Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Disney's Challengers, part I: Going up against the giant


Gulliver's Travels was the second feature-length animated film ever, and this quickly-fading novelty is the only sensible reason it made any money at all in 1939—because the most useful thing it ever does otherwise is provide a handy 86 minute explanation of why feature animation effectively stayed a Disney monopoly for half a century afterwards.

Directed by Dave Fleischer
Written by Dan Gordon, Cal Howard, Tedd Pierce, Edmond Seward and Isadore Sparber (based on Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World.  In Four Parts.  By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, Then a Captain of Several Ships by Jonathan Swift)
With Sam Parker (Lemuel Gulliver), Pinto Corvig (Gabby), Jack Mercer (King Little III), Tedd Pierce (King Bombo), Jessica Dragonette and Livonia Warren (Princess Glory), and Lanny Ross and Cal Howard (Prince David)

Spoiler alert: hell, it only gets one fourth of the way through

Whenever anyone talks about the dawn days of American animation, Walt Disney pretty much always dominates the conversation, which seems proper, but maybe isn't totally fair.  There were of course others; there were always others.

And some of them were even Disney's predecessors.  Amongst that historic few were the Fleischer Bros., David and Majer "Max" Flesicher, inventors, entrepreneurs, animators, and, in 1921, the founders of Inkwell Studios, which later dropped the cute name and just went by what it always was, Fleischer Studios.  Throughout the teens and 20s, the Fleischers had innovated the form every bit as much as Disney had.  Dave had invented the tracing of live-action footage via rotoscope (first seen in the early Out of the Inkwell shorts, starting in 1918 or 1919).  Later, the brothers experimented with synchronized sound (first heard in 1925's "Come Take a Trip in My Airship"—for that "Steamboat Willie" thing is pure bad memory, helped along by propaganda), and soon afterwards they tried their hands at synchronized lip animation (1926's "My Old Kentucky Home").  In the same short, they even introduced the very first "bouncing ball" to help the audience sing along.  Meanwhile, though they weren't the first to do it (J. Stuart Blackton did something like it in "The Enchanted Drawing," which might be the first cartoon; and I hear Winsor McCay even did it live on stage as part of a vaudeville act!), they at least beat Chuck Jones and "Duck Amuck" to the punch by a quarter-century, subjecting one of their creations, Koko the Clown, to the cruel metacinematic machinations of an indifferent animator deity.  In those shorts, they also pioneered the integration of live-action into animation, before ol' Walt could, with his Alice Comedies.

And so we certainly do remember the Fleischers.  However, we tend to remember them for three things, mainly: the enduring characters of Betty Boop and Popeye, coming at roughly the beginning of the Sound Era in the late 20s and early 30s, and Max's magnificent Superman cartoons from the early 40s, which continued to be produced (following the brothers' acrimonious split and their departure from the company they created) by many of the Fleischers' artists, now under the aegis of "Famous Studios," this being the entity that Fleischer Studios became after it was swallowed up for failure to satisfy the massive debts it owed to Paramount, the Fleischers' distributor and paymaster.  Perhaps you've noticed, then, that this leaves a pretty big gap in their history—right around the time Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was shaking the world, suspiciously enough—and you might further wonder why, if they were so talented and successful, they got their business wrenched out from under them after almost two decades of profitable operation.  Well, this is that story.

Yet it somewhat gives the ending away when you realize that the Fleischers' painful 1939 hyperextension, Gulliver's Travels, only the second feature-length cel-animated film ever made, is something you might not have remembered until I mentioned it.  Indeed, I presume to actually care about this shit—and I still didn't know it existed until embarrassingly recently.  With that in mind, you will not be surprised to discover that there might be a reason that it just doesn't come up.

The brothers had wanted to pursue a feature as early as 1934, but it wasn't until "Disney's folly" turned out to be the biggest hit ever that Paramount, in true Hollywood fashion, agreed to fund an answer to it.  The result, two years later (with Snow White likely still in theaters, somewhere on Earth), was Gulliver's Travels, a Technicolor cartoon based on an olde tyme fantasy, though, at the very least, not a fairy tale about a princess and her prince—or, is it?  The first thing you ought to know about the Fleischers' Gulliver is that it is an extremely poor adaptation.  It's not something that would bother me in and of itself (I've never read Swift's book, and honestly never plan to, not least because every last proper noun in it is a fucking chore), but besides only adapting the first part of a four-part tome, it adds a courtly romance that is transparently motivated by the fact that Snow White had one, too.  Likewise, though it might be true that Snow White was a musical simply because movies in the 30s were often musicals, Gulliver is a musical because Snow White was first; and, of course, the courtly romance, invented for the film, includes several songs for the prince and princess to warble at one another.  While birds coo and smile at their love.  And though the exact timing may indeed vary, there will absolutely come a point in a screening of Gulliver's Travels where any viewer even faintly familiar with Swift is going to ask the screen, "Hey, isn't this supposed to be a biting satire of... something?  Like, society?  Human foibles?  And not an intensely terrible musical-comedy?"

