Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Story of "Trick or Treat"

Everyone knows the story of Halloween: the holiday originated in the misty days of pre-Roman Ireland, with the year-ending festival of Samhain. That final day of the Celtic calendar was a "thin time" when spirits walked the Earth and costumed junior Druids traveled from home to home with lighted turnips, begging for food. The festival was appropriated by the Catholic Church as All Hallow's Eve as a fair or foul attempt to convert the Pagans, and evolved over time into the holiday we know today.

If only any of that were true!

When Walt Disney released the animated short Trick or Treat in 1952, the practice for which it was named was only about 30 years old. In fact, the very first published reference to "trick or treat" was in a Canadian newspaper in 1927. A letter of complaint written to the Washington Post in 1948 stated that "I have lived in some 20 other towns and cities and I never saw nor heard of the begging practice until about 1936... The sooner it becomes obsolete here the better. I don't mind the tiny children who want to show off their costumes, but I resent the impudence of the older children." So not only was it still relatively new when Donald Duck ran afoul of his nephews and Witch Hazel, but it was still a quite controversial thing for Walt to be giving the seal of approval to!

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Disney in Concert - Tale as Old as Time

Once again it is that time of year, around Canadian Thanksgiving, when Ashley and I dress up to the nines and attend the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra's performance of Disney in Concert. Last year we skipped it because they decided to go with a live performance of Nightmare Before Christmas (not that I don't like the film, we just weren't feeling it), and the year before was Fantasia - Live in Concert. 2013 was the last time there was a straightforward Disney in Concert, and this was a different line-up than the previous concert to make the rounds of Pops series across Canada and the United States. Symphonic Pops Music has put together a new package of clips and medleys titled Tale as Old as Time.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Walt's Era - Part 7: The New Disney Emerges, Part 3 (1953-1954)

We're in the homestretch now. The last of Disney's co-productions with England's Denham Studios was released in the latter half of 1953, closing out the preliminary era of their first fully live-action films. Inspired by their success, Disney had Stage 3 built at the studios, which was in use through late 1953 and early 1954 to film THE MIGHTIEST MOTION PICTURE OF THEM ALL. A crew was also sent to the Bahamas to do the extensive underwater footage.

Filming 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in Stage 3's water tank. Photo: Disney.

The first feature-length True-Life Adventures was released during this time, followed by my favourite of the entire series. True-Life shorts had run their course and it was time to either expand it or close it down. Disney chose expansion. The weight of pre-movie shorts would be henceforth picked up by People and Places, new live-action shorts, and eventually cannibalized episodes from ABC's Disneyland television series.

Speaking of which, it was also sometime in early 1954 that Disney penned their deal with ABC for funding Disneyland. With funding in place, ground could be broken and work begin.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Rediscovering Atlantis

It was very appropriate, and most likely unknowingly so, that Disney set 2001's Atlantis: The Lost Empire, in 1914. Indeed, in many ways it could not truly have been otherwise: the middle Victorian era saw the beginning of an explosion of interest in the lost continent that would not subside beneath the waves again until the 1960's. In the decade spanning 1895 to 1905, there were no less than 16 fiction novels, standing alongside countless ostensibly non-fiction pseudoscientific and spiritualist explorations, which solidified the Atlantis we know today: not as a holdover of ancient myth, but as an artifact of Victorian cultural anxieties.

Trailer for Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

What Went Wrong with the Hunchback of Notre Dame?

From the beginnings of Hollywood through today, it can truly be said that there has never been a wholly accurate adaptation of Victor Hugo's literary classic, Notre-Dame de Paris. Perhaps this isn't so surprising, for the novel is a signature sprawling historical epic that examines everything from the lives of religious orders to Mediaeval architecture to Parisian class conflict to the very depths of obsession and depravity. At its heart, like Hugo's famed Les Misérables, it is an unflinching look at the brutality of civil society and poverty in the nineteenth century (through the metaphor of the Middle Ages). It is many things, reflecting on gender dynamics, the interplay of Church, State and Society, and the nature of romantic, fraternal and familial love. None of what it says, however, is amenable to the conventions of American filmmaking.

