The Mouse House Movie Club #5: Make Mine Music

Welcome to The Mouse House Movie Club. Each week (or whenever I get the chance), I dig out a Disney film (either animated or live action) from my shelf, pick a Disney short, and watch both together in one superb evening of Disneyfied goodness. I then write about it in a blog much like (well, exactly like) the one you’re about to read. So, without further ado, here’s this week’s edition of The Mouse House Movie Club.

Short Film: Paperman, in which your writer falls in love with an animated woman.
Feature Presentation: Make Mine Music, in which Disney does sex, jazz, and singing whales.

Paperman
Let’s be clear about this from the very start: I don’t just like Paperman, I don’t just love Paperman, I actually factually want to marry Paperman (in an alarmingly elaborate ceremony where doves or some kinds of beatific feathered are released). There are certain films that speak to us, certain films that connect with us on a personal basis and which we can find no fault in whatsoever, like a pet that’s done its business in the neighbour’s garden. Yes, you know you should probably reprimand the adorable fuzzball, but the neighbour’s a jerk and, well, your dog/cat/fuzzy wuzzy gerbil is the most wonderful thing in the world. “Well done buddy,” you whisper, patting him on his adorable head. “Well done.”

Paperman is my beloved pet. Yes, I know it owes such a huge debt to another short film that it’s almost a rip-off, and yes I know it’s totally unrealistic in its depiction of love, but it’s so gosh darned brilliant that I don’t care. This film means something to me. It’s the film I watch when I love everything in the world and am exceptionally happy because it reaffirms that joy. It’s the film I watch when I hate everything in the world and it all seems bleak and horrible because it reminds me that joy still exists. It’s a great big hug delivered in beautiful monochrome and featuring a cartoon lady on whom I have a slightly alarming crush.

SWOON!
SWOON!

I believe in what Paperman is selling. I believe that one day, you can meet someone on a train station and it’ll just hit you (love, not the train). You’ll just know, there and then, that that person is the one for you, and you’ll do anything – risk your job, make a fool of yourself, grumpily allow yourself to be pushed around by a bunch of somehow sentient paper planes – to be with that person. In many ways, Paperman is the male equivalent of the Disney princess, and maybe that’s why I love it so much. I love the Princesses for their tenacity, their belief, their undying goodness, but, as a 32-year-old man, I always find myself a little uncomfortable loving them.

But George is my Disney Princess. I love him, I love Paperman, and I love the adorable apple of his eye. This film is a masterpiece. No, more than that; it’s my masterpiece, and I hold it very close to my heart.

Make Mine Music
To enjoy Make Mine Music, you’ve really got to understand the context it was made in. Disney was pretty much on its knees in the 1940s. Fantasia had failed at the box office, leaving the studio scrambling for money. The United States’ entry into the war meant further problems, as Disney was drawn into creating propaganda for the government, something that didn’t make much money. Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, there was the animator’s strike of 1941, which not only held up production but also created some pretty sizeable rifts within the company, most notably between Walt and Art Babitt, one of his best paid animators, and one of the leaders of the strike.

Out of these struggles came the Package Film, movies that comprised of a series of shorts rather than a complete feature length narrative. They were easier and more cost-effective to produce than a full film, and Disney put out six of them between 1942 and 1949: Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time, and The Adventures of Ichobad and Mr Toad. It pains me to say this as the fact that Disney put out any films during this period is worthy of plaudits alone, but the sad truth is: none of them are particularly great.

And yet they all have greatness in them.

Make Mine Music is a perfect case study. The film – to put it bluntly – is a massive mess, but there’s at least one stone cold masterpiece in the ten shorts we see here, and a handful more that are very very good. It’s just… it really doesn’t hold up as a complete feature, and gets really, really super weird at times.

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A missed beat…
The central problem with Make Mine Music is that it doesn’t know what the heck it wants to be. The title sequence promises something very modern – a swingin’ take on Fantasia with classical music replaced by jazz. Sounds cool, right? But then the first short is The Martins and the Coys, a thinly veiled take on the Hatfields and the McCoys that uses country and western music as its background. It’s fine, but it hardly seems to fit with the tone established in the credits.

Then we move on to the second short, a tone poem called Blue Bayou that’s set to the music of the same name. It’s a lovely piece of animation – striking in its use of colour, texture and movement – but it simply doesn’t belong in Make Mine Music, and with good reason. Originally planned for Fantasia (where it was set to Debussy’s Claire de Lune), Blue Bayou had to be was scrapped during production and was only drawn out of mothballs (with an entirely new soundtrack) for Make Mine Music. In Fantasia, it would have worked perfectly, but here, it’s lost: a little sigh of calm in a film that’s otherwise loud and messy.

It goes on. After Blue Bayou comes the jazzy All the Cats Join In (more on that later), followed by another gentle piece: Without You. It’s the problem with the package film: the individual parts that make up Make Mine Music are great, but put them together and they simply don’t work. Worse, they actually cancel each other out. It makes you appreciate the tonal consistency of Fantasia so much more, but it makes for an incredibly frustrating viewing experience. If you watch Make Mine Music after reading this piece, the best thing to do is treat each short individually, rather than as part of a feature.

