Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Day 2: Pinocchio (1940)

One of the things that struck me most about Snow White yesterday was the motherly nagging nature of the film's songs - 'Whistle You Work' and 'Heigh-Ho!' promoted a strong work ethic, as well as the former encouraging you to do the dishes, dear. There's a whole musical number dedicated to washing up before you eat. There haven't been many Disney films of late to feature musical numbers, but if we take a trip back to, say, Hercules, the songs aren't nearly as well-behaved. In fact, most all of the Hercules numbers are glory-seeking, hero-baiting songs. This isn't to say Hercules is a bad film, but it's hardly going to get the kids to tidy their bedrooms, is it?

Pinocchio, Disney's second film, is perhaps the epitome of morality in children's cinema - a medium that, let's face it, is by definition a pretty moralistic genre to start with. It's as true now as it was in 1940 that family films must be ripe with morality if they stand any chance of success. It's true that recent kid's films tend to feature a few more fart jokes than, say, Sleeping Beauty or Dumbo, but they're hardly petry dishes of metaphorical filth nonetheless. Shrek would never have sold to children if it contained endless profanities; Happy Feet would have been much less popular with parents if Mumble, the little dancing penguin, instead dealt with his issues of abandonment by returning to his home armed with an Uzi and a wild sense of closure. Extreme closure.

The fact of the matter is this: besides immediate family and the ever-dwindling church attendances, the premier source of moralistic influence for children today (and, really, ever since its conception) is popular culture. It's the reason Fox News gets so pissy about violent video games falling into the hands of wide-eyed preteens, why puritanical fundamentalists would rather lock children in their bedrooms than let them own a rap album. And it's the reason that Mumble the little dancing penguin never went postal on his old penguin clan.

For the most part, family films are happy simply to not misbehave - or to show the characters that do finding their just desserts in death, prison or - in the really pessimistic ones - death in prison. Children (especially this current lot, with their Bratz and their Spongebob and their pre-teen pregnancy) don't appreciate in-your-face lessons in the way that the well-dressed vest-wearing young folk of the forties did. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Pinocchio - Disney's greatest morality tale. You know the story - old man wishes for his wooden puppet to be a real boy, and has his wish answered by improbably tall and hot fairy. Puppet is told he needs to behave, keep to the straight and narrow and generally be a good little Christian marionette if he ever wants to be a real human thing. Of course, Pinocchio is worryingly timeless in his childish ability to do the direct opposite of pretty much anything he's told to. Shamelessly skipping school, the little wooden puppet manages first to join a travelling show and then holiday to an island that specialises in transforming it's visitors into donkey slaves. Frankly, the lessons get a bit heavy-handed here; on Pleasure Island if you act like a jackass you literally become a jackass.

You've got to wonder how well Pinocchio goes down with anyone born after the invention of teenagers. Pinocchio is swamped with the sort of morality that lives today only in the southern states of America - nobody north of Missouri has kept to JC's 'straight and narrow' since the mid forties. JC, of course, being Jiminy Cricket.

Something of note regrading Jiminy Cricket, while we're here: he is an awful choice to be the wooden guy's conscience, and not just due to his in-film inability to wake up before nine. One of the first things JC does in the film? Breaking and entering into Gepetto's house. His excuse is that the unattended log fire inside is a waste as long as there is nobody to appreciate it. This is nice thinking. Tomorrow I am going to steal a 72 inch LCD television screen, because it's a waste as long as I'm not watching Bruce Willis jump off the Nakatomi Plaza on it.


All in all, Pinocchio may have aged badly as we've grown more and more desensitized to casual lying, more likely to skip school - even if our ambitions for the day are less grand than joining a travelling showman's troupe. A step up in quality from Snow White, both in plot and animation (if the water effects on my DVD are true to the original then they are verging on remarkable), it's a shame that the film does not garner the same respect that Snow White presumably gained simply through being the first of its kind.

Coming Soon: Fantasia (1940)

Day 1: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937)

As accidental timely starts to Disney-based film marathon blogs go, this has to be one of the timeliest - it was not until 'round midnight that I discovered that Walt Disney passed away thirty-three years ago today, on December 15th 1966. I can't help but be impressed that one man had such an impact on animated cinema before my mother even turned five. To me, 1986 is impossibly historic - even cartoon films produced before then strike me with the sort of awe I normally reserve for trips to the Natural History Museum, walking amongst dinosaurs and stuffed capybaras. So to consider that there were almost thirty years before Disney's death in which he pioneered animated cinema is a difficult prospect for me. And yet thirty years there were, and it was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that stood at the very beginning of this. Until this point Disney had been focusing on animated shorts starring his flagship characters - Mickey, Donald and the gang. With Snow White, Disney threw caution to the wind - the first animated feature produced in America was his to claim.

I suppose it makes sense that there were doubters of Walt's first feature - many called it 'Disney's Folly', which is a terribly 1930's way of saying 'We think you're wasting your time, mate.' Nobody seemed to see any potential in a feature length cartoon - and as Disney put more and more of his own money into funding the film, critics saw it as a bigger and bigger waste of money. Now, of course, we can't even pretend to comprehend what it must have been like to live in a world without animated movies. We have so many now that even the computer-generated films have low budget releases coming out every year, usually so poorly done that you can't help but wonder if a producer thought of the title before the plot itself. Space Chimps, for example. Fly Me To The Moon. All a world away from Snow White, of course, but all direct descendents nonetheless. Terrible, terrible direct descendents, of course. The sort of descendents that let the family down and don't get invites to the annual reunion.

