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April 16, 2010


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Mike Rhode

Good review, CH. You should write more on animation - for instance I'd be interested in why you write "charming but finally seriously flawed Little Mermaid, for instance, or the overblown, half-baked Lion King."

Charles Hatfield

Mike, thanks for the encouraging word. I dig animation and I hope to write about it occasionally here (despite that nagging formalist voice in the back of my head that keeps saying, "Animation isn't comics! Animation isn't comics!"). I figure TB can cast its net pretty wide and still keep comics front and center.

I suppose my objections to Mermaid and Lion King are as much ideological as they are aesthetic. Lion King has this (I believe Anthony Lane said this well in the New Yorker) very peculiar view of nature that insists that even lions' PREY will celebrate the crowning of a new lion "king," etc. Huh? Sure, there's a "circle of life," but it's maintained by having every animal, every species, fight tooth and nail for its survival, not by having the whole natural order pay homage to the king of the predators.

I mean, does everyone on the veldt come out to celebrate when there's a new zebra born, or wildebeest, or hyena, or bird? Does every species get its glorious, Pride Rock-style moment of celebration? The whole idea of pinning monarchy to the animals' world is nonsensical IMO.

There's a certain pompousness embedded in the very premise, and the whole thing becomes overblown big time when the villain Scar (scheming, underhanded, lacking the physical majesty of the others, fey, and non-generative, i.e., coded "gay") leads the hyenas in a Triumph of the Will-style Nazi rally musical number. This whole sequence suggests that nothing less than the very fabric of nature is coming apart because Scar is ascendant and Simba is gone. Which is stupid. Generally, the movie makes these dramatic/symbolic moves that are telegraphed with such thumping obviousness that, to me, it doesn't feel as if the filmmakers have earned the Shakespearean gravitas that they so obviously want the thing to have. So I dislike it on a level that's probably just temperamental.

The anime fan's oft-heard complaint, that the thing is a ripoff of Tezuka, doesn't have VERY much to do with my dislike. It's just that the movie doesn't work well for me on its own terms.

Also, there's a disconnect between "serious" and "comic relief" elements in The Lion King that becomes more aggravated and problematic in Pocahontas (ecch, what a terrible movie) and Mulan. The meerkat and warthog characters in LK are charming, but then the movie reverts to high sententiousness in the wrapup: a hifalutin, faux slow-mo climax in which, in typical Disney fashion, the audience gets its bloodthirst slaked without Simba having to get his claws dirty. The whole thing has a lurching, heavy-handed quality.

Re: Mermaid, the problem is that Andersen's original Mermaid story poses a very difficult ideological conundrum in that it (a) emphasizes the mermaid's suffering to a very great degree, making the story unfit for innocuous "family film" fare; and (b) relies on Andersen's Christian theological beliefs to make what would otherwise be a tragic ending into a happy, or at least morally affirmative, one. What constituted a happy ending for Andersen probably would not work for the overwhelming majority of mainstream filmgoers today (or in, what, 1989, when Disney's Mermaid came out?). The original story posits a moral dilemma that can only be solved by the mermaid's sacrifice, but the Disney version cannot get by on sacrifice, which is why the last twenty minutes or so lurch into spectacular violence that has no logic other than visual and that springs Ariel from her dilemma, allowing her to have her cake and eat it too. Ariel is not forced to make a meaningful moral choice, and as a result her agency is much diminished. Contrast this with, say, the mental and moral work that a character like Chihiro (from Miyazaki's Spirited Away) has to do. A problem that could have been resolved in an interesting way by Ariel making a choice is instead solved by having the sea witch (not even an antagonist in Andersen's original) get too big for her girdle so that she ends up being impaled (the image is grotesquely sexual) on a broken ship's mast by the dashing hero. Jeez, it's fucked up. More to the point, it's lazy. (A similar shallowness mars the resolution of Cameron et al.'s Avatar, but that's a topic for another day).

Too bad, because Mermaid, I think, has a better song score than Beauty and the Beast and has a lot of charm up to the last third or so.

See? Don't get me started, man.

Mike Rhode

Ok, I agree completely with you about Lion King and have made similar points whenever it's watched in this house. It's really a celebration of monarchy and the divine right of kings that we theoretically dumped here two centuries ago.

I'm not familiar w/ HCA original version so I missed the moral dilemma and probably haven't seen the movie in 2 decades either. Does the Mermaid stand-in for Christ in HCA's tale?

Charles Hatfield

Divine right of kings be damned!

Mike, you've GOT to read the original HCA "Mermaid" tale. Seriously. Not because it's a lot of fun (actually I don't think it is, though there are some deliriously weird descriptive passages) but because once you've seen it the problems of adaptation leap right out at you, super-obvious.

The mermaid isn't *necessarily* a Christ figure in HCA, but that is one of the obvious meanings that's available. What happens in HCA is, first, the mermaid experiences terrible suffering (we are told that walking on land, for her, feels like having her feet cut with knives), and second, the prince ends up falling for another and the mermaid has the opportunity to get out of the situation by killing him. She demurs, and dissolves into sea foam, and there hangs the resolution of the story, which HCA tries to turn to uplift by, basically, talking about the mermaid's sacrifice and probable salvation (in an explicitly religious sense).