I mean, like I said, I haven't read it.

In fact, the musical element precipitates Gulliver's plot, such as it is.  (It's also a rip-off of the Silly Symphony, "Music Land."  Also Romeo and Juliet, I suppose.)  Occasionally, plot points from Swift's novel do find their way into the film—mostly at the very beginning and at the end, where Lemuel Gulliver washes up on a Lilliputian shore after a shipwreck, and where Gulliver reluctantly goes to war against the navy of Blefuscu—but mostly the movie is what happens after King Little of Lilliput and King Bombo of Blefuscu meet to plan a political wedding between their respective offspring, Princess Glory and Prince David, whose songs duly inform us (in their borderline-unlistenable, 1930s way) do actually love one another, after all.  The two monarchs, though initially convivial, begin to argue when the subject of whose national anthem is to be played at the nuptials comes up; this argument escalates until Bombo declares war against Lilliput, and drags his son back to Blefuscu with him, leaving behind a trio of comically-inept spy-saboteurs in order to attain a strategic advantage over his Lilliputian foes.

But did I say it's mostly about that?  Technically true; but, in the meantime, Gulliver has come ashore, in a scene that really wants you to think of this as a worthy opponent to Snow White, with precisely-animated water effects of crashing waves (that frankly look hand-traced, though they look pretty damn good) and a shot soon afterward that pans the camera to a character's artfully-moving shadow on a wall for no reason other than to say, "Hey, we can do this too!", which is a lie, because the effects animation of Gulliver demonstrates very quickly that it doesn't have the stamina to go a full feature's length.

As it's the most famous thing about the story, you'll forgive me that I've neglected till now to mention that the Lilliputians and the Blefescudians (ugh) are, in fact, tiny little people, about an inch high or even shorter; thus, to them, Gulliver presents as a supine, unconscious colossus.  And so what Gulliver is mostly about for a really, really long time is the Lilliputian night watchman who finds him, Gabby (Pinto Corvig, a fellow who'd already gained considerable experience playing a couple of small-statured men, namely Sleepy and Grumpy, and even Gabby's name alludes to the epochal success the Fleischers and Paramount wanted to remind people of).  Eventually, Gabby manages to raise the alarm, and leads a mob of torchwielding Lilliputians in an effort to pinion the strange invader, which, of course, doesn't work out.

Giants will not replace us!

But it takes forever to not work out, and if you were to ask me "what is this film, basically?" I would have to answer, "a cartoon documentary about scaffolding and pulleys, or maybe an instructional manual for how not to tie down a giant."  So, in this 86 minute movie called Gulliver's Travels, it is 34 minutes before its title character gets off the beach (37 before he regains consciousness, and almost 40 before he gets a line).  And all along, it is the most obscenely tedious thing, the result being one of the most anti-entertaining cartoons I've ever watched.  In theory, it's supposed to be a comedy: the entire long sequence is ribboned with visual gags, usually scale-based, starting with a bit where the incredulous Lilliputians congregate on Gulliver's chest and ask Gabby where the giant is, which is mildly amusing for two seconds, pretty wearying after, I don't know, forty, and which goes on quite long enough for you to question why the mob apparently went from about fifty Lilliputians to eight.  (The sequence goes on long enough to contradict itself with obvious continuity errors more than just the once.)  In any event, despite the mission statement contained within the water-and-shadows of Gulliver's early moments, you're soon disabused of any notion that this will be "like Snow White" in any substantive way, for while Snow White is certainly heavy with comedy, and not anywhere close to all of its comedy is successful, Gulliver makes you reevaluate exactly how funny you think Snow White actually is, because Gulliver sets a new baseline for what clearly isn't.

But I also meant "not like Snow White" in a stylistic way: when it's a comedy, Snow White is a light, character-driven comedy.  Gulliver is full-on cartoon comedy, and that's fine in principle, if not so fine here in practice, and one of the first things in the film proper is Gabby turning into a streak of orange-hot light as he races through Lilliput to tell the king the, ahem, big news.  And the whole movie's like that: slapstick visual jokes unmoored to any sense of realism, in a manner that probably would've worked okay in a short, and gets very repetitive, very quickly in the context of a feature that has no story, no stakes, and, as part of its action-adventure "climax," features a "detour sign" joke that could be in a Roadrunner cartoon, if only that Roadrunner cartoon were incredibly lazy.  The film appears to get the idea that Glory and David's romance is an emotional spine of some sort, and Gulliver an ideal tool to effect their heartwarming reunion—though how Gulliver even becomes apprised of their situation is a mystery—and there's probably something that could've been worked with there, if Gulliver, Glory, and David were characters, rather than featured extras who, in Gulliver's case, at least, spends half the movie as a background painting.

