect at least once a year: the palpable awareness that everyone - everyone - absolutely loved a movie that I had virtually no use for at all. Time has not at all redeemed my opinion, and in at least one respect, I've actually come around to the majority: I do have a use for the animation in The Lion King, which is extraordinarily beautiful, and more technically accomplished than any other film of the Disney Renaissance. I still pretty much hate the story and nearly all of the characters - I know that the burden of proof is on me to explain why, but it's so self-evident to me that the drama and characters are terribly lacking that I can hardly figure out how to mount an argument, and a tiny part of me wants to flip it around: okay, millions of people who without an apparent hesitation call this the best of all Disney animated features (it's consistently the highest-ranked on the IMDb Top 250, when it is not the only one there; an aesthetically dubious list at best, but a good yardstick for judging relative popularity), whatever is so very special about it? But I know that I'm being saucy, and shall do my very best to justify my opinion.

As with so many other films, the idea (the second "officially" original Disney animated feature story after Lady and the Tramp) was born in the burst of enthusiasm at the end of the 1980s, when the impending release of The Little Mermaid had demonstrated the new management's desire to make good on their promise to return to an era of high-budget animated filmmaking. Its pitch was simple, and rather peculiar: "Bambi plus Hamlet", and here I was thinking that I was all sorts of clever for spotting a really insane number of parallels between that deer movie and The Lion King, before doing my research for this review. It's positively staggering how much the two run in tandem, though, so I'm going to show my work anyway: the story opens with all the animals in the region assembling to pay homage to the birth of the new prince, whose father stands watching on a high rocky promontory. As the prince grows up, he spends most of his time goofing around and discovering the joys of being alive in the wild. At one point, he meets a young female destined to be his mate, but is still mired in that "yuck, a girl!" stage of all young males. Eventually, the boy's parent dies violently, sending him into a spiral of depression that is resolved when he pals up with two other males of different species. He comes to meet the girl from his youth, all grown up, and falls in love with her on the spot. Later, after a massive fire, he has finally stepped into his father's role as king; the film ends with the birth of his offspring, in a sequence that visually and aurally ties back to the beginning, giving the whole movie a "cycle of life" structure.

Compared to that, The Lion King's lifts from Shakespeare are tiny: the uncle kills the king, the boy takes a long time to do anything about it. To be perfectly honest, ever since I first encountered the notion that the film is deliberately derived from Hamlet (three, maybe four years later), that concept has always struck me as being not quite on the mark. I'd much sooner compare it to Macbeth; an ambitious man kills his king and host to take over the kingdom, drives it into the ground, and is in turn killed. Admittedly, it's no closer to the specifics than the Hamlet comparison, but I claim for it this merit: in Hamlet, the avenging prince is the most interesting character, while in Macbeth, the usurper is the more interesting character. And Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick, is the usurping uncle in The Lion King ever more interesting than his nephew.

That's the crux of my problem with the film, though by no means the whole of it: Simba, the little cub whose coming-of-age forms the spine of the whole movie, is a distinctly bland hero; no blander than the standard Disney model, maybe (for within only the previous ten years, the studio had tried to sell a relative non-entity like the title character of Aladdin as a charismatic hero, and spun a film around the atrociously dull cat protagonist of Oliver & Company), but given that this film is a drama and not a comedy, the absence of a relatively solid protagonist like Beauty and the Beast's Belle hurts the film a lot. I swear, I really tried to like Simba: I saw the film multiple times in theaters in 1994, and I've tried a few times since to come up with any reason to give a damn about what happens to him and how he deals with it, and I just can't do it. He is a reedy, whiny little splotch of shallow character psychology: a spoiled, smug brat when he's a kid and voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas; callow and boring as a young adult, voiced by Matthew Broderick.

Ah, but Scar, now, there's a character! Richly voiced by Jeremy Irons, whose personality informs the character design and animation to a more than significant degree, the wicked lion is one of the best Disney villains ever: certainly, the best of the 1990s (and how I glad I am that I get to make that claim without having to account for 1989's The Little Mermaid). The caveats first: of the handful of Disney bad guys sometimes accused of being Evil Queers, Scar is the only one for whom I'll actually concede that argument - he is effeminate, he becomes the sole ruler of a pride of female lions without apparently impregnating a one of them, and he strikes a pose while cooing the word "sensational" during his big musical number.

I also kind of find it hard to absolutely ignore the idea that as the only lion with a black mane, his villainy is racially coded (then again, he's a white Brit, and his opposite number is voiced by a black American, which possibly makes this more of a xenophobic framing than a racist one).

On the other hand, he's the only wholly appealing character in the film - yes, yes, there's that business about killing his brother, stealing a kingdom, and siccing a pack of hyenas on his young nephew, but on the other hand he overflows with personality and ee-vil charisma, thanks not only to Irons's supremely effective, hostile-bored reading of all his lines in the first act (as the film proceeds, and Scar becomes more actively vicious, he becomes a good deal more pedestrian, until the film's climax, where he might as well be any cringing, craven bad guy), but to the sexy, slinky animation led by Andreas Deja in the high water mark of his career.


I need to stop the review for a minute to share an anecdote, that I think is pretty damn cool, and even a bit illuminating as to what it reveals about the mind-set of the Disney animators and how they practice their craft. Many years ago, there was not that very far from my home a gallery dedicated to animation art, primarily though not exclusively American animation. There was a point in either 1999 or 2000 (I remember only that it was my senior year of high school) that this gallery hosted one of their quarterly shows, which had as its centerpiece a number of vintage Disney pieces recently acquired by the owner on a consulting trip to the Disney vault; and the centerpiece of the centerpiece, to my mind, was a collection of the original animation drawings created by Frank Thomas himself of Lady Tremaine in Cinderella, 12 consecutive images from the moment when she overhears Cinderella humming and realises with an evil frown that her stepdaughter was at the ball the night before. They were expensive, but still underpriced for something that rare, something touched by the hand of one of the Nine Old Men - $500, if I remember correctly. That was too much to pass up: I selected my favorite of the pieces remaining, and took the first third out of my college savings to make a layaway down payment.

A couple of months later, I was headed back to make the final payment and pick up the piece. The woman at the gallery was a bit apprehensive and apologetic: "What would you think about selling this drawing?" Well, why? "Someone has been buying up all of the Frank Thomas originals he can, and he especially wants those Lady Tremaine pieces, because they're a consecutive set. He's got all of them but the one you bought". That's just swell, but Christ, save some for us little guys. "It's Andreas Deja. He's offering to pay you the full amount we sold it to you for, and he'll make drawings of any two Disney characters you want." OH. Well, in that case...

I wasn't going to be a dick and have Deja draw just any random pair: it pretty much had to be two of his characters, because that would of course be cooler. And the most obvious choice was Scar, who I loved with abandon, as one of the finest works of draftsmanship at Disney in the 1990s. I also picked Jafar, who was a pretty fine villain in his own right.

