"What's New" Archives: April-May 2005
May 31, 2005:
DREAMWORKS: Today's Wall Street Journal has a long
and interesting story about how DreamWorks Animation stubbed its
toe by overestimating DVD sales of Shrek
2. The story is probably available online only to subscribers,
but you may be able to find it if you hunt around the Web.
Speaking of DreamWorks, Madagascar's
box-office take for the holiday weekend$61 millionwas
gratifyingly large, especially considering that so many reviews
were negative. I've been puzzled by critics' hostility to the film,
and I have to believe that some of it is owing to Madagascar's
relatively weak second half. It's always better for a film to have
a strong ending than a strong beginning, so that audiences leave
the theater feeling "up," rather than a little let down.
It seems that audiences are more willing than reviewers to forgive
Madagascar's flawed structure, and this time, at least, the
audiences are right.
May 25, 2005:
THE BIG QUESTION: A correspondent who prefers to remain anonymous
wrote in response to the last paragraph of my review
of Madagascar (which opens Friday, and don't miss it):
"I also caught an early screening of the movie, and was happily
entertained. To address the question in your last paragraph, I remember
from early in the movie how the filmmakers slipped in the requisite
flatulence gag under the guise of a few playful 'armpit farts.'
But wait! Does a gag count as a fart gag if there's
no foul odor for the onscreen characters to react to? My correspondent
says yes, suggesting that it's the sound that's the crucial
element. It's the rude noise that appeals to kids, he says, and
not the dismay of any onscreen characters trapped in the flatulence
zone. I prefer to cut the cheesesorry, I meant to say, I prefer
to cut the filmmakers a break and classify those "armpit farts"
as more a sly dig at real fart gags than as a fart gag themselves.
But I realize we're entering deep theological waters here, and I
am open to dissenting voices.
POGO: It's always a joy to see a big-name critic taking
up the cause of the greatest American comic strip, and Jonathan
Yardley did my heart good with his piece in last Monday's Washington
Post on Walt Kelly's "Pogo".
Yardley is obviously unaware of Pogo's comic-book origins, andmore
serious oversighthe doesn't mention the invaluable Fantagraphics
reprints. But we Kelly fans will take what we can get.
DNR: I thought the Wall Street Journal did a good job in
this week on digital noise reduction's ill effects on classic cartoons.
Certainly the most important pointthat real damage is being
donecomes across clearly, even if industry people won't acknowledge
that the damage is significant. None of the anti-DNR people quoted
by the Journal's Vauhini Vara sounds in the least like an
May 20, 2005:
MADAGASCAR: I don't usually write about new films until they've
been in theaters for days or even weeks, but I'm departing from
my usual pattern because I've seen an advance screening of Madagascar,
the new DreamWorks computer-animated feature, which opens May 27.
To my astonishmentI haven't liked previous DreamWorks featuresI
really enjoyed the film. You can read my Commentary by clicking
May 13, 2005:
THE DIPPY DIPLOMATS: Courtesy of Andrew
Sullivan's political Web site, some "separated at birth?"
frame grabs of John Bolton, President Bush's nominee for ambassador
to the United Nations, and Wally Walrus, star of the Walter Lantz
cartoon The Dippy Diplomat, among others:
THE SITH HITS THE FANS: The most recent installments in George
Lucas's six-part opus have been computer-animated films, for all
practical purposesvery bad ones, I think. Dale Peck shares
my loathing for the whole misbegotten Star Wars project; you can
read his piece for the New York Observer by clicking here.
May 11, 2005:
JOE GRANT: A lot of Disney fan writing is claustrophobic, but in
reading some of the tributes to the late Joe Grant (who died May
6), I've had the feeling that I've stepped into a diving bell that
is descending into very deep, dark waters. An
"Joe Grant will forever haunt animation, move audiences
to tears, and swirl about our hearts like bright autumn leaves,
reminding us that those who have come before us are not to be discarded
and forgotten, but to be used as a source of courage and inspiration.
True inspiration. Never has anyone so unassuming, so gracious and
so gentle walked the halls of Disney Animation. Never has any one
personoutside of Walt himself inspired so much creative
magic at Disney.
"Websters would do well to slip his portrait neatly
beside the definition of 'gentleman.' It would have to be a lively
caricature that emphasized the snowy wave of hair and apple blush
cheeks that framed those jewel-brilliant eyes. Joe Grants
face shined with a Father Christmas sort of secret knowledge of
exactly what you were wishing in your heart, and for decades he
granted those wishes."
Wellnot exactly. Joe was a gifted, intelligent, and exceptionally
interesting man, but any resemblance to Santa Claus was strictly
accidental, not to say misleading. It's a pity that Dick Huemer,
Ward Kimball, Bill Peet, and Frank Thomas, among others, aren't
around to repeat or elaborate upon the assessments of Joe and his
career that I heard from them years ago; but then, one of the advantages
of living to be almost ninety-seven, as Joe did, is that any skeptics
among your contemporaries will most likely have been silenced long
Milt Gray and I interviewed Joe Grant a number of times in the
seventies and eighties, and I visited him and his wife, Jennie (who
died in 1991), on other occasions. Those visits were almost always
pleasant, but by the early nineties I had concluded reluctantly
that I no longer liked Joe very much. I found him simply too patronizing
and manipulative, the very traits that angered or annoyed a number
of his Disney colleagues. I have no reason to believe that Joe was
even aware that I had pulled back, much less that he cared. At the
most, he would have been amused by my naivete.
