Saturday, 14 May 2016

Walt's Era - Part 2: Fits and Starts (1940-1942)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a smash success, redefining what animation could be in Hollywood. The film funding a brand new, custom built studio in Burbank, from which Disney artists could push their craft even further. The company, and the man for whom it was named, were on top of the world.

Disney, all smiles, at his new studio. Photo: Disney.
Disney's bread and butter was still the ongoing series of shorts featuring Mickey Mouse and his friends. The Silly Symphonies upped their game, with a noticeable rise in quality between the early half of 1937 and into 1938 and 1939. Wynken, Blynken and Nod, Moth and the Flame, Farmyard Symphony, and The Ugly Duckling learned from the lessons of Snow White, as did the one-off short, Ferdinand the Bull (1938). The Ugly Duckling (1939) ended up being the final Silly Symphony. That testing ground for new processes ran its course. Now Disney's attention was turned to feature film.

In this period between 1940 and 1942, we find a Walt Disney Productions trying to find its footing, experimenting and exploring with what an animated film can be. Creatively, films like Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi are triumphs (with The Reluctant Dragon sandwiched in there too). But these films also challenged Disney's credibility as a populist. Like any great artists, sometimes they innovated too far beyond the pale of what the audience was receptive to. It would take some time for them to settle on working formulas that allowed them to break new ground while responding to market forces. The raging war in Europe didn't help matters much, nor did the infamous animators strike that landed on Disney's doorstep on May 29, 1941. Disney was trying to figure itself out artistically and organizationally.

February 7, 1940
88 minutes

Judged on its technical merits, Walt Disney's second animated feature film is a highwater mark of the artform. Lessons learned from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were taken, refined, and employed to create a picture of incredible sophistication. The use of the multiplane camera is more involved, drawing us into Pinocchio's charming village in the Italian Alps. The character designs and animation are top notch. Jiminy Cricket is a hilarious everycricket as he alternately dispenses folksy charm and lustful glances at anything with curves and eyelashes. One cannot possibly argue with the soundtrack, especially the immortal When You Wish Upon a Star. And the film possesses some of the most strikingly beautiful shots in Disney's entire oeuvre. Any scene of the Wishing Star casting its glow over the sleepy village takes my breath away.

For all of its merits, and I do love the film, Pinocchio just isn't as on the mark as Snow White was. Audiences felt it too: Pinocchio failed to recoup even half of its budget in its initial run. The new war in Europe closed down those markets, affecting the film's profit margins, but even then... Pinocchio is missing many things that Snow White had going for it.

Perhaps the first problem was the source material. Collodi's original story is not the easiest fairy tale to film, nor the sweetest and gentlest. There is no romance, no singular villain (except maybe Pinocchio himself), barely a coherent narrative (it was written in two blocks, the first as a newspaper serial and the second as an extension for the novelization), and conducts itself with the air of cruelty one would expect from its "Punch and Judy" puppet theatre lineage. Collodi was mainly writing a satire, into which he injected moralizing. Not the most engaging subject matter after Snow White's rounded story of romance, fantasy, horror, humour, and adventure.

Secondly, Pinocchio is wanting for real feminine input. Though one could argue that the entire movie has a subtext of man's parthenogenic folly, that doesn't equate to real female characters. Much like the Frankenstein Monster, Pinocchio is a creation of a man, trying to navigate his way through a cruel world created by other men. But unlike FrankensteinPinocchio does have the Blue Fairy to midwife. For as gorgeous as she is, and the implicit message she carries about humanizing feminine grace, she is still barely a character. Not only does the film lack a balancing of genres, but it lacks a balancing of genders.