My expectation was that I'd get some pencil sketches, nothing too elaborate: but instead I received two absolutely lovely, production-quality drawings in rich grayscale, on the very same paper that the Disney animators used for making movies. And I think Deja wouldn't mind if I said, the Jafar piece was lovely; but the Scar piece was positively exquisite. It's clear enough from just those two pieces which of the characters he preferred drawing, even as it's clear from the evidence of The Lion King that the animation team really found a great deal of joy in depicting Scar in all his serpentine, angular oiliness: his is the kind of detail-rich animation that could only come from people who were absolutely delighted to be doing their job.

The two pieces are hanging in a place of privilege right above my computer. And now I have perhaps given you a tiny insight into the way that one supervising animator's mind works (naturally, he would want to study his predecessors; naturally, he would want to study their original drawings; naturally, he would want to study a consecutive sequence), and at the very least I hope I've given Andreas Deja his due as a really decent human being man, whom I have not for the record ever met in person, or spoken to.


Okay, so where the hell was I? Characters, right. So, Scar is I think a profoundly wonderful achievement of design, voice acting, and animation, but in all the annals of Disney villains that swamp their feature, dominating it far beyond the protagonist's ability to hold our attention (and I would argue that this definition applies to the vast majority of Disney features that possess a single dedicated villain), Scar also has the worst effect on the film that contains him. Simba isn't really that much worse than any randomly-chosen bland Disney hero; but he definitely is that much worse than Scar - The Lion King is never better than when it's The Scar Show, for the charismatic murdering monster is infinitely more delightful to watch than his tedious little nephew, with his cookie-cutter coming-of-age tale. I know that it is meant to be exquisitely tragic when Simba's father Mufasa (James Earl Jones, he of that most recognisable voice in cinema) dies rescuing his boy, but at this point I personally have not the slightest affection for either of the characters, and so this key childhood trauma moment for so many leaves me stone bored, like most of the rest of the movie.

As far as dubious characters go, The Lion King also boasts two of my least-favorite comic side characters in the canon: Timon the meerkat (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa the warthog (Ernie Sabella). Initially, I was going to call them the very worst of the worst, but that would have been unsupportable hyperbole; the mice in Cinderella were already jackhammer-annoying before this, and there are some truly wretched, rancid, and unwatchable sidekicks still to come. Still, the duo's charms are totally lost on me, proving the fact that in comedy more than anything else, de gustibus non est disputandum. Continuing the trend so recently begun in Aladdin, this comic duo gives The Lion King a desperately unnecessary shot of pop-culture gags, one of my very least favorite things in contemporary American animation; at the very least The Lion King doesn't hit the heights of inanity that seem to be the basement level from DreamWorks films, nor in fact are its references so timely - and thus dated - as Aladdin's. But there is to me nothing charming or amusing or anything whatever other than irritating about hearing a meerkat talk like a caricature of a Broadway actor, which is of course the only thing that Nathan Lane has ever really been able to do in the movies (it is of course possible that The Lion King takes place in the then-present, and Timon happened to overhear a vacationing safari guest, and picked up that person's speech patterns; that's pretty esoteric for a fanwank, though, and I'm not even a fan).

Pumbaa is also extra-super-special, in that his entire character seems to have been conceived to give Walt Disney Feature Animation its first ever recurring fart joke.

Moving away from characters and into story, we have what I cannot deride as anything less than a perfectly functional coming-of-age story of accepting personal responsibility; but within that framework, there are some deeply unpleasant overtones. It is a noted fact of Disney's cinema that the films' messages are all ultimately conservative: the great majority of them are some variation on "the best thing to do is find an opposite-sex spouse and settle down to raise a family and never, ever make any waves". Prior to 1994, this had reached its most noticeable apex in Beauty and the Beast, which presents a freethinking proto-feminist protagonist, and can't think of anything better to do with her than marry her off (though at least Belle and her prince seem destined to have a more equal marriage than, say, poor Aurora of Sleeping Beauty, who is plainly going to be nothing but a handmaid to Phillip). As is fairly typical of the studio's films with male protagonists, the romantic angle of The Lion King is fairly subdued, but it is certainly present; and there is no way to read the final moments of the film except as, "Simba has finally learned his purpose: to procreate and engender the next generation". But I am not particularly offended that The Lion King sees fit to present a heteronormative universe, even if it's kind of hilarious that the species chosen for this purpose is the harem-keeping lion.

What bothers me is the inexplicable "up with the monarchy!" undercurrent to the whole thing. No Disney feature has ever exactly shied away from presenting a fairly rosy view of totalitarian governing; there is no greater ambition in the Disney mythos than to be a princess or become one by marrying a prince. It's not an accident that when little girls buy a new dress at Disneyland, it's a replica of Cinderella's shiny ball gown and not her scullery-maid outfit.

Nor do Hollywood films in general have a spotless track record of pro-democracy activism: I can rattle off dozens of films, from musical comedies to prestige dramas, in which the presence of a monarchial system is understood to be a good and necessary state for the functioning of society. Still, there's something a bit shocking about how eagerly The Lion King embraces this notion: Simba's abandonment of his rightful position as king of the Pride Lands has such a disastrous effect on The Order of Things that the rain itself ceases to fall until he resumes his royal duties. Coupled with the sight of hundreds of prey animals bowing in homage to the infant who will grow up to lead hunts against their families, and what we have is a rather distasteful tribute to how perfectly swell it is to live under the consolidated rule of a benevolent tyrant who may, at any given moment, eat you.

But The Lion King does everything to avoid the hint that Simba or Mufasa are morally culpable: Mufasa even calls attention to it, by giving Simba some little routine about how the antelope that they eat will eventually eat the grass that the lions' dead bodies feed; a nice bit of Zen, but I doubt the antelopes appreciate it. It also boasts the latest in a long line of Disney villain death scenes structured to have the antagonist die by the very careful avoidance of the hero having to do anything icky. With Scar, 12 villains have been killed; half of that number have fallen to their death through accident (among whose number I count Scar himself, though the fall isn't what kills him). Only four were killed by the deliberate actions of a hero - and one of those was the rat from Lady and the Tramp.

The most prominent aspect of the movie, at least in 1994, was its soundtrack: Tim Rice, having just finished up Aladdin for the late Howard Ashman, wrote the lyrics for songs with music by international best-selling pop star Elton John. I'm not going to bother re-hashing my advanced dislike for Rice; though I just want to point out that with tortured phrases like "Why won't he be the king I know he is / The king I see inside?", the lyricist is certainly not going to win any poetry awards. I'll just suffice it to say that the songs are all faintly dull, although the big, splashy "I Just Can't Wait to be King" has a fun melody. Two in particular each do something worthy of particular scorn: "Be Prepared" showcases some of Rice's worst mangling of the language; "Hakuna Matata" manages to directly contradict the film's overt message in a tune so maddeningly catchy that it can't help but take precedence (it is, also, the trashiest, most kiddie-friendly song in the film). "Circle of Life" and the Oscar-winning "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" are both comfortably bland, appropriating African-style chanting in a manner not likely to make anyone forget Paul Simon's Graceland.

