Friday, July 19, 2019

Walt Disney, part X: Ain't no rule says a whale can't sing at the Met


Though blessed with at least one genuine high point, and even a few good bits after that, for the most part this anthology isn't even up-and-down, it's mostly one single flat, boring line, spread across some of the most disposable animation in the whole Disney canon.

Directed by Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Joshua Meador

Spoiler alert: moderate

Five years and four months before, the Walt Disney Studio had released the grandest film of its now-vanished Golden Age.  This was Fantasia, a combination of expert-selected classical music and the best animation of its day (perhaps any day), and its majesty was matched only by its hubris, for it was surely the most passionate and foolhardy of the whole multitude of passionate and foolhardy endeavors Walt had undertaken in the late 1930s and early 1940s.  Commercially speaking, it had failed almost the instant it was released.  In fact, given its insane distribution model, its prodigious cost, and the realities of WWII for the global film market, it had failed eighteen months before it was released—that is, the moment Walt had decided to do it in the first place.

This had hurt him, as it had hurt everyone else who'd put so much work and love into it; and so it may be to Fantasia's failure, specifically, that Walt's increasing disenchantment with his studio, and animation generally, can ultimately be traced.  (The other Disney Studio release of 1946 was Song of the South—for now, just imagine me yelling out, "pass!"—and it pointed to another possible path for Disney, one of live-action films that might not use animation at all.)  In any event, it is certainly to Fantasia that the studio's demoralization can be traced, for were it not for Fantasia, there would have been no layoffs, no strike, no danger of bankruptcy, and no financial need, at least, to have sold Disney's animators to the U.S. government so cheaply during the war.

But since the reasons that Fantasia failed were so obviously extrinsic (and the Nazi conquest of Europe had, after all, been recently reversed), it wasn't irrational to believe that it wasn't the core concept that had sunk it.  It just needed to be tweaked.  For starters, it needed to be cheaper, but since Disney's net worth was approximately one million dollars below zero at this time, Walt's pre-war tradition of spending money just because he had it wasn't going to be a problem.  In the same vein, it probably needed to be shorter.  It would need to dial back on the ambition and the rigor and, of course, the pompousness.  It would, importantly, not attempt to force classical music upon a public that was, in pretty much this very historical moment, trading in those enduring masterpieces for mass-produced popular music.  It would need to latch onto the sounds of its day, exchanging timelessness in a bid for relevancy and popularity.

And so came into existence Make Mine Music, the first of their poor man's Fantasias.  It did well enough to prompt another, but it's the kind of movie where it's possibly not only hindsight tricking you into seeing a fatigued and unhappy group of artists doing anything just to get some product out.  Then again, Disney's shorts have always been a mixed bag, so maybe it really is just my own bias, and, in fact, Disney's animators were having fun.  Surely, in some cases they had to have been having fun.  But whether it's merely their idea of "fun" and mine not overlapping, or if it truly was a lack of inspiration after being ground down for years (and expending all their pent-up stir craziness on The Three Caballeros), Music wound up the single dullest thing the studio had done to date.  And it's no accident that it's been borderline-forgotten; even its "big" segments, which were once staples of Disney's television programming, have now been all-but-lost to pop cultural memory for a generation.

Well, as infamously as anything could get for a feature this obscure, the version of Music that Disney has decided should exist today on their poorly-authored 2000 Region 1 DVD is not the one that was released in 1946.  (There's some indication that this decision has been reversed, but that doesn't help me.)  It's seven minutes shorter, and what was then billed as "A Musical Fantasy in Ten Parts" has had to make do with nine.

Originally the first segment to arrive after Music's nicely-designed, understated, very-purple credits montage (invoking the same basic idea of "a concert in the movie theater" that was much more forcefully insisted upon in Fantasia), Music's missing beginning is "The Martins and the Coys," based very loosely upon the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, and also, I guess, on Romeo and Juliet.  It's frankly a little hard to understand its deletion.  I'm easier on Disney than most for its self-censoring ways, and if I ever do get around to Song of the South, we can talk about it more there; but the stated reason for the removal of "The Martins and the Coys" is that its comic gunplay isn't suitable for children, and that's weird, because "The Martins and the Coys" has some of the most consequential violence of any Disney comedy, in that events that would kill a person in real life for once also manage to kill these characters in their wacky cartoon.

