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MichaelBarrier.com Exploring the World of Animation and Comic Art

"What's New" Archives: May 2006

May 30, 2006:

NO BIGAMOUSE: In regard to the item just below, Dave Smith of the Disney Archives says: "It's sloppy reporting. Neal was talking about Walter Winchell [the subject of an earlier Gabler biography], not Walt Disney."

May 28, 2006:

BIGAMOUSE?: From a Seattle Times report on BookExpo America, the book industry's annual meeting in Washington earlier this month:

"Biographies of two very different cartoonists are coming our way: Linda H. Davis' 'Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life,' about the legendary New Yorker contributor who specialized in ghoul humor, and Neal Gabler's 'Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination,' which uncovers some unusual information about the man behind Mickey Mouse and Disneyland ... for instance, that he married his second wife without quite divorcing his first. A cheery, energetic Gabler was at the Knopf dinner at the Corcoran Gallery on Friday night, describing the detective work he had to do to track down any information on Wife No. 1."

No, I don't know what that's about.

May 26, 2006:

MCCAY: Jeet Heer's fine piece on Winsor McCay (and secondarily on the "Masters of American Comics" exhibit) is now online at the Virginia Quarterly Review's Web site. Highly recommended.

WALT'S TRAINS: The magazine Miniature Locomotive ran a cover story on Walt Disney's backyard railroad in its May-June 1952 issue, and I'm having trouble finding a copy of that article (no luck with inter-library loan). Does anyone have it? I'll be happy to pay for a photocopy.

May 25, 2006:

TURTLES: John Lasseter may be on the cover of the current issue of Fortune, but it was an article in the Wall Street Journal last week that offered what seemed to be an exceptionally clear picture of the animation industry's future. I don't think it's pretty. Some excerpts from the Journal's piece, by Cris Prystay and Geoffrey A. Fowler:

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"Michael Kao spent 23 years—and earned a small fortune—making plastic Christmas trees in China and selling them to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other big retailers. Then his son, Francis, came home from college in the U.S. and persuaded him to trade in 10,000 factory workers for 350 computer animators and a long shot at Hollywood glory. Today, a company that once was the world's biggest artificial-tree maker has morphed into one of Asia's biggest digital-animation studios. [Imagi is the current name of the Kaos' Hong Kong company, earlier called Boto International Holdings.] It is now halfway through making a new, $35 million 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' movie, which Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros. and Weinstein Co. are set to distribute in the spring of 2007. ...

"Michael had fled Shanghai at the age of 6 with his family to escape China's Cultural Revolution. He began working as a tailor at 13. Like many Hong Kong entrepreneurs, he had learned to be nimble. 'I told him the Christmas tree and animation businesses are the same. We have cheaper labor costs here, the same as when he started the tree business,' Francis recalls. 'These businesses will come East [to Asia]. I told him this is the second wave.'

"In 2000, Michael issued new ... shares to raise about $6.5 million to fund the fledgling animation studio. 'I fully supported [Francis], but still in the beginning I worried,' says Michael. 'He was spending money.'

"The business faltered at times. Francis hired animators and began work on 'Zentrix,'an anime-style cartoon about a red-haired princess, her pet dinosaur and her robot. Francis remembers attending a TV industry show in Cannes, France in 2001, with just six minutes of animation to exhibit. He set up a booth. No stopped by or even asked for his card.

"'I had no experience on how it worked. It turned out you have to make appointments with all the different buyers ahead of time,' he says. 'We didn't even have a script to show.'He and his animators sat in the booth and drank beer instead.

"The next year, Francis booked appointments in advance and returned with a full pilot of 'Zentrix.' Distributors in France, Germany, England, Hong Kong and Japan picked it up." ...

"Francis bought a controlling stake in a financially troubled Japanese computer-animation studio specializing in anime. He quickly parlayed the company's contacts at DreamWorks SKG, the U.S. movie company, to promote Imagi's capabilities.

"DreamWorks invited Imagi to vie with other animation studios to work on 'Father of the Pride,'a primetime animated TV show. Imagi got the gig. Soon, Francis's animators were soaking up techniques from experts DreamWorks sent to Hong Kong to see the project through. Meanwhile, Francis, who wanted Imagi to start creating its own characters for its own films, began hiring a U.S. executive team to market the feature-length films he hoped to make. ...