(Begrudgingly, I will confess that "Hakuna Matata" boasts a singularly marvelous transition - Simba growing up in a series of dissolves. It's possibly my favorite piece of animation in the movie).

And then, there is the score - oh, my, the score. Hans Zimmer was for many years a composer that I well and truly hated above anyone else prominent in Hollywood far outstripping even the dreaded James Horner as a writer of the most bombastic orchestral music that producers and inattentive viewers like because it tells you with leaden explicitness exactly how you are supposed to feel at any given second. To be absolutely fair, this is probably the best score he'd written to that point, and not by a small margin; to be even fairer, by the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, he had entered an unexpectedly strong period in his career with more than a few outright great credits to his name. Still, it's as far from subtle as you can get, sweeping in and shrieking "LOOK AT THE EPIC EMOTIONS!" and leaving one feeling awfully exhausting. But it's not as empty and forgettable as the songs are - and that is all I want to say about the music of The Lion King.

I've so far described a movie that I truly despise, which isn't true - even without compensating factors, I'd still much rather watch The Lion King than, say, Oliver & Company or The Fox and the Hound. But then, there is a doozy of a compensating factor: the visuals are absolutely superb. This is the masterpiece of the CAPS era, for that technology is used with the precision of a scalpel and the boldness of a rapier, to create the finest details of light and shadow on the exquisitely-molded features of some of the best work done in the whole careers of supervising animators like Andreas Deja, Ruben Aquino (Simba as an adult), and Mark Henn (Simba as a youth). Thanks to the tireless study of real animals in all stages of their lives - another lift from Bambi - the critters in The Lion King move with a frightening level of realism in everything from the movements of their limbs to the shifting of their weight, from the drifting of their hair to the strain of their muscles. Purely realistic character animation of animals might very well find its highest expression in this film: it may be only my stubborn nostalgia for the process of the 1940s that keeps me from conceding that yes, this is a more technically competent work than Bambi.

But it is not just a magnificent work of animation: it is also beautifully designed by Chris Sanders, whose journey to Africa inspired him to create a real-world look with fantasy sheen, a setting of the most evocative richness. It is, as I said, the finest hour of the Computer Animation Production System, which never melded CGI and hand-drawn animation this thrillingly before or after; which provides for some hopelessly atmospheric misty settings, which makes the film look in all ways like the best qualities of painting and cartooning brought together.

It is especially noteworthy for the outstanding wildebeest stampede, a technically-intensive sequence that is starting to show its age fifteen years on, but still sets the heart to racing, and represents a huge achievement of the craft, marrying computers and traditional animation more effectively than they ever had to that point

Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, directing their first and last Disney feature, certainly had a keen eye for how the thing should all come together: thus the wildebeest scene, the shocking but effective visuals evoking Nazis in "Be Prepared"-

-and the adventurous "I Just Can't Wait to be King", a phenomenal experiment in color and geometry.



It is by turns visually inventive and immaculately realised like no other modern Disney film, and visually, at least, it deserves to be called a masterpiece and then some. The extra time taken to get it right (it was overhauled early in 1992, and snapped the one-per-year run that stretched from 1988-1992) was time well-used, and I can't fathom that this was, at the time, the "runner-up" project; the following year's Pocahontas was the big prestige number that everybody wanted to work on, while The Lion King was where some of the animators got stuck for a time.

Thus I box myself into a corner: I'll never understand how people can honestly think it's an emotionally satisfying experience - Simba will never, ever strike me as anything but the most vanilla of characters, and his tribulations interest me not one whit - but as a fan of Disney animation, I must concede that is an achievement of the highest order. If I have given the artwork short attention, it's because I can't think of much to say: to see The Lion King is to understand precisely why it is so incredibly beautiful; no words are necessary. And while that is hardly reason enough to call it "the best Disney movie ever", like an entire generation seems to do, it's also reason enough to regard it with something closer to adulation than respect, even from a place of outright hostility to the script. This is Disney animation firing on all cylinders, and my God, is it an amazing sight.

28 November 2009

GRATITUDE 2

I know I just did this on Thursday, but I have to say it again: you guys are the best readers a blogger ever had, and I really appreciate the enthusiasm everybody seems to have for the Disney project. It's taking a lot out of me, but as long as I know that you're all enjoying and responding to the reviews, that gives me the strength to muscle through these last two weeks. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

27 November 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: SOARING, TUMBLING, FREEWHEELING

Once again, it all comes down to Howard Ashman: it was in the late 1980s, as animation was purring along for The Little Mermaid, and the story for Beauty and the Beast was just barely starting to take form, Ashman suggested another musical project for Disney: an adaptation of Aladdin, one of the tales in the European versions of the collection of Arabian fairy tales, One Thousand and One Nights (the earliest print version of the Aladdin story is found in the 18th Century French translation by Antoine Galland; some of our more cynical mythological researchers have contended that Galland did a bit more than "translate" this story).

Ashman and his longstanding collaborator Alan Menken put together a story treatment, and wrote some or all of eleven different songs for the project; but Beauty and the Beast was taking up most of the increasingly little time that Ashman was able to devote to Disney, as he grew progressively weaker from the disease that would ultimately take his life. Thus the story was handed off to Linda Woolverton, the Beauty screenplay-writer, to flesh out the narrative a bit; and by this point we find ourselves in late 1989. The directing team of Ron Clements and John Musker had just established themselves as the Hot Shit at Disney by knocking The Little Mermaid out of the park, and in a meeting with Jeffrey Katzenberg, they were offered their choice of three projects that were fairly well along in story development. The first of these was Swan Lake, a never-realised project that would have completed the studio's adaptations of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's three great ballets (following "The Nutcracker Suite" in Fantasia, and Sleeping Beauty); King of the Jungle, later renamed The Lion King; and the Ashman/Menken/Woolverton Aladdin. It was the last of these that appealed most to the directors, giving them the best chance to keep working on the musical play and silly comedy of The Little Mermaid, and they got to work on cranking out a screenplay, alongside a pair of young writers named Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, whose only produced work to that point was a middling Fred Savage comedy called Little Monster; this project sent them rocketing towards a future stuffed with a goodly number of massive blockbusters on their resume, including Shrek and all of the Pirates of the Caribbeans. Aladdin was at this point tossed before the usual committee of storymen, and in the end none of the three people who first got the project started received credit alongside the the other writers, but were buried deep as "pre-production story development".

