Disney

Negative Disney Publicity Circa. 1989

There’s a fantastic post over on Cartoon Brew today that details the pitch material sent out by Disney in 1989 or thereabouts to various TV stations around the country who they hoped would air their afternoon block of shows in syndication.

The pages posted are great to read some 20 years after the fact. The present perhaps the worst aspect of some marketing departments: pointing out all the bad aspects of your competitors in the hope that no-one don’t notice your own.

The papers are full of non-comparisons and desriptions so vague, they barely even make sense. Here’s a sample quote:

Warner Brothers has the dubious task of competing with Disney’s superior aniamtion.

Boasting that your shows are better is nothing new, in fact it goes all the way back to the beginnings of entertainment, when you had to convince the public that your show was better than that of the guy next door. The difference here is that there is hardly, nay, anything in the material posted that says exactly, why, Disney’s shows are better.

OK, maybe they do get better ratings because they’re on in the afternoons, but they are also new shows, not re-runs of classics. Perhaps they’re more expensive to broadcast. That’s my best guess. “Disney crushes Alvin”, that’s comparing apples to oranges. You can’t expect to get parity among the results between individual shows and entire blocks.

Frankly, the entire thing has a whiff of dishonesty about it, as if Disney has something to hide about its shows. Content speaks for itself and if your shows really are as good as you say they are, then you should point out how much better they are than all these other, great, shows. Of course, this would prove to be the case with Tiny Toons, wich Disney calls “a pale comparison to the Disney Afternoon”. Hindsight is always 20/20, and the quality of Tiny Toons was all that Warner Bros. needed to prove that they were actually ahead of the game.

It would be really intersting to see the pitch booklets from the subsequent years. Did they contain similar language or was Disney left stuck for words? Either way, we know how things turned out in the end of the afternoon cartoon battles of the 1990s.

Preliminary Thoughts On Disney’s Tangled

Poster from the Internet Movie Poster Awards Gallery

By now you should be aware of Disney’s upcoming film based currently titled Tangled. Those of us who have been following the film for a while know that it was originally supposed to be called Rapunzel and featured the heroine much more prominently than the hero.

Why the change, well Disney felt it had too many upcoming films with female leads and that it would basically be painting itself into a corner it couldn’t afford.

Perhaps this is true, but perhaps boys just aren’t attracted to “girly” films rather than films with females as the protagonists. There is a difference between the two. Plenty of Disney films in times past have featured female leads: Pochahontas, The Little Mermaid, The Aristocats (animals count!), Lady & the Tramp and of course, Snow White. As far as I know, plenty of boys liked those (even if they would never admit it publicly).

Disney’s argument is that boys don’t contribute enough to the gross of such films. Poppycock I say! They do, just not in ways that Disney expects them to, in other words, in giggling groups at the cinema on a Friday night. So what if they don’t contribute at the box office, that isn’t where most films make their money anyway. But that’s the subject of a post for another day.

A balance is of course necessary between male and female leads, which is why Pixar will is finally getting around to correcting their off-kilter slate of films. However, I think it is foolish to dramatically change a film when it is well through the stages of production. That’s a waste of resources and amounts to changing the destination when you’re halfway there. It would make more sense to change your next destination and plan accordingly.

The film will do well regardless, I just wish studios would be a bit braver and not pander to demographics and their supposed tastes in the chase for a quick buck. Better to make a good film that will stand the test of time than to one that will date quickly with people regardless of gender.

Anomaly Appraisal: Hercules Part II

This is a continuation of yesterday’s Part I, where I covered the plot and music.

Today I’m going to cover the animation, the characters and the character’s designs. First off, the animation is the same fine quality that we have come to expect from Disney. Everything is polished to perfection and leaves no stone unturned. The film itself is an artful blend of traditional and CGI although for the most part, the two remain in the areas where they excel most.

For the most part, the character animation is the preserve of the traditionalist. Characters are hand-drawn and move with grace around the screen. Special mention should be given to the Muses who are almost constantly dancing around the screen. Their movements are fluid and completely suit their stylized design (more on that later).

There are a number of sequences in the film where the camera flies about huge sets, that for the most part, are hand-painted backgrounds draped over a 3-D model. These shots work well and add plenty of depth to the film. CGI is also used for the first creature that Hercules fights in the gorge, where it’s use is pretty obvious mainly because after over a decade, technology tends to improve rather visibly. CGI was also used in a few less obvious areas, like carts or the platform that Hercules must pose on for his portrait. These subtle uses blend in perfectly with the hand-drawn surroundings and serve to improve the appearance of the film. The old adage that less is more certainly holds true here.

