Some thoughts about Disney

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hanem talking about disney

NOTES:

Animation started, in a way, with the invention of Faraday’s Wheel in the 19th Century: from this came the zoetrope (1834) – the spinning wheel with slots, through which one looks to see a galloping horse or a man on a trapeze. Whilst still, the wheel shows only single images, yet when in motion the pictures pasted inside the wheel flow into one moving scene. This concept was taken (to great effect) to the camera upon its invention – Muybridge was the first, setting up a line of cameras each with their individual tripwires. Upon walking across his tripwires, each camera would photograph that split-second of his walk – when these pictures are all placed in series, a walking scene has been created or a person’s walk minutely examined. This concept was played with in true artistic fashion by George Méliès, the creator of various silent films featured in  Hugo in 1890 – by fiddling with the sequence, Méliès could make a character disappear and re-appear ten steps away, creating the illusion of magic and demonstrating a primitive form of animation. As such, animation is as focused on timing as it is on drawing.

However, it was McCay, from across the pond, who introduced the portrayal of emotion through animation: the task of the animator is to portray characteristics in a purely visual sense, and McCay’s Gertie the Trained Dinosaur was one of the first to achieve this characterisation showing a drawing that seemed to be thinking as well as moving. The animator, drawing in 2D, must think in 3D – it is here Wilson introduces the concept of the hyper-cube. When we think of 2D, we think of the square; 3D the cube, and 4D is the melding of two cubes into one amalgamation and another dimension. In a way, the animator must switch between different dimensions, and the example given was one of punching: though the animator draws the effect in 2D, the punch is thought of in circles or arcs due to the punch’s path of motion.

It is with these foundations laid down that we come to Walt Disney who introduced believability and genuine emotion into animation with feature films. Budget was a big deal for Disney, as shown by their first production of Alice, which was a mix of live-action (cheaper) and animation (more expensive). In today’s film, there are 24 frames per second, and to reduce the cost and time of animation Disney decided to reduce the drawings to 12 per second. The iconic character of Mickey Mouse was introduced first in Plane Crazy, a silent movie. It is here Wilson claims that the design of Mickey was taken from Ub Iwerks not Disney. Continuing on to the famous Steamboat Willie, Disney tied a musical soundtrack directly the animation – the same formula for Fantasia. With the intersection of music and motion one can look at tap dancing. Fred Astaire was notorious for dancing off-beat, only to occasionally switch onto the beat to great effect. Disney tended to do the visual image on the beat (less exciting, and called “mickey mousing”), using music as both characterisation and aesthetic. There is also the fact that every action in Disney has a corresponding sound: the pulling of Clarabelle the Cow’s tail resulted in a musical ‘moo’. Today, lip-syncing in Disney is often relaxed, as the animators keep the lines of the lips and face vague – both the economise and allow easier dubbing into other languages.

There is, of course, the question of Mickey’s gloves – they held a practical reason (during black and white films, if an object was black Mickey’s hand would disappear upon holding it) but they also link to Mickey’s function as a public figure. It is with this that one could claim Mickey a problematic figure – his gloves and mannerisms mimic the characteristics of the minstrels, last seen in the 70s BBC; minstrels would wear white gloves and often tap dance and sing for entertainment. It was a staple of American Vaudeville entertainment. This characteristic is the only one that Disney cannot sanitise today, as the white gloves are iconic to the character. In other areas, however, there is (and always has been) ongoing sanitisation – potentially offensive sections of Fantasia, for instance,  have been quietly redrawn to remove the offending sections, though not the crows in Dumbo. Films like Song of the south have all but disappeared from the Disney canon. As a business, family entertainment is the goal of Disney- and this explains both the sanitisation and the fact that the character of Mickey has changed from the troublemaker in Steamboat Willie to the wholesome soul in modern day films. This was the goal as it (along with another factor) would guarantee Disney success and money. The first way was shown by Snow White: it was the first film to release a soundtrack and related merchandise. The second method is one of morality: most animation that Disney creates holds a didactic function – the films tell stories that reward good behaviour and punish the bad, though Disney claimed he was not in the business of “preaching a message”. There are 5 Disney virtues: the first is kindness (such as Cinderella’s kindness to the animals), the second is perseverance (the prince in Cinderella, for example). The third is faith, with its obvious connotations of religion – the only overtly religious piece of Disney, (overlooking Christian imagery at the end of Fantasia) is Hunchback of Notre Dame but this pushes kindness combined with faith, and if Disney is interested in Belief, it is belief itself- and not a belief in a specific person or thing. Belief in self is allied to belief in a higher power. The final one is family: Aristocats and 101 Dalmatians, for instance, display the ethos that the meaning of family can still be extended, and is not just about blood relatives. There is, moreover, a heavy Protestant work ethic that is present in Disney films, and the most recent Frozen emphasises the dimension of not trusting appearances, first glimpsed in Gaston in Beauty and the Beast but maybe hinted at in the magical witches of both Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks who promote family values and patch together relationships that have gone wrong.

