Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Disney's The Sword in the Stone

Disney brought us to contemporary times with One-Hundred and One Dalmatians, but in his next film decided to take us back to medieval times with The Sword in the Stone. Veteran storyboarder Bill Peet had discovered author T.H. White's "The Sword in the Stone" and brought it to Walt's attention. The book's philosophies, combined with vividly described characters, the animation potential of sorcery, and an appealing boy hero were all very appealing to Walt who had always been enamored of the Arthurian legend. This was especially after seeing the stage version of the Arthurian legend called Camelot, which starred Julie Andrews, who would one day become Mary Poppins. This movie has the distinction of being the first to be directed by only one director, while in the animated films before, there would be up to four directors. This was also the first time one of the "Nine Old Men" had fully directed a film. Wolfgang "Woolie" Reitherman had been an animator at Disney since 1938 and had co-directed Sleeping Beauty. Reitherman would go on to direct all the animated movies up until the 1980's.

An unusual part of the production for this film was the fact that Disney wanted Bill Peet to write a screenplay. All animated films before this had their story hammered out on storyboards. So, like the solo director, there was basically a solo writer for this movie. Peet and Disney didn't actually get along very well and that comes out in the movie. Peet apparently based a lot of Merlin off of Disney, down to the nose. In White's novel, Merlin is a curmudgeony, argumentative person. Peet admitted that while Disney wasn't a curmudgeon nor did he have a beard, he was a grandfather and quite a character. Another unusual fact about the movie is that three different boys provided the voice for Wart/Arthur. If you listen really closely you can tell when the voices change, as some of the boys are clearly going through puberty and their voice hasn't quite changed and cracks, but luckily for Disney, two of the kids were brothers, so it made an easier transition for the film to change voices. You may also notice that the kids doing the voices for Wart also seem to have a Brooklyn accent instead of a typical medieval England type accent. "Hey! Watch it! I'm trying to be the King ova here!"

This also marks the first time that the Sherman Brothers provided songs for a Disney film. They would go on to write the songs for The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, The Many Adventures of Winnie of Pooh and The Tigger Movie. They wrote several songs for the movie, with a couple being deleted including a song called, "The Magic Key." "Higitus Figitus" is probably the most recognizable of the songs, and has a funny story behind it. The Sherman brothers needed a song for Merlin and his wizardry, but didn't want to have it filled with established magic words like Alakazam and Abrakadabra. They wanted to come up with words that sounded British, but also had a bit of Latin, since Merlin was a very intellectual and learned wizard. It does help give the film a more unique touch, as they now had a memorable song that didn't involve words everyone's associated with magic.

The movie is probably one of the most philosophical of all the Disney movies. White's novel focused on the conviction that all people are basically good, but they just don't know how to direct their powers toward positive ends. This is touched on a bit by the way Merlin and Wart converse, but not as much as in the original book. The movie does show a battle of sorts going between Merlin and Wart in the way they think about potential. Wart is convinced that since he is an orphan, the most he can become is a squire and should work towards that. Merlin, on the other hand, who knows Wart's future, tells him that he can do anything he wants. Throughout the film, Merlin expresses to Wart how important education is, and with that, he could become greater than he ever dreamed. There is even a whole song about the importance of education in the film called, "That's What Makes the World Go Round." Wart is a hard person to break out of that idea of becoming a squire, and this leads to Merlin leaving for 20th century Bermuda. Merlin mentions the 20th century several times, mostly to himself, and this makes one wonder why he doesn't just stay there since he can apparently time travel. The answer may lie in the fact that Merlin knows exactly what he is meant to do, which is make Wart into the King of England. At the end, we also hear Merlin complain about the 20th century, so it shows that no matter what time period he's in, Merlin is basically miserable. So, the movie deals with one's fate more than anything.