Aladdin was designed to be a consciously silly movie, full of goofiness and fun and delight in everything from the jokes to the drafting of the characters (it is possible, I think, that it was meant in this respect as a palate-cleanser after the emotionally rigorous, frequently dark and mirthless Beauty and the Beast; though this is hardly something I could ever be certain of). The very character design was meant to evoke caricature, particularly the flowing, easy lines and sharp curves of Al Hirschfeld; and the tremendously significant role of Aladdin's lamp-bound genie was always meant by the directors to be a showcase for the many impressions and improvisatory skill of stand-up comedian Robin Williams, who at this point was only a tiny force of evil; and whose broad-as-a-barn shtick was anyways better suited for a cartoon character than a living person who interacts with other living people. The story of Williams's association with the film is an interesting one: briefly, he did the role for peanuts, as long as certain concessions were made in the advertising, the most important being that the genie could only occupy a certain percentage of any poster. When Disney violated this, plastering massive images of the genie on every surface, Williams called out the dogs, and period publications and "making-ofs" were legally required to avoid mentioning his name in any capacity, leading to the the promotional material having to settle for the phrase "the voice of the Genie" in all cases. The contretemps was only resolved when Williams returned for Aladdin's second direct-to-video sequel, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, for a handsome paycheck.

The character design in this film is pleasingly uniform: not because the characters look alike - the exact opposite is true - but because all of the characters are stylised to roughly the same degree and according to essentially the same mentality. It has been a constant fact in Disney's features ever since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that some characters are essentially realistic representations of the human form, while others are unabashed cartoons; the degree to which this is true changes from film to film, but at any rate I cannot quickly think of a Disney feature previous to this, the studio's 31st, in which no character stands out as especially realistic or especially caricatured. They are all cut from essentially the same cloth, and if the titular hero (Scott Weinger) and his love interest, Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin) are a tiny bit more "human" than anyone else, this is only to nudge the audience in the direction of finding them sympathetic and appealing.

This unbelievably useful image can be found on the 2004 "Platinum Edition" DVD.

The film's character animation finds the Disney artists finding a very comfortable groove that they wouldn't leave for the rest of the decade; like the animators of the 1930s who were brought into the fold by Walt himself, the process of creating Disney features had by this point become natural to them. In certain sense, this is not a good thing: for it was at this point also that the studio's output begins to have the feeling of product, not artistry; an encroaching sameness to the techniques used that leaves all the films feeling rather more akin to one another than e.g. Cinderella is to Alice in Wonderland. Some of the films were of course made at a much higher level of quality than others, but not in a markedly different style.

On the other hand, Aladdin is made with such skill, that one hardly wants to complain that the animators were able to mimic it so often. In sheer mechanical terms, it is a more competent film than Beauty and the Beast, lacking any of that feature's random passages of stiff movement and degradation of detail. We cannot even rightly claim that this is to do with the hurried schedule that Beauty and the Beast was forced to adopt: for Aladdin was massively overhauled relatively far into production, meaning that a lot of new material had to be put together in a fairly brief span, relative to the long production time usually accorded to animated features. So I don't know what to say other than the animation team was growing increasingly capable and confident: and this growth continued into the next project as well.

If I persist in preferring the animation in Beauty and the Beast, it is largely because I would rather have the gravity and character of that film's visuals than the sprightly cartoon exaggerations of Aladdin; I also rather find the subdued, 19th Century quality of the palette in the earlier film more appealing than Aladdin's bright and distinctly unsubtle use of hyper-saturated colors. Like Beauty and the Beast, it is coded, according to a primary color motif that also suggests the environment of a desert: blue (sky and water) is associated with good characters-

-yellow (sand) is neutral-

-and red (heat) is saved for the villains, along with good old black of course.

It's just a little too poppy for my tastes, is all, the colors don't just appear on screen, they scream out for attention, and the film ends up being just ever so slightly visually fatiguing.

This is, at any rate, not the fault of the animators, whose work is of the highest quality: the ever-fantastic Glen Keane supervises on Aladdin (famously designed as an echo of Tom Cruise), giving the subtlest performance in the movie, based largely on minute shifts in facial expression; something Keane was becoming quite good at, nearly as good as his better-known skill at creating great hulking presences. Aladdin is at any rate a fine successor to Keane's collaborative work on Ariel of The Little Mermaid: they are perhaps the two characters in the Disney Renaissance that evoke the most through facial expressions. Mark Henn, having tag-teamed on two female leads in a row, finally got his big solo coming-out, leading the Florida team in the animation of Princess Jasmine, a far stronger personality than Ariel or any of the vintage princesses; the animation bears that personality out with very nearly as much subtlety of expression as Keane's work, although the chief element of Henn's style was by now revealing itself less as a subtlety of acting, and more as an ability to draw women with curves in all the right places who exude no hint of sensuality at all.

The two most outstanding characters were both supervised by men with less experience than Henn or Keane, though. The requisite role of the villain who is far more visually exciting and thus more memorable than anyone else in the film was this time played by the wicked vizier Jafar, voiced with silky tones by Broadway actor Jonathan Freeman, and supervised by Andreas Deja, one of the poor bastards whose first job at the studio was during The Black Cauldron. This was his second supervising job (he'd handled Gaston in Beauty and the Beast), and the first of two characters who have guaranteed him a spot in Disney animator history: Jafar is a wonderfully sleek character with lots of sharp angles and a design that overall mirrors the cobra-head staff he carries, and he is also a fantastically physical bad guy, too. Basically, watching him is like seeing Maleficent done as a Looney Tunes character, and while he is much too venal and played for too much comedy to ever come across as a genuine threat, he is probably the best of all the non-threatening Disney villains; I'd readily call him the finest human male bad-guy, at the last.

The other great triumph is Eric Goldberg's genie: not only his first supervising job for Disney, but his first Disney job altogether. The great achievement of that character is not necessarily his personality (which is derived altogether from Robin Williams's performance), but his fluidity: this is the most malleable character in Disney, not only because of his ready stock of visual transformations and impressions, but simply because he appears to have no real form at all. He shrinks, expands, and seems to have no concrete mass or form at all - the very stuff of a great cartoon character, and executed to perfection by Goldberg and his team.


Naturally, the use of CAPS was smoother here than ever before: though the combination of CGI and regular 2-D animation remains unnerving and unconvincing (as it will for a number of films yet), it has taken a baby-step forward from Beauty and the Beast's lovely but uncanny ballroom scene. There are also some truly bravura effects animation showpieces, particularly the use of drifting gauze curtains that obscure and tint the action behind them - exactly the kind of thing CAPS was invented for.

As much as Aladdin is a pretty unimpeachable example of the art of animation, I am far from certain that its plot is up to anything like the same level. Comparing it to the outrageously wonderful Beauty and the Beast is just mean-spirited, but it holds up no better stacked next to The Little Mermaid, with largely the same creators and much of the same attitude.