Character movement within the film is generally excellent. It was nice to see some cartoony elements such as rubberband legs and some squash and stretch popping up here and there. Their limited use was wise as unlike the Genie in Aladdin, there was no character (aside from Hades) that was in need of it.

As you’ve probably noticed, I am not all that great at analysing the technical parts of the film. That’s the result of not being an animator. If I was, I could sit and yap on and on about how God is in the details of a film like this. Where simple character actions such as which way the characters are looking can make all the difference in the world. Hercules is full of such things, especially in the garden scene, but I am not one to be able to comment on their use. Let’s just say I like that they exist.

Moving right along, we come to an area that I do feel I have considerable ability to comment on: character along with character design, starting with Hercules.

First off, the guy comes off as more of a jerk than is perhaps wise for a film where he’s supposed to earn our sympathy. Sure he has it at the start, when he falls from Mount Olympus. he even has it when he detroys the marketplace in the village. When does he lose it? After his training of course. This is where he begins to become a tad pretentious, which by the end of the Zero to Hero montage, is pretty much full-blown. He’s full of himself at this point. He may still pine to join his father, but after the scene in the temple I thought he pulled of the trick of being the world’s biggest crybaby.

He is brash, he believes that he will earn something just because. While he is equal parts confident and cowardly, his successes imbue him with a sense of entitlement. His arrogance towards Phil is exemplary of the kind of character that I personally hate. OK, its understandable that he is angry in that scene, but he is rather self-centred and willing to act without thinking of others. This changes once he falls in love with Meg and is willing to risk life and limb to save her. Alas, this arrives very late in the film with the damage almost already done. Having said all that, Hercules is the hero and the audience does connect with him at the end. He is a strong protagonist but he is upstaged by the more complex people around him.

Hercules is supposed to be the Alpha male albeit a flawed one. His pride is all too obvious and it saps out sympathy for him. After he becomes famous, he’s not unhappy, he loves it, he just hasn’t gotten what he wants and feels he should get it without having to truly earn it. He believes that he is perfect. Hercules is not fatally flawed as he redeems himself by the end of the film, it’s just that it takes until the end of the film for use to accept that he has changed. Creating a flawed character that an audience like means walking a very fine line. For the most part, Hercules stays on the right side, but only just.

With our hero protagonist being so rough around the edges, it is a relief to say that the other main characters are not nearly so unfortunate. Phil is the trainer who just seems to have a string of bad luck with his students. Voiced by Danny DeVito who adds a grough, world-weary tone to the charcter, Phil is the foil to Hercules for much of the film. Phil is definitely the good-guy, even more so than Hercules. He drives Hercules to succeed and shows true compassion when he learns the pain that Meg has gone through. He is rewarded at the end when his dream comes true.

Megara is our damsel in distress, although her distress is much more complex than at first sight. She is the romantic interest of Hercules although it takes a while for her to return the favour. Her relationship with Hades is revealed (too late in the film in my opinion) as one that she deeply regrets and results in her desire to help Hercules clashing spectacularly with her obligations to Hades. She is a character constantly in crisis and swings wildly between the Rock that is Hercules and the hard places that is Hades. She is a girl who was placed all her trust in two men (her former boyfriend and Hades) and ends up being betrayed bitterly by both. All of these aspects combine to make Meg the most interesting character in the film. Even though she is infinitely more flawed than the hero, it is she who we sympathize with the most.

Hades is the bad guy. Given a fantastic lease of life thanks to James Woods who is let free and loose and makes the character very much the fun-loving diabolical villain that he is. His temper is explosive which is emphasised with the fire that is his hair. He is not one to manipulate people, but he no problem using them for his own devices, such as Meg. Pain and Panic are his two assistants. Now these are two characters that for want of a better word, are superfluous. Watching this film 10 years after the fact, they come across as two, very stock, very mid-1990s Disney characters in that they are nervous, clumsy and serves as no more than a plot device in abducting Hercules. Compared to the likes of Iago in Aladdin or Cruella DeVil’s henchmen, they are too comical to take seriously.

The various minor characters in the film are wholesome, although many are not on screen long enough to display any significant personality traits, save perhaps for the Muses. Here are five women who, despite doing little more than linking the various parts of the film together, nonetheless display some strong characteristics. They are straight-talking and make it known. Personally, I like the Muses. They might be mostly narrat
ors but they have a certain amount of [ahem] appeal and play it off on the audience, which is no bad things as far as I’m concerned.

The character designs are a sight to behold. Some are fairly normal in appearance (such a Phil and Pegasus, no big surprises there) and some are extraordinary. There is one average looking bloke who I’ll get to in a minute.

