Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Extradiegetic: Make Mine Music

Disney continued with anthology movies amid continuing production issues related to World War II, releasing with Make Mine Music in 1946.  There were originally 10 shorts included in the film.  However, one of them, The Martins and the Coys, was not included as part of the DVD release, primarily due to concerns over the amount of gunplay in it.  Again, many of the shorts are more musical and abstract without any real plot.  There are a few standouts though, such as Casey at the Bat, All the Cats Join In, Peter and the Wolf, and Johnnie Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet.  But for this article I’ll be focusing on the final short of the film; The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.

Despite the absurd sounding title of, The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met is actually about a tragedy of misunderstanding.  The story does not begin with showing titular whale directly.  But instead presents a series of stories in the newspaper about mysterious singing at sea that attracts more and more attention.  This build-up is there to lead into the introduction of the antagonist of this story, Tetti-Tatti, and impresario who hears about these operatic songs coming from a whale.  He concludes incorrectly that the whale has swallowed an opera singer and heads out on an expedition to save them.

At this point the short shifts to the protagonist, Willie the whale, out in the ocean singing to seals.  While Willie doesn’t directly express his goal to sing at the Met, the narrator and Willie’s actions make his goal to sing professionally clear by presenting this as an opportunity for the two to meet.  When Willie finds out about it from his seagull friend he immediately heads out to intercept the ship.  So the short has now established the protagonist, antagonist, and set them up on a collision course.

When Willie finds the ship, Tetti-Tatti is still under the impression that Willie has swallowed an opera singer and orders his crew to harpoon the whale.  But the crew rather listen to Willie’s singing.  Tetti-Tatti continues to insist they save the opera singer, but is repeatedly stopped by the crew.  The narrator then reveals that Willie, abilities are even greater than was already known.  He has the ability to sing in three different voices at the same time. While in stories it’s good for protagonist to have flaws they overcome, it’s also important for them to have things that they are good at as well. This ability is a version of that, but it also sets Willie up as even more amazing than was originally thought, making his ultimate destruction even more tragic.  Tetti-Tatti’s misunderstand and resolve only grow with this revelation however, as he hears the addition voices from Willie he concludes that the whale has swallowed additional opera singers.
The story then does something very deceptive here.  The narrator chides Tetti-Tatti for not seeing Willie for what he was, and continues with the narrator saying “Just imagine a whale singing opera on the very stage of the Met.”  The scene then fades from Willie singing in the ocean to him singing on stage, with Tetti-Tatti conducting.  This is followed by additional scenes and newspaper headlines showing his great successes everywhere. Finally we see Willie singing as the devilish Mephistopheles which then fades to Tetti-Tatti once again back on the ship, manning the harpoon, revealing to the audience that what they had just seen wasn’t real.  He fires and jubilantly exclaims that he got him.  The previous sequence was presented as imaginary from the start, but it’s easy for the audience to overlook that, and think that the scenes are Willie’s dream coming true.  The subtle setup leads to a sudden return to reality can be jarring and effective.  But it depends heavily on external expectations of the audience.  That cartoons have happy endings.  That a whale can become an opera singer.  These are assumptions that can then be turned on their head by clever presentation.  

As Willie thrashes away among a stormy sea and an angry red sky, it leaves no question as to Willies fate.  The narrator does put a positive spin on it as it shows Willie singing up in Heaven, forever and ever.

I found this short in particularly interesting because it’s so complete and nuanced for such a short story.  The antagonist isn’t an evil person.  Tetti-Tatti was trying to save lives he thought were in danger (though it was so he could then promote them as opera singers).  But his narrow-minded approach made him blind to the greater talent right in front of him, but in unusual form.   And then the short plays off the expectations of the audience to give them a false happy ending before delivering the sudden reversal into tragedy.  

For other writers I think there are two main lessons here.  Antagonist don’t have to be evil, they just have to have goals that interfere with the protagonist’s goals.  And secondly, it can be very effective to play on the expectations of the audience, and then subvert them. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Extradiegetic: The Three Caballeros

Like Saludos Amigos before it, The Three Caballeros focuses on Latin America.   It also uses a similar structure, with several shorts tied together by an overall concept.  This time the binding story is Donald Duck’s birthday and a box full of gifts from his friends south of the border.  Again, there’s not a lot of detailed storytelling going on here so I’ll be focusing on two of the early shorts.  At this point in the movie, they are framed as being part of a film reel Donald received in the large box and is now watching.  

