"What's New" Archives: March 2005
March 31, 2005:
SECULAR DISNEYISM: I've been intrigued by news items reporting
that some Imax theaters are refusing to show movies that
mention evolution, "fearing protests from people who object
to films that contradict biblical descriptions of the origin of
Earth and its creatures," in the New York Times' words.
It seems that "religious controversy has adversely affected
the distribution of a number of films" dealing with scientific
subjects, and that production of "large-format science documentaries"
will inevitably respond to such pressures.
Those reports set me to wondering about Walt Disney and
Fantasia, and about why Disney and his films haven't yet
come under attack from people who find the bare mention of evolution
offensive. It's hard to regard Fantasia's "Rite of Spring"
sequence as anything other than an endorsement of evolutionary theory,
although Deems Taylor's narration dances all around the word without
ever using it, speaking instead of "a story of the growth of
life on earth." Walt Disney himself was not a visibly religious
man, and certainly not a churchgoer; he lived in a rigidly religious
household as a child and thereafter never attended church. On the
rare occasion when religion makes an appearance in a Disney film
(Pollyanna, for example), there's evident a deep skepticism
toward Christianity of the harsh fundamentalist kind, and a distinct
preference for the faith's more benign manifestations.
If Walt Disney and his films have not yet been the targets
of odious publicity hounds like James Dobson, that can only be because
such people realize that they run a much greater risk of looking
foolish if they condemn Walt than if they attack SpongeBob SquarePants.
But we live in a period when willed ignorance is increasingly respectable,
and surely Dobson and his ilk are simply biding their time.
March 28, 2005:
BACK FROM MARCELINE: Walt Disney's hometown is an interesting place,
it turns out. I'll post a fully illustrated report shortly.
BARKS VS. STANLEY: Mark Mayerson has called my attention to an
that's taking place on The Comics Journal's message board.
It was initiated by Jeet Heer, who has advanced the proposition
that John Stanley (the comic genius behind the Little Lulu comic
book of the forties and fifties) was far superior to Carl Barks
(the comic genius behind the best Donald Duck and Uncle
Scrooge comic books published then) as a writer. I haven't had
time yet to digest the views posted by Jeet and others, but this
looks like an uncommonly interesting thread. Most animation and
comics message boards are depressing places, heavily populated by
shameless ignoramuses (my favorite example being the poor soul who
asked, "Who is W. C. Fields?"), but such people don't
seem to have been attracted by this Barks-Stanley discussion.
My initial thought: the action in the Lulu stories takes
place within so much narrower a compass than the action in any of
Barks's stories that the effect is to magnify the subtleties of
which Stanley is indeed a master. Barks is just as subtle, only
he's working on a broader canvas. I think Stanley's non-Lulu
stories are illuminating in this regard: a lot of them are wonderfully
funny, but they certainly don't have any more refinement (I think
they have considerably less) than comparable Barks stories.
But read the debateand, of course, read the stories, if you
haven't alreadyand make up your own mind. And read the Journal,
too; how I wish there were a regularly published animation magazine
that rivaled the Journal for intelligence and pungency.
March 17, 2005:
LEVIATHAN: As I've followed this week's developments at the Walt
Disney Company, I've been reminded of how much that corporation
differs from the Walt Disney Productions that Michael Eisner took
over in 1984. Then, less than twenty years after Walt Disney's death,
the company still looked very much like Walt'spoorly run,
to be sure, but recognizable as the founder's child. Not so today,
once past the endless recycling of Walt's cartoons and Walt's characters.
I visit several fan sites devoted to all things "Disney,"
and I often wonder how those sites rationalize making room under
their particular tents for both Bambi and Desperate Housewives.
There's nothing "Disney" about a lot of what
bears that label now, at least compared with what "Disney"
meant a few decades ago. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but
it does mean that being a devoted fan of today's Disney Company
is about as odd as being a fan of, say, General Motors. Disney is
just another big corporation; and if you give your heart to a big
corporation, you should expect to have it sold back to you.
I wonder, in the wake of the Bernard Ebbers verdict,
how Walt himself would fare in today's business climate. Like so
many entrepreneurs, he identified with his company, and in his activities
the line between the personal and the corporate was often blurry.
Walt didn't pay attention to money, either, as long as he had enough
of it to spend on pet projects. If Walt Disney Productions, as a
public company, had been caught up in an accounting scandal at all
similar to those that wrecked Enron and WorldCom, could Walt have
escaped punishment? Not if he had operated in a climate as censorious
as ours. I'm glad that he didn't.
Speaking of Walt: I'll be visiting Disney-related sites
in Missouri next week, so the site will be even quieter than usual
for the next ten days or so. I still haven't seen Robots,
I'm sorry to say. I'm actually very curious about one thing. Given
that it's a contemporary animated cartoon, Robots surely
includes at least one fart gag But how was such a gag accommodated,
considering that the characters are made of metal? Don't tell me;
and don't tell me, especially, if there is no fart gag. I
prefer to postpone my disappointments.