"The $35 million 'Ninja Turtles' film will be one of the most expensive movies ever made in Hong Kong, but it will cost far less than what a U.S. animation studio would spend. (Pixar Animation Studios, for example, spent $90 million to make The Incredibles.) Imagi, which has a director, scriptwriters and artists in Hollywood, is backed by 350 animators in Hong Kong, who crank out work for one-fifth the cost of U.S. animators, Imagi says."

CHICKEN LITTLE: Gene Schiller writes to offer a dissent to my negative view (shared by a lot of others, I must add): "The critics…and my own disenchantment with CGI kept me away from Chicken Little during its theatrical run, but I finally caught up with it on DVD. Refreshingly, and unlike most CGI, it felt like a cartoon! C. Little is obviously modeled after McKimson’s Egghead Jr., automobiles have a nice rubbery feel to them, like something out of an old Flip the Frog cartoon, and the alien designs are the coolest since Ward Kimball’s Mars and Beyond. As for the funky 'fish out of water,' I imagine the great Clampett would have said, 'Why didn’t I think of that?' True, the characterizations are pat, but so what—once the War of the Worlds subplot kicks in there’s a madcap energy that doesn’t quit. And the plot twists near the end ( a homage to both The Wizard of Oz and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) are clever and surprising. In fact, I’d say the last 20 minutes or so represent the best use of CGI we’ve seen to date. In all, I found Chicken Little a pleasant surprise, and more fun than expected. Give the little guy a break."

May 23, 2006:

COMICS ON THE WEB: Larry Levine, whose internet comic strip "Aw Prunes" I mentioned last week, writes: "I agree the Web is a tough springboard for a comic strip with so many strips out there, of wide ranging quality, seeking to reach an audience. With classic 2D animation on the wane it's tougher than ever for a cartoonist to find an income-generating forum. I see Web comics in the same light as how comedians like The Marx Brothers began in vaudeville, where the acts were plentiful and mostly unremarkable before reaching their greater successes. One has to start somewhere, strive to be reach their audience and remember not to quit their day job!"

Tiago Cardoso has written about a somewhat similar site, "a new and free site, where users can draw their comic strips directly online. It's really fun and has some cool features. Other users' drawings are drawn in 'real time' and are ranked by everyone. Strips can be viewed by ranking, date, or user. Anyone can even blog their comics with one line of code (an iFrame link). This is an important resource to artists wanting to publish their work online without the knowledge to create a website. And it's a good initiative for comic art."

If you find that a little hard to grasp, you'll have to visit the site. Such activity certainly seems healthy to me, although I can't guess what it will lead to.

CALARTS AT MOMA: This from Josh Siegel, film and media curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: "'Tomorrowland: CalArts in Moving Pictures' is finally opening at MoMA this Thursday [May 25] and there's an embarrassment of cartoon riches: student work by many luminaries from Pixar including John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and Ralph Eggleston; as well as Henry Selick, Paul Demeyer, Stephen Hillenburg, Craig McCracken, Kathy Rose, Joanna Priestley, Steve Belfer, Q. Allan Brocka, Nancy Beiman, Mike Cachuela, Max Weintraub, Jorgen Klubien, Gary Conrad, Leon Joosen. Chris Sanders, David Daniels, Eric Darnell, Adam Beckett (a big rediscovery; he worked on visual effects for the original Star Wars), and new talents like Hiroshi Mori and JJ Villard."

The MoMA series will run until August 13 in the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 2. Details on the 37 (sic!) programs, as well as on MoMA's hours and admission prices, are available at MoMA's Web site. If you live in the New York area or will be visiting there this summer, you owe it to yourself to at least sample some of the programs in the series (and if you're going to sample very many of them, you ought to become a MoMA member and save yourself some money). The 45-minute "School of Pixar" program, which will be shown on June 7 at 6:30 p.m. and June 24 at 2 p.m.is of special interest, since it's made up of student films by familiar Pixar names like Lasseter, Docter, Ranft, and Stanton. Josh has provided this list of titles and timings (in alphabetical order):

