Monday, September 26, 2016

The Revival of Disney Animation

If you ask about the big names in animation, you will assuredly hear the name "Disney" come up. And why not? Studio founder Walt Disney began as an animator who created the first cartoon with synchronized sound, using sound to punctuate the visual gags in the cartoon. Walt is also credited with the first color cartoon, though that honor may actually go to Ub Iwerks, who was a one-time colleague of Walt who opened up his own studio. It is also not exactly true that Walt created the first full-length animated feature film as there were others preceding it, notably The Adventures of Prince Achmed, but Walt was the first to use multiplane color cel animation for the entire time in 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Regardless of what Walt actually did first, the Disney animation brand quickly became synonymous with innovation. Many of Walt's follow up animated feature films would use new styles and techniques in animation, creating visuals too difficult to create with live action at the time.

During the 1940s, the studio quickly petered out, creating package films containing extended shorts or even two shorter subjects packaged together as a feature film. It was not until Cinderella in 1950 that the studio clearly went back on track with animated films that delighted audiences and critics and were financially successful. If Cinderella had flopped, Disney would have been pressured to close.

Disney animated films became a staple during the 1950s with a new film every few years, but the Disney company began branching out into television and live action film. Walt wanted to tell stories, and explored several avenues to do them. So after his death in the 60s, the animated features by Disney clearly began to lose their way. There were some fun ideas, such as an all-animal cast for Robin Hood, or a retelling of Oliver Twist now told through modern stray animals in New York City. But it was becoming clear that these films weren't doing that well compared to other fare and Disney was even considering closing the animation department and moved them off the lot.

The animation department was generally replaced with new animators who wanted to bring prestige back to the name of Disney animation. They dusted off two fairy tales Walt Disney had conceived as possible animated films, the first one being The Little Mermaid released in 1989. The film brought concentrated storytelling to the tale and Broadway-caliber music.

The story was very different from its source material, in which the mermaid kills herself when she fails to make the Prince fall in love with her. In this case, Disney needed something that would resound with audiences and draw them into wonder and an ending that ended tragically for our main character simply wouldn't do. Lyricist Howard Ashman was instrumental in reinventing the story as a Broadway show. The movie was a big hit for Disney, reinvigorating Disney animation, setting off an ongoing series of annual animated films (broken only in 2006 so far).

Disney's next animated feature would be the less than warmly received The Rescuers Down Under, but the big follow up to The Little Mermaid would be Beauty and the Beast, also envisioned in a similar vein and recently reissued to Blu-Ray and digital streaming. It also differed from its original source, creating a more streamlined version of the story.

The original version had the titular Beauty character (who Disney named Belle) with several siblings, her widower father was a down on his luck merchant. Disney made Belle a single child and her father was an inventor. Instead of having Belle's father trade her for his freedom, she chooses to stay in his place. In the original, the Beast asks Beauty to marry him day after day. Disney had them have a very antagonistic relationship at first, then begin to befriend each other once Belle tries to flee and Beast saves her from wolves that attack her.

A number of people criticize Disney's Beauty and the Beast for romanticizing Stockholm Syndrome, which has a prisoner learn to love their captor because there's no one else around. But I must respectfully disagree. Belle is not easily swayed, looking beyond outer appearances. She rejects suitor/villain Gaston despite his attractive appearance because she recognizes he's selfish and conceited. She chooses to return to the castle with the Beast even though he yelled at her and nearly struck her because she begins to realize there's something more to him as he fights off the wolves rather than trying to recapture her. (Some fans even interpret this as a suicide attempt by the Beast.) As time goes on, Belle and the Beast interact with each other, begin reading, and finally, when she finds out her father is lost trying to rescue her from the Beast, the Beast lets her go. (The original story had the Beast allow her to take a visit that she overstays.) The story is about how the Beast suddenly stops devolving into a monster and begins to change into a human again inside before the curse on him is finally broken and he regains his human form. Belle has simply remained true to who she is, not realizing that the Beast is her Prince Charming until "chapter three" (the third act of the story).