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The gospel according to walt.

So just to kick off, is there a reference to adam and eve in the fact that snow white eats a poisoned apple?

Is there a reference to Christ in the initials of Jiminy Cricket?

Jonah and the whale. (Pinocchio)

The Disney gospel is part of most chidren’s earliest teachings.

Young impressionable minds

The amount of time children spend in church or synagogues of temples is dwarfed by the amount of time children spend in front of Disney films.

“One of the most significant shaping forces in the 20th Century.”

“A sacred destination of the first trip to the movies.”

Calvinist paradigm of hard work- rewarded with upward solical mobility/ walt’s rise to prosperity

Disney boycotted by the Washington DC Traditional values Coalition in 1990s (“they’re not fair to the Christian message of life death and eternal life” Revd Clark Whitten of the Calvary Assembly church in Orlando. “they have a gospel- it’s to make money”)

Humanism: when Disneyland opened in Anaheim in 1954 Time magazine called Disney “the poet of the new American Humanism” and says the common symbol of humanity in the struggle against the forces of evil is Mickey Mouse”

It’s not what you believe that is important, but the fact of believing itself is important.

Disney is the perfect example of the protestant work ethic divorced from religious moorings.

Disney choice of magic over religion

VALUES: Good triumphs over evil a consistent set of moral values throughout the movies. Disney personal values and commercial goals

Optimism as a creed (pinoccho)

Miracles (Pinocchio as Jesus: the puppet comes to life and resurrected as boy,)

WALT: didn’t want to single out any single religion . But always designed as a “message” He tells reporter: “we like to have a point of view in our stories not an obvious moral but a worthwhile theme” in 1962: Children are people and they should have to reach to learn about things, to understand things just as adults have to reach if they are to grow in mental statue. Life is composed of lights and shadows and we have to be untruthful, insincere aand saccharine if we are to pretenbd there were no shadows. Most things are good and they are the strongest things; but there are evil things too and you are not doing a child a favour by trying to shield him from reality. The important thing is to teach a child that good can always triumph over evil and that is what our pictures attempt to do.”

Sam Goldwyn: Pictures are for entertainment- messages should be sent by western union.

FAITH: Faith in something greater than self? Combined with faith in self

Wish fulfillment

Magic allows you to see a better life and apply the vision to real life.

An agent of transformation. The ordinary becomes extraordinary

The little mermaid: challenge of intermarriage

The lion king:the hindu circle of life

MECCA: Disneyland: a place of pilgrimage (parents reconnecting with their childhood) a cartoon fantasy mecca?

RACISM: Racist representation esp in DUMBO and fantasia (censored in Fantasia but not in Dumbo) song of the south and the three caballeros

DEUS EX MACHINA: No obvious judeo-christian iconography but Greek magic: universal device from ancient greece

Censorship: note the general anxiety about racism: song of the south, dumbo fantasia- cleaning up of Aladdin’s anti-muslim jokes and the toning down of homophobia  (see the beginning of Der Fuhrer’s face) to the extent that the remake of Beauty and the beast contains a genuine gay subplot.

SNOW WHITE:

The akedah: snow white dispatched to be killed in the forest. Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham

The huntsman returns with the heart of a boar. (Abraham sacrifices a ram)

Whistle while you work: the work ethic during the great depression

The dwarfs are also hard workees, singing while the work.\snow white- just like an angel. See Rhapsody in Blue in Fantasia 2000

Cleanliness- next to godliness?

There was a sequence where Snow white teaches the dwarves how to pray- abandoned. But snow white prays- she asks for blessings on the seven little men who have been so kind to me and please make grumpy like me” next day when grumpy gets a kiss, she says” why grumpy you DO care”

Escapist and androcentric.

