Sunday, February 23, 2014

Extradiegetic: Dumbo

Dumbo was released in 1941 and intentionally made with an eye toward keeping costs down to help recoup the losses on the commercially unsuccessful Fantasia.   As such the animation is noticeably less elaborate than Disney’s earlier feature films.  It is also one of Disney’s shortest animated films, barely over an hour long.  Despite that, the story is simple enough that it does not feel rushed, and has plenty of room for songs and gags.

One aspect I find interesting to examine is Dumbo’s motivation.   At first glance you might think his goal is to fly, or not be ridiculed by others for the size of his ears.  But his real motivation is to be reunited with his mother.  Throughout the film Dumbo is depicted as being a baby, and as such, has very simple desires and understanding of what’s going on.  It begins with him being delivered by stork to his mother in the circus, and quickly establishes his large ears, and the other elephant’s low opinion of those ears.  While his mother is outraged, Dumbo’s reaction shows that he doesn’t really understand he’s being made fun of.  Dumbo’s only real concern is being with his mother at this point. Even when the crowd laughs and mocks him, he seems to simply enjoy the laughter he gets from them from wiggling his large ears.  

Dumbo’s mother reacts, protectively hiding her son behind herself.  When a particularly annoying boy goes too far, grabbing Dumbo and pulling him out, she reacts violently, grabbing and spanking him with her trunk.  When the circus hands intervene to stop her and pull Dumbo away she only gets madder, her eyes going red as she fights the handlers off.  But she is eventually subdued and locked away as a mad elephant.  

This is where Dumbo’s story really begins; now he has the goal of returning to his mother.  It is only now, a third of the way into the film that we meet the other major character, Timothy the mouse.  Timothy is immediately made more sympathetic, and the other elephants less so, as he watches them turn their backs on the lonely Dumbo.  Timothy quickly befriends Dumbo, and hatches a plan to help him by making him famous.  

I feel like this is a weakness in the story, as Timothy’s goal is more aligned with helping Dumbo to be accepted, big ears and all.  But this has little connection to Dumbo’s goal of reuniting with his mother.  He simply seems too young to do much besides go along with Timothy’s plan, as he has nobody else looking out for him.  

Timothy’s first attempt at making Dumbo famous is a disaster.   This further alienates Dumbo and gets him demoted to working with the clowns. This turn of events is fairly standard for the second act, stacking the odds against the protagonist and making their general situation worse.  And while he is successful as a clown, he is clearly not happy with the situation.  This is especially clear when Timothy tries to cheer Dumbo up, by telling him how successful his is now.  He immediately cheers up when they go to visit his mother though, further highlighting that his real goal is to be reunited with his mother.

This leads into the bizarre Pink Elephants on Parade musical number when Dumbo and Timothy accidentally get drunk.   Despite the oddness of the sequence, the drunken haze serves an important purpose the following morning, when they wake up in a tree and realize Dumbo can fly with his ears.  But fist Dumbo still has to learn how to do it when not drunk out of his mind.   Help comes from an unlikely source.  The crows, who initially ridiculed the idea that Dumbo could fly, have a change of heart after Timothy gives them and impassioned scolding.  In aid the lead crow provides a “magic” feather, a classic placebo to give Dumbo the confidence to fly. 

They plan to reveal Dumbo’s flying ability the next time he does his trick, but quickly run into the other classic aspect of the placebo item when Dumbo loses it and has to be convinced mid-fall that he doesn’t need the feather to fly.  This helps add a bit of tension and drama to what would otherwise be a fairly tepid climax to the film.  

Once Dumbo starts flying around, the movie wraps up very quickly with a quick montage of newspaper headlines and a final shot of Dumbo flying along behind the train to meet his now free mother.  Who apparently was freed because her son is famous.  So it turns out that Dumbo gets to be reunited with his mother, though it took a rather roundabout trip to get there.

The film Dumbo presents an interesting story structure, where the themes most front and center in the narrative, don’t necessarily match up with the goals of the protagonist.  But the themes of Dumbo about self-acceptance and acceptance of others are still strong ones, and remains an excellent parable for those reasons. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Extradiegetic: Fantasia

Fantasia is an unusual movie among the classic Disney animated features.  A blend of sound and image, rather than a narrative, it celebrates the parts of film that support the story, but not the story itself.  However, it is not completely devoid of plot.  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice short clearly tells a story, and throughout most of the shorts, there are characters and mini-stories.  The movie highlights this face, with the host explaining that there are three different kinds of music used; that with no plot implied or intended, that which doesn’t tell a inspires images, and that with a definite story intended. 