My biggest single problem with the film is its significant pacing issues: at 90 minutes, it was, if I am not mistaken, the second-longest Disney film ever upon its release (after the 125-minute Fantasia), and it doesn't use this extra length to the best effect. In particular, everything before the genie's first appearance at very nearly the exact 30-minute mark, has always struck me as a bit pokey and slow, giving us not just enough time to meet the characters but to meet them in some detail, and with three plot threads to follow (Aladdin's desire to be more than a thief and beggar, Jasmine's desire to live her own life, outside the palace grounds, Jafar's quest for the individual who can help him find the magical lamp), there are a whole lot of scenes that all have a "point", but not nearly energy. I blame the songs, personally, but I'll get into that.

The curious thing about the film is not that Robin Williams shows up and is funny and delightful, although it is hard to believe in these latter days that he could ever be either of those; it's that once Robin Williams shows up, everything is better, even when the genie is nowhere to be seen. He brings life to the whole movie; everything is more fun and funnier and the crazy cartoon lines and color are finally matched with an appropriately cartoon sensibility.

It remains the case, though, that Aladdin has rather less dramatic ambition than the best Disney films: it is far more concerned with being wacky than with establishing character, and the big character moments all tend to fall desperately flat, to my tastes (Aladdin's short, wistful "what I yearn for" song is tremendously clumsy; but then, the songs in that particular subgenre have a noted tendency later in the decade to be the dullest part of their respective films). I admire the notion behind the story: it's basically a princess film in every respect, except that the girl lead is swapped for a boy, meaning that all the sexual-political issues get weirded up (Jasmine certainly fits the Disney princess model as far as burying her personal interests after she finds a mate; but Aladdin does exactly the same thing; and given her place in the narrative structure, it is better anyway to compare Jasmine to the various Princes Charming, none of whom have a patch on her personality). I like the film much more when it's content to steal unashamedly from the 1940 The Thief of Bagdad: adventure, spectacle, good humor and adventure, leading me to suppose that if Aladdin wasn't going to commit to being a dramedy like Beauty and the Beast, it should at least have gone for being a straight-up comedy swashbuckler that didn't take its romantic subplot seriously at all; as it stands, it's awfully close to being a great story, but it keeps having to settle for pretty damn good.

I teased about the music, didn't I? Well, let me finish that up: you see, Howard Ashman died before the soundtrack was finished, and only three of the songs he had ready made the cut (I have heard that an additional three of his total of eleven were in complete enough state to be used). Those three are characteristically great: the opening theme "Arabian Nights" probably less so than the others, but the two production numbers for the Genie, "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali" are both absolutely marvelous, fun, big songs; the first has all the bombast and swagger, the second has the intricate wordplay, and together they would equal more than one "Be Our Guest", if only such a combination could be arranged.

After Ashman's death, lyricist Tim Rice came on board, writing two new songs, and a reprise of "Prince Ali". The first of these, the primary introduction to the plot (after a fun, beautifully-colored scene introducing Jafar's wicked scheme - the first time we've met the villain before the hero in a Disney feature since Snow White, I think, though Cinderella could mount a counterargument, and Sleeping Beauty might qualify based on whom you consider to be its protagonist), is "One Jump Ahead", a song strongly built on the "Belle" model: the hero is maneuvering through town, several people are singing their opinion of him, and we get a sense of who it is that we're going to be spending time with for the next while. Since I first saw the film in 1992, I've found "One Jump Ahead" to be a somewhat unsatisfying opening number enough so that it left me kind of detached from the film until the Genie came and saved the film with "Friend Like Me", and it wasn't until somewhat recently that I figured out why, even though the evidence had been in front of me all along: Tim Rice is a talentless hack, and despite Menken's attempts to prop him up with some customarily beautiful melodies, "One Jump Ahead" is a horribly flimsy attempt to capture the character-defining, fascinatingly arrhythmic language of Ashman's "Belle". A passage like
"One jump ahead of the hitmen
One hit ahead of the flock
I think I'll take a stroll around the block"
is awkwardly phrased and obscure in intention ("one hit ahead of the flock"?) but it is particularly offensive contrasted with Ashman's strangely beautiful combination of uncommon but regular meter and almost spoken-word style:
"Look, there she goes, the girl is strange, no question
Dazed and distracted, can't you tell?
Never part of any crowd
'Cause her head's up on some cloud
No denying she's a funny girl, that Belle."
At least Rice's Oscar-winning love song "A Whole New World" isn't so painfully slangy as "One Jump Ahead" or its irritating, slowed-down reprise ("Would they see a poor boy? No siree"), though neither is it a very good love song, and its perpetual ranking near the top of Disney's most popular musical numbers confuses me almost as much as the similar status accorded to "Colors of the Wind". At least Menken works overtime to give the song a soaring romantic melody, managing to distract me from the fact that I am meant to find Hallmark card banality such as
"But when I'm way up here
It's crystal clear
That now I'm in a whole new world with you"
to be in some way moving. The staging of the song, a world air tour with a cheerful "screw you" to even the barest vestiges of historical accuracy, doesn't do much to improve my feelings towards the piece.

Having now angered most of the ardent Disney fans in the audience (you're all going to want my head on a pike after I finish up with "Circle of Life", by the way), I shall try to make it up by closing with one last statement of praise: I have throughout been talking about the silliness of this film in fairly descriptive terms: but I have not so far come right out and admitted that it works fantastically well. Aladdin is perhaps the movie that introduced the modern vogue for animated features that are heavy with pop culture references and contemporary, one of my least-favorite trends ever in any genre. But it all works in Aladdin despite some appallingly dated references (Arsenio Hall!), perhaps because it is fresh, perhaps because of the endlessly bright palette (this is one of the most candy-colored of all Disney films) that gives the whole thing a cheerful energy. Maybe it's just because of the pleasant nature of so many of the jokes, rather than the calculated snarkiness of a DreamWorks film: playful references to other Disney characters (I think it has more cameos than any other Disney film), and a gag in the "Friend Like Me" number stretching all the way back to the 1936 Mickey short "Thru the Mirror" for its winking reference. Not exactly the same thing as tossing a crappy Smash Mouth song on the soundtrack and having characters lip-sync.

Of all Disney's true comedies - a shorter list than you might think - I don't suppose that any of them is nearly so funny as Aladdin, a film which sees all of the animators and storymen indulging in their love of gags. It's this comic energy that keeps the film alive despite sometimes grave missteps in other areas, and the same energy - coupled with the hefty, contract-busting marketing push involving Robin William's name, the first true celebrity stunt casting in animation history - pushed the film even farther along the box office race than its predecessor: at $217 million, Aladdin was the hit of the year, and the most successful animated film yet produced, continued proof to the accountants at least that there was no stopping the Disney renaissance; and storytelling quibbles aside, there's nothing about the animation quality that would suggest that the post-Mermaid adrenaline rush was even close to running out.

DISNEY ANIMATION: TALE AS OLD AS TIME

It is sheer coincidence of scheduling, and nothing but, that I come to write about the 1991 Disney animated feature Beauty and the Beast on Thanksgiving, but it could not possibly be more appropriate; for there is no animated film produced during my lifetime for which I am more thankful.