March 11, 2005:
CLANK: Robots opens today, and I'll post some thoughts about
it in a few days. I've criticized "robotic" computer animation
in the past, and I've been tempted to hope that Robots, filled
as it is with metallic, emphatically artificial characters, would
be a wrydare I say "post-modern"?commentary
on the medium's limitations. The reviews have not been encouraging,
however. For example, here's the gist of Joe Morgenstern's very
brief, dismissive review in today's Wall Street Journal:
"This computer-animated feature was made by the people
who gave us the modest delights of Ice Age, but they seem
to have forgotten everything they knew about appealing stories and
characters that kids can care about. Instead of a cute, thrifty
squirrel, or a wide-eyed sloth, we have ducts, gears, cogs, sprockets
and bearings as cluttered backgrounds for a city populated by blathering
robots made of mismatched parts. The video-game sequences are impressive,
but you know that a 'toon is in big trouble when its most powerful
theme is planned obsolescence."
Robots, like Ice Age, was directed by Chris Wedge.
He worked on Tronthe live-action Disney feature that
pioneered through its extensive use of computer animationmore
than twenty years ago. At a recent L.A. screening of Robots,
Wedge visited with Steven Lisberger, Tron's director, and,
fortunately, Chris Padilla of the Web site AnimationTrip.com was
on hand with a tape recorder. You can read the results by clicking
I particularly enjoyed some of Lisberger's comments, like this one:
"In some of the major studios, the attitude is that when you
put enough people in a room and you get them working on something,
and the one thats left standing at the endyou go with
him. And its sort of a 'survival of the fittest' business
acumen. My feeling is that too often they apply that in the creative
realm. Its like, 'Ten people have a creative direction on
this. You ten people go at it. And the one that winswell
use his idea.' I find that the problem with that is that very often,
the person who has the best creative idea is not that good at politicking,
is not good at making the right friends, is not good at the phone
calls, is not good at the connections. So if you base it on that
other formula, you end up with bad studio movies. Thats a
specific that Ive seen come out of the mixture of business
and art. ... The way to counter that is to have a team of people
that really know each other."
March 9, 2005:
BOOK BEAT: Two university presses will soon be releasing a couple
of animation-related books with which I had some peripheral involvement.
I'll tell you what I know about them, in case that helps you make
up your mind about ordering them. As always, you can order from
amazon.com by clicking on the links.
had the opportunity to read a manuscript verson of Richard Fleischer's
memoir of his father, Max Fleischer, which will be published in
June by the University Press of Kentucky as Out
of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution.
Here is a little of what I wrote to an editor at the UK Press when
I recommended publication of the book:
"The Max whom his employees observed, and whom they have described
in interviews with a number of writers, was consistent with the
Max in this booka conservative burgher of steady habits, an
obsessive tinkerer and inventorbut much of Richard Fleischer's
rich anecdotal material could only have come from a member of Max's
immediate family. .. I came away from the book feeling that I knew
Max better than before, and that I liked him more. The book also
fills gaps, both large and small, in the historical record."
Inevitably, I had some problems with the manuscript, and
I'll address them in a review if they've survived the transition
into print. But, on the basis of the manuscript I've read, this
is a book I can warmly recommend. Richard Fleischer, who directed
Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, among many other
films, is also the author of an excellent Hollywood memoir, Just
Tell Me When to Cry, but I suspect that Out of the Inkwell
will prove to have even more lasting value.
I don't know a great deal about Chuck
Jones: Conversations other than that it will contain my
1969 interview from Funnyworld No. 13, but I do know that
Maureen Furniss, who edited the book for the University Press of
Mississippi, has tracked down an enormous number of Jones interviews;
the list she sent me at an early stage of her work already included
a substantial number of published
interviews that I had somehow missed.
The problem with Jones interviews is that they are so repetitive.
Toward the end of his life, especially, Chuck tended to slip into
auto-pilot in interviews, offering the same answers no matter how
different the questions were. (My last interview with him, in 1986,
unpleasant in other respects, was unpleasant in that way, too.)
Maureen had a daunting task, but her thoroughness in assembling
interviews encourages me to believe that she has completed it successfully.
We'll know in April, when the book is published.
Mississippi's "Conversations with Comic Artists" series,
of which the Jones book is part, is increasingly valuable but apparently
little noticed by many members of its natural audience. I have the
Schulz and Carl
Barks volumes on my shelves, and I can recommend both highly,
especially the Barks, edited by Donald Ault, which contains a lot
of previously unpublished and frequently illuminating interviews.
I still need to buy the R.
Crumb and Milton
SPEAKING OF CHUCK: When I last wrote here about the second set
of the Looney
Tunes Golden Collection DVDs, I hadn't yet received my contributor's
copy; but now I have, and I can say without reservations that this
set lives up to my hopes. It contains many of Bob Clampett's best
Warner cartoons, beautifully restored, as well as some outstanding
Chuck Jones cartoons (One Froggy Evening, A Bear for Punishment,
What's Opera, Doc?, The Dover Boys).