In a way, it's a "sick" story, in the sense of psychologically intense and focused on pain, but no more so than some other HCA tales ("Little Match Girl," for ex.). What it does, though, is present a clear moral choice. The Disney adapters obviously understood that they couldn't pull this off on HCA's terms, but what they opted for instead was mechanical violence. Oh, and the heroine's entire dependence on the dashing male hero. Sigh.

Still, I like Sebastian the crab and his mock-calypso numbers. FWIW.

Charles Hatfield

I was able to see "The Secret of Kells" at last. Check out my separate post on that.

(See, Mike, ask and it shall be given.)

Mary Galbraith

Love your analysis of Lion King, Charles.

As to Andersen's "Little Mermaid," I'd argue that Andersen had his own idiosyncratic faith that consoled him for not getting his happy ending (=a lovemate) in life. That's what lends the air of authenticity to the endings of this tale and "The Little Match Girl"--he'd lived this ending in fantasy many times, I think.

As to "The Princess and the Frog," all I have to do is see that facial expression on the Princess and I know I'm going to pass on that movie. I think this is what passes at Disney for a "feminist" expression...

Charles Hatfield

Thanks for the good words, Mary. Nice to hear from you here!

Andersen is weirdly fascinating. I miss that air of authentic weirdness in the Disney "Mermaid," the ending to which, IMO, is clearly a case of adapters trying to wrench themselves free of the "trap" that the original sets, a trap they are unwilling to confront and whose terms would probably not work for the majority of contemporary filmgoers. It's an ideological trap.

Re: "Princess," I try, repeat TRY, not to judge films on the basis of trailers, promo artwork, and isolated stills. After all, these things are often designed to pull off a sort of bait-and-switch, just to get people into the theaters (see, e.g., the promos for the recent "Where the Wild Things Are" movie, which are big on uplift and light on the disturbing elements that IMO dominate the movie). However, in the case of "Princess" I'd say that the PR represents the movie with dead-on accuracy. Too bad. :)

It's foolish to waste energy actively disliking something, unless that something represents a genuine moral evil that needs to be opposed, but for some reason I just *hate* that "Lion King." Its status as the supposed quintessence of Disney animation makes me gag.

Again, to hell with the divine right of kings!

Chris Schweizer

Most of my Disney gripes have to do with the music (it's the foremost reason that, at age 11 or twelve, I dismissed the Lion King as inferior to its predecessors - now I have other reasons). And this, in addition to the first-draft character designs of the Butler and the Alligator, was also my first (of many) gripes with Princess and the Frog. Not the attempt at each song being the big number - the fact that, for the first time ever in a Disney film where the characters actively sing, I could not remember a single bar five minutes after watching the movie. The songs, an avenue for Disney composers to display their melodic chops and librettists to showcase their mastery of language, rhyme, and cleverness, were so lackluster as to not merit a hum. As bad as the music in the Lion King was (with the exception of Be Prepared, a great villain song), you still might find yourself whistling "Hakuna Matata" in the shower.

My question, Charles, is this - dismissing Robin Hood and the Aristocats (which do have their flaws, but in my opinion are two of the three best examples of animation craftsmanship Disney ever produced, rambling stories aside), as well as the late 80s/early 90s revival, I'm curious - which Disney films do you consider at the top of the heap? I assume Sleeping Beauty makes it, but what else?

Charles Hatfield

Chris, I agree about the tepid, forgettable music in Princess (as well as the poor character designs).

I'm stunned, stunned do you hear me?, to hear Robin Hood and The Aristocats held up as pillars of Disney animation. Hmph!

No, really, the stories in these movies, Robin Hood especially, are so poor. Robin Hood just sort of...stops. Stops, rather than ends. It's not just that it's rambling, it's that it's has no drama, no motive force, no motor under the hood. And then the plot gets slammed shut with a deus ex machina, boom.

In general, I don't like the Reitherman era features. The Jungle Book is not very good either, and The Sword and the Stone? Again, a feature that just sort of stops. I also don't care for those films animation-wise. They have a stylistic sameness, and lack of verve, that just leaves me cold.

Sorry! I think that the strong features are Pinocchio, Dumbo, Snow White, and, much, much later, Beauty and the Beast. Sleeping Beauty is visually gorgeous, but dramatically inert.

My favorite is Pinocchio, though it's very seriously flawed by a punitive morality that seems arbitrary and unjust. Or perhaps Dumbo, which is less grand, less sumptuous, but very affecting, racist caricatures and all.

I've got a soft spot for the features that are relatively modest, such as Lady and the Tramp and Lilo & Stitch.

The nadir: Sword in the Stone, Robin Hood, The Black Cauldron. Cauldron is bad not for the reasons implied in Waking Sleeping Beauty ("too violent," "too dark"), but for other reasons (generic, boring, lacking conviction). Treasure Planet is bad too, despite eye-whomping production values. A great big Edsel of a movie.

Of course there's a large handful of the features I haven't seen. So take the usual grain of NaCL.

We could debate this here on TB...

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