Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Walt Disney, part XV: I said, "if"


Disney, already clawing its way out of its early grave, came roaring back to life in one of their two closest bids at "masterpiece" in a whole half-century's worth of trying.

Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Wilfred Jackson

Spoiler alert: she still has the other shoe

I've doubtless belabored the dire financial circumstances of the Disney Studio throughout the 1940s, but it was, after all, the mire from which so many of Disney's features during the period sprang: the studio's unhappy resort to a long string of package films—binding a bunch of shorts together and calling them features—wasn't even totally Walt's idea, but something enforced upon him by his creditors, who had barely permitted work to finish on Bambi before requiring the drastic cost-cutting measures that had led to such cinematic chimeras as 1946's Make Mine Music and 1947's Fun and Fancy Free.  But it was with the success of those films in particular that Walt was, in early 1948, at last able to convince his brother Roy, along with his scant allies amongst his financiers, to suffer his independence as a filmmaker one more time.  He had never quite given up the dream of returning to true feature-length animation, but now that he had returned to it, he knew that this time it was all or nothing: that if he failed, it would be the end of his animation studio.  He'd contemplated such a fate for years, even considering a merger with RKO, his distributor, which would have destroyed him as an independent producer.  But this was not his way.  Instead, he did what he had always done: he gambled everything on art.  And, this time—for the first time in thirteen years—he won.  I guess he was due.

Not that he didn't hedge his bets in some shrewd ways, marking the moment when Walt—finally—began to grope toward a certain competence as a businessman.  It's also easy to overstate how much Walt truly risked: yes, the animation studio might've died, but no one has ever suggested Walt himself would've wound up anything worse than idly rich.  It may even be easy to overstate how much Walt cared.  Oh, he cared enough to take his employees down swinging.  But one of the more important hedges he made was the one that kept him in the UK during much of his new animated feature's production: the filming of Treasure Island.  Making use of British profits that had been rendered immobile by post-war currency restrictions, Treasure Island was the final evolution of Walt's semi-successful experiments with incorporating animated sequences into otherwise live-action movies.  The radical new form that Walt had created now was called "live-action movies without animated sequences," or sometimes just "movies" for short.  There'd be more where Treasure Island came from, and in Walt's frequent absences from Burbank during the 1950s it's entirely possible to look beyond the myth of Walt Disney, the prophet of American animation, and see Walt Disney as perhaps he more realistically was, the slightly inept executive who still loved cartoons, but by this point found them horribly stressful, and just wanted to do something that made money.

But surely the biggest hedge of all was the story that Walt ultimately chose to serve as his studio's salvation (or its doom).  This was Cinderella—specifically, an adaptation of the Charles Perrault version of the tale.  Obviously, Walt had a pronounced affection for fairy tales in general, and the ash-faced girl in particular.  Yet this selection could hardly have been devoid of colder calculation: the drive to recreate the heartfeels of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs can't be easily separated from the urgent need to recreate its massive financial success.

So while there are fairy tales aplenty that recall Snow White in some way or another, few do so as directly as this story of another aristocratic stepdaughter, reduced to slavery by another wicked stepmother, and once again in need of rescue by a charming prince.  And that's before you note the Disney agglomerations—the songs, the magical animal friends—though these were requisite, just as they had been with Snow White, and not solely for whimsy's sake.  After all, Walt was once again attempting to adapt a two-page short story into a whole 75 minute film.  He'd already adapted the tale once, years before, when the Walt Disney Company was still just Walt's Kansas City Laugh-O-Gram Studio; this "Cinderella" hit every single necessary beat of the plot, and did it in no more than seven minutes.  (Truly, it did it in substantially less, if you'd rather not count the mind-blowing amount of unbelievably shitty animation cycling that constitutes the vast majority of its runtime.)