Aladdin was the follow up to Beauty and the Beast. Although Howard Ashman had worked on early development on this one and written three songs, he'd died before Beauty and the Beast was completed. Still, Aladdin works quite well as a final piece of a trilogy with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. It again streamlined the original story, cutting the genie of the ring and Aladdin's mother, now emphasizing Aladdin romancing a princess.

These films issued in what is called the Disney Renaissance, and while it continued with The Lion King, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame and (arguably) other films, these first three certainly have some shared elements between them that make the three work as a whole.

The most prominent characters in all three films are the heroines (or hero, in the case of Aladdin), their love interests and the villains. The heroines of all three movies are what push their own story. Ariel the Little Mermaid boldly investigates the Surface World and later bargains to be with Eric. Belle goes to find her missing father herself and volunteers to stay imprisoned in his place, and later decides to warn the Beast when Gaston goes to attack the castle. Jasmine is dissatisfied with simply being a princess to be married off to a rich prince and sneaks out of the palace to live like a normal person and later even questions the boy she did fall for when he reappears as a prince.

Similarly, the heroes of the movies are no slouches. Eric defeats Ursula. The Beast is the one who has to learn to love Belle, defending her and his home, even making the choice to let Gaston live, telling him simply to leave. Aladdin (of course, being the title character) actively defends Jasmine, then carefully makes his way through the Cave of Wonders before becoming a prince, wooing Jasmine and finally giving up his dream to live in a palace simply to save Agrabah from Jafar and fulfilling his promise to the Genie.

Another element to the three films are sidekicks, and even the villains have them. Flounder the fish, Sebastian the Jamaican crab and Skuttle the seagull all assist Ariel, while Eric has his dog Max and Ursula is assisted by two eels, Flotsam and Jetsam. The Beast and Belle are assisted by people transformed into objects, most prominently Lumiere the candelabra, Cogsworth the clock, Mrs. Potts the teapot and Chip the teacup, Belle's father Maurice has Phillipe the horse and Gaston has his buffoon friend Lefou. Aladdin has Abu the monkey, the mute magic carpet, the wisecracking and flamboyant Genie (voiced by Robin Williams), Jasmine has Rajah the tiger and Jafar has Iago the parrot (voiced by Gilbert Gottfried, the character would become an ally of Aladdin in later spinoffs).

Howard Ashman
All three of the films are very musical, thanks very much to Howard Ashman's influence. Settings and characters are established through song ("Part Of Your World," "Belle," "One Jump Ahead"), grand midway-point numbers ("Under the Sea," "Be Our Guest," "Friend Like Me"), romantic numbers ("Kiss The Girl," "Something There" and "Beauty and the Beast," "A Whole New World"). Even the villains get into the singing with "Poor Unfortunate Souls," "Gaston" and "The Mob Song," while Jafar sings a reprise of "Prince Ali." (He would get a song to himself in the direct to video sequel The Return of Jafar.)

Despite the similarities, each film has its own identity and story. Many of the similarities are based on previous Disney films, where Snow White had the Dwarfs and her animal friends, Cinderella had her helpful mice, and Aurora had the three good fairies looking out for her. In the terms of love interests, these films improve on the former by actually fleshing out Eric, the Beast and Jasmine, while we only got a brief appearance by Snow White's prince, just a few glimpses and a dance with Cinderella's prince, while Prince Philip had more of an active presence than Aurora. But when it came to music, few Disney movies before or after these three integrated it so well. Frozen comes pretty close, though.

These three films were certainly among my favorites as a child, although now that I realize Howard Ashman was gay and so am I, I do have to wonder if it was more than great songs, good storytelling and dazzling animation that appealed to me. Maybe the themes in each of people wanting and then earning more than what their lot in life gave them was a wish fulfillment parable. Some even interpret the Beast's devolving into a monster as a parable for Ashman's battle with AIDS. Although these movies do not feature openly queer characters (a fair number of characters are given no romantic interests at all, so who can say?) and the pairings are all heterosexual, none of them feature people falling in love the way tradition suggests. Ariel's marriage bridges two species, the enchanted Prince and Jasmine find their love interests in common people. Belle recognizes the humanity in someone who doesn't appear human. Ursula was inspired by drag queen Divine, the Wardrobe attacks and puts an attacking villager in drag (his rejection of being dressed as a female causes him to scream and run away), and the Genie adopts a few female personas, and even flirts with Aladdin during the song "Friend Like Me." ("I'm on the job, you big nabob!")