With The Little Mermaid comfortably along in animation, that film's producer Howard Ashman turned his attention to the future. I have no idea whatsoever if it was his notion to adapt the classic fairy tale La Belle et la Bête, if the idea had been floating about in the Disney offices and Ashman simply grabbed onto it, or if the idea was presented him after it had already been developed a bit. But it is a matter of record that the project quickly became Ashman's baby, and were it not for his efforts, along with the tireless work of producer in Don Hahn, it is not unlikely that we still would be waiting on a Disney adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. The project had been abandoned twice already: first in the '30s, as a possible successor to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (the last of the possible second features that ever, finally, became a completed project), later in the 1950s, during the post-Cinderella Silver Age. At both times, the idea was ultimately scrapped when the storymen were unable to do anything with the story, which seems like a peculiar excuse. If anything, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's version of the story - the standard version of the tale, though not the oldest - is already a far more complete narrative than any of Disney's other fairy tale adaptations (and maybe that's the problem; maybe part of the appeal was adding flesh to a structure as lean and lacking in detail as a Grimm folktale). Certainly, Jean Cocteau didn't have a problem stretching Leprince de Beaumont's text out to more than 90 minutes, with his outstanding 1946 adaptation (which, despite Disney's masterpiece-level treatment work on this film, remains the best cinematic version of the story).

At any rate, the project came back to life in the late 1980s, and this time the problems, whatever they may have been, were solved, with one of the biggest issues fixed in one suggestion from Ashman (much as his single idea that the crab in The Little Mermaid had better be a calypso singer completely changed the tone of that film): it was his notion that the invisible servants of the original story - unacceptable for an animated family feature, a medium in which a two-person drama unfolding without any amusing, entertaining side characters is virtually inconceivable - should be replaced by anthropomorphic inanimate objects, the castle staff transformed into the same everyday objects they worked with as humans, when they were struck down by the curse that left their prince a hideous animal. Another primary difficulty with the material was solved by cribbing from Cocteau's scenario: the lack of a straight-up villain was changed by giving the beauty of the title an unwanted suitor, who responded to her indifference by planning to hunt down the beast.

The story was developed with Ashman and Alan Menken as songwriters from the very first; it is perhaps thus the first Disney musical designed from the ground up, so to speak, with its songs fitting into the narrative much more organically even than they did in The Little Mermaid. If Ashman's contributions to the project went no farther than this, it would still have been a significant personal achievement, but in fact he contributed thoughts to the story team throughout; and as with The Little Mermaid, his work to help shape the story and characters ended up earning him a producer credit - an executive producer credit, no less.

Tragically, Ashman died at 40 of complications from AIDS in March, 1991 - months before Beauty and the Beast was completed. In my boundless crankiness, I would sometimes call that moment the end of the Disney Renaissance, all of 16 months old; for the two films which he did so much to help create are also the last two true Disney masterpieces. His importance in shepherding this pair to such heights was commemorated at the end of the closing credits: the film was dedicated, "To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful."

The film he left behind (which was technically directed by first-timers Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, and produced with love by Hahn; but dammit, this is Howard Ashman's movie, and I don't think any of those men would disagree with me) - is absolutely outstanding, a brilliant musical that is also an unusually effective love story and a top-notch example of the best of Disney-style design and animation. It is, in essence, as perfect as this kind of movie could ever hope to be: in what may or may not be a gross heterodoxy, I would be prepared to declare it the finest of Disney's folktale adaptations and princess films (two categories that largely overlap, but are not identical), in virtually every capacity: characters, drama, music, technical competence. Only in one area is it surpassed by any of them - it does not have such exquisite design and style as Sleeping Beauty.

Taking its cues from the classic Disney fantasies while significantly altering and reforming them, Beauty and the Beast begins with a "Once upon a time" frame like so many earlier Disney features; but it does not use the image of an illustrated storybook opening (a motif that had to this point been used in nine different Disney features, from the elemental folk tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the innocent post-modernism of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh), telling its exposition instead through a series of stained-glass windows describing the legend of a spoiled prince turned into a beastly creature by an enchantress who sought to punish him for his heartless ways in still tableaux, as the measured, faux-British tones of David Ogden Stiers lend the story a warm gravity. This is not the first Disney feature to open with spoken narration (even among the princess films, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty beat it to the punch), but the removal of the storybook visual takes away a fig leaf, as it were, a sort of arm's length remove that comes from being told, within the text of the film, that we are watching a fictional story come alive. Instead, we open on a beautiful wooded landscape (a fantastic example of what CAPS could do for Disney, now that it was fully established: for this opening shot has all the characteristics of an unusually complex multiplane camera shot, all done on computers - such a shot would have been unimaginable in reality, given the decrepit state of the multiplane camera by the late 1980s), tracking slowly towards a castle in the distance; the stained-glass exposition windows indeed decorate this castle, implying even before we have any other reason for thinking that this is the castle where the story unfolded that it is just that place. Stiers's narration adds one further layer of authority, and despite the archly storybook tenor of the words he speaks, the whole effect of this opening moment is not that we are being taken into a story, but into a history: here is what happened in this place, a long time ago.

It is, of course, a curious fact about Beauty and the Beast that it insists on its connection to our reality in a way that few of the other animated features - certainly none of the other princess films - feel compelled to do. Insofar as a film about singing teapots can be connected to our reality. But beyond the curious and as far as I know unique treatment of the castle as a tangible place that we first see a very long time after the events of the story that takes place within its walls (sort of a Wuthering Heights approach to the material), there is the equally curious manner in which Beauty and the Beast, alone at that point amongst the Disney fantasies, stresses its own geography. That the characters all have French names is not so special, merely a typical attempt to give film's world a unified feeling; one might as well call attention to the fact that six of Snow White's seven dwarfs have adjectives for names. But there are two moments, separated by thirty minutes, where particular reference is made in song lyrics to the film as taking place in France; the topography and vegetation specifically suggest that it takes place in southeastern France. Compare that to Snow White and Sleeping Beauty (both take place in an indeterminate medieval Europe), Cinderella (an impression of something not unlike France, but no France that has ever existed), or The Little Mermaid (which takes place in the most geographically unsettled location of any Disney narrative feature: I wouldn't even swear to knowing in what hemisphere it occurs). It's the point especially that gives me the feeling that the creators of Beauty and the Beast had a particular desire that we think of their film as belonging to a very specific time and place, and not the sort of dreamscape idea of a magical kingdom that the rest of their fairy tales had thus far inhabited. Curiously, the subsequent films in this model all follow Beauty and the Beast in having fairly concrete locations: Aladdin takes place in what is self-evidently Abbasid Baghdad, hidden by a fake name, while The Princess and the Frog is set in 1920s New Orleans. Pocahontas (a princess film, but not a fairy tale) is set in 1607 in a place whose foundations can still be seen by tourists; Mulan (a fairy tale, but not a princess film) occurs at a fairly distinct period in the history of China, and incorporates at least one prominent real-world location.