Mark Andrews, Tarzan, 1993, 3 min

Max Brace, A Date with Suzie, 1995, 2 min

Ken Bruce, Sis, 1986, 5 min

Brenda Chapman, A Birthday, 1987, 3 min

Pete Docter, Winter, 1988, 2 min

Pete Docter, Next Door, 1990, 3 min

Ralph Eggleston, For the Birds, 2000, 3 min

Daniel Holland, Train Crazy, 2003, 3 min

Karen Kiser, Solitaire’s Sanctuary, 1985, 6 min

John Lasseter, Nitemare, 1979, 4 min

John Lasseter, The Lady and the Lamp, 1979, 4 min

Matt Majers and Jon Fancher, Man, Monkey, Marshmallow, 1999, 2 min

Bobby Podesta, smoke…, 1997, 4 min

Joe Ranft, Good Humor, 1979, 3 min

Jim Reardon, A Jim Reardon Film, 1986, 4 min

Andrew Stanton, A Story, 1987, 4 min.

Doug Sweetland, Blind Spot, 1993, 3 min.

Mark Walsh, Extra Crispy, 1997, 4 min

Mike Wu, Legend of Shaolin, 1994, 2 min

The New York Times published this piece about the series last Sunday.

May 19, 2006:

WALT'S PEOPLE, VOLUME THREE: I've previously called your attention to the first two volumes in Didier Ghez's series of books called Walt's People: Talking Disney with the Artists Who Knew Him. Didier has just released the third volume in the series, which you can order from Xlibris by clicking on this link. (The book will be available through online retailers like amazon.com later this year.) If you're at all interested in Disney history, you should own copies of all three volumes.

As the title indicates, these uniquely valuable books collect interviews—many of them unpublished or otherwise unavailable—with animators and other members of the Disney staff, many of whom knew Walt Disney personally and worked closely with him in the Disney studio's glory years. To quote from Didier's press release, "Volume 3 features in-depth interviews with artists James Algar, Lee Blair, Jack Bradbury, Andreas Deja, Joe Grant, Ben Sharpsteen, Bill Justice, Volus Jones, Ward Kimball, Burny Mattinson, Floyd Norman, Bill Peet, and Tony Strobl. These interviews discuss, among many other subjects, the infamous 1941 strike, the creation of the Donald Duck shorts, the birth of Chip 'n Dale, the making of The True Life Adventures, and life at the Studio 'after Walt.'"

I've been happy to contribute some of my own interviews to all three volumes, and the new book also includes interviews conducted by such stalwarts of Disney research as Robin Allan, Paul F. Anderson, J.B. Kaufman, and Jim Korkis. You'll find quotations from some of the interviews in the first two volumes in my Disney biography.

Walt's People Cover

May 18, 2006:

COAL BLACK: Thanks to Bill Perkins for calling my attention to the laudatory article about Bob Clampett's Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs by Jaime Weinman on the Web site of the Canadian magazine Maclean's. I particularly like the title: "The Best Cartoon You've Never Seen." There's one small error in Jaime's piece: Clampett died in 1984, not 1980.

Mickey Mouse MagazineIN CASE YOU MISSED IT: What is apparently a rather beat-up copy of Mickey Mouse Magazine Vol. l, No. 1, from 1935—the magazine that eventually morphed into Walt Disney's Comics & Stories in 1940—just sold on eBay for $1,436. No, I didn't buy it; someone from Taiwan did.

INTERNET COMICS: Larry Levine, who describes himself as a big fan of this site and as a cartoonist inspired by Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones, has asked that I make other visitors aware of his internet comic strip, "Aw, Prunes." So that's what I'm doing. "Aw, Prunes" runs in the Comics Sherpa section of Universal Press Syndicate's uComics site; it's a place where aspiring cartoonists offer daily samples of their work, in most cases, I'm sure, in the hope of attracting enough visitors, and enough favorable ratings from those visitors, to persuade UPS to offer their strips to newspapers. The sheer volume of available strips is staggering; even the list of editors' picks (daily installments they found particularly appealing) seems to go on forever. And there's the rub with the Web: it makes it easier than ever to offer your work to a potential audience, and harder than ever to get noticed. I don't know of any way out of that box.

May 17, 2006:

SINCERITY: When I wrote about Cars on May 6, I suggested that Pixar might have a problem with "sincerity" because its new film appeared to be telling the members of its audience to adopt a point of view that the filmmakers could not plausibly claim to embrace wholeheartedly themselves. To quote a Disney press release, Cars' central theme is that "there are more important things than trophies, fame and sponsorship." People who want to succeed at making Hollywood films—and John Lasseter and his Pixar colleagues have been very successful—have no choice but to regard "trophies, fame and sponsorship," or their near equivalents, as very important things indeed. If they don't, they won't be able to keep making films.