The "extras" are mostly fine, too. I didn't flinch
too often listening to my own audio commentaries (except when I
heard my silly mistakesthat is indeed Tommy Dorsey, rather
than Glenn Miller, in Book Revue, and I mixed up the genders
of the Crosby and Cantor children in my commentary for Baby Bottleneck).
For me, though, the real treasure among the "extras" is
the supplementary audio track for What's Opera, Doc? that
allows us to listen in on the recording session for the voices in
There are lots of pathways that lead back to the Warner Bros. cartoon
studio in the forties and fifties, when the people there were making
their best cartoonsinterviews, old photographs, documents
of various kinds. But the snippets from recording sessions, this
one in particular, are unique. When we hear Mel Blanc seeking Chuck
Jones's guidance on the reading of a line, we're there, with
no distorting hazeno selective memories, no posing for the
camera, only two great pros going about their work without a hint
of self-consciousness. They had no reason to believe that what they
said would survive a day, much less surface on hundreds of thousands
of DVDs fifty years later.
For me, the immediacy of this particular exchange makes it immensely
moving. I don't know that I'd argue that it's worth the price of
the set in itself; but it's a close call.
March 3, 2005:
MORE BI-POLAR: Milt Gray wrote in response to John Benson's comments
about the 3-D version of The Polar Express, which I appended
to my own review
of the film:
"I enjoyed John Benson's comments on your site about
Polar Express. I would argue only one point he made: Instead
of the 3-D being completely 'natural' (if he means that in a literal
way), I felt that the 3-D was just a little exaggeratedand
I loved it because, being a little exaggerated, it gave the movie
a stronger feeling of fantasy. That, in turn, made the very unnatural-looking
characters seem to belong in the movie, so that they were easy to
accept on their own terms. To me, Polar Express felt very
much like a John Stanley Lulu-Tubby ghost story, sort of like 'The
Ghost In the Bottle,' or 'The Wishing Tree.'
"I especially agreed with the last paragraph of Benson's
comments, about the difficulty of suspending disbelief in today's
world, compared with the 1950s. As much as I wanted to let myself
go with the 'believe in Santa' theme of the movie, my reaction to
that theme was very uncomfortable and exactly the same as John's.
He articulated perfectly my own reservations about that aspect of
A March 9 addendum from John Benson: "I guess he's
right that the 3-D was sometimes a little exaggerated, but then
it often is in 3-D live-action movies (all they have to do is move
the cameras a little further apart). However, it was only exaggerated
in that way, which is a slightly unnatural way of filming reality.
I was not conscious of any selective hightening of the 3-D within
a frame, which to my mind would qualify as 'unnatural.'"
March 2, 2005:
AN OSCAR AFTERTHOUGHT: As pleased as I was to see Brad Bird
win the Oscar for best animated feature for The Incredibles,
I was almost equally chagrined to see him lose the award for best
original screenplay to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
When I first read about that film, I thought, "What an interesting
idea for a film." When I finally saw the film, I had exactly
the same reactionnot that the film itself was interesting,
but that the idea behind it was. Eternal Sunshine strikes
me as a classic example of a one-sentence "concept" masquerading
as a two-hour screenplay. That so flimsy an effort should have been
chosen over Bird's extremely clever and inventive screenplay is
testimony to the Academy's chronic preference for the superficially
seriousand, of course, for live action over animation.
If you haven't yet read my Los
piece on The Incredibles, or my interview
with Brad Bird, you can still read them by clicking on those
CATCHING UP: A couple of items that merit your attention...
Golden Awards: From Bob Foster in L.A.: "The Animation
Guild's Golden Awards Banquet will be held April 9, 2005, 6 p.m.
at Pickwick Gardens, 1001 Riverside Drive in Burbank, California.
This event honors those veterans with fifty years in the industry
of screen cartooning, animation, and related fields. This year's
honorees began their careers between 1943 and 1955, during the heyday
of Warner Bros, UPA, Disney, Jay Ward and more. It's been 10 years
since the last Golden Awards Banquet, so we have a lot of honorees
for this year's event."
Individual banquet tickets are $37.50, and you can order them through
the Guild's Web site by clicking on this
link. For more information on attending the banquet, call Dave
Brain at (818) 246-6437 or email him at email@example.com.
Oswald Gets Lucky: From Pietro Shakarian: "Now hosted
on Jerry Beck's 'Cartoon Research' is 'Of Rocks and Socks: The Winkler
Oswalds (1928-29),'a guide on the extremely rare (and largely undocumented)
Oswald cartoons produced during the six-month gap [between the Disney
and Lantz Oswalds] by Charles Mintz and George Winkler. This whole
thing has been written and tediously researched by David Gerstein
and myself. Check it out here."
I'm not sure why Pietro snuck that "tediously" in there,
because the Oswald pages, filled with information that was new to
me and probably to most readers, are anything but tedious to those
of us who care about Hollywood animation's history. These pages
are the fruits of the kind of basic research that today's academics,
preoccupied as they are with "theory," can't be bothered
with, but that will have far more value over the long haul. They're
well worth a visit. Kudos to Jerry Beck for giving them a home.