This brings us to Gulliver's Travels as a work of animation.  And it is strange.  I'd call it experimental, even if it weren't produced in a time where it was "experimental" by default, and the results of its experiments are often pretty bad, though they can sometimes be interesting.  It is, I'd dare to say, one of the most aggressive exercises in clashing styles in all American animation history.  I mentioned rotoscoping earlier, and after a period in the Fleischers' history where they laid the technique aside, they'd picked their invention back up in the 1930s as a way to save time and improve the humanoids who'd become their biggest stars (especially Boop, because, according to animators from the 1930s through the 50s—virtually all of them men, wouldn't you know—animating women was the hardest thing in the world).  But anyway: Gulliver, as a character, is almost entirely a creation of rotoscope, his voice actor Sam Parker effectively playing him by way of cel-animated mo-cap.  The great mass of the Lilliputians and Blefescudians, however, are not rotoscoped.  They are reasonably-conventional mid-30s anarchic cartoons (they're Fleischer cartoons, so they tend to vaguely resemble dogs), and they're animated according to an entirely different set of logical priors, from their their giant-eyed, grossly-caricatured basic designs to their frequent devolution into rubber-hose arms to the way they express their overwrought emotions through overwrought cartoon physics.

In addition to perhaps the least-credible swordfighting ever drawn.

Snow White gets up to a little of this, to be sure—Snow herself was traced, in part, whereas the dwarfs obviously were not—but it is vicious here, and makes it plain as day how fundamentally differently Disney's "live-action reference" operated, for Walt and his chief collaborators usually insisted that the animators add their own carefully-measured flourishes to any reference human's movements so that they would register as cartoons, at home in their cartoon worlds, rather than as hyperreal intrusions into them.  (Closing the gap further, Snow White's dwarfs are subdued naturalism in comparison to Gabby and his fellows.)  Gulliver, though, is unnervingly realistic, especially in his movements—I'd almost wonder if he was animated on ones, for even "rotoscoping" doesn't quite explain his movements' almost video-like quality.  But here I'll cop, and admit I kind of dig Gulliver, just in and of himself, when he's by himself on the screen and being a giant in a watercolor storybook city, and finding his own textures watercolored in, too.  Still, it doesn't help that Parker adopts a weird, off-putting, one-smile-fits-all beatific expression for the entire film—though, in fairness, it's not as if the story or dialogue give him anything else to do than to grin condescendingly at his hosts.

So: even in terms of the difference between this human being and the fantasy realm he's stumbled into, this study in contrasts almost never works, except, oddly, when it really shoves your fucking face in it, like the scene where Gulliver's hand dances with the Lilliputian king, which is amongst the oddest things I've ever seen.  If it's Gulliver's best scene, it also comes inside its best sequence, which uses torches to paint huge swathes of orange and black onto Gulliver's rotoscoped face and torso, and that at least looks pretty cool.

Of course, a lot of the time, Gulliver is just a Goddamn static painting, sitting there and not even suggesting he's a living creature; and that's another interesting clash, yes, but a blatant if necessary cost-saving device, too, that also really starts ruining everything once you get used to the pattern.  (In Gulliver's defense, it does use this expectation to play a joke on you at least once—though by this point he's been asleep for so long, and the movie's burned off so much goodwill, that it elicits more of a shrug than anything.)  But there are even more incongruous elements to attend to, for Gulliver wasn't the only character to be rotoscoped.  In a (failed) bid to establish Glory and David as credible sex partners, those characters are also traced, yet as stilted as they are, their design was softened, falling into that sort of Snow Whitish abstracted bland prettiness, but only if you can imagine Snow White and Prince Charming being completely terrible: there's only one closeup of Glory (and none of David) and you can see why, since it looks like her eyes are going to slide off her face.  Sometimes Gulliver is just upsetting.

But mostly it's just unbearably dull!  I just don't think I can convey how ungodly dull it actually is (or maybe I can; this has been a significantly longer review than I intended to write).  So let's just put it this way: it's a movie that does its damnedest to plagiarize what it looked like the Disney feature formula was going to be, as of 1939, namely "a prince, a princess, and nothing happening," and it shows you what "nothing happening" really looks like when it's also ugly, uncharismatic, and very, very unfunny.  But the public's appetite for animation had been whetted, and hence Gulliver actually made money, despite its huge cost overruns; inevitably, a second Fleischer Studios feature was greenlit.  Unfortunately for the studio, however, those overruns put it in violation of its agreement with Paramount, triggering the terrible, absurdly-punitive penalty clauses in their contract.  And so Gulliver's Travels turned out to be exactly what it seems to be from our vantage point, eighty years on: the beginning—and the beginning of the end.

Score: 2/10

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