I'm afraid that Richard Corliss's rave review in Time has heightened my apprehension. Corliss writes of "the truth of any Lasseter film: friendship is family. ... A brief stay in [the town of] Radiator Springs brings Lightning [the racing car who is the film's protagonist] to his senses: to the recognition that the old have tricks to teach the young, that winning is more than coming in first and that speed can't top taking your time to savor the scenery—that, as Lasseter says, 'the journey in life is the reward.'"

Cars AdI hope those bromides aren't billboarded in the film as crudely as they are in Corliss' review, but they may well be. If they are, Lasseter's films will have taken another giant step toward the kind of obvious insincerity I've come to take for granted in most of the features from Disney, DreamWorks, and Blue Sky.

I'm concerned not with Lasseter's personal sincerity but rather with how his growing sophistication, as a person and a filmmaker, has been matched by his films' retreat into increasingly simplistic themes. Walt Disney fell into a similar trap. Any number of his late live-action features proclaim the virtues of a small-town life Walt himself had left behind, decisively, many years earlier. He returned to his boyhood home of Marceline, Missouri, occasionally—and very briefly—but he spent his real vacations not in any such small town, but in Europe and Hawaii and Palm Springs. As if by way of compensation for his diminished interest, Walt was painfully self-indulgent in his depictions of small-town life in Pollyanna, Follow Me, Boys! and their ilk, his great skills as a story editor all but invisible in shapeless films that are far too long.

The "sincerity" question has nagged at me more forcefully with each new Pixar feature. There has been one exception: Brad Bird's The Incredibles. Sincerity isn't an issue in that film because Bird is not illustrating a lesson but telling a story. He may preach a little against the leveling impulse, but never in a way that compromises his story.

The abstract painter Mark Rothko said in 1958: "I have never thought that painting a picture has anything to do with self-expression. It is a communication about the world to someone else. After the world is convinced about this communication it changes. The world was never the same after Picasso or Miro. Theirs was a view of the world which transformed our vision of things."

The Incredibles is just such a transforming "communication about the world"—not to the world, like Lasseter's moralizing films, but about the world. Bird has made it possible to think of computer animation in invigorating new ways. Except in a narrow technical sense, that hasn't been true of Pixar's other features, and I think their lack in that respect is directly related to the presence in each film of confining themes.

Mater AdEven if we accept the idea that an animated feature need not be shaped around such themes, can we agree that a film should be shaped around characters who strike an audience as sincere and likable as soon as they appear on the screen? After all, the characters in most Pixar films are all but automatically likable; you'd have to be a real Scrooge not to like Woody and Buzz and Nemo and their compatriots. Here again, though, a comparison with The Incredibles is illuminating. There's nothing automatically likable about the characters in The Incredibles. They become likable because of what they do, not because of how they're conceived. As a result they're not just more likable but far more real than the characters in other Pixar films.

The other night I watched Gilda, the 1946 live-action feature directed by Charles Vidor, and I was struck by what a terrific movie it is—for the first hour, when all three lead characters, played by Glenn Ford, Rita Hayworth, and George Macready, are anything but "sincere and likable." They're better than that, they're interesting. But Gilda falls apart in its second half, when you can sense some nervous Columbia executive insisting that the two romantic leads show themselves to be nice people before the movie ends.

The quest for sincerity and likability has sunk other movies, too, notably Pinocchio, whose title character Walt Disney transformed into a boring cipher rather than run the risk of alienating the audience by making him the brash, mischievous character of Collodi's original. It's risky giving characters their head and letting them define themselves in the hands of a gifted actor or animator, but there are risks in doing it the other way, too—not just artistically but also financially, as Walt learned when Pinocchio tanked at the box office.

These days, certainly, the arguments are almost all on the side of carefully manufactured sincerity and likability, especially when money is the measure. The Incredibles, as successful as it was, still lagged far behind Finding Nemo, an inferior film. Without Nemo's tailwind, I wonder just how well Incredibles would have done. Movies are, to borrow a phrase from A. O. Scott of the New York Times, "a field usually defined by commercial concerns and controlled by other people's money," and such limitations have special force when the films involved are mass-market fare aimed at families with children. In making such films, the temptation to seal their family-friendliness with homely morals and artificially likable characters must be all but irresistible. Brad Bird may have pointed the way toward better films, but I wonder if he or anyone else will be able to follow that path. If not, at least we'll know what we're missing.