Starting with Hades, here’s a guy with a fiery temperament and what better way to display that than with some fire! Hades’ hair matches his many moods from normal (blue and short) to angry (blue, longer flames) to steaming mad (red, roaring flames shooting straight up). In contrast, when he is happy, his hair turns bright blue and cozily swirls in the air. Hades’ grey appearance matches his home in the underworld and his presence on Mount Olympus could not be more noticeable, with dark clouds persistently hovering over him. His large stature stands in stark contrast the the many skeletal spirits that live in the underworld which helps set him apart in his role as their caretaker.

As interesting a design as Hades is, it is the females in this film where the character design excels. Staring with Meg, who is an interesting mix of sharp edges and curves. Not being the typical Disney image of womanhood works in Meg’s favour. her clothes are plain, she is bereft of jewellery and her face is rather small.

That being said, the way Meg displays her emotions through her movements is unique in the film. She walks with a certain amount of contempt, perhaps because of the former rejection. There is no suggestion of promiscuousness, but rather that everyone except herself can see her beauty. Her eyes play a critical role in this as she often narrows them when talking to someone but opens them wide to show astonishment or happiness.

Meg holds herself in a way that suits her status as a betrayed person. Her arms are often folded and she tends to keep them to herself, with the exception of the garden scene and accompanying song where she lets herself feel much freer as she experiences the closest thing to happiness for the first time in a long time. Ultimately, Meg is the plain Jane girl that manages to capture the heart of the hero through a winning combination of both beauty and her character. Her design is a similar winning combination that emphasis that beauty is more than skin deep.

Our hero Hercules is a curious case. As a baby, he displays all the associated cuteness and playful movements. As a teenager, he has grown taller, is leaner and has the usual teenage issues with clumsiness. By the time he is an adult, he has become a strapping young lad with muscles large enough to match his strength.

Overall, his design is OK. Where Hercules does fall flat is his face. I still can’t quite put my finger on it, but it would appear to be a combination of his nose and chin. Both are way to large. The chin in particular sticks out like a sore thumb but does not define a strong jaw in the same way that Gaston does in Beauty and the Beast. Combined with a very prominent nose, Hercules come off not so much ugly, as, well, not quite as universally appealing as perhaps he should be.

The most stylized designs of the entire film belong to the Muses and the gods and make both clearly distinct from the humans. The gods are brightly coloured and appear to radiate with light. Their features are more exaggerated either being more delicate (in the case of the goddesses) or pronounced (in the case of the gods).

The Muses take their design from ancient Greek pottery that they interact with throughout the film. They are suitably curvy and move in a similar fashion, which is not surprising seeing as they dance as well as sing. The five of them have their own appearance and character too although this is not developed much in the film. They are full of life and are constantly dancing in ways that suggest they have a real passion for performing. It would seem (from the end credits) that professional dancers were used as reference for the Muses. I’d like to think that while this may be the case, the animators were given enough room to express their skills. The Muses remain the most entertaining aspect of the film, so much so, that I would gladly watch an entire film with just them in it!

Overall, Hercules is not perfect, although in fairness, no film ever is. It is a solid Disney product that was perhaps treated a bit harshly by US audiences on its theatrical release. Personally, I think it is well worth taking the time to watch it again and viewed for its animation and characters if not for its plot.

I must give a shout out to Disney Dreams for all the wonderful screencaps. Much more than a repository, the site is very much a superb source for Disney fans with everything they could possibly need.

Animaly Appraisal: Hercules Part I

Sooooo, having just finished watching Disney’s Hercules, here are some initial thoughts that will be concluded tomorrow. Released in 1997, Hercules continues the Disney tradition of releasing a “classic” film every year/couple of years which in the preceding years had borne witness to Beauty & The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and Pochahontas. Many people will agree that things began sliding downhill with the departure of Jeffrey Katzenburg for greener pastures prior to Pochahontas. I tend to agree but I would say that the slide was more the result of weak leadership rather than problems in the creative department. That debate is for another time. Today, I’m focusing on the plot, the songs and the background design. Tomorrow it’ll be animation, characters and character design.

Starting with the plot, the basic set-up is that Hades, the brother of Zeus hatches a plan to take over the world but first he must eliminate Zeus’ son Hercules. Through his incompetent minions who fail to finish the task, Hercules doesn’t die but instead turns mortal. We then get a short scene where we discover how he does not fit in with those around him. Once Hercules meets his father Zeus, he goes to find Phil, his trainer. After some training, Hercules is not a striking young lad with enormous strength.