Regardless, this is precisely how "Martins and the Coys" opens up, with the two clans on their two sides of a fancifully-designed gulch—clans that, going by the character design initially on display, must multiply through asexual fission, in that each family is depicted exclusively by way of male hillbilly clones—and they stumble into a firefight that claims every last one of them.  Or, rather, every last one of them except their sole non-anonymous members, a strapping blond male Martin and a voluptuous ginger female Coy (unless it was the other way around).  When they go out to finish each other off in the name of their respective vendettas, they realize that, in fact, they're both hot, and that they should therefore abandon their families' ways and engage in some sexual reproduction instead.  This enrages the angels of their kinfolk, though there's not much they can do about it, being dead.  They get married, but one time-skip of a few months or years later we realize that the feud between the Martins and the Coys has only taken on a perverse new form, namely that of humorous bilateral spousal battery.  This pleases the ghosts of their miserable ancestors, and that's the whole thing: a clever enough reversal with a joke about marriage being a sad, violent cage (that's thankfully whimsical enough to not read as endorsing actual domestic abuse), and all of it set to a derivative but enjoyable tune sung by the King's Men quartet.  (6/10)

This brings us to the extant Music, which begins with "Blue Bayou," and its new placement at the start seems both fitting and a mistake, insofar as it vastly overpromises on how much effort and care went into this anthology.  That's because "Blue Bayou" was created for another one, Fantasia itself, and it shows: a plotless piece of formalist precision concerning an egret in a moonlit swamp, "Blue Bayou" exists almost exclusively to serve as a demonstration of Disney's effects animation as applied to overlapping ripples on the surface of a small pool of water.  It's meticulous, and it's slow, but it's also one of the most worthwhile things Music has going for it; it is, without any competition at all, the most graceful.  (It would be the worst thing in Fantasia by a mile, but that's not the bar that Music sets.)  Unfortunately, set to the titular number by the Ken Darby Singers, rather than Debussy's Clair de Lune as planned, "Blue Bayou" also offers a warning: that whenever Music wishes to downshift into a contemplative mood, which is surprisingly often, it will be accompanied by drowsy 40s ballads of the kind where even if they're not bad (and there is nothing genuinely wrong with "Blue Bayou"), they nonetheless operate in the absence of anything actively good.  The short of it is, if these slower segments were simply set to silence instead, it's entirely possible you wouldn't even notice.  (7/10)

In Music's defense, this pattern is not at all apparent from the next segment, "All the Cats Join In," which is honestly great, the most enjoyable and all-round best of Music's nine or ten segments in a walk.  This segment is set to Benny Goodman and his capital-O Orchestra, and concerns their brand of fizzy jazz-pop directly, as it sets out to capture (and/or pander to) the youth of 1946.  It's radically successful: based around the converse of a gag made more famous several years later in Jones' "Duck Amuck" (and done straight three years before, in "Aquarela do Brasil" from Saludos Amigos), "Cats" finds itself in the very process of being drawn—a solid if probably-unconscious metaphor for adolescence—with the animators' pencil interacting directly with the characters and creating a mid-century version of paradise for them, sketching out the very simple plot of a bunch of kids, particularly another voluptuous ginger, getting together to dance to jazz and, unmistakably, go have sex.  It's fun and funny and full of energy, highlighted further by a minimalistic graphic style seen almost nowhere else in Disney animation, maybe almost literally nowhere else other than segment director Jack Kinney's other shorts, and even then only as echoes of character design.  (Also rarely seen in Disney animation: the obviousness of the joy taken in the female form by one of the animators in particular—most likely Fred "Centaurettes" Moore—especially in the aforementioned redhead taking a shower and almost getting nude on-camera.)

Anyway, it's choreographed to the music with great timing (it may be one of only two segments of Music that feel "choreographed" at all, but I mean this in an absolute sense), it's thrilling, it's gorgeous in its light way, and it's so creative you wonder how the rest of the film happened when this was a possibility.  The only sour spot involves the redhead's sister, who, in copying her elder sibling, evokes some weird and not-on-message stuff about the sexualization of children and the reproduction of gender roles we didn't necessarily choose.  Otherwise, it's as appealing as cultural appropriation and sexism on behalf of a bunch of 40s teens could conceivably be, and it almost justifies this movie, so there.  (9/10)