 PINOCCHIO- fate not god steps in when things get bad: the blue fairy

As reward to Gepetto for bringing happiness to others

But the outcome will be entirely up to you. (Good works)

Jiminy cricket became an alternative exclamation to Jesus Christ in the US.

He is the still small voice.

The blue fairy as the Virgin mary?

Her appearance in the film is like the appearance of Mary at Fatima and La Salette BLUE and WHITE!

It’ll take a mira le to get out of here (says Jiminy in Stromboli’s caravan, then the blue fairy arrives. (A lie keeps growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face

Jiminy Cricket defines temptation as The wrong things that seem right at the time.

They like him he’s a success. Gosh. Maybe I was wrong. I guess he won’t need me anymore. What does an actor need with a conscience?”

“Give a bad boy enough rope and hell soon make a jackass of himself.”

The essence of the Disney religion is not theology but morality: prove yourself brave truthful and unselfish and someday you will be a real boy. Resurrection. Awake Pinocchio awake!

NB: difference between snow white and Pinocchio is that Pinocchio is active in his salvation and snow white is entirely passive.

FANTASIA: Dancing toadstools- racist presentation of chinese figures probably intended to be amiable not malevolent. It is still a brilliant piece of animation

The sorcerer’s apprentice: work-shy mickey gets his comeuppance. (work ethic)

The image has been taken by Disney and turned mickey into a high priest of magic in the Disney kingdom. (Disney’s mecca)

Ave maria; the most explicit reference to religion until hunchback of notre dame

The text is an odd interperattion of the latin: the prince of peace your arms embrace while hosts ofdarkness fade and cover, Oh save us mother full of grace in life, and in our dying hour ave maria.

DUMBO: Mother love

Note the workers putting up te circus sing while they work: they “slave until we’re almost dead”

In the parade, dumbo slips and a boy laughs at him. The boy ALSO has improbably big ears.

BAMBI: man in the forest song at the beginning: “love is a song that never ends”

Carefree childhood and dependence on mother is finished with the greatest tear-jerker in the history of cinema:

Your mother cannot be with you anymore. Earlier they had been told of “Man in the forest”now it seems there is a man shooting out of season. Two shots and the second one is fatal.

It is man.. he is here again. There man be many this time. We must go deep into the forest. Hurry. Follow me”

An unspoilt eden is destroyed by man.

Cinderella: if you keep on believing, the dream you wish for will come true.

Cinderella has friends- birds mice etc.. her kindness in helping small rodents explains why the animals are so keen to help her wit housework

Elsa in FROZEN, BEDKNOBS and POPPINS- all autonomous witches, (perhaps it’s a witch. Don’t be sily witches have brooms) and spinsters. establishing world order rather than destroying it. Actually both Poppins and Eglantine are outsiders reestablish family values. And the sisters in Frozen are estranged …

A magical nanny and a reluctant nanny

(above: Milt Kahl images from Mary Poppins)

Religious iconography in Mary poppins;

 1)   mary poppins is Mary the mother of jesus, practically perfect. The immaculate conception. Above all other women etc.

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2)   2) a spoonful of sugar: the Franciscan nod: Mary talks to the birds (feed the birds song with encircling chorus of doves)

3)   3) George banks gives tuppence to the bank chairman- render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s- capitalist banker to family man/ charity… the widow’s mite

4)   Alternative view:  a scurrilous interpretation

nanny shows up and changes a married man’s life but has to leave because she is pregnant. And no, she doesn’t change “the family” since the wife and kids are still the mindless dimwits at the end of the movie that they were in the beginning. And how do we know that Mary is pregnant? Because of the way she hold hers hands folded over her stomach [at the top of the staircase] when Mr. Banks finally emerges from the basement with the mended kite. So, while most of us think that Mary is misty eyed over Jane & Michael as she stands on the doorstep, the truth is: she is affected by having to say goodbye to Mr. Banks.

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Other religious imagery in Disney:

Fantasia ending (ave maria triumphs over Chernabog. But it is nature that is triumphant as also in the end of Fantasia 2000)

Bambi and the Lion King– the role of the father figure, in the Lion king is actually a voice from the dead.

Hunchback

Self sacrifice as a form of redemption: – Baloo, the great dane in lady and the tramp, King Triton in The little mermaid, the beast in Beauty and the beast, and Pinocchio

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Did Disney have a dark side?