So Pinocchio features a gaggle of men pretty consistently messing things up through naivete, greed, and cruelty. Its plot is an unyielding series of manipulations and bad decisions. It moralizes, but in some sense loses the actual hope imparted by fairy tales. G.K. Chesterton once wrote:
Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon... At the four corners of a child's bed stand Perseus and Roland, Sigurd and St. George. If you withdraw the guard of heroes you are not making him rational; you are only leaving him to fight the devils alone. For the devils, alas, we have always believed in. The hopeful element in the universe has in modern times continually been denied and reasserted; but the hopeless element has never for a moment been denied.         
The Evil Queen always assails us. We know this. What Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs showed was that, nevertheless, a huntsman may be kind, a dwarf may be courageous, a prince may be longsuffering, and True Love may conquer all. Pinocchio just hits over and over again with the world's meanness and cruelty, and how that meanness and cruelty may turn us mean and cruel if we do not remain eternally vigilant, which we already know very well. No evil deed in Pinocchio is punished unless it was Pinocchio himself who did it, with the exception of the simply misguided boys. The Blue Fairy tells us that we can earn our place in humanity through our courage and sacrifice, which isn't really the problem we were having. What we need is hope, and Pinocchio doesn't really offer that. I can only imagine how disappointing that must have been after Snow White and on the verge of war.  

November 13, 1940
126 minutes

For whatever my opinion is worth, I think Fantasia could qualify not only as Disney's best film, and not only as the best animated film ever made, and not only as the best motion picture ever made, but even as the greatest single work of art of the 20th century. It is a bold claim, but if we first accept that film was the artform of the 20th century - the artform that was essentially created in the 20th century, refined there, and which became its most popular and accessible type - then animation would be the artform of cinema. It is one thing to point a camera in the direction of a play and film it. It is another to understand and manipulate the very fabric of the medium itself. The first animators had the presence of mind to realize that each frame was a tiny picture that could be altered to produce the illusion of life. The film that could best exemplify animation would earn the title of the greatest artistic work of the 20th century, and I firmly believe that Fantasia fits that accolade.

Fantasia demonstrates everything an animated film can be. It can be  abstract (Toccata and Fugue in D Minor) or narrative (Sorcerer's Apprentice), mythological (Pastoral Symphony) or visualizations of scientific theories (Rite of Spring), comedy (Dance of the Hours) or horror (Night on Bald Mountain), anthropomorphism (Nutcracker Suite) or symbolism (Ave Maria). Married to the great compositions of classical music, it could also aspire to be high art.

The physical storytelling in Fantasia is so accomplished that words were entirely unnecessary. No narrator was required to tell us that The Nutcracker Suite transitions through the seasons, and Mickey Mouse has no need to crack wise. What could Chernabog possibly say to make him more frightening? What could a Winston Hibler add to Rite of Spring that we could not see for ourselves in all its violence and terror and power? Wisely, music scholar and radio personality Deems Taylor reserved his annotations for between the animated sequences. His sonorous voice (now lost behind a dubbing over by Corey Burton) only gives us a few notes in the way of introduction to add to our enjoyment of the piece, like one may find in the program of an evening at the local philharmonic. Fantasia is a tour de force of pantomime, a lasting tribute to the skill of the animator who must draw every glace and gesture.

Fantasia is artistically advanced but, structurally, comprised of short subjects recalling past Silly Symphonies and the upcoming "package" films. A whole is affected, not through a coherent plot, but through the virtual experience of a concert performance. The opening piece, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, calls attention to the orchestra and the instruments (through some brilliant lighting and editing). It also lulls viewers into a near meditative state. Fantasia's beginning is a liminal space, drawing the viewer out of the regular concerns of the world and beyond the mental space of seeking mere entertainment. That's one of the funny things about Fantasia: it's not really entertaining. Not in the sense of a sensational thrill-ride, laugh-a-minute, appeal-to-endorphins kind of entertaining. It's much more than that. It is a film demanding attention in exchange for artistic gratification. Because of the lengthy investment that Fantasia demands, I totally sympathize with those who opt to just skip ahead to those sequences they particularly like (as I am wont to do when not reviewing every Disney film in a blog series).

The Nutcracker Suite, Fantasia's second piece, has its cartoony caricatures (as caricatured as Tchaikovsky's music itself),but what is most remarkable is the delicacy of the faeries, dew, leaves, ice, and autumn seeds floating on the air. Making-of clips show how the semi-transparent seeds were painted, but I'm still astonished that it could be done. To achieve that delicacy and transparency on seed after seed, on cel after cel, is an unfathomable level of skill and patience. The Sorcerer's Apprentice is iconic, and I am struck by how Germanic the setting is. Yen Sid's lair could just as easily be in one of Fritz Lang's silent film epics, like Siegfried (1925). The use of shadow and construction of some of the shots recalls German Expressionist film. Very appropriate for a short based on a symphonic piece based on a poem by Goethe.