In any event, it was no unconscious choice: the poster makes it explicit, and almost pathetic—"[the] greatest since SNOW WHITE" it proclaims, scarcely less on-the-nose than "Please, PLEASE buy a ticket."  Whoever authorized it was fully aware that Disney had done nothing since 1937 that had resonated so powerfully.  But Cinderella did.  And since this is my review, it's time to state my opinion about it: I can see why.  Indeed, I can see why far more clearly than I could with Snow White.  And while the arrogant name of the era it ushered in, Disney's 1950-1959 "Silver Age," is, to me, ultimately only a clinical term—one that denotes a distinct mode of industrial production for Disney cartoons, no more—I can hardly imagine a more joyous way to have started it, or a more clear-cut dividing line between the revived quality of Disney animation here and the cheaper, never-entirely-slapdash-but-frequently-underwhelming Package Film Era that preceded it.  It reeks of formula, but really good formula.  In fact, it comes tantalizingly close to perfecting the formula, combining the most successful qualities of the most successful Disney films to date: to the fairy tale setting and young female protagonist of Snow White it adds the visceral persecution and transformative mysticism of Dumbo.  The sheer scale of its influence would not be felt until another dark age called for another rebirth and another return to the source; but Cinderella, all the way back in 1950, was the first fully-functional prototype of the Disney Princess juggernaut, and while it creaks here and there, it holds up masterfully.

The plot?  69 years on, it remains the definitive version of the Cinderella story, but in case you've forgot: in the unadorned servant's quarters of a potentially-French townhouse in a year that remains nebulous, we find a teenager of around 18 whose given name is never spoken aloud, but could, conceivably, be Ella (Ilene Woods, and I spent my whole childhood and a small part of my adulthood oblivious to the wordplay, believing that "Cinderella" was a real given name, and "Cindy" was its diminutive, despite my aunt being named Cynthia).  This surprisingly clean "Cinderella," who does not sleep in ashes but does sing charmingly to bubbles, lost her mother many years ago, and her father, Lord Tremaine, more recently; she now exists under the thumbs of her father's quietly-cruel second wife (Eleanor Audley) and her more overtly-monstrous stepsisters Anastasia (Lucille Bliss) and Drizella (Rhoda Williams), plus their mean cat, Lucifer.  Her only friends are her animal companions, mainly the mice, like old hand Jaq (Jimmy McDonald) and new arrival Gus (also Jimmy McDonald, and yeah, that checks out).

Meanwhile, there is a prince (voiced by William Phipps in three lines, sung by Mike Douglas in several more) who has been neglecting his duty as a breeding stud for his regal father (Luis van Rooten, another VA in a dual role, talking to himself as the king's advisor, the grand duke).  The king decrees there shall be a ball attended by all eligible maidens, whereupon the prince shall select a wife; Cinderella is prevented from going, but for once her prayers are answered in the form of her fairy godmother (Verna Felton) who bestows upon her several gifts, especially a pair of glass slippers.  She attends the ball before her magic runs out, charming that prince most thoroughly, but must run at the stroke of midnight, leaving behind a single slipper, and a hunt across all the kingdom is undertaken to find the girl with the absurdly tiny feet.  No further description is provided—"tall, strawberry blonde, and obviously hot" the prince might've said, and he might've also inquired as to his dance partner's name in the first place—and, certainly, this would've saved the poor grand duke some time.  But, in the end, the shoe finds its owner and Cinderella finds liberation in her marriage to a monarch, and everyone lived happily ever after.  I believe it says so explicitly.

There's many things that could be written, and have been, about Cinderella's old-fashioned/modestly-evil gender politics, though I can't imagine a more played-out way to approach it: it's not, y'know, hidden subtext or anything.  I suppose the one thing I even disagree with on that count is how the prince gets excoriated, as a bland and boring non-character, which, personally, I don't really see the problem with: in a story so deliberately smooth and featureless, reducing the prince to an object is only natural.  It's this film's way of making him plausibly perfect, which he has to be, keeping clear of any possible objectionable qualities by removing any quality whatsoever besides a strong jaw and nice hair.  (The closest he comes to any personality at all is the boredom he expresses with the very notion of women—until he sees Cinderella.)  I cannot, of course, disagree that it's a bit of a problem that Cinderella does practically nothing on her own account.  It's not half as terrible as it looks: it basically acknowledges that the victims of abuse are not the masters of their own fate, and that it's not their fault if they can't fight back; it's surprisingly current in some very-unintended ways.  But, no, it is not ideal drama.