This very specific physical position grounds the film: of course, it remains a fantasy (Singing. Teapots), but a fantasy with one foot in the real world. I suspect that inasmuch as this was a conscious goal of the filmmakers -and it's hard to assume that with as many people as contribute to the story development of a Disney feature, that there wasn't at least one person who considered it a conscious goal - it was to give the film emotional heft that is generally absent from Disney movies, or indeed movies generally. I should like very much to expand on certain thoughts I brought up in reviewing The Little Mermaid: there, I proposed that the particular effectiveness of that film's emotional palette was based in its elemental simplicity - Ariel possesses just enough personality that she is not an unpleasant bland blob, but she still experiences what are ultimately the most basic sorts of emotions, functioning for the viewer as a reminder of primal feelings. Beauty and the Beast presents anything but a simple plate of emotions: its heroine Belle is arguably the most complex female in any Disney feature, not just because of the barbarically PC character point that she likes to read books and doesn't care for the local pretty-boy, but because of the whole set of characteristics she reveals over the course of the movie, while the Beast -mirabile dictu - is by far the most rounded and interesting male romantic lead to be found in this or any of the preceding Disney love stories (out of all the male leads in Disney to that point, the only one who comes close is Tramp, from Lady and the Tramp. Certianly, none of the bland non-entities from the earlier princess films does). Together, they create the rarest of rarities in Disney: an adult love story, presented more as a matter of dramatic interest than as wish-fulfillment, or more cynically as wish-creation for the audience of young girls that Disney seems these days indecently anxious to indoctrinate into a consumerist heteronormative world. The fact of the matter is, that despite the singing and dancing houseware, and despite the fact that I still remember with great clarity how much I was jazzed by this film when I first saw it at the tottery old age of nine (incidentally, it is to this film that I trace my lifelong love of seeing movies at night late in the year, with a fresh snowfall waiting outside the theater; they are always more rife with promise to me, even when they are things like Four Christmases), I believe that Beauty and the Beast is not fundamentally a film for children - it is a film that children can watch and fully enjoy, and millions have, but it presents its central love story too hesitantly and with a pronounced lack of dippy romanticism - unlike Snow White, Ariel, Cinderella, Aurora, the Bambi boys, Pongo the dalmatian, or Mowgli, Belle does not fall in love at first sight, nor is she looking to fall in love at all, and right up until the last three minutes of the film, she does not even consider that she is in love. And this refusal to abide by the typical "they're in love, and events keep them apart" model of other Disney love stories or most contemporary romantic comedies gives Beauty and the Beast a gravity about love that is not seen elsewhere in the studio's canon.

(This is where it would make sense to talk about the Oscar-winning love ballad "Beauty and the Beast", but I should rather keep all the talk of music in one place).

What I am absolutely not saying is that Beauty and the Beast is a movie for grown-ups that won't do any damage to the kids (not that my judgment should be trusted: I still don't see what possible entertainment a child could derive from the massive box-office and DVD hit Finding Nemo); it is, like the great Disney films of old, a movie of such essentially human concerns that it is equally well suited to a child or a parent, or any number of variations in between.

One can bring up any number of reasonable arguments that it is, at heart, a gross simplification just like the other modern Disney pictures - the commonest are that Belle's characterisation is fake feminism, yet another example of a woman trading one patriarchal system (her slavish devotion to her father) for another (her marriage to the ex-Beast), or that the message (judge people by how beautiful they are on the inside) is applied too thickly. To the first of these, I will readily agree that the seeming belief at Disney that showing a girl reading is inherently female empowerment is a pretty damn weak stand for a film to take in 1991, but this is as far as I will take it, unless it is the case that any time a woman falls in love, she is supporting the patriarchy. We simply don't have enough data to predict what Belle's live as a princess will be like, but I do not think it will be so pink and ribbon-bedecked as will Ariel's or Cinderella's.

As far as the heavy-handed moral, derived from the argument that the Beast is ugly but good, while the village hunk Gaston is pretty but evil, that's tremendously difficult to square with the fact at the start of the movie, that the Beast isn't good: he's a complete asshole, and his ugly exterior is a reflection of his inner self, not a mask. The difference between him and Gaston is not Manichean, between the Good Male and the Evil Male; it's between a jerk who, given time, is sufficiently respectful of the woman to whom he is attracted that he attempts to understand her needs and desires and to accommodate them as best he can, which includes to stop being an jerk; and a man who views that same woman as a trophy (which is, itself, not a particularly hidden metaphor, for Gaston is a game hunter, although I honestly can't recall ever reading an analysis of the film that suggests Belle is to his mind the same as his mounted antlers); the contrast is rather between a Basically Decent Person and a Total Prick. I hope I have also finished addressing the "fake feminist" argument: I am not going to be so bold as to call Beauty and the Beast a film of female empowerment, because I am quite certain it's not that. It is not, however, a film that tells little girls that they are incomplete without a husband.

At any rate, I got pretty far off of my argument that this movie has a fairly adult sensibility about romance. It's still G-rated, of course, and should be; but in its own small way it presents a world in which falling in love is a process, not an act, which is exactly the way it is in life: not only cartoons, but a great many live-action films seem to entirely miss this truth, and for this reason I am least willing to think about conceding the film it's advertising tagline, "The most beautiful love story ever told" (I'm even maybe willing to agree with it, if they mean, "The most beautiful-looking thing that is also a love story").

Now, even as the film bases its drama in an essential realism, the arc of the film is essentially fantastic, particularly given the oddities of time and space on display in its 84 minutes, enough to keep it firmly in the fairy tale realm. There are two massive holes in the film, which never come within the orbit of a resolution: how far is it from the village to the Beast's castle, and how many days does Belle spend there? The easy answer to these questions, "about thirty minutes" and "three days" are both clearly unacceptable to maintain the film's atmosphere; but necessary on the evidence presented. Somehow, this huge violation of the film's firm grounding in the real only makes it all the more appealing to me: it proves that Beauty and the Beast really is a fantasy, just a fantasy of particularly sharp observation. And there is not better kind of fantasy than that.

Structurally, the film is one of Disney's finest: there is no other musical in Disney with such a nuanced use of songs to advance plot or character, usually both: it is the absolute pinnacle of the Broadway-style narrative in Disney. The mere fact that the film uses its songs in such an organic way is enough that I would say this even if the songs were pedestrian and functional; it is in a sense only a happy accident that Beauty and the Beast has perhaps the finest collection of songs in all Disney; only Pinocchio can rival it on that score. In my most generous mood, I might even go so far as to call it the finest original musical in cinema history, period, irrespective of studio or medium (it does not in my estimation have the best soundtrack all told: I'd still hold up the instrumental score to The Little Mermaid as the very best, noticing that Beauty and the Beast's most beautiful passage is a barely-changed lift from Saint-Saëns's Carnaval des animaux).