The first one is The Cold-Blooded Penguin.  The protagonist here is Pablo, a penguin is always too cold.  His goal to move to some warm tropical beach is quickly presented by the narrator.  He attempts the journey several times, but the cold is too much for him.  On one attempt he ends up getting frozen and his friends bring him back home and shower him with hot water in a tub.  This may seem minor, but establishing the tub inside his igloo is something that will become a plot point later.  He tries other unsuccessful schemes to keep warm until finally creating a boat out of ice with his igloo (including stove).  From here there’s a sequence of him traveling along the South American coast on his way north with the narrator pointing out various locations along the way.  This sequence is mostly gags and the show creators showing off their knowledge of South America.  Once he passes the equator his ice raft start to rapidly melt.  Pablo ends up taking refuge in the bathtub, allowing him to reach the remote tropical island he’s been looking for.  And the short closes with him sweating profusely in the heat and looking longingly at some picture of the South Pole.  

The next short I’ll examine is The Flying Gauchito.  This short has an old goucho narrating a story from his youth.   It begins with the young gouchito heading out early in the morning to hunt.  But instead of a condor, he comes across a winged donkey.  After taming the beast he decides he wants to race him to earn “thousands of pesos”.   So here we are introduced to the narrator’s goal at the time, which pushes the action forward for the rest of the short.  He enters a race with the donkey, now named Burrito, and despite the jeers of the other racers at the start, wins the race with the surreptitious use of Burrito wings.  However the ruse is discovered just before he receives his winnings and the short ends with him flying off into the sky saying they were never heard from again.  

From here, the remainder of the show is an often surreal series of songs and gags.  While amusing, are light on actual plot.  It also feels throughout that the film makers really wanted to show off everything they had learned about Latin America, and at times the show feels like it’s trying to educate as much as entertain.  While a noble goal, it often comes across at the expense of bogging down the plot, where there is one. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Extradiegetic: Saludos Amigos

Disney‘s sixth animated film, Saludos Amigos, takes things in a different direction than their earlier work.  The primary reason for this was World War II.  The war had cut off many foreign markets for Disney and already resulted in the financial failure of Pinocchio.  South America, however, remained an open market free from the overseas conflict.  In addition, the State department also pushed Disney to do a film about South America to help strengthen ties with the United States, especially since some of the countries already had strong ties to Germany.  The result was Saludos Amigos.  

This film is a series of short stories loosely tied together with live action scenes talking about the animators getting inspiration during their trip through South America for this movie.  There are four shorts: Lake Titicaca, Pedro, El Gaucho Goofy and Aquarela do Brasil.  Three of the shorts are primarily comedic and gag driven, so I’ll just give a brief overview of them before focusing on the more plot driven Pedro.

The first and third shorts are primarily comedic, with little in the way of plot.  The first short features Donald Duck as a tourist to Lake Titicaca and the third features Goofy learning how to be a Goucho.  This is an interesting short if you’ve ever wondered what exactly the mascot for the University of California, Santa Barbara was supposed to be.  But, again, light on any real plot.  The third section feels like something out of a samba based Fantasia, where we see a paintbrush painting the scenery and characters, interspersed with some gags with Donald and Jose Carioca.  Since none of these offers much in the way of the plot, I’m instead going to focus on the second short in this film. 
The second short features a new character, Pedro, a young mail plane.  It’s a short coming of age story in which this young plane has to go on the dangerous mail route over the Andes Mountains to pick up and deliver the mail. It begins with a quick introduction to Pedro and his parents, then talks about Pedro going to ground school.  This bit seems trivial, but is important because it informs the viewer on what the mail route is like, and what kind of dangers there are.  They also introduce Mt. Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, and present it as something of a villain.  When the pap and mama planes can’t make the trip, Pedro is recruited.  The danger is reinforced as his mother tells him to avoid downdrafts and his father tells him to avoid Mt. Aconcagua.  Shortly after, he’s on his way after a bumpy takeoff reinforces the idea that he’s not ready.  A brief run in with a downdraft helps the viewer see the kind of danger on the route, but also gives Pedro a quick recovery with little fuss.  From there things go well, though he does get a scare when he sees Mt. Aconcagua for the first time.  But he gets by without trouble and safely arrives in Mendoza to pick up the mail.  