T.H. White's novel, from which the story is based, was first published in 1938. It was initially supposed to be a stand alone book, but soon became the first in a tetralogy called The Once and Future King. Disney didn't take too many liberties with the story, besides cooling down the philosophical nature of the book. In White's novel, Merlin is actually spelled Merlyn, and like in the movie, he lives backward in time, unlike everyone else. Wart is taught by Merlyn as a youth for the use of power and royal life. Through their adventures Merlyn changes Wart into various animals and they go on many more human adventures than in the movie, eventually running into Robin Wood (meant to be Robin Hood). White had an extensive knowledge of medieval culture and incorporated such things as jousting, falconry and hunting into the novel. White, however, did not try and make the book consistently historically accurate, as evidenced by the time traveling wizard.

This movie ranks very high on my list. Like Walt Disney, I've always been fascinated by the Arthurian Legend and this movie is just a lot of fun. I loved all the animal parts, because who wouldn't want to become a bird, fish, or a squirrel for a little while? One of my favorite parts of any Disney movie is the infamous wizard's duel between Merlin and Mad Madam Mim. Seeing them turn into different things was the coolest thing when I was a kid, and I still love watching that scene. This is also one of the funnier Disney movies, at least of the older generations. Most is visual humor dealing with facial hair, especially Merlin's beard, which seems to always get caught in things.

The movie was released in 1963 and did very well in the box office, becoming the sixth highest grossing film of that year. It was met with generally good reviews, with British critics liking it more than American. Some in America claimed that there was actually too much humor in the film and that it had a thin narrative. Regardless, it is today considered a great work of animation, with complex structure and philosophical ideas. That being said, it's also one of the least well known Disney films. Not Black Cauldron unknown, but it's generally forgotten about. Which is too bad because it is a very good film.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Disney's One Hundred and One Dalmatians

For Disney’s next animated film he went back to the dogs, One Hundred and One Dalmatians to be exact. With this film came major changes to the way animation was done. Instead of dealing with the inking process (tracing the animators pencil drawings to ink by hand) a new process of Xerox was introduced. Disney had a hate love relationship with Xerox. Artistically he hated it. He was a romantic and loved the look of all his other films prior, but with having his priorities elsewhere on television and his theme park, Disney gave the reins to Bill Peet ( who instead of several men doing the storyboard, he did the whole thing himself) and Ub Iwerks ( he brought Xerox to the studio). A somewhat benefit of Xerox for Disney was it saved him half the cost of what the film would of cost if it was done his traditional way. He especially liked this fact after the failure of Sleeping Beauty. But with Xerox came a price. A studio that employed over five hundred was cut down to less than one hundred. All the ink tracers were replaced with the giant machines. Some animators weren’t too keen on the change either. The machines failed to do any clean up on the animators sketchy drawings like the inkers had done. There are a few spots in this movie where you can still see the animators sketch lines. Later on they would learn to do clean- up on paper before the animation was copied. Eventually the process was improved and even included more color options for the Xeroxed lines that where only printed in black during the time of One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

The design of the film was a more angular, graphic style based off of the 1950-60’s graphic artist work that was seen in the magazine Lilli Put ( Fun Fact: In the film Pongo flips through some magazines on the bay window, Lilli Put is on one of the magazines.) One Hundred and One Dalmatians also marked the first time a Disney animated film was set in contemporary time. Probably the hardest thing the animators had to do was draw the spots on the dalmatians. To do so, they thought of the spots as a constellation. They determined an "anchor spot" and the next spot was put in relation to that one until the whole constellation was finished. In total, for all the dogs, it was about 6.5 million spots.

Another change up to the traditional way of Disney animated films was One Hundred and One’s music. There was only three songs in the movie, the least amount of songs used in a Disney animated film. One was just a dog food commercial jingle, then a rhyming tune called Dalmatian Plantation, and the most recognized: Cruella de Vil. It’s very ironic though because Roger is a song-writer. Several more songs were written for the film, penned by Mel Leven, including "Don't Buy a Parrot from a Sailor," which was supposed to be sung by the Badduns (Cruella's henchmen) and "March of the One-Hundred and One," meant to be sung by the pups when they escape by van from Cruella.