The first half of Fantasia is closed out with the science-based Rite of Spring. The use of the multiplane camera to capture the evanescence of cosmic gas clouds is divine despite the scientific pretensions. I remember seeing this short in grade 2 during our unit on dinosaurs, but it is certainly an artefact of its time, enjoyable primarily for its nostalgic image of prehistoric saurians. One welcome intermission (these 3 hour films of today could really use one) and a needless bit with the animated soundtrack later, and we are ushered into what might be Fantasia's most controversial piece, The Pastoral Symphony. With the negro centaur handmaiden excised by sometimes not-altogether-successful editing, what is left is still a "Disneyfied" impression of Greek mythology. For those who like their Bacchus to be the spry embodiment of lustful indulgence rather than the squat embodiment of jovial excess, this sequence might be disappointing. For me, its rendering of Olympus and its Elysian Fields is paradisaical, and the sequence of night falling and Diana lighting the sky with her lunar bow is beyond compare in the canon of animation. Dance of the Hours is really the piece I can do without, with its too obvious attempt at humour ("Look! Dancing hippos! Isn't that funny, because hippos are fat!"). However, Deems Taylor's totally straight introduction helps make it a bit funnier.

The pinnacle of the film, and of Disney animation, is the Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria sequence. I've argued before that together this sequence strongly visualizes the contrast between the concepts of the sublime and the beautiful. The battle between Good and Evil, between Chernabog's furious, destructive, sensual orgy of fire and the victorious monks' candlelit pilgrimage through a cathedral-like forest, is only the most superficial layer of interpretation. This isn't merely a moralizing metaphor for Evil's lively seductions and Good's pious serenity. It is a discourse on aesthetic philosophy and musical theory as a whole. On the one side is the sublime: everything grand, overpowering, horrifying, massive, ancient, dark, foreboding, the extremes of emotion, the ragged mountain, the crypts of the fallen warriors of battles long forgotten, cemeteries and ruin, of cacophony. On the other is beauty: everything delicate, sacred, soft, sensible, comforting, graceful, light, serene, of holy pilgrims, organic forms, and Schubert's great hymn set to a beaming dawn. Fantasia could be interpreted in its entirety as a meditation on these drives, from the beauty of fairies, magic, cherubs, and silly animals dancing ballet to the sublime of geologic cataclysms, prehistoric combat, wrathful deities, and alligators skulking under cover of darkness.

Pretty heady stuff, which is why I can understand that audiences weren't exactly looking for that kind of thing at that moment in history. If Pinocchio underperformed, Fantasia bombed completely. In fact, it didn't start to recoup its production costs until its re-release in 1969! Still, its imagery has resonated throughout the Disney company. Sorcerer Mickey is the next most iconic form of their corporate mascot after his basic yellow shoes and red shorts. Chernabog, Ben Ali Gator and Hyacinth Hippo, Hop Low... Though Disney doesn't treat the film's legacy as well as they should (no Platinum or Diamond release? Really?), its characters and images are too good to avoid. Appreciating Fantasia takes a huge investment of time, attention and contemplation, but the results are well worth it.

The Reluctant Dragon
June 20, 1941
74 minutes

I have to admire the chutzpah of The Reluctant Dragon. With two box office failures under his belt and Dumbo still a few months away, Walt Disney decided that he was best served to drum up some extra cash by rushing out a "behind the scenes" look at the studio's cartoon-making processes. There's nothing cheap-looking about The Reluctant Dragon, and from an historical perspective it's fascinating to see. Not only do we get a look at the freshly-minted studio in Burbank and some of the personalities under Walt's employ, but we also see the genesis of Walt the showman... The entrepreneur whose self-promotion is entertaining in its own right. This is the Walt we'll meet again on the small screen in a decade.