That said, how fantastic is Snow White, really? There's no way around the fact that the film is a landmark of cinema, in the same way that, say, Casablanca, Gone With The Wind and Citizen Kane are landmarks. The problem is that very often the very accolade of being a landmark is enough to over-sell the film, to hype it up to a level where it can only disappoint. Last week I went to an independent cinema in Nottingham to see Citizen Kane for the second time in my life. I sat in the dark with a pint of cider, wrapped warm in my coat, and took in a film often described as a landmark in cinema. Now, I like to consider myself a moderately intelligent person; I own several books, and once got eighteen answers correct whilst watching University Challenge. All in the same episode, too. Nevertheless, I just can't align myself with the idea that Citizen Kane is one of the best films ever made. It's well-plotted, but far too long; for every stunning shot there's an unnecessary scene slowing the story-telling down. In some ways, Snow White suffers similarly.

Watching the film last night I realised that my only real problem with it was that which is shared by many films older than, say, forty years - it was too slow. Really, this isn't too much of a flaw on a contextual level; older films generally have a much slower pace than those released in the last twenty years. This is one of the two reasons that your grandparents don't like Transformers - the pace is simply too fast for their tastes. The other reason, by the way, is that Transformers is a genuinely terrible film. Really.

But it can become painfully obvious at times that Disney seemed to be stretching out a fairly minimalistic plot over the film's eighty minute running time. Frankly, more complicated plots have been told with greater success in single episodes of The Simpsons. There are extended scenes involving, well, not that much. The dwarfs spend about five minutes of the film realising someone is in their house, and deciding what to do about it. There's a whole song about washing up before dinner! There's another one about how fun and easy it can be to tidy up! Frankly, sometimes it felt like my mother had been drafted in for song-writing purposes.

The biggest surprise for me was the first appearance of 'Heigh-Ho!' in the film - I hadn't realised that its debut in the film contained the lyric 'Heigh-ho, heigh-ho/It's home from work we go' as opposed to the 'off to work' version we are all used to. That latter lyric does appear later, but I enjoyed the first appearance more - it makes more sense to me to get excited about leaving work as opposed to the opposite. Really,who gets excited about going to work? Terry Wogan and, one can assuming, anyone who actually works at Disney.

I enjoyed Snow White, ultimately. It drags - but that's how older narratives worked, and this is a problem I know I'll have to deal with for the next two weeks or so, up until I break past the Cinderella Barrier around Christmas Day. Excusing that, then, and it certainly is a pleasure to see the beginnings of the world of Disney that most every child on Earth has taken for granted ever since the late 1930s. If you think about it, there is something quite remarkable in my ability now to watch a film made before my grandmother was even alive, and it has to say something about the quality of the film itself also. Snow White may not be perfect, but it's a wonderful way to start my Fifty Days of Disney.

Tomorrow: Pinocchio (1941)

Monday, 14 December 2009

An Introduction

Christmas Day 1996 came twelve days after my ninth birthday. Thirteen years later I can't remember what I had actually asked for that Christmas - chances are it involved Asterix, or The Simpsons; what I can say is that I don't believe I had asked for the present I received from my uncle. Sitting on the floor of our living room, I peeled back the green Christmas tree wrapping paper and slowly unveiled the hard plastic case of the video hidden within. I held in my hands a brand new VHS copy of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature length cel-animated film ever released.

Of course, to a nine year-old boy there is no real kudos held by the history of cinema - least of all a cartoon fairy tale made fifty years before he was even born. I looked at the video in front of me, and then up to my uncle's face. He was smiling earnestly.
"A little birdy told me you wanted this." he said, and I looked back to the white case for the film. A little birdy? My mind flickered into New York gangster mode - this was a little birdy that would have to be silenced. What respectable nine year-old boy wanted Snow White? The Lion King, perhaps. Aladdin, maybe. But a fairy tale about a pasty princess and her dwarf buddies? Definitely not.

Flash forward thirteen years, to yesterday morning - my twenty-second birthday. I sit perhaps five foot from where a little birdy betrayed me back in '96, and tentatively hold a thin rectangular present that my sister has posted down from Leicestershire. As I tear the paper free from the gift, a DVD is revealed. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I smile, because this time the little birdy that had informed my family member had been myself. For the past three years I have bought every Disney Animated Classic that I could find; my aim being to collect the complete set. Though Snow White is not the last of the films needed to finish the set (I still need The Wild, Meet The Robinsons and Bolt), but it was the last major step I needed in order to start a festival I'll be calling 'Fifty Days Of Disney'. Over the next forty-nine days or so, I will be working through each and every one of the Disney Animated Classics Canon - from Snow White to Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast to Hercules. Taking a break every few days, I aim to reach Bolt - the 48th film - around the 9th of February, when Disney's 49th classic, The Princess and the Frog, finds its UK release.

With any luck, I'll be writing an entry here for every film - not so much a review as thoughts inspired by the films. I'll write about the films, the nostalgia and the world they made an impact on. And that's my agenda:
1. To watch each of Disney's Animated Classics, in chronological order.
2. To write about them here, in a way that might border on pointless, but never on boring.

Tune in tomorrow for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the start of animated cinema!