Consider this, the fourth chapter of the eighth book of Notre-Dame de Paris, with its entwined imagery of physical and emotional oppression, beginning with a bit of an architecture lesson. It is the speech of Claude Frollo to Esmeralda, and it is more powerful than any words placed in his mouth in cinema...

Sunday, 11 September 2016

"Disneyland will never be completed"

Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world. It is something that will never be finished. Something that I can keep developing and adding to.
This quote by Walt Disney is one of Disney fandom's most overused, and consequently, misunderstood. Every time a renovation, demolition, or alteration of any sort is announced for Disneyland, Walt Disney rises from his grave, pre-approving whatever modern Disney management does... No matter how shoddy, short-sighted, neglectful, or mediocre it is. And if you have things like that to say about a change? Well, clearly, you just don't like change and aren't a true Disney fan.

This quote has gotten mileage again with the news of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror's forthcoming replacement with a Guardians of the Galaxy ride. I heard it when the Court of Angels was walled off from the plebeian rabble. It was trotted out when Jack Sparrow was added to Pirates of the Caribbean and pirate ships added to Tom Sawyer Island. I'm sure it must have been used when the Country Bear Jamboree was replaced by Winnie the Pooh, when the Swiss Family Robinson was evicted by Tarzan, when Tomorrowland '98 was unveiled, when the Penny Arcade was nearly eviscerated of its penny arcade machines to make room for racks of candy, and when the Submarine Voyage was shut down. "Don't you know, Walt Disney himself loved fussing needlessly with things, changing for the sake of change, and randomly closing attractions that everyone loves?"

To take that famous quote of Walt's as an unconditional pre-approval of every change to the parks is to miss the subtlety of what he actually said. Note that Walt speaks of change in the sense of growth: "never be completed," "continue to grow," something that I can keep developing and adding to." He is speaking of building, not tearing down, and growing, not fussing needlessly. He also places a very strong condition on that growth: "as long as there is imagination left in the world." That is, growth at Disneyland is contingent on creative ideas and doing something that is truly worth doing.

Walt did fuss with Disneyland during his lifetime, but the fussing wasn't needless. Walt had another quote that is relevant here: "Disneyland is like a piece of clay, if there’s something I don’t like, I’m not stuck with it. I can reshape and revamp." When Walt fussed with things, it was because they didn't work or he had something far, far better in mind. 

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Walt's Era - Part 6: The New Disney Emerges, Part 2 (1953)

Big things were brewing behind the scenes as Disney charted out its new course in the Fifties. Most of it worked out quite well for Disney in the end, though it caused back room friction at the time.

Walt Disney Productions bore the name of Walt Disney, but was not synonymous with him as a business unit. In this year, the company's board of directors signed a deal to licence Walt's name for forty years and give him a personal services contract to the tune of $3000/week (which would be pretty good money now let alone in the Fifties). Walt's own company, WED Enterprises would create the attractions for Disneyland which Walt Disney Productions would then purchase. Three board members resigned over the arrangement, and later in the year, a shareholder would sue Walt and WED Enterprises. Nevertheless, plans for Disneyland were proceeding apace. 160 ares of orchard along the Santa Ana Freeway in Anaheim were purchased, ready to be leveled. WED began preliminary design work for the park, including the first full rendering by Herb Ryman, drawn over one weekend with Walt looming over his shoulder.

Significantly for Disney's business operations, Buena Vista Distribution was also incorporated this year. RKO Pictures, with whom Disney had a relationship since 1937, had little faith in the first True-Life Adventures feature film. Not one to let small minds deter him, Walt pushed ahead to take distribution of his films back into his own hands. By contractual necessity, a few more Disney films would be distributed by RKO for the next few years, including a series of now-lost themed anthologies of shorts such as New Year's Jamboree, 4th of July Firecrackers, Fall Varieties, Halloween Hilarities, Thanksgiving Day Mirthquakes, Mickey's Birthday Party, and Christmas Jollities (all 1953).