The film opens with a note that The Reluctant Dragon is a response to all the requests to find out how the cartoons are made. Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't. It might have been the boundless self-confidence of the showman that audiences would be interested, or just an attempt to dress up a few shorts for feature film release. Humourist Robert Benchley provides the fig-leaf of a story - he's trying to sell Walt on the idea of animating Kenneth Grahame's story The Reluctant Dragon - that allows us to tour the studios. Most of the interior shots were filmed on a soundstage, but the scene in the fictional Ink and Paint Department is the most clear break from how the Disney studios actually operated. An army of perfectly coiffed women in labcoats mix paint, pour chemicals into bubbling flasks, measure out powders on elaborate machines, and all sorts of other sciencey looking things.

Despite the fictional pretenses, there is great stuff for Disney historians. We run into Clarence Nash and Florence Gill, the voices of Donald Duck and Clara Cluck respectively, in a recording session. We see the sound effects studio giving life to an alternate version of Casey Jr.'s journey and a life drawing class sketching an elephant, both allusions to the upcoming Dumbo. With a burst of Technicolor and sound effects straight out of Tomorrowland, we catch Bambi being filmed on the multiplane camera and painted on cels in Ink and Paint. And we meet Ward Kimball, Fred Moore and Norm Ferguson, as some of the few people in the movie who were actual Disney employees rather that actors hired to play Disney employees.

Looking back, The Reluctant Dragon is a valuable piece of Disney history. Yet it was another underperformer at the box office. Audiences at the time must not have been very patient with another strange experiment rather than a decent, straightforward fairy tale like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In the film's 74 minutes, there's only about 40 of animation, and even that is a generous number where the thinly-animated "Baby Weems" skit is concerned. I have to imagine by this point that Disney is mostly surviving on the goodwill of Snow White and the Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy shorts.

October 23, 1941
64 minutes

Luckily for those audiences who might have been growing impatient with Disney, they did not have to wait long for another decent, straightforward, fairy tale-like animated film. Though set in contemporary times, in the United States, in a circus, and despite being 20 minutes shorter and produced much more expediently, Dumbo has more in common with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs than the other films that came before it.

Though produced on the cheap, as a quick way to claw back some of the losses from Pinocchio and Fantasia, Dumbo has all the same quintessential stuff as Snow White. It has sentiment and heartbreak, adversity and triumph, humour and some genuinely unsettling segments. The pink elephants on parade is a burst of feverish imagination (and how many other Disney movies have a major plot development occur because the protagonists got ripping drunk?), but the scene where elephants and roustabouts raise the Big Top amdist a howling storm is pulse-pounding. One could argue, however, that Dumbo's ability to stay on track is not in spite of its limitations, but because of them.

Wanting to knock this thing out quickly and cheaply made it shorter, which left no time or money for any wasted animation or overindulgent experimentation (besides the pink elephants). One would be excused for not noticing the total lack of multiplane camera shots, because the story itself is so engaging. By the 20 minute mark we know everything we need to about the relationship between Dumbo and his mother that will make us tear up when they are separated. I work at a zoo in one of my day jobs, and seeing how Disney artists replicated the pathological swaying that distressed elephants do was wrenching. By the 40 minute mark, Dumbo is at his stage of most abject humiliation before discovering his unique gift.

Since I work in a zoo, I couldn't help but notice how Disney portrayed the circus. I've written before about the relationship between Disney and the circus, and the role that traveling circuses played in American culture at this time. What impresses me about Dumbo is how sympathetic the film is to the animals even while capturing some of the romance of the Big Top. A definite sense of injustice is conveyed over Mrs. Jumbo's imprisonment and the subsequent exploitation of Dumbo.

With Dumbo, Disney nailed it again and in so doing figured out the formula that worked. Not that it is a formula per se, just a recognition that audiences wanted well-rounded stories with a little bit of everything, wrapped up in a "happily ever after." Box office success came once more to Disney, finally.