When my Disney biography is finally wrapped up, I'll be devoting almost all my attention to my next book, a historical survey of the American comic book. I feel some relief at the thought of spending a lot of time with Carl Barks, John Stanley, Walt Kelly, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Eisner, and their peers. Those cartoonists, working in a despised medium, knew how to deal with adult concerns in an adult manner without losing the children who made up so much of their audience. Brad Bird aside, I can't think of anyone making feature-length Hollywood animated films today of whom I can say the same.

May 16, 2006:

BASIC BLACK: I hope you've been watching some of the films Turner Classic Movies has been showing on Tuesday and Thursday nights in its series devoted to the depiction of blacks in Hollywood movies. Even if, like me, you oppose the suppression of classic cartoons like the "censored eleven" (Warner Bros. cartoons withheld because of their racial content), it's sobering to see some of the live-action features that provided the theatrical context for those cartoons. Anyone who has just watched Stepin Fetchit in all his appalling glory in Judge Priest (1933) should have an enhanced understanding of why a studio might feel some unease about making widely available a cartoon with a Fetchit character in it (Disney's Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, for example).

It had been a few years since I saw Check and Double Check, the 1930 Amos 'n' Andy feature in which Charles Correll and Freeman Godsen play their radio characters in blackface, but it was just as awful as I remembered—downright creepy, in fact. I don't think that had to be the case; when Laurence Olivier filmed Othello, he played the title character as a black man, and he was noble and moving in the part. But, of course, Correll and Godsen put on blackface not to enter the lives of black people and find the comedy there, but to get cheap laughs. It was appropriate that their makeup made them look not comical, but hard and mean.

Jaime Weinman, whose site I try to visit at least a couple of times a week, posted a link earlier this year to thoughtful comments on Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs by Sterling Fisher, a young African American. Fisher is troubled by the stereotypes Bob Clampett used, but he also acknowledges the cartoon's merits: "Coal Black never seems mean-spirited. In fact, it seems downright jubilant. It has the same wacky, cartoony feel of other Robert Clampett cartoons except it's applied to black characters."

I think Fisher's closing remarks are especially pertinent, and I wish they would be taken to heart by the right people at Warner Bros.: "I think this cartoon should be seen, especially in a historical context. While I wasn't offended enough by it to be repulsed outright, it will definitely offend some. However, I don't think that this cartoon (or any other negative, offensive portrayals) should be boxed up and locked away. They should be confronted and discussed. If we can better understand our past, we will be better able to deal with our future."

May 7, 2006:

DISNEY DOCUMENTS, CONT'D: As I've mentioned, I'm very close to done with my Walt Disney biography. I'm still seeking copies of a few Disney-related documents, however. I've found some of the items I listed in earlier postings, but here's what I'm still hunting for:

1. Dave Smith's 1978 inventory of Walt's miniature collection, as cited on page 30 of Karal Ann Marling's Designing Disney's Theme Parks.

2. Smith's article on Walt's miniatures for Small Talk magazine.

3. Walt's August 31, 1948, memo on a "Mickey Mouse Park."

4. The six-page 1952 prospectus describing Walt's plans for a Burbank park.

5. The June 1954 report on visits to amusement parks by the Cottrell team, as mentioned in Marling, page 64.

6. The brief family history by Elias Disney that Thomas mentions in his biography of Roy Disney, pages 7-8.

7. The 1953 SRI feasibility study for Disneyland.

I located a copy of the 1953 SRI site study, as well as copies of the 1953 "pitch kit" and the 1949 and 1953 annual reports. I'm sure some of the items listed above exist outside Disney's tightly guarded files, too. My photocopy of the "pitch kit" is marked as originating in Walt Disney Imagineering's library, for example, and I suspect that other historical documents of interest in that library have been copied over the years. I'd welcome any leads.