Before he can become a true hero ad return to Mount Olympus, he must first prove himself. Enter Meg, whom he saves from a monster. As it turns out, she’s in the pocket of Hades because of some deal she did with him back in the day and must obey his every whim if she’s ever going to get her soul back. So, to wrap up the entire thing, the planets align and Hades begins his assault on Mounts Olympus. Hercules fights him and saves the day, only for Meg to die along the way and descend into Hell (or whatever the Greeks called it). Hercules offers to swap himself for Meg and in the process regains his immortality and becomes a god. In the end, he decides to stay on earth with Meg after falling in love with her. The End.

As far as the story goes, it’s pretty straightforward. There are no intricate twists save for Meg’s relationship with Hades. As far as being accurate goes, you’d bet better off watching that Chuck Jones Tom & Jerry cartoon. Of course there is no need for it to be accurate, it’s just a story. If we are willing to believe that a guy can lift a house, we can surely believe that Zeus put Hades down below instead of them casting lots for it.

One things that I absolutely loved about the story was the use of the Muses as sometime narrators and, well, muses! Although they make the film seem more like a play (which really changes the pitch of the film) they add some spice to what could have been just another movie.

Interestingly enough, this was the first Disney movie to be based on mythology rather than the usual fairytale. This choice of source material makes a great change from the many films that went before. No princesses in this movie! it is a shame that they haven’t really returned to it since as Greek plays have been a source of entertainment and creativity for millennia.

With that, onto the songs! I’ll just say it straight out, Aladdin is my all-time favourite when it comes to songs. With that in mind, I rate every film against it and while I try to remember that different films require different musical styles, I have yet to fins one that comes close. The songs in Hercules try to convey the many conflicting emotions being felt by the characters. Be it Hercules wanting to fit in, Phil debating whether to train another hero, the Muses montage in the middle, or Meg’s song where it becomes clear she’s fallen in love.

The key thing to all these songs is the singalongability, which I would rate as OK. Granted the songs match the overall serious tone of the film, but you don’t hear people singing those songs for a reason.

Which lead me on to the score itself. Leaving aside the usual orchestral score that does its job in the dramatic parts, it was great to hear some stuff that could have come straight out of the 1950s. If you know your Ren & Stimpy, you’ll know that John K. resurrected a lot of similar music for his show. Which makes it all the more surprising to hear similar music in a film like this. Be it the clarinet solos, the blares of trumpets or the quick tap of a xylophone. They add enormous emphasis to the lighter parts of the film that could otherwise have been so easily accomplished with an orchestra the same as the rest of the film. This music serves to divide the film into two parts: the fun part and the serious part and makes an excellent, if somewhat sub-conscious contrast between the two.

Personally, I think we need to see much more of this type of music in animated films. The Incredibles score makes some fantastic use of 60s brass and percussion that equals the best that James Bond put out.

Tomorrow, the more interesting stuff. Like backgrounds! Characters! Character designs! (try and guess my favourite).

The Toy Story 3 Soundtrack: Where Disney Pinches the Pennies and Leaves You Short Changed

I learned yesterday that Disney plans to release the soundtrack to Toy Story 3 as a digital download only. This is not a good development on a number of fronts. Although I’m risking turning this into a gripe blog (which it isn’t!) it is a shame that Disney have decided to go down this route for the sake of saving a few cents.

Admittedly, most music is consumed nowadays in the form of music files rather than physical media. This is fantastic as it cuts out a lot of the cost of producing a record. I have long maintained that mp3 was the best thing to ever happen to the music industry. It set the music free from the restrictive media that are CDs and tapes. Suddenly, you could put your music anywhere and copy and share it easily. No more high-speed dubbing cassettes over at your friends house!

The only downside to mp3 and other lossy formats is that they compromise the quality of the recording. You may not know it, but plenty of audiophiles scoff at the humble CD. The basic reason is that the sampling rate for a CD or any digital medial for that matter, results in a waveform that does not accurately reflect the original analogue wave. In order to do that, you’ll need to dig up some vinyl records, either at your parents house or the lone record shop in your area that’s still open. Despite the apparent shortcomings of the CD, it has proven over the last 30 years to be a suitable successor to the vinyl record for the masses.

As for soundtracks, well they’re normally contain a fair amount of orchestral music. That is, if it really is a soundtrack with actual music from the film and not just one with a bunch of songs relating to the film. I’m looking at you Space Jam!

With natural music, I feel that you can only get the best experience from the best recording. With a CD, our in good shape, unless you know where you can find prerecorded SACDs. By using mp3 files, you are getting shortchanged, even if the music costs less. Don’t even get me started on the DRM they slap on there to stop you doing stuff with the music you bought.