Regardless, what we have are really three separate plots, that dovetail strangely well: there's the Disney addition of the mice, which is comic relief, and occurs in interaction with the main story; there's the Disney addition of the royal court, which is comic relief and barely interacts with the main story at all (though it supplies the prince with some background without necessarily supplying any character); and then there's the main Perrault story itself, which is by far the best of Cinderella, and is the most controlled and stately part of it.  Obviously enough, any appreciation of Cinderella as a classic pretty much assumes from the outset a very high tolerance for the extremely specific strains of broad humor those first two plots bring, particularly the one with the mice, who—in addition to being zany and prone to getting into cat-related scrapes that pad out the runtime—also speak (and sing!) in high-pitched, electronically-manipulated squeaks, amplified by a dumbass patois that, amongst other manglings, tends to end all proper nouns with a "-y", e.g., "Cinderelly."  Fortunately, for whatever reason, I find them eminently tolerable, even pretty cute and funny.  But this is a matter of taste and I don't blame anyone for finding them repulsive.  (The king's comical dehumanization of his son as a vehicle solely for producing grandchildren, likewise, though I think this is borderline hilarious.)

But it really comes down to the main story, which is where Walt's other big hedge comes in: to cut down on costs, every bit with human characters was shot in live-action to use as reference, and everyone hated it.  They hated the way it hemmed in their drawings.  They hated the way it enforced a post-recorded score, though I think Oliver Wallace and Paul Smith, incorporating frequent callbacks to the musical numbers, manage a fairly marvelous one.  And they hated, especially, the way it locked down their nonexistent animated "camera."  And yet: all of that might be why Cinderella works so well, and feels both of Disney animation at its finest and distinct from every Disney film before or since.

Because Cinderella's as close to a work of deliberate, sustained minimalism as Disney feature animation has ever gotten, and I imagine ever will (the next closest is The Emperor's New Groove, which never feels minimalistic).  That doesn't mean there's an absence of expression.  It means, rather, that the range of expression is limited, and so the importance of the smallest gestures is magnified because that's simply all there is to focus on.  So it's not that it lacks detail, exactly, though sometimes it does: I feel like one key to Cinderella's aesthetic is one of its first images, that either through cost-consciousness or straight-up intent show Cinderella's famous feet, in close-up, without bothering to give her any toes.  In other ways, "detail" is only in the geometric arrangement of simple, well-placed lines and curves.  If I had to name Mary Blair's most important contribution to Disney animation, Cinderella is obviously it: the blocks of white and blue and pastels that tend toward curvilinear shapes make Cinderella arguably the most soothing, dreamlike narrative in the Disney canon.  Cinderella's easy-going magnificence arrives in fullest force during the ball sequence, which offers a rather sleepy song ("So This Is Love," no doubt in dialogue with the Whitesnake ballad).  It is, animation-wise, little more than a pair of near-silhouettes engaged in a slow waltz around a marble garden.  It is sleepy, but I mean that in the best possible way: the gift of pleasant relaxation can only be a relief after a near-hour of Cinderella being tormented by her horrid stepfamily.  These simple gestures of affection draw a surprisingly powerful response; when they're wrenched away, even moreso.

For Cinderella's minimalism can cut the other way, too: the chills you get from the way Lady Tremaine just narrows her eyes.  Frank Thomas animated the stepmother.  It's too much to insist he designed her—she was based on Audley, who alone amongst the vocal leads also served as her character's live-action reference—and he rarely did villains, so I doubt he ever topped Tremaine's ability to pack so much needless malice into so few lines, or that he ever animated such a satisfying triumph of good over evil as the shocked expression that smashes her usually-stony face wide open.  Minimalism is one reason Cinderella is so pitiful in the first place: facing their hated sibling actually ready to go to the ball despite all the obstacles placed before her, the stepsisters resort to wanton violence—tearing her dress to pieces, it's almost animal in nature, and, given its cause in base sexual jealousy, this seems right—and this violence is disaggregated into little acts of violence, one atop the other, each with their own impact, only putting Cinderella back together as a broken girl in devastated rags.  (Cinderella has, unmistakably, been hit before.)  Consider, too, the hell-spawned red-and-black phantasms of the prince's knights, tasked to chase Cinderella down; I don't know if their terrifying, faceless appearance makes the slightest intellectual sense, but it makes perfect emotional sense in the moment, a crushing expression of the abuse victim's sense of shame, and her headlong flight from a happiness that trauma has ill-prepared her for.