Despite a lack of overall plot, there is still a recurring theme of order being brought out of chaos.  You this with the Wizard undoing the chaos of Mickey’s magic, the Earth forming out of the chaos of space, the Greek gods disrupting the chaotic revel of Bacchus, and at the end the songs of the righteous disrupting the demonic revelry on Bald Mountain.  

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice section of Fantasia has the strongest plot in Fantasia, so I’ll begin by examining it.  The short begins by giving us a look at the two characters, and immediately setting up their situations.  The wizard does magic, and Mickey carries buckets of water.  As the wizard puts down his hat we see a residual glow around it, communicating to the audience that there’s at least some magic in the hat itself, so that when Mickey puts it on, we accept that he now has the magical abilities to animate a broom.  At first all seems well as Mickey uses his new abilities and the broom begins carrying water.  Mickey starts to play conductor, waving his hands as he commands the animate broom.  As he falls asleep, the conducting continues, but now takes a much grander form as he begins to manipulate the stars, the ocean and the sky, until he wakes up and realizes his scheme has gone awry and the room is now flooded.  This is a twist on the overall theme of order from chaos in Fantasia.  The untrained apprentice’s attempt at bringing order has backfired and resulted in chaos.  He tries to solve the problem, but just ends up making things worse.  Fortunately the wizard returns and brings the order, noticeably with hand gestures as well. 

Throughout most of the shorts we see little short stories and bits of characterization.  For example in the Pastoral Symphony we see a short bit where a baby pegasus is learning to fly, he tries unsuccessful twice, before finally succeeding with a bit of help from his mom.  This mini-plot helps keep the audiences interest both here, and then when you see the family together later in the piece.  We also have the mini-story of the cupids getting pairing up the centaurs and centaurettes, in particular a lonely pair of blue ones.  This is another example of order being brought from chaos.  There are also the dancing mushrooms from the Nutcracker Suite, all of them are fairly interchangeable, but there’s one small mushroom that keeps falling out of step with the others.  While the scene would be beautiful with a perfectly executed dance, the imperfection from this little mushroom inspires something more, a bit of pathos from the audience that helps keep them drawn in and invested in what’s going on.  In the Dance of the Hours section, sight gags serve to hold audience interest, along with bits of characterization of the main dancers.  

Overall, Fantasia is an interesting experiment.  It has some lovely visual and interesting thematic elements.  Though it doesn’t have a plot, it is an interesting study in the use of themes to tie together otherwise disparate elements.  This is something that can be useful even in stories with an overarching plot.  A moment of levity from a brief gag, or a short mini-plot can serve to help the main plot along, and reveal motives and attitudes of characters.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

What I Really Think: Pinocchio

Pinocchio is one of the first movies I remember watching, so I have a bit of nostalgia wrapped up in it.  Today I still enjoy it overall, and I think it ranks fairly highly on my list of favorite Disney movies.  But it doesn’t hold my attention as well as it did when I was younger.  I feel like the lack of a strong central narrative makes it feel a lot slower.  The good stuff is very good, but there are bits that drag on for me.  In particular the beginning feels a bit slow and depends a lot on gags.  The big with Stromboli isn’t bad, but never really stood out either.  But I feel like the Pleasure Island and Monstro parts are pretty good and keep up a brisk pace, though with a bit of a lull before the main action of escaping Monstro, but feel like that needs to be there to give the audience a break before the main action.  Today, I would probably rank Pinocchio more as something I would watch on the side, rather than something I would devote my full attention to watching. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Extradiagetic: Pinocchio

Pinocchio was the second feature film from Disney, released in 1940.  It’s more a morality play than a solid narrative.  Pinocchio is a young innocent, thrust into a manipulative and unkind world.  But despite some setbacks, he manages to overcome the challenges and save his father, thus earning the gift of becoming real.

The movie begins with Jiminy Cricket narrating.  These early scenes are all about introducing the characters and setting.  We see that Jiminy is a down on his luck vagabond, and Geppetto is a lonely woodcarver finishing his latest creation, a wooden puppet boy.  Here we learn the basic personalities for these characters and set up Geppetto’s later wish that brings Pinocchio to life.  Once everyone but Jiminy is asleep the Blue Fairy comes down and grants his wish, also appointing Jiminy to be Pinocchio’s conscience.  This if followed by some more scenes establishing Pinocchio as curious and naïve.  

The basic structure of the narrative from here follows the rule of three, a general concept of presenting an idea three times, usually with a twist at the end.  The first time establishes that something happened.  The second time establishes that this action is normal.  The third time often switches things up, now that we know what the established norm is.