If, like me, you enjoy listening to your music pretty loud, on a nice hi-fi, then you are out of luck. Mp3 sound like shite when you crank the volume up. A CD isn’t nearly as bad. Something along the like of EVE Retrieve from Wall-E need the highest bitrates to sound good. Anything less is in danger of leaving the listener feeling disappointed.

Animated Musical Films

Disney has done them since Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs, but are animated musical films outdated in the modern market? The answer is maybe.

Disney is often given huge amounts of credit for the renaissance that the company managed to go through in the late 80s and early 90s. Their success lay in not only excellent animation, relevant stories and rock-solid songwriting but also the acceptance of the movie-going public to the films in general, a pining perhaps, for the glory days. A further excuse could be baby-boomers rekindling their childhoods with Disney films, but I digress.

Musical films are as old as the hills and yet what makes them so ridiculous also attracts us to them. For instance, can you imagine in the middle of a decisive decision you instantly burst out in song? People would thing you’re nuts! Yet when it happens in the pictures, we go along with it.

Animation is perhaps in more need than live-action for song interludes. Showing a character’s emotions in animation occurs on a different level than a real, live person. Music has often been used as a way to express such emotions without all the extra work involved in animating the character’s movements.

Disney has long been recognized as the leader of the genre. It’s films have had far more success than any competitor. However, as we all know, their fortunes took a bit of a dive towards the end of the 90s and ended altogether with the release of Home on the Range.

So it was today, while reading the Facebook wall of a friend that got me wondering. Does the animated musical film stand a chance today? I have not seen the Princess & the Frog yet, so I can’t account for that film, but if the critics are anything to go by (yeah, I still don’t like them) the songs were just OK.

My point is that after 15 years of Pixar-inspired CGI dominance, where the films have very little, if any, songs, is the public still as receptive to them as the once were? I would hope so. The classic Disney films are still fantastic in their own right. Many people remember the songs from Aladdin, Beauty & the Beast and the Little Mermaid among others.

Of course all three of those movies share a common element in Howard Ashman, the songwriter behind the majority of those songs in conjunction with Alan Menken. Not to say that a hit songwriter is what we need, far from it. The public has to become more open to the idea of such films. The initial trailer for the Princess and the Frog alluded to as much, it was just the film itself that didn’t exactly keep the fire going.

With the revival of traditional feature animation at the Walt Disney Company we are quite likely to see more musical films in the future. I just hope that they are of a high-enough standard to make people realize what makes them so great.

Mickey Mouse’s Copyright Law

How old is Mickey Mouse? Well, he’s about 82 years if he’s a day. So why is he still under copyright while other early cartoon stars are not? Well, for one, plenty of companies from that era went out of business long ago and their associated copyrights are either forgotten about or expired.

Yet Mickey’s has not. He is still fully owned, and will continue to be owned, by the Walt Disney Company for the foreseeable future at least. Consistent enforcement of copyright is part of it. Disney is still very much in business, and is certainly enforcing its legal rights regarding infringement.

So why exactly does Mickey Mouse have his own copyright law? Well for one, it isn’t really his, its Sonny Bono’s (the guy with the bomb in Airplane, also he was a singer of some sort in the 60s). The act itself extended copyright terms in the US for 20 more years, on top of the life plus 50 years already offered. Corporate authorship is now 120 years, increased from 75 years.

The reason it’s called the Mickey Mouse law is the presumption, and possibility, that it was the looming date on which Mickey Mouse would enter the public domain, that coerced the Disney company to begin lobbying for such an extension.

What advantage does this serve? Well for one, it means Disney can continue to extract license fees for the old films for a start. It also prevents anyone else from making similar or derivative works based on the films.

Is this a good thing? Well for the copyright holder? Yes, they can continue to make money. Personally, I think this is a bad thing. OK, so you continue to own the character, but if he is freely available, then even more people can enjoy him, It may even push up demand for the films that are almost as old but still covered by copyright.

If you think about it, if the public domain was such a bad thing, publishers wouldn’t be publishing all those Jane Austin or Charles Dickens novels. Sure you can read them online for free, and yet people still buy the books, and publishers still make a profit from them, even though they aren’t covered by any copyright! Amazing isn’t it?

Do you think Disney would lose a ton of money just because a few films from the 20s and 30s enter the public domain? Unlikely. When was the last time you seen one of those films? For me it’s been a number of years.

So there you go. Mickey Mouse has his own law, and the company behind it is all the worse for it.