Sunday, October 31, 2010

Daily Post: Three Ladies, Thoughts about Disney's Sleeping Beauty

I drew these after watching Disney's Sleeping Beauty, sort of half inspired by the three fairies, half Rea Irvin, with some me thrown in there somewhere. I colored the lines in photoshop--these are just regular old pencil drawings.

Sleeping Beauty is a mixed bag: The story begins with one of those live action Disney sequences with a fruitcake-like jewel encrusted storybook opening as the narrator talks turkey. The character design instantly shines in the next scene, with a big crowded procession, a different look than earlier Disney films, taking it's lead from Eyvind Earle's backgrounds. Earle's designs have now become very associated with what we think of as Disney, but they definitely have their own look. The palette is typically Disney psychedelic--in fact there's a lot of proto-psychedelia in this one with some swirly grooviness as each fairy casts her spell. the psychedelic art of the later 60s owes a lot to Disney. Here, Disney has instructed his animators and background artists to follow Earle's designs closely, so while in earlier films, great designers like Mary Blair saw their best work buried or outright ignored by the animators and background artists, this one is all Earle. This sense of design is taken to even greater heights with less astro-brightness in 101 dalmatians, my favorite Disney film for it's beautiful backgrounds and character animation.

In the commentary by Leonard Maltin and John Lasseter and another Disney animator whose name escapes me, Maltin and Lassiter typically gush, while a few beyond the grave Disney animator sound bites accurately describe Earle's designs as sterile and dominated by horizontals and verticals. But there's also a lushness to them, even if it's a super controlled sort of lushness, like Franz Marc squeezed into a Bauhaus furniture garlic press. Earle claims, in his sound bite from the past, that this is all strictly inspired by Medieval paintings, but you can't help but see some serious modernism creeping its way in.

Maltin and Lasseter, though annoyingly fawning, are total Disney geeks and provide generous amounts of Disney history and trivia. Lasseter isn't nearly as embarrassing here as he was in his intro to Myazaki's Spirited Away, but is still pretty embarrassing. But they both know their shit, and my interest in this stuff has grown to the point where I find Disney ephemera totally fascinating. I'm a sucker for this stuff. It's like my obsession with 60s superhero comics. If you care to ask, I can bore the pants off you.

The story is one of Disney's weaker ones. Usually in these Disney princess stories its up to the supporting cast to dress things up since the princesses and princes tend to be pretty bland. I haven't seen this one at all, and most of the other Disney movies that I've been watching recently I haven't seen in years, so I keep forgetting the eye-rolling Disneyness of it all, especially when the princesses take to the screen. Though Snow White has her own 30s doll-like weirdness, at least she had character. Reg always feels sorry for the thankless role of the princes who are forced to be even blander than the princesses, if such a thing is possible. As the young preadolescent prince looks on at the princess in the crib, his future bride, we sympathize with him, blithely unaware of his future role as prop-like and solicitous accessory to the princess.

The fairies are that familiar Disney combination of spunky, cute, pugnacious and irritating, but there's some great business with the two kings and the lute player that makes up for this. The star of the show is the beautifully designed witch, subtly animated with great voice characterization by Eleanor Audley. Unlike Snow White, none of this is rotoscoped, and the naturalism of the movement is a testament to how good these animators were back then. It's a real lost craft. By then they were using live-action footage of actors to help them visualize the movement, but in the end it was all just a guy and a pencil. And they were all guys of course. Animation still seems to be male dominated. There are few if any female animation directors who direct features and as far as I know women tend to more frequently show up in preproduction than in animation. Back in the day artists like Mary Blair had to fight their way past the Disney ink and paint glass ceiling since in the early years, inking and painting cels was all that Disney thought women were suited for. It was a tough road to hoe, but eventually Blair became one of Disney's favorite designers.

So Disney continues to be equal parts frustrating and enthralling to me. lady and the Tramp, with the exception of the Italian chefs, a few nice backgrounds and some nice character stuff with the bloodhound and the scotty dog, was painfully forgettable. Pinnochio was definitely Disney at his finest, right up there with 101 Dalmatians. On a pure diligence of craft level, Pinnochio was by far the best, and the Pleasure Island scene had the creepiness of the best of the Fleisher Bros. And even though Disney didn't really have much to do with 101 dalmatians creatively, or Jungle Book, which is right up there with Dalmatians (by then much of his time was taken up by the live action features and Disneyland), it was still while Disney was overseeing things that the best Disney films were made. The man couldn't draw a lick, but somehow he knew how to lead an organization, tell a story, and could recognize good animation when he saw it. The animators and story guys respected his judgement. Most of the time. He drove Bill Peet nuts, and Peet was by no means the only one. And he helped McCarthy destroy a number of careers, a backlash stemming from how much he resented the animator's union. And that only scratches the surface of what a great guy he was, but to dismiss him as a hyper conservative, power hungry kitsch magnet would be a mistake. At least, in part. I wouldn't want to hang out with the guy, but love them or hate them, the movies won't be easily forgotten.

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