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).


Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris


One of my most favourite places on Earth is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. For more than 800 years it has stood at the centre of Paris - in fact, it marks kilometre 0 for all distance measurements in France - and in the centre of French history. It is an icon of the city and a sublimely beautiful example of the Mediaeval genius for both faith and art. It is also an example of endurance, having survived disaster, desecration, and dilapidation before being restored to its rightful place as a jewel in the crown of Christendom. As the government deliberated on whether or not to tear the venerable cathedral down, a popular novel by Victor Hugo reignited passion for everything about the romance of mediaevalism, patriotism, and religiousity that it represented. Notre-Dame was not only a symbol for the Church but for Romanticism's growing dissatisfaction with the failed promises of modernity. That is also what it represents for me: a living, ancient, enduring emblem of the romance of history, beauty, majesty, and faith.

Notre-Dame figured prominently in my two trips to Paris, once during a brief layover in 2008 when it was one of only three attractions I had time to visit (the others being the Eiffel Tower and Disneyland Paris) and again in 2013 when we passed it nearly every day for two weeks. I lost track of the number of times we stepped inside to offer devotion, but its presence, the weight of its ages and the innumerable people who have passed through it, seeped into my bones. In the words of Sinclair Lewis: "He who has seen one cathedral ten times has seen something; he who has seen ten cathedrals once has seen but little; and he who has spent half an hour in each of a hundred cathedrals has seen nothing at all."

If there was any one building of human construction that I would consider my spiritual home, it would be the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.
   

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Incredible Journey

Filmed on location in the province of Ontario, Canada, Disney's The Incredible Journey (1963) was the apotheosis of the studio's animal pictures. By 1960 the True-Life Adventures series of documentaries had essentially played itself out, already beginning to evolve into narrative films with 1957's Perri. The mantle was taken up by a series of films about animal hi-jinx narrated by Rex Allen, beginning in 1960 with The Hound That Thought He Was A Raccoon and growing to include The Legend of Lobo (1962), Yellowstone Cubs (1963), Run, Appaloosa, Run (1966) and Charlie the Lonesome Cougar (1967), as well as a number of episodes of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. None have had the lasting regard as The Incredible Journey, which was even remade in 1993 as Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey.

As with the overwhelming majority of films during Walt's era, The Incredible Journey adapted a pre-existing work of literature. Written by Scottish-Canadian author Sheila Burnford and published in 1960, the scant 127-page novella won the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award and a number of other accolades, as well as capturing the interest of Disney. Whereas many books must be rigorously pruned in the transition to celluloid, The Incredible Journey's short length and lack of literary refinement allowed it to be adapted almost verbatim.




Saturday, 13 August 2016

Walt's Era - Part 5: The New Disney Emerges, Part 1 (1950-1952)


From the crucible of war, Disney reemerged in the Fifties, expanding and innovating on who they were as a company. Cinderella put them back in the animated feature film business, Seal Island was such a success that they began pairing a new True-Life Adventure with each feature release, they created the Wonderland Music Company to handle their own music publication, and Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart primed them to enter the field of live-action feature films. They also pushed forward in another direction that had most film studios running for the hills: television.


On Christmas Day, 1950, Disney celebrated its grand return with One Hour in Wonderland. This pseudo-pilot for the Walt Disney's Disneyland television series to come brought back the paradigm of the Disney "behind the scenes" originated in The Reluctant Dragon, but in a form that audiences didn't have to pay a movie ticket to see. Walt was able to leverage his studio's assets - namely clips from Snow White and Song of the South, a Mickey and a Pluto cartoon, and a song from the Firehouse Five Plus Two - into what was essentially an advertisement for Alice in Wonderland that was entertaining in its own right. In so doing, he subliminally elevated his upcoming film to the same status as two of his biggest film successes. With One Hour in Wonderland, Walt ingeniously figured out how to make this new medium of television work for him, instead of against him. The idea was repeated in 1951 for The Walt Disney Christmas Show, reassembling the cast to promote Peter Pan.

There was also something else brewing behind the real scenes, away from the prying eyes of the public. In late 1952, Walt reassigned some of his most creative staff members into a shadowy new unit dubbed WED Enterprises.


Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Mr. Toad's Not-So-Wild Ride: Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows

When adapting Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, the demands of wartime animation led Disney to focus on the comic farce that was J. Thaddeus Toad's misadventures with automobiles. But as Christopher Robin Milne once noted, having watched his celebrated father Alan Alexander Milne adapt the story to the theatrical stage, there are really two books jammed into The Wind in the Willows. The one is about Mr. Toad. The other is the serene, sometimes terrifying, and always picturesque lives of the animals along the river.

Illustration by E.H. Shepard.