We come now to another naptime, "Without You," and it's kind of hard to even describe what it is, or at least what it's for, despite it being one of the simplest things Disney ever did, just the view through a window in a room while Andy Russel's song about lost love plays.  As with "Blue Bayou," it apparently exists only to show off the effects animation—this time effects animation giant Joshua Meador's various notions regarding water on a pane of glass, while an unseen singer's grief persists and the seasons change outside by way of dissolves from one background painting to another.  I want to like it, because I think the idea has merit, but half the time you have no idea what you're even looking at, and it's not as pretty as it thinks it is, though it is somewhat pretty.  It may have done better with a real song, which is to imply that "Without You" is not one, uniquely monotonous even in this universe of 40s ballads.  This is Music actually being ambitious, so I give it some credit, but it's a misfire.  (5/10)

Next up is "Casey At the Bat," likely the best-known of the shorts, in part due to English teachers' penchants for trying to punch up American poetry discussions by showing it in class.  And that's what "Casey" is: a poem recital with underscoring, and it takes a liberal (or spurious) definition of "song" to place it in that category, which is to say it has no business being in this "musical fantasy."  It doesn't help that I simply don't like it: it's a one-note morality tale stretched out (even at seven minutes, it's much too long), that enters into the story with cost-saving paintings that I'm not convinced were even done by Disney background artists, is populated by a crew of grotesques playing a sport I've never been terribly interested in, and seeks to entertain with sub-Looney Tunes gags that play off that grotesqueness.  (Only one is genuinely funny: the way a player with a prehensile mustache uses it to touch first base before the outfielder can throw him out.)  Your mileage may vary, but I just don't see the value in it; even Jerry Colonna's recital isn't especially good, and while I've never been much for poetry, I feel strongly that Ernest Thayer's "Casey" is a much better poem than Disney's "Casey" is a cartoon.  (5/10)

And, following the trend, something else for you to close your eyes to: "Two Silhouettes," like "Without You," is a decent idea that fails in the execution.  This one involves a ballad sung by Dinah Shore while two ballet dancers dance a dance of love against a strange, vaguely cosmic abstract backdrop.  Other than the words "ballad" and "ballet" sharing four letters, there's not much that matches about this, and so from the get-go "Two Silhouettes" is already misconceived.  Worse is that the eponymous silhouettes are "rotoscoped" dancers, though it's shaky enough that I feel like the term is inapplicable; they're just covered in color, sometimes two colors to evoke a chiaroscuro, while they perform a comparatively undemanding ballet.  (The pair of cherubim silhouettes who sometimes fly around them are animated, which makes their bounded physicality stand out even more.)  The fact that they're still technically cartoons is used to very little advantage and they jar both with their background, and sometimes within themselves.  If they had been rotoscoped well and given actual features, I think "Two Silhouettes" would be good; if they had been animated, with all the possibility for going beyond physicality that entails, I think "Two Silhouettes" would be very good; if it used a Goddamn ballet piece, I think "Two Silhouettes" would at least be better.  It does none of these things.  (4/10)

Following that is what many (critics Tim Brayton and Mari Ness say almost exactly the same thing, and they're not alone) call the best of Music, and, my God, I cannot see why.  This is "Peter and the Wolf," a very unserious version of the Sergei Prokofiev musical fairy tale, which I evidently don't care for in the first place.  It's about little Petya (or "Peter") who goes out to kill a wolf that's been terrorizing his village (eye-rollingly, he does so with a popgun).  He meets some cutesy animal friends, then he meets his nominally terrifying animal enemy, the Wolf, which is reputedly the great thing about the segment, with a few going so far as to call it one of the great Disney villains.  To my eyes, it's a reasonably well-animated cartoon wolf, courtesy John Lounsbery, with nicely evil red-and-yellow eyes, but it doesn't even quite manage to be one of Disney's great evocations of a dangerous animal: all you need to do is compare it to the incarnation of hateful nature created by Glen Keane for The Fox and the Hound's bear, or the mythic demigod that Wolfgang Reitherman summoned for Pinocchio's Monstro, or the purely-realistic visceral horror of Retta Scott's hunting dogs in Bambi, and the wolf is reduced to exactly what it actually is—an anonymous monster fit for scaring two year olds, if that.  Looking back, you can really see the Lounsbery: the Wolf is a mammalian reskin of Ben Ali Gator from Fantasia's "Dance of the Hours" with, to Louns's credit, a more naturalistic (and lupine) musculoskeletal structure, though it's particularly apparent in the Wolf's overly-crocodilian jaws.  And Ben Ali Gator was a lot of things, but he was not scary.  The Wolf is perhaps less threatening still: Ben Ali Gator, it was implied, managed to rape a hippo; "Peter" is Disneyfied to hell and back, and this vicious predator can't even kill the duck.