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The Dark Prince:

There was a dark side to Disney. There! I have said it. It is hard to imagine when the charm of the man exudes from “Saving Mr Banks” and when every outing of a Disney cartoon reaffirms his near-Divinity, lying just south of Father Christmas and in the company of St Francis of Assisi, the Doctor Doolittle of Paradise. To add to the sense of triumphant hagiography, Disney acquired his own Mother Goddess in the form of Julie Andrews, descending from a cloud to right the wrongs in London and returning there when things, to the echoing strains of that Sherman Brothers’ hymn “Let’s go fly a kite”, are just about right. To cement the deal of course, her name was Mary.

Later on, Mary affirmed her Catholicism, attended a convent and looked after a large family of Austrian refugees. Disney, meanwhile, died and was survived by his wholesome legacy, a global institution to rival the Vatican, and his surrogate son, Mickey Mouse who never aged and, though temped to perform magic to music in “Fantasia”, never did any real wrong. All this looks suspiciously religious!

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This picture is from “How to be Boss” which you can see here on Youtube:

 

Disney and the Nine old men:

But the dark myths about Disney lurk in the recesses of the Internet and in glorious books like “King Rat” and Marc Eliot’s “Hollywood’s dark prince”. The sins seem to fall into three areas- the first is his alleged anti-semitism, the second, his labour relations and his record as an employer and the third is his interest in surviving death. As a film maker, and moreover, an animator, the way Disney managed his empire is of great significance to me. If he made mistakes, then I would want to avoid them and if he did things right that it makes sense to emulate him. For the most part, I resent the endless stories in what are marketed as serious books about animation going on endlessly about who put the cat in the cupboard. When it comes to animation, it is important to learn the trade from the masters- how to convince an audience that a 2d drawing is alive and more than that, has feelings. So I have little interest in the private lives of the 9 old men. I met one of them some years ago- frankly, I have no recollection which one it was, though I think maybe Marc Davis. He talked endlessly about the Disney theme parks and pooh-poohed the use of cinemascope in “Sleeping Beauty”.

However, the life of Disney represents something different because it was Disney who held together, developed and maybe exploited his various artists to such remarkable and lasting effect. Unlike Richard Williams, Disney was no great Draughtsman, nor indeed a gifted animator, but he had an instinct for story-telling and was clearly ready to listen to and implement advice about marketing. It is the marketing that has made the movies from the appearance of Mickey mouse memorabilia within a year of the release of “Steamboat Willie” to all the party frocks for little girls that accompanied the release of “Frozen”. I remember having a much-loved carpet of “Mary Poppins”. A carpet, note and not a carpet-bag.It was pink, peopled with penguins and a tortoise or two while in the centre, Mary Poppins herself floated in serenity. I also had jigsaw puzzles. Indeed, my father was so frustrated by my devotion to Mary that he twice fired his shotgun out of the bedroom window claiming to have “got the damn woman”. Somehow, I knew that my father, despite the tweed suit, was not quite the crack-shot he claimed to be, and that Mary Poppins would survive as indeed she did. Like the birds, she may have lost a few feathers, but “spit spot” on she flew.

Uncle walt and the myths

Today, people want to believe the worst of their heroes. American articles have appeared in recent years suggesting that Disney was a hard-drinking drug user, an FBI stouge or spy, and even a secret Nazi attending meetings of the American Nazi groups. His public image as attested in “Saving Mr Banks” was avuncular. “Call me Uncle Walt!” Karen Dotrice, the girl from Guernsey who played Jane in “Mary Poppins” certainly did just this and made three films for her beloved uncle. There are endless postings on the internet about what appear to be sexual imagery in the films of the late 80’s renaissance: the 2 frames of nudity in “the Rescuers”, some (intentionally) suggestive stuff in “Roger Rabbit”, the phallic tower on the cover of “Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin”, the Bishop’s apparent arousal, the word sex in the stars in “Lion King” and the suggestion that the relationship between Scar and his brother hints that Jesus and satan were siblings; There is generally an innocent explanation. The animator who drew the Bishop in “the Little Mermaid”, Tom Sito, says that what appears to be naughty is in fact the cleric’s knee: “He’s standing on a box that his long robes cover.” There were complaints that the opening verse in the first song of “Aladdin” was racist and that the “Pocahontas” film covered up her subsequent conversion to Christianity. Perhaps the most impressive of these claims, and one that might stick to Disney himself were it credible, is that in 1937, Donald Duck is supposed to have said “Fuck you” to a clock spring that simply would not stay in place. Frankly, it is possible to read any interpretation into some of the duck rants and I doubt that this expression would have been that common in the mid 30s. The film is on Youtube, so listen to it: I could not locate these words but there was an AFA condemnation registered in 1996: “Disney blasted for using the F word in Donald Duck cartoon”!