Everything is going well, which is reinforced by the narrator.  Pedro is then distracted by a buzzard that flies up into his face, and he chases the bird until he finds himself in front of Mt. Aconcagua.  He’s caught in a sudden storm and tossed wildly.  The mail sack gets knocked from him, and he makes a heroic dive to catch the bag again.  The narrator plays an active part throughout the story, but here in particular he urges Pedro to drop the mail and save himself, but he perseveres as she tries to climb back up through the snowstorm.  Things start to look out when they have the sudden reversal as he runs out of gas and falls back down into the darkness.  This cuts to his parents waiting for him to return, but it seems hopeless after him being gone so long.  He arrives safely with the mail, (which turns out to be an inconsequential postcard). Having successfully completed his first mail run despite the dangers also marks his coming of age.  

Saludos Amigos remains one of the more obscure Disney features, and it’s easy to see why.  It was produced for a specific set of reasons that don’t apply so much today and fails to have the kind of cohesive story usually associated with Disney films.  It’s interesting, but ultimately lacks the attributes that make a film a true classic.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Extradiegetic: Bambi

Released in 1942, Bambi is a coming of age story of a young deer.  It forgoes the usual plot structure in favor of telling a more personal narrative about the life of Bambi to create a more emotional connection with the audience.  The movie presents the audience with the Bambi shortly after his birth.  The audience is presented with their first look at Thumper here as he announces that the new prince is born.  

While there is never any explicit statement by anyone in the movie, the fact that he is a prince gives an immediate understanding to the audience that he has a role to grow into.  This helps give the overall narrative a loose connection, since the audience on some level is watching to see if Bambi does indeed live up to his birthright.  

The bulk of the movie is various scenes as Bambi grows up.  These scenes are important because they help the viewer sympathize with Bambi. He is seen doing things that everyone can relate to as part of growing up.  He makes new friends, plays and explores the world, experiences the loss of a loved one, and falls in love.  This last one is particularly important because we see Bambi for the first time taking charge of a situation.  Before he was a child, but now he’s an adult, and it’s up to him to deal with problems. 

This takes on its ultimate form at the end of the movie, where a group of hunters arrive, and carelessly start a forest fire.  Bambi’s father warns Bambi, and tells him to follow him deep into the woods, but Bambi disobeys, not because he’s disobedient in general, but because he made a choice about what was important to do right then.  His choice is complicated when they end up going in separate directions.  The tension then builds through shots of the other wildlife trying to hide, culminating with a nervous pheasant bolting and getting shot, causing everyone else to scatter among a hail of gunfire.  Faline and Bambi continue to search for each other in all the confusion until a pack of dogs chases down Faline, cornering her on some rocks.  The dogs are wild, bestial, lacking any intelligences or compassion in their eyes.  

Bambi, having just proven himself by fighting off the other deer, now fights off the pack of dogs to protect Faline.  He escapes as well, burying the dogs in an avalanche, but then is shot as he leaps a chasm.  The danger intensifies as flames creep out from the hunters campfire and engulf the surrounding forest.  Babmi’s father returns, demanding Bambi gets up despite the pain of his injury and he leads Bambi away to safety.  

The movie now ends where it began, with Thumper waking up Friend owl with news of a new Prince being born.  And on our closing shot we have Bambi’s father leaving Bambi alone on the precipice overlooking the forest.  He has successful lived and overcome the trials to become the new prince of the forest. 
The film of Bambi is a good example of presenting a character, less than telling a story.  This can be very effective in making an emotion connection for the viewer.  But it runs the risk of coming across as aimless or boring to some.   But when it works, it can connect more deeply with the audience.