First off, there is the unusually fine talent singing the music: several of the actors were Broadway veterans (Paige O'Hara as Belle, Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach as two of the objects, Richard White as Gaston), with the main non-singing actors (Robby Benson as the Beast, David Ogden Stiers doing double-duty as another one of the objects) cast for good reasons that have nothing much to do with singing at all. So, at a minimum, the songs are going to land easily on the ears: not a statement true of the Disney musical in the '60s and '70s, just to name an example.

This is the kind of showy Broadway spectacular that grabs you by the balls (or ball-analogues, for the ladies) right at the start, with a massive town-spanning epic song titled just "Belle", in which a coruscating series of lines, some directed at our heroine, some about her, and some just overheard snatches of random chatter, collect to form an abstract soundscape in which the mere sound of words becomes music itself; in addition to setting up the location in which the story opens, it also establishes Belle's character, and how her character is perceived. It also introduces a secondary theme, in which Belle describes with some delight a passage in her favorite fairy tale; this theme is repeated, much later, in the song "Something There", where Belle suddenly realises how her life has taken on the aspects of that same fairy tale.

The film skips from one terrific show tune to another: the extended noodle "Gaston", no doubt meant to echo the title of "Belle", functioning primarily as a series of playful rhyming games that establishes only the shallowness of its hero with its maddeningly catchy "da-da-DUM" rhythm, the precise opposite of the conversational fluidity and musical layering heard in "Belle". Another song that primarily functions as a driving rhythm is "The Mob Song" (man, that Ashman could write a title), in which the villagers are brought into such a frantic state that by the end, you can just barely puzzle out what they're saying, except for the loudly repeated refrain, "Kill the beast!" - a fine representation of mob mentality.

Of course, after "Belle" the two standouts - and the other two of the film's record-setting three Oscar-nominated numbers - are "Be Our Guest" and "Beauty and the Beast". The first of these is just damn showboating fun, the high-energy centerpiece that stretches from to "I've Got No Strings" all the way to "Under the Sea", and here reaches its fullest expression (one of the few songs Ashman completed for his next project very nearly equals "Be Our Guest" for sheer spectacle). The second is the love song, easily the best in all Disney, maybe the best in cinema: despite Angela Lansbury's fear that she wasn't up to the challenge of a ballad, it's a masterful performance of an elegant, passionate song, and the horrid radio-friendly version butchered by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson isn't nearly enough to dampen the heartbreaking effect of listening to Lansbury's voice soaring with the lyrics: "Bittersweet and strange / Finding you can change / Learning you were wrong".

That number is paired with one of the most celebrated pieces of animation in the Disney Renaissance, or at least one of the most famous: a giant CGI orgasm as the title characters dance their way around a huge ballroom that could not conceivably have been put together on that scale with those camera movements before CAPS was born. I am torn on this sequence: on the one hand, the huge contrast between the flat characters and the fully-rendered background is something that even CAPS can't smooth out, and I often spend as much time gawking at the mismatch as I do in gawking at the bravura choreography. But Lord Almighty, that choreography is pretty freaking bravura, and especially married to the sweeping music, I will admit that the sequence breaks down my fairly rigid opposition to the mixture of 2-D and 3-D animation, in a way that none of the other Disney films from this period do with any consistency.

In general, Beauty and the Beast is one of the two great visual triumphs of CAPS (we'll get to the other shortly); though it always surprises me when I re-watch it, how much of the animation is actually rather clunky. The "Beauty and the Beast" sequence is one thing; but perhaps you don't recall that just prior to the dance, the beast's face is animated in a clunky manner making him look almost like he's wearing a huge cartoon mask. Or that afterward, there is a conversation between Belle and the beast in which Belle's face moves funny, and when they touch it looks like their hands are hovering a foot apart.

The dark fact is that Beauty and the Beast enjoyed a deeply involved pre-production and a hurried animation period; at that year's New York Film Festival, a workprint was premiered with 70% completed animation, less than two months before the film's premiere. Clearly more than 70% of the film was done at that time, but in an ideal world it would have been finished already. The hectic pace with which this animation was being finished shows: there are far more moments than you likely remember in which detail is lost and characters (Belle more often than not - she is notorious among character animation buffs for going off-model at random points) are curiously inexpressive.

But that's only a very small amount of the whole; which in the main is as good as anything else in the studio's history. Once again, we see the marvelous use of CAPS lighting effects, which in the first meeting between Belle and the Beast, with a single shaft of dusty light in between them, results in my pick for the loveliest sequence in American animation after Sleeping Beauty. Belle herself is one of the best-animated humans in Disney's canon: she appears onscreen for nearly twice the length of anyone else in the movie, and so her workload was split not only between two supervising animators, but two studios, just like Ariel: James Baxter, receiving his promotion from character animator, worked on her in California, while Mark Henn, quickly on his way to becoming the studio's new woman specialist (he partnered with Glen Keane on Ariel) headed up the Florida team, still a skeleton crew that was largely under Henn's supervision anyway. As for Keane, he was busy with his all-time masterpiece: the Beast is the ultimate embodiment of what that animator does best, the huge movements of a dominating force. In his hands, the Beast switches effortlessly from a man with a large suit of fur to a rampaging mad animal, and he is totally credible in both aspects - I think of the contrast between the fight with the wolves, and the scene where he acts like a petulant brat with Belle moments later (itself another one of the loveliest examples of CAPS firing on all cylinders that you could hope to see).


He's the kind of character who even know could only really be done in animation, at least the way he is designed here: any CGI representation of that, however realistic, would inevitably prove unpleasant.

The number of gifted artists who worked on the animate objects - chief among them Will Finn, Dave Pruiksma, and Nik Ranieri - all did a fantastic job figuring out how to make teapots and clocks walk, and how a candelabra might dance like Maurice Chevalier, but I have already written to obscene length, and I will assume that the film can speak for itself on this matter: anyone who gives a damn about Disney-style character animation can see exactly why the trio of Lumiere, Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth are fantastically imaginative and well-executed examples of object animation (and they're pretty fantastic comic relief to the film's overall seriousness).


In the end, 1991 audiences responded to the emotional richness and musical brilliance and visuals of Beauty and the Beast just as much as I still do: it was nominated for Best Picture, famously the first animated picture to hold that distinction; it also became the first animated film to break $100 million at the box office, by 50%. Neither of these are particularly good indications of quality; if the film had been made ten years later, I'd cite these both as strong arguments against the film's artistic success. But every so often, good films are rewarded for being good, and Beauty and the Beast deserved every penny and accolade: it is a most visually ambitious and visually excellent animated film, with a luscious, old-fashioned love story musical giving it an emotional grandeur unlike virtually any other feature produced in its studio's lifetime. This isn't merely the best of the princess features; it's very close to being the best Disney movie of them all.