SPEAKING OF DOCUMENTS...: I've accumulated about forty file drawers full of them over the years as I've researched books and articles, along with shelves full of books and tape recordings and you name it. I've been thinking about where all this stuff should wind up when I no longer have any need for it, thanks to death, disability, or simple weariness. An institution of some kind is the obvious answer, but I have no idea which one, and I've heard enough horror stories about mishandled collections to know that care is in order in picking a repository for a personal archive like mine. I'm well aware, too, that the subject matter we all find so fascinating is still regarded with disdain by a lot of academics and librarians (one of whom has already snubbed me when I wrote to ask for an appointment). So, I'd love to have your serious suggestions—but please, base them on some hard knowledge of the institution you're writing about.

May 6, 2006:

CARS: I wish I could feel more optimistic about this Pixar film, but then along comes a press release from Disney to ratchet up my skepticism again. An excerpt:

"After taking moviegoers magically into the realm of toys, bugs, monsters, fish, and superheroes, the masterful storytellers and technical wizards at Pixar Animation Studios ... and Academy Award-winning director John Lasseter ... hit the road with a fast-paced comedy adventure set inside the world of cars. Lightning McQueen (voiced by OWEN WILSON), a hotshot rookie race car driven to succeed, discovers that life is about the journey, not the finish line, when he finds himself unexpectedly detoured in the sleepy Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. On route across the country to the big Piston Cup Championship in California to compete against two seasoned pros, McQueen gets to know the town's offbeat characters—including Doc Hudson (a 1951 Hudson Hornet with a mysterious past, voiced by PAUL NEWMAN), Sally Carrera (a snazzy 2002 Porsche voiced by BONNIE HUNT), and Mater (a rusty but trusty tow truck voiced by LARRY THE CABLE GUY)—who help him realize that there are more important things than trophies, fame and sponsorship."

Am I alone in thinking that Cars sounds distressingly reminiscent of Robots, last year's dreadful CGI feature? Not in plot details, and not just in the all-caps emphasis on star voices. The resemblance I see is in the copout of using machines as characters—machines being the kind of thing that CGI animators do best—combined with a leaden theme. "There are more important things than trophies, fame and sponsorship"—that's a theme that most of the people making the film can only half believe in, if at all. I don't want to denigrate the value of insincerity, an unfairly maligned trait, but it can cripple when an audience is asked to validate an insincere artist's sincerity and, worse, when the artist himself can't seem to tell the difference.

MAYERSON: Mark Mayerson, creator of the CGI series Monster by Mistake, has started a blog that promises to be one of the most stimulating sites for discussion of the art of animation. I hope Mark will post there some of his commentary from his contributions to APAtoons, a bi-monthly, privately published compendium where a few dozen animators and fans exchange thoughts through highly personal little publications. Mark's critique of Chicken Little, for example, is the best I've read. He really goes to the heart of why that film is so rotten, and he explains the larger meaning of its rottenness. Many more people should read that critique than those of us on APAtoons' roster.

BOWERS: This is of course not a news site—for that you should be paying daily visits to Cartoon Brew and Animated News (and, for Disney news, LaughingPlace)—but rather a sort of holding pen for items of various kinds that catch my eye. This item is a perfect example. Paul Etcheverry has called my attention to the questions he has posed about the early animator/comedian Charles Bowers. I can't answer them, but perhaps someone in my audience can. As a connoisseur of such minutiae, I'm glad Paul is asking his questions, in any case.

FISCHINGER: I haven't seen The Wild or Ice Age: The Meltdown, and I don't expect to see either. Life is too short. But I'm looking forward to watching the DVD devoted to Oskar Fischinger that the Center for Visual Music will release on May 15. One of the films on the DVD will be Fischinger's masterpiece, Motion Painting No. 1, which I wrote about in one of my first postings on the site. The other films may not offer as much, but Fischinger is almost always interesting where many other makers of abstract animated films are dull. Abstract films can easily suffer from a sort of stasis—they move, but without going anyplace. Too many filmmakers seem to think that abstraction alone confers superiority, moral and aesthetic, and that a striking abstract pattern, set in repetitive motion, is all that's needed; as a result, abstract films often look like European TV commercials for some fancy, mysterious product (I wait for the soothing voice, speaking in Italian, but it never comes). Fischinger made some commercials for theaters, but they weren't like that; I don't think he ever ignored film's imperative to move forward in time. I can't guarantee that you'll find Motion Painting No. 1 as entertaining as the best Looney Tunes, but it's a splendid achievement, and everyone interested in animation as an art form should see it at least once. The new DVD promises to be an excellent way to do that, not only through what looks to be a high-quality transfer but by putting the film in the context of an intelligent selection of his other work.