Walt again wanted to have live action references for his animated film. To save on animation, the scene must be acted out and cemented before animation was to begin. The animators actually hated the whole process. They felt it took away from their ability to create a character, since the character was basically being detailed by the live action scenes. Actress Helene Stanley provided the live action reference for Anita, like she had been the reference for Cinderella and Aurora before.

This is also the first animated film to have direct cameos of characters from another film. When the dogs of London are sending out the message that the puppies have been puppy-napped, several characters from Lady and the Tramp can be seen, including the title characters from that film. Peg and Bull can be seen in the window of a pet shop, and one of the first dogs to get the message is Jock. Lady and the Tramp can be seen for a few seconds on the street, but you have to have a keen eye to see them(if you click on the picture you can get a better look, but Lady is at the bottom and Tramp is on top of the carriage).

The film was actually an adaptation of a 1956 children's novel by Dodie Smith. In Smith's version, Pongo and Missis are the two main dogs living with the Dearly's. Missis has fifteen puppies and to help her feed and take care of all the puppies, a wet nurse (dog version) is sought after. They find an abandoned dalmatian in the road and have it treated and brought in. The vet names the dog Perdita and the new dog becomes the other care-giver for the puppies. Perdita reveals to Pongo how she came to be abandoned and how she has a lost love. Cruella de Vil has dinner with the Dearly's and speaks about her distaste for dogs and how they should all be drowned. This corresponds with the disappearance of the Dearly's puppies going missing, but the Dearly's are unable to track where the puppies are. With the help of other dogs, Pongo and Missis track their puppies down to Hell Hall where a total of 97 puppies are being kept, including their own. They are able to foil Cruella's plan to skin the puppies and they get everyone back safely with the help of Cruella's mistreated cat. The Dearly's purchase Hell Hall, renaming it Hill Hall and house all the dalmatians. Perdita's lost love, Prince, finds her and he is allowed to stay with the other dalmatians, making 101 altogether. Smith worked with Disney to make a great movie, which Disney did, but Smith didn't like that Missis was deleted and Perdita became the main female dog. Walt desperately wanted Smith to write him another story that he could make into a movie, but it never came to fruition. There is however a sequel to Dodie Smith's "The Hundred and One Dalmatians" called "The Starlight Barking."

Though this was the first contemporary film that Disney made, that doesn't mean that it wasn't outlandish. I find it unlikely that the Radcliffe's could keep their house that clean with so many puppies. Even when I was young I wondered why there wasn't poo everywhere. Though at that time I also thought that Perdita had popped out 101 dalmatians herself, realizing later on that she only had fifteen and the others were ones that Cruella had stolen. I'm pretty sure Perdita wouldn't be featured in the rest of the movie if she had had that many puppies, as she would probably be sleeping for weeks.

This isn't one of favorites, I have to say. Maybe it's because I'm not a pet person. It's still a good movie, but I'd rather see Peter Pan or The Jungle Book. Craig is also indifferent to the film, though he hasn't seen it in many years. All I can say is that Cruella freaked me out when I was a kid, near the end of the movie. You know, when she gets all crazy and her eyes get all spiral-y. How can someone be that obsessed over fur coats? Jasper and Horace are pretty funny though, what with all the Cockney accents and the "Cheerio Gov'ner!"

The film was released in winter 1961, and ended up being the highest grossing and critically acclaimed Disney film of the decade. It finished tenth in terms of overall gross for that year and made a little over 6 million in it's initial run in the U.S. and Canada. It has been re-released four other times, bringing it's total gross to 0ver 215 million, making it one of the highest grossing animated films when adjusted for inflation. The story is such a popular one that it was made into a live-action movie starring Jeff Daniels and Glenn Close in 1996. This is one of the fondly remembered kid's movies from mine and my brother's childhoods, but not so much the sequel, 102 Dalmatians, released in 2000.