Meanwhile, what really sinks "Peter," beyond its dreary frivolity and uninteresting character design (conceding the Wolf is interesting, everyone else is still dull), is Sterling Holloway's narration.  The Prokofiev piece is, of course, narrated.  The Prokofiev piece, however, has no visual component.  This does, and it's still Disney animation, so it's always a workable piece of silent storytelling; Holloway's narration, besides the nobody's-fault sensation of being lectured about music by Winnie the Pooh, is painfully redundant to the onscreen action.  It's just so boring(3/10)

Things pick up from here, even if they're not always good.  Luckily, "After You've Gone" is good.  It's no coincidence that this brings back Benny Goodman.  It's really not much more than a re-do of Fantasia's "Toccata and Fugue," specifically the first part after the animation begins, though I feel like this is being slightly unfair to it, if nothing else than because it's in a different musical genre, and because "After You've Gone" has no interest in abstraction.  It's a surrealist piece with instruments taking on life (a fun gag is a trumpet fighting a bass in a boxing ring) and it gets to trippy places the rest of Music doesn't even know about (a pair of disembodied hands playing on a disintegrating piano become the disembodied legs of women in skirts, but are still fingers; it's fucking strange).  It's zippy and colorful and it's the best thing in the back half of the feature.  (7/10)

Weakness returns with "Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet," a ballad not about the romance between a gangster and a rural ingenue, which is what I initially pictured, but a literal fedora and a literal bonnet.  It's not terrible, and the Andrews Sisters offer Music its most enjoyable sleepy ballad, but "Fedora" just doesn't quite work.  For starters, the anthropomorphized hats are uncanny and kind of gross, particularly the red bit of flair that forms the bonnet's "female" lips.  Telling the story of how they were separated when purchased by different owners, it reminds one vividly of Pixar's 2013 short "The Blue Umbrella," which is more-or-less exactly the same thing in concept, and so you expect this to also be a whimsical metaphor for how fate maneuvers two humans into meeting and falling in love.  This is not the case.  "Fedora" is a story about hats that want to fuck.  And while that's not horrible or anything—though it's oddly violent, and puts Johnny through the shit before a happy ending that requires both hats to be mutilated—it's also empty.  (5/10)

Now for the finale, "The Whale Who Wanted to Sing At the Met," about a whale named Willie (sung in multiple registers and genres by Nelson Eddy, an enormous talent and the biggest guy in opera in 1946).  Willie's beautiful voice attracts the attention of the impresario Tetti-Tatti, who becomes convinced that Willie has swallowed between one and three opera singers.  (He comes to this conclusion while scouring an illustrated Bible story collection, which spells "Jonah" wrong.)  Tetti-Tatti determines to save the singers from the belly of the whale, and this is the dramatic irony of the piece: what Willie perceives as an audition for the impresario is actually Tetti-Tatti's attempt to hunt him down, slay him, and retrieve the singers from his corpse.  "The Whale" is compellingly off-beat, if not always entirely successful—it's least successful moment for a modern audience, undoubtedly, is when Willie sings "Shortnin' Bread" to a group of appreciative seals, making it more racist than it even has to be.  Likewise, I imagine that the decision to render the whale's three vocal ranges visually as a trio of increasingly large uvulae, which we see multiple times—possibly up to 10% of this short is inside the whale's throat—would be unsuccessful in any era.  (It's not worth it to complain that this is not how whales' voices work, but it's not even how human voices work, and beyond that, it's disgusting.)  But it's not unenjoyable overall, and Willie is a charmingly-animated cartoon cetacean.  His existence permits some silliness with scale, especially during a reverie in which we are invited to imagine Willie's King Kong-like career.  This reverie gives the game away somewhat, priming you for the sad ending of the piece (and thus the film), but it can't help but be startling that Disney's wacky "musical fantasy in ten parts" is willing to go this dark in its final moments, and without much in the way of accompanying light.  (7/10)

It's something then, and while it hits some pretty high highs ("Cats" is so good), it's hard to feel anything but disinterest in the whole, because other than "Cats," it isn't "on-and-off," it's largely just "off," with a long stretch in the middle that outright sucks, and with a range of variation in quality that usually only goes from "sucks" to "decent" anyway.  It is the first Disney canonical feature that I would rate an actual failure, but there's enough of real value in it that I hate simply writing it off.

Score: 5.01/10

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