BAKSHI: Like me, you may have gone for years without thinking at all about Ralph Bakshi's odd and unfinished version of The Lord of the Rings. As Vinny Asaro has pointed out, though, some people think about it quite a lot (and not always with distaste). As evidence, Vinny points to this thread he started on a Tolkien Web site. Interesting stuff—Vinny has catalogued a lot of Bakshi's visual influences—even if, like me, you're beyond persuading that Bakshi and his films are worth taking seriously.

THE POP-IN: Robert Latona writes from Spain about the stage version of Disney's Mary Poppins that has been playing in London:

"After your grumpy take on Mary Poppins in your section on live-action Disney, you've probably heard from others about the current London stage production, with a completely new book by Julian Fellowes (who did the screenplay for Gosford Park, and is evidently quite a—God, how I hate the expression—'media personality 'in Britain). It sticks far closer to the no-nonsense nanny that P. L. Travers created (and whose artificial sweetening you see as weakening the Disney film) and very conspicuously puts the emphasis (as you indicated you felt it ought to be) on the redemption of Mr. Banks. Consider yourself vindicated!

"Took my eldest to see it last year and Lord, what a treat it was hearing the Sherman brothers' score as I, personally, had been hoping for years to experience it: with all the electrifying immediacy of a live stage performance enhanced withn state-of-the-art choreography.Wonderful, but nothing like the non-stop flash and razzle-dazzle of the crafted-to-studio-spec adaptations of The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. Makes me suspect the studio declined ultimate control over the London production—but I don't really know the backstory.

"Even so, I'm a long way from disdaining my Disney DVD. Never mind the mediocre animation sequences, never mind (I know, I know, it takes a major effort of will) Dick Van Dyke: no other version will give me as much pleasure as Walt Disney did when he (a) got the Shermans to write a major-league musical theatre classic and (b) got Julie Andrews in prime voice, all five amazing, Waterford crystal octaves of it, to sing their songs for us."

DISNEY TREASURES: This from David Gerstein, who has a growing list of good things, most Disney-related, to his credit:

Walt Disney Treasures ad"I'm attempting to start a grassroots Internet awareness campaign for the project I'm managing at Gemstone now, Walt Disney Treasures
trade paperbacks, featuring highly collectible comics. If the first book does well, more will follow, with some great stuff from Gottfredson, Barks, and also some much more unusual creators (rare prewar British and Italian Disney writers and artists, for example). It's deliberately an effort to follow on Mickey and the Gang: Classic Stories in Verse with a more collector-oriented regular title. Attached to this e-mail is the first ad, presenting the series concept in a gently comical manner. Let's see what you think; pass it along if you'd like. I've been looking forward to this for a long time."

Click on the small version of the ad to see the full-size thing. And click here to pre-order from amazon.com.

A CHANGE OF MIND: I know this will disappoint some of my visitors, but I've decided after all to do audio commentary for three of the cartoons in the fourth set of Looney Tunes DVDs. What changed my mind was Ali Matar's message. If my commentaries lead just a few people to my books, they're worth doing.

Speaking of Ali Matar, he writes as follows:

"Thanks for your reply on the website. I take your point. I recently saw Raging Bull again, and though it's no animated movie, I understood what you meant as I analysed DeNiro's performance. He was the character, not an imitation of him. Everything about the way he moved, talked and stood; the way he ate, drank and fought was informed by his character. Every detail of his manner and actions spoke of self hatred, jealousy and paranoia. I guess it's reasonable to expect such perfection from animated characters."

May 4, 2006

WALT: I submitted a revised version of The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney to the University of California Press a couple of days ago, so I finally have a little time for this site. I'm always mystified by people like Terry Teachout, who maintains an active (and very interesting) blog on the arts even while turning out books and articles at a pace that far exceeds mine. More power to him and to those like him, but I don't think I'll ever be able to work that way.

This "final" version of The Animated Man will be succeeded by others, as the book goes through copy editing and into page proofs, but it's starting to feel reasonably "final" even to me. The book is turning out very well, I think, and in important respects it's going to be far more accurate than even the better Disney biographies or semi-biographies published to date.

I don't know yet when The Animated Man will be published, but it will probably be sometime in 2007. I'll keep you posted.

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