August 13, 1942
70 minutes

I'm sure I saw Bambi as a child, but when I finally got around to watching it again as an adult, after I "rediscovered" Disney for myself, I found it vaguely unsettling. I couldn't figure out exactly why. On the one hand it was like "the Seinfeld of cartoons" insofar as "nothing happens" except frolicking animals coming-of-age. On the other hand, there was a strange ugliness and malevolence to the forest echoing Longfellow's famous lines,
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of old, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.

For whatever reason, I didn't like it.

Eventually I gave it another chance, as I got deeper into the mechanics and artistry of The Disney Film. I'm glad I did: besides the qualities of the film itself, it also prompted me to read the original story by Felix Salten, which I unabashedly love. Now watching it again, as the fifth in line of Disney's feature films, my appreciation has been renewed once more.

I've enjoyed all of the films covered in this part of Walt's Era. Each one is an unmitigated classic in one way or another. Fantasia is my favourite of all Disney's films. I can, however, recognize that a strength in one area begets weaknesses in others, and that being one type of film may disadvantage it to a mainstream audience. I applaud Disney's courage in not hewing to a safe, convenient formula for their first films (unlike some modern animation studios consistently churning out films based on the premise of "what if toys/ants/cars/fish/monsters/robots/feelings had feelings?"). That courage doesn't always equate to box office success. Writing these reviews is what has prompted me to give serious thought to what makes Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs work, and those revelations have become a lens of assessment for later Disney films. By that criteria, some films have been hits and some have been misses.

Bambi is one of the films that has figured it out. The short, sweet, and cheap Dumbo managed to figure it out as well, starting Bambi off on the right foot. Here we see the same principles applied to a film of appreciably greater financial investment. The multiplane camera is used to tremendous effect, drawing us into the thickets of the forest primeval painted by background artist Tyrus Wong. Yes, the images of forests enshrouded by fog and snow and fire are unsettling, because wild nature can be unsettling. There is a dissonance between the cuteness of the characters and the overgrown wilds surrounding them, whether that dissonance balances itself out or calls attention to it. Several times, the defined characters become semi-amorphous shapes as passions in the film rise. My only complaint about the animation and the backgrounds is how they barely interact. When Thumper scratches against a twig it doesn't move, when a bird lands on a branch it does not bow, when a raindrop hits a leaf it is immovable. Often it feels like the characters are floating on top of a painting rather than interacting with a world.

Nevertheless, Bambi still has the same array of experiences as Snow White and Dumbo. There is cuteness and frivolity, terror and rage, romance and humour, and one of Disney's greatest screen tragedies at the unseen hand of one of Disney's greatest film villains. Maleficent and Chernabog get Goth points for being cool and stomping around looking the part, but Man is ever more frightening for being known only by his destructive, death-dealing effects. Some of those effects are seen off screen as well. There is no need to have seen the death of Bambi's mother... It is all the more horrifying, wanton, and tragic because we cannot see it. We are left, like Bambi, with loss and uncertainty.

Life goes on, so does Bambi, and so does Disney. Weirdly, Bambi fell just short of recouping its costs on its initial release. It took re-releases to put it over. Critics at the time complained that it was both ruthlessly realistic while cloyingly cartoony, steering clear of the fairy tales that Disney is best at (even though his last couple ones bombed at the box office). Even more strangely, after finally figuring out what makes a good Disney Film, the studio cast it aside by necessity when Uncle Sam came calling. After the United States was brought into World War II, the American military occupied the Disney studios. In response to market closures and labour shortages forced on them by the war, our next grouping of films had more in common with The Reluctant Dragon than Dumbo or Bambi. Nothing of Bambi's quality would be seen again for a decade.

But that's a story for our next installment of Walt's Era...


  1. All I really have to say here is that we can credit "Bambi" with my lifelong fascination with the art of animation. When I was little - six or so - my mom pointed out that every raindrop in the "Little April Showers" sequence had to be drawn and animated by hand. I immediately decided that any art which people would put *that* much effort into had to be worthy by definition.

    Glad you picked this back up! I was getting worried there...

    1. I agree with you on Bambi and animation in general!

      No worries about this series dropping off... It publishes on the second Saturday of every month! I can't do it any faster than that without devoting myself to watching Disney movies as a full time job :)