As I said, Beauty and the Beast has recently been reissued to Blu-Ray and digital. It had been released to Blu-Ray before in a 2-disc Blu-Ray Diamond Edition with extensive bonuses as well as a DVD copy of the movie. It was later reissued with a 3D disc and a digital copy. This new Signature Edition release only has one disc with the movie and a number of newly produced bonuses, but none as indepth as anything found on the 2-disc Diamond Edition. However, nearly all of the previous bonus features were ported to the digital copy, which comes free with the Blu-Ray. Owners of the limited 3D edition who redeemed their digital copy and signed it into Disney Movies Anywhere got a free upgrade. The new bonuses aren't simply fluff, but pale in comparison to the previous set. The movie's presentation, however, is more or less the same, the new disc having a slightly higher bit rate. If you're into bonus features and prefer them on disc, I'd suggest hunting down both versions as the new one can complement the older one. For just watching the movie, the new one wins as the 2-disc edition tried to take advantage of Blu-Ray's seamless branching menus which could get confusing and added some eventually less than welcome audio comments by Lumiere. The new disc's menu works simply and lets you access the movie, scene selections and bonuses as soon as the menu loads.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Iron Giant

Man, I miss blogging. I don't know why, but my urge to blog has really fallen off. For my Oz blog, it's like, I want to write more, but finding topics to write about just escapes me.

But if I want to get back to blogging, why not just do it? I don't feel like talking so openly about my personal life on my blog, but I do tend to preorder books and movies (preferably on Blu-Ray), as well as see movies in the theater, why not write about how I enjoyed them? Or didn't.

Let's start off with a Blu-Ray that came out earlier this month: The Iron Giant - Signature Edition. I had never seen The Iron Giant before, although I do remember seeing commercials for it back when it came out. I'd heard of its reputation as a new animated classic, and given that the Blu-Ray was only $10, I figured it was worth a try.

The Signature Edition is a "remastered" version of the original movie. The animation has been touched up with shadows to give it additional depth, dark skies with sparse clouds have been replaced with starry skies, and there's a couple brief additions, adding two minutes to the runtime. I only watched the Signature Edition, so aside from what I've heard, I can't comment on how it differs from the original version first hand. Note that only the remastered animation appears on the Blu-Ray, so while a version of the movie that's edited just like the original theatrical cut is on here, the original version actually isn't present. It can still be had on DVD, however.

The Iron Giant is based on a book originally published as The Iron Man by Ted Hughes. It was retitled to The Iron Giant in the US to avoid confusion with a certain Marvel Comics character. I haven't read the book either, but the Wikipedia synopsis reveals a tale of a mysterious gigantic iron man who appears in a little village who eats farm equipment. A boy named Hogarth Hughes decides the giant could live on scrap and live happily. Then the giant faces a fantastic space dragon that attacks the earth with a message about the destructive power of war.

The animated version takes a different approach. Gone is the space dragon, instead the anti-war messaged is conveyed by moving the antagonism to a government agent named Kent Mansley who'd rather destroy the giant.

The giant comes from outer space to a late 1950s small town. Hogarth lives with his mother, who's a waitress at a local diner. The giant mainly hides in the woods, and only has a few flashing memories of where it came from. Hogarth befriends the giant and begins teaching it some crude English and about heroism. He finds an ally in a modern artist who runs the junkyard. Unfortunately, Kent Mansley traces signs of the giant back to Hogarth.

Although I haven't read the book, I think this may be one of those adaptations that manages to fully flesh out the story concept they chose and tell it well, quite like a Disney adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen story. It's different, but the story they do tell isn't bad. It endears us to Hogarth by making him feel like a kid, and adds a childish nature to the Giant. In addition, the animation and music is very well-done. Smooth, fluid, and very much draws you into the story.

I haven't watched the bonus features, but honestly, I think I'll be revisiting this Blu-Ray soon, so I'll check them out eventually.