Sometime in the next few weeks, when I can make time during work
on my Walt Disney biography, I'll post a large chunk from my 1988
interview with Joe, the longest and probably most revealing of our
interviews. In the meantime, if you want to learn more about what
made Joe such an important member of the Disney staffbut also
made him less than completely lovablelet me refer you to pages
256-259 of my book Hollywood Cartoons:
American Animation in Its Golden Age.
THE POPEYE MYSTERY: One of the enduring frustrations, where classic
animation is concerned, is the continuing unavailability on DVD
of most of the Fleischer studio's Popeye cartoons. Fred Grandinetti,
the world's leading Popeye fan, talks about that and related issues
in a very informative interview you can read by clicking here.
April 26, 2005:
BLOG ALERT: I paid an overdue visit recently to Jaime J. Weinman's
excellent blog, "Something
Old, Nothing New." I was impressed, as always; anyone who can
hold my attention while writing about the Richie Rich comic
book is pretty damned good. (He also writes about such things as
Nikolaus Harnoncourt's new set of Haydn's "Paris" symphonies,
some of my favorite music.)
Jaime's site, which is devoted to "Thoughts on Popular
Culture and Unpopular Culture," is a true blog, and not especially
user-friendly. Lots of gray pages, and no easy way of finding your
way to entries of particular interest. I'm increasingly convinced
that such blogs, and blogs in general, are, if not exactly a fad,
a phenomenon with a limited life spaneven a pseudo-blog like
my own can come to seem a little too much like work. (That's why
I've decided to stop worrying if my postings come days or even weeks
apart.) But Jaime's blog is one of the few that's truly worth the
time a visitor is likely to spend roaming through it. Try it, you'll
SECULAR DISNEYISM, CONT'D: Jim Engel wrote in response to my March
31 posting in which I criticized James Dobson, head of the conservative
Christian group called Focus on the Family:
"I enjoy your website (as I have Funnyworld
and your books over the years). In perusing your daily comments
of the last few weeks, I was struck by your dismissal of Dr. James
Dobson as an "odious publicity hound" with regard to the
SpongeBob incident [in which Dobson was widely reported as attacking
the TV-cartoon star SpongeBob SquarePants for being a "gay"
"I was amazed at the time (well, and still am) at the coverage
of that issue in terms of what he'd said versus. what the media
(including comic and animation media) said he said.
"As a Christian who supports Focus On The Family, I receive
mail and email from Dr. Dobson. I'm enclosing below the text of
an email from Dobson about the whole SpongeBob thing that clarifies
Rather than reproduce Dobson's email, let me direct you to this
page on his Web site. As I've told Jim, "disingenuous"
was the first word that came to my mind when I read Dobson's disclaimer;
but I'll let you make up your own mind.
CRUISIN' WITH PORKY: Bob Bergen, whose expert recreation of Mel
Blanc's voice for Porky Pig is one of the few bright spots in Warner
Bros.' current mishandling of its classic characters, is offering
a combination voice-over seminar/cruise from Los Angeles to Mexico.
You can read about it on his site
by clicking here.
April 16, 2005:
LEVIATHAN, CONTINUED: The current Fortune, the annual issue
devoted to the Fortune 500, includes an article (there's a link,
but the full text is available only to subscribers), about Robert
Iger's enthusiasm for building Disney's business in China. Disney
is a preeminently a "content" companyso what happens
when a "content" company ties its fortunes tightly to
an authoritarian government that has shown itself to be intensely
concerned with the nature of the "content" available to
its population? That does not seem to be a question that has given
pause to today's Disney management, as well it might.
CRUMB AND HUGHES: Interesting item
in today's New York Times about a joint appearance at the
New York Public Library by R. Crumb and Robert Hughes, the bottomless
bag of wind who writes about art for Time. Seems that Crumb
now has a Web
site (run by his son Jesse) where you can buy stuff like an
$825 Mr. Natural lamp. Wow, the sixties really were a long time
ago! Now that they're both Internet entrepreneurs, I wonder if Crumb
Bakshi have considered cross-marketing?
April 4, 2005:
WALT DISNEY'S FOOTSTEPS: Last month, as part of the research for
my Walt Disney biography for the University of California Press,
I visited the two Missouri towns with the strongest Disney associations.
I've posted photo essays about my visits, and you can click here
to go to the Kansas City
page, or here to go to the page for Marceline.
This was my second visit to Kansas Citymy first in more than
fifteen yearsand I was dismayed by much of what I saw in Walt's
part of town. The more I saw of Marceline, though, the more I liked
it. Some of Marceline's Web sites appear to be in flux, so I can't
provide as many good Disney-related links as I'd like; I'll add
them as soon as I can.