But the bounded scope of the animation also props up what I suspect is the single most essential element of the whole, the deeply subtle vocal performance by Woods, who was given the job of singing and voicing Cinderella based on nothing more than Walt's impulse after hearing her on his hired songwriters' demo reel.  There's steel to this Cinderella, albeit steel that she's too smart to brandish directly.  It comes out in the lightest possible sarcasm, and in tiny spins on lines, which demonstrate that, while Cinderella is sweet and kind and all that good stuff, she's stronger—and angrier—than she looks (for she hates the shit out of her stepfamily).  These tiny spins, in turn, inform the tiny, delicate expressions that Marc Davis and Eric Larson's animation grant her, and Cinderella is immaculately-animated, despite the quarrels the two had over which direction to take her; Davis preferred a more detached poise and beauty, Larson wanted to lean into the intelligence, hard work, and bitterness.  They wound up with a fairly perfect mix, and as much as Woods is supported by their animation, I think the precision of their animation is, in turn, owed to Woods: in a movie that has three incredibly strong voice performances—Aubley's stepmother and Fenton's fairy godmother are both fantastic—the inexperienced Woods was still, somehow, the best of all of them.

And, all along, the slight rigidity and brittleness that inheres to animation by live-action reference—i.e., tracing, whether they concede it or not—reflects the very rigidity and brittleness of Cinderella's life, and of the whole awful society to which Cinderella belongs, where the only way out is hoping against hope for something better.

Then again, it's possible to go too far, since much of Cinderella isn't artsy minimalism.  The Blair-controlled colors and shapes are pretty inescapable, but then there's the comic side-plots, cartoony as hell, but not "minimal."  This is particularly true of the mice: they became Ward Kimball's responsibility, because Kimball's temperament was deeply unsuited to tracing humans—none of the animators liked it, but he would've rebelled—and his mice wind up in what amount to a series of Tom & Jerry shorts, featuring an okayish caricature of Kimball's own fat housecat.  (The best of the mice, then, has nothing to do with Lucifer: that's "The Work Song," which represents the most elaborate fun to be had with mouse scale; the stitching on Cinderella's first dress must be accomplished by a team of two mice, and the fact that one is constantly in danger of being impaled on a giant spike is the funniest gag in the film.)

The real story certainly isn't devoid of play, either, though it tends towards superior gracefulness: the fairy godmother, animated by Milt Kahl, is the bubbliest and most appealingly squashy of the characters (I feel like Ollie Johnston's broad business with the stepsisters' bustles doesn't count, and in any event it's not especially appealing).  The transformation of Cinderella into a white-clad fairy tale princess was, according to the man himself, Walt's very favorite piece of animation.  And "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" was a novelty hit for a reason—another of Walt's innovations was in ancillary revenue streams, in this case, the premeditated creation of chart-toppers, of which Cinderella had three—and that's certainly as much down to the charm of this good fairy as to the bounciness of the song.  (A magical being, she always rhymes.)  But both of the most playful bits of the godmother poke at the seams of realism, which is, of course, where magic lies: the first involves exploiting the illusion of three-dimensionality in a 2-D space, with the godmother appearing as a comforting lap to weep in, phasing into existence between Cinderella and another solid object without apparently perturbing either one; the second moment concerns her search for her misplaced magic wand (itself just a thick white line on a cel), which turns out to be hidden in the nonexistent space right above the top of the frame, wherein the film pretends that if you can't see it, the characters can't either.  So you see what I mean, I hope, when I say Cinderella really lets you appreciate the tiniest little things.

Yet, with its sentiment and loveliness, it hit tremendously big.  By the most objective measurement possible, it was "the greatest since Snow White."  It garnered profits sufficient not just to keep the company running for years, it permitted Walt a brand-new mania—for physical monuments to himself, like a living pharaoh, except he would charge admission to look upon his works and despair.  Well, let's leave that to the theme park historians.  As for Cinderella, it didn't just inaugurate the Silver Age of Disney animation.  It took the abject rags of the Disney Studio and remade them into something beautiful once more.

Score: 9/10

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