The Disney in “Mr Banks” seems to know he is not perfect. When he stubs out a cigarette, he says, “I’d hate to set a bad example for the kids.”

is their any evidence?

Many of the spurious tales come from the Eliot book, “Hollywood’s dark prince”, especially the idea that Disney was a spy, flying to New York to attend left-wing meetings and later to file reports for the FBI. Much of Eliot’s material comes from a disgruntled Disney employee who was barely at the studio for 6 months. Indeed, much of the bile in general comes from the poor handling of a strike in 1941 that lingered on for 4 months. Disney was convinced that communist agents had stirred up trouble with the Screen Cartoonists’ guild. Disney detested the strikers and they him. It is hardly surprising that rumours began. Certainly it is true that Disney was registered as an FBI SAC Contact in 1955 and I suppose in the climate the allegations that he shopped suspected communists to the government may well be true; he was called to testify in 1947 and his testimony is fairly damning but naive: “Well, I think Sorrell is sure tied up with them. If he isn’t a Communist, he sure should be one.” His testimony certainly damaged the careers of some people in the industry and I think he must be held responsible for some of the blacklisting that went on. That he joined an organisation called “the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals” is quite true and this had explicit aims of getting rid of Hollywood’s communists. Some of the members were known anti-semites: Jack warner and Louis B Mayer did not join the organisation because of the anti-semitic bias, but that does not prove Disney was an anti-semite (despite the stereotypes in “three Little Pigs” and “the Opry House”). There seems little truth, equally, in claims that he was a Nazi and some of the war propaganda suggests he was firmly against Hitler though he certainly is recorded by Art Babbitt as meeting Leni Reifenstahl in 1938 She claimed Disney“told her he admired her work”; if he was a racist then he was a man of his time, but any charge that he was an anti-semite seems to be confounded hy his employment of people like Maurice Rapf, who also had a left-wing, probably communist background.

A serious issue

What is perhaps wrong and deeply so is that Disney implied that his workers would get a bonus for what they did on the early features and this never happened. Also, Disney hired women only to ink and paint the animation cels. He paid them a pittance. I have done this work and it is soul-destroying. Any corrections that the painter makes to sloppy animation go unrewarded and unrecognised. But such corrections are essential and part of the expected vigilance of the painter. The detail and discipline of the cel painting during the early Disney period- indeed, until “Sleeping Beauty” is astonishing.

Cryrogenics

There is one myth I have not touched on and that is Disney’s immortality: was he frozen? It always seemed a bit creepy. Would this have been done some time after his death or at some point when his body was still warm? The creepiness continues with stories that it was just his head that was frozen and that his body is kept somewhere under Disneyland for resurrection…It all sounds a bit biblical. But I believe his ashes are buried in Forest lawn memorial park in Glendale and that the story is false and probably dependent on a biography by Robert Mosley in 1986. But there was an initial report about freezing in a French Magazine, “Ici Paris” in 1969.

What can be stated with confidence is that there was secrecy about Disney’s final illness and that his brother was encouraged by Walt to keep everything quiet. This probably explains why the announcement of the death was delayed. Also, after having serious cancer surgery and the removal of his left lung, Disney returned to work in his office for about 10 days prior to his death. His daughter Diane is supposed to have said that her father hated funerals and insisted, “When I’m dead I don’t want a funeral. I want people to remember me alive”. That is a statement that alone might well have given rise to all the cryronic stories. It just depends how you interpret the words!

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There are some Disney pluses, again not all of them belong to the man, but they certainly seem to be in line with his legacy. Top of the list must be the continued brilliance of the marketing department. Then comes the equal opportunities employment of gay people, provision for their partners and the recognition that Michael Eisner notes that “40% of Disney’s 63000 employees are homosexual”. That seems to redress the balance in a way.