April 2, 2005:
TASHLIN FEEDBACK: I've added a message from Greg Duffell to the
devoted to the Frank
Tashlin interview. If you've ever wondered who really directed
The Dot and the Line, here's your chance to find out.
BARKS VS. STANLEY, CONTINUED: I've heard from Jeet Heer, who initiated
the stimulating and ongoing exchange about the relative merits of
the great comic-book creators Carl Barks and John Stanley on a Comics
message board. Jeet writes:
"Briefly, I think this issue comes down to depth versus
range. There is no question that Barkss stories had a range
that Stanley lacked. Range in this sense referring not just to all
the geography that the Ducks covered, but also the many odd cultures
they encountered, as well as the inventive plots that Barks put
"Yet I think the relatively narrow ground that Stanley
covereda few city blocks with occasional forays into fairyland
and the beachwas covered with greater depth. There is a density
to the social relations in Stanleys world that I dont
find in Barks.
"The character of Tubby highlights what Im talking about,
since his hair-brained schemes push the action forward, much more
so than the level-headed Lulu. All the characters around Tubby have
mixed feelings toward him. The fellers in the club mock him but
also look to him for leadership. Lulu likes Tubby but is always
trying to bring him down to earth. Lulus dad has an ongoing
low-level war against Tubby but tolerates him for the sake of Lulu.
Even Gloria, so quick to push Tubby away, gets upset when he turns
his attentions to Lulu. Tubby is really the wobbling pivot of Stanleys
universe, the free-floating center that keeps the action going.
"In a sense, Stanley was a bit like Charles Schulz. Just as
the Peanuts gang is held together by an organic web of relationships,
the same is true of Lulus neighborhood. I dont get this
feeling of an organic community in Barks: it really does seem like
a universe of every man for himself.
"I havent even gotten into the other aspect of Stanleys
writing that is so impressivehis understated slyness. Often
you have to pay close attention to what the characters are saying
to catch the full nuance, because they are talking at cross-purposes.
I find that it takes either close reading or re-reading to catch
the full drift of the comedy: aside from the obvious comedy of the
farcical situations, there is a lot of subtle wit buried in Stanley."
That's an excellent summary of Stanley's great virtues, I think.
In reading Jeet's message, and the posts on the message board,
I've been reminded again of how important it is to judge artists
by their best effortsparticularly when those artists were,
like Barks and Stanley, required to turn out a large amount of work
at a steady clip. I re-read all of Barks' duck stories and all of
Stanley's Lulu stories when I was making choices for A
Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics more than twenty years
ago, and I remember being struck at the time by the mediocritythat's
the only wordof much of what I read. It wasn't that Barks
and Stanley were ever less than conscientious professionals, but
only that they couldn't afford to wait for inspiration to strike.
They had deadlines to meet; and it was because they wrote and drew
so steadily that they were fully prepared to meet the challenge
when the Muse did make her appearance.
Comparing the best work of the two artistsand I don't think
more than 10 percent of either man's output really deserves that
titleit's certainly true that Stanley evokes the community
life of Lulu's rather down-at-heel small Northeastern city more
effectively than Barks does the life of Duckburg (which is always
more a prop than a real town). I would still give the palm to Barks,
though, because his richest stories have a psychological subtlety
and, more than that, a psychological intensity that I don't
think Stanley ever quite achieves, even in those stories he drew
himself. Is there a Stanley story in which any character is as brilliantly
brought to life as Donald Duck in Barks's ten-page story in the
October 1952 Walt Disney's Comics? I don't know of any; and,
for me, it's through the creation of such charactersinstantly
recognizable, but open to us in a way that real people are notthat
fiction of any kind ultimately justifies its existence.
April 1, 2005:
ROBOTS: I finally saw it the other day, and I can't bring
myself to write a full review of it. It is the most formulaic computer-animated
film I've seen to date. Almost everything about it is numbingly
predictablethe pointless movie-star voices, the pop-song borrowings,
the synthetically sentimental orchestral score, the busy sequences
that evoke theme-park rides and video games, the flimsy story (in
this case a knockoff of Monsters, Inc.), and, above all,
the sanctimonious fraudulence with which the film's makers, employees
of Rupert Murdoch, wag their fingers at businessmen dedicated to
maximizing profits. A pinch of irony, if you please. There's a fart
gag, of course, an unusually elaborate and prolonged piece of business,
in fact, as if the filmmakers were determined to put to rout those
doubters (like me) who couldn't envision how metal bodies could
be flatulent. I saw Robots during school vacation, with fifty
or more children in the audience, and it was only during this part
of the film that I heard the kids laugh.
There are a few traces of thought in the filmI
enjoyed the sequence in Robots' version of Grand Central
Terminal, which reflects the experience of real New Yorkers (the
Blue Sky studio is still located in White Plains, I believe), and
I applaud the use of a Tom Waits song on the soundtrack. For the
most part, though, I came away feeling that Robots had been
made by talented people who had been working very hard at suppressing
those talents. What a way to spend several years of your lifeand
how depressing to see a film like this one, so soon after The
Incredibles and The Polar Express have shown us what
computer animation is already capable of.