In this case the Blue Fairy informs Pinocchio that he needs to prove himself “Brave, truthful and unselfish,” thus setting up the trio of sub-stories. Each one tied into a different quality.   Doing so will earn him the right to become a real boy, and thus becomes his overall desire throughout the entire movie. 
The first challenge is being truthful, though that aspect doesn’t come out until the end.  Pinocchio heads off to school, but is almost immediately intercepted by Honest John and Gideon, who quickly conspire to sell him to puppet guy.  Jiminy tries to talk him out of it, but Pinocchio is swept up in the excitement of it all. After the show, Stromboli’s true colors come out to Pinocchio as he locks him in a cage to keep him from leaving.  It’s at the end here that we get the lesson about lying courtesy of the Blue Fairy.  She also provides them with a quick escape, though warns she won’t be able to help them again.

The narrative moves now into the second sub–story.  The Coachman is introduced as someone who makes even our earlier villains nervous.  Honest John and Gideon waste no time in snaring Pinocchio in this new scheme, his naiveté still intact despite his earlier run-in with them.  He’s whisked off to Pleasure Island with Lampwick and a coach full of other naughty boys.   Pleasure Island is a self-indulgent paradise for the unruly boys, and Pinocchio has no qualms with going along with anything his new friend Lampwick suggest.  Jiminy does eventually find Pinocchio, and after trying to talk him into leaving, gives up and leaves only to discover the horrifying fate of the other boys who had come to the island.  He rushes back, but only after Pinocchio has witness Lampwick’s transformation into a donkey, and begun the process himself.  They flee the island as quickly as they can, before Pinocchio transforms any further.  

From this ordeal Pinocchio is presented with a lesson in being unselfish.  These boys brought to Pleasure Island thought only of themselves and their own desires, made clear by Lampwick’s dismal of Pinocchio’s concern when he wonders where all the other boys are.  Though, Pinocchio escapes, he’s left with the donkey ears and tail as a reminder of the experience.  

Pinocchio and Jiminy return home, only to find it empty.  A bit of help is provided by our convenient Blue Fairy in the form of a dove providing a note explaining that Geppetto had gone looking for him, and gotten swallowed by a Monstro, the whale.  This kicks off the third lesson about being brave.  But there is now a twist in that instead of Pinocchio receiving the lesson, he’s now presenting it.  As soon as he finds out what happened he heads for the ocean and heads in with no hesitation to find Geppetto.  We see an interesting big of character development with Jiminy here as well.  Before Jiminy had proven himself a poor conscience, twice deciding to just leave Pinocchio behind.  But this time, despite Pinocchio’s plan sounding crazy, he stands by him and helps as best he can.

After a bit of exploring on the sea they locate Monstro and Pinocchio gets swallowed and finds Geppetto inside.  Jiminy, once again, gets left out of the action and is stuck outside.  Inside we continue to see Pinocchio taking the initiative, in contract to what he’s done previously in the movie.  Once he has his idea to smoke their way out, he proceeds once again with no hesitation and fully committed to the plan, burning everything he can find.  He has gone from passive character to active protagonist, solving the problems instead of falling into them.  

The plan succeeds, despite Monstro’s best efforts to swallow them again.  But somewhere along the escape Pinocchio is killed, sacrificing himself in the attempt to save Geppetto.  Fortunately the Blue Fairy has been keeping an eye on all of this, and judges his rescue of Geppetto as a satisfactory example of being “brave, truthful, and unselfish.”  Pinocchio wakes up, now transformed into a real boy, and the family happily rejoices his return.  Jiminy even gets a medal at the end. 

The movie of Pinocchio provides an example of storytelling not seen as often today.  Though movies often follow a three act structure, they rarely tell such distinct sub-stories within it, while still maintaining an overall story arc.  That is something more often seen today in television shows.  But even today it can provide an enjoyable narrative. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What I Really Think: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

For me, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs always ranked low among Disney movies.  I remember finding it somewhat dull when I was younger and later I found the characters simplistic and unappealing.  

It’s been many years since I last watched this film, and watching it now I find myself much more charitable toward it.  Part of the change is that I’ve learned how much work went into production, and what a big deal it was for this to be the first full length animated motion picture.  Understanding the challenges Disney faced makes the final product more impressive.  

I think the animation rivals modern work.  In particular I’m impressed how much they paid attention to lighting.  Seeing the shadows shake from the candle Dopey holds, shaking in fear is impressive.  

My opinion of Snow White has improved as well.  Where I once saw weakness in her character I now see resilience.  Her innocence and purity come across as strengths more than weaknesses.  I think there’s more to her than she’s given credit for, at least more than I ever gave her credit for.  

Overall, I have to say I like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs now.  It has gone from a movie I didn’t much care for, to one I would like to own a copy of, and that’s a big step for me.  If you haven’t seen it in a while, give it another shot.  You might be surprised.