Disney Does… Sex?
Yep, you read that right. There’s a slight sexual undercurrent that runs throughout Make Mine Music, and it’s really noteworthy for those interested in Disney history. Before anyone gets too excited here, let’s be clear (before Disney send the Mouse round): there’s no full frontal nudity, nobody gets down to it, this is not Disney Does Dallas. But… for a studio known for being so chaste, Disney – for the first time (and one of the last times) really acknowledges sex here, not just nodding to it, but actually making it a plot point in some cases.

This sauciness manifests itself in three shorts. The first it The Martins and the Coys, which explores the violence between the two families before having two of them hook up. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the female side of the partnership is, well, hot. Hot in a Jessica Rabbit/Red Hot Riding Hood/I’m-pretty-sure-there-should-be-a-wolf-howling-at-a-table-somewhere kinda way. And the film isn’t shy about showing that.

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Oooooh

Another strange moment comes during Casey At The Bat (an adaptation of the famous poem and one of the best shorts in the film). All is pretty normal really, until a shot shows our hero reading porn. Wait what?

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Laaaaaaa

Ok… ok… it’s not exactly porn; I mean, he’s not slipped on a smoking jacket and pulled out the latest issue of Playboy. He’s reading The Police Gazette, which as far as I can tell isn’t exactly a ‘naughty magazine’. But that’s definitely a sexy woman on the front cover, and I’m willing to bet there are other sexy women inside. I couldn’t imagine Disney doing something like that now, and I really couldn’t see them doing this next thing….

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Laaaaaaaaa

That’s from All the Cats Join In. Proper nakedness. Actual nakedness.

All The Cats Join In is my favourite short in Make Mine Music. Reminiscent of the Rhapsody in Blue segment from Fantasia 2000, it’s vibrant, colourful, and fun in a way too few shorts from this film are. It’s pretty much the film you’re expecting to see when the title credits appear at the start. And hey, there’s nudity!!

But it’s significant nudity. All The Cats Join In is about teenage rebellion; the thrill of hanging out with your friends on a Friday night for a quick boogie down at the Malt Shoppe. A dash of the unexpected, a hint of something you really shouldn’t be seeing in a Disney film, is part of that rebellion, and it pushes All The Cats Join In to the top of Make Mine Music‘s pile. It feels different, it feels dangerous (for the time it was produced in anyway), and I wish there was more of it here.

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At the special request of three! 🙂

A lonely pair of hats…
Make Mine Music may be made up of off-cuts from other films and new footage that was hastily put together, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely devoid of artistic merit. Set to music by the Andrews Sisters, Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet is the tale of man hat and a lady hat who fall in love, get bought, go their separate ways, and are horribly mutilated before being reunited on top of the heads of horses. Yeah, it’s weird. I told you this film is weird.

To put it less flippantly, Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet is a gentle and quite touching tale of love against the odds. Johnnie and Alice fall for each other in the hat shop, but when Alice is bought Johnnie undertakes a quest to be reunited with her, even if that involves having ear holes punched in him and being used as a little hat for a horse. It’s kinda like Pixar’s recent short The Blue Umbrella, if, y’know, that involved the heroes having holes punched in them and being used as tiny umbrellas for horses.

Thing is, there’s some really astonishing animation going on here. Anthropomorphising a hat is tricky business, but the Disney team managed to pull it off without it seeming weird or horrifically terrifying or indeed terrifyingly horrific. Eyes are put on the front of the hat, and the open part you put on your head is turned into the mouth. Clever character design indeed, and the fluid way it’s animated is squash and stretch at its very finest. Moments like this make Make Mine Music impossible to dismiss. Very flawed it may be, but there really is incredible work going on here.

The one that isn't Peter...
The one that isn’t Peter…

Peter and the Wolf
This is continued in the film’s most famous segment, an adaptation of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Narrated by Winnie the Pooh Sterling Holloway, it comes on like a more accessible version of Fantasia. Holloway introduces us to the concept of storytelling through music, pointing out which instrument is used for which character and why, before we go through the story. It’s clever, well executed, and – perhaps more importantly – a really powerful educational idea.

Indeed, it’s something I’d like to see Disney repeat. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that I’ve talked about my hopes for a third Fantasia film. We almost got one in 2006, but I’m glad it didn’t happen then. Fantasias should be special: the first one is iconic, the second provided a nice encore to the Renaissance, as well as a smart way to mark the turn of the Millennium. Disney has to earn Fantasia films, and with their recent output, I think they’ve well and truly done that. Fantasia 3 would be a perfect release now.

I’m under no illusions as to the difficulties of a Fantasia 3. Getting audiences to flock to a Disney films that’s comprised of avant-garde animation set to classical music is difficult to say the least. A new Fantasia film that closely follows the template of the first two would speak most clearly to Disney geeks like me, and that simply isn’t a) profitable for Disney or b) right for young audiences who have every right to feel that a new Disney release should speak to them. So, how do you make a Fantasia 3 work?

Simple, go the Peter and the Wolf route and make it educational and – critically – bring in recognisable characters and narratives. Peter and the Wolf works so well because it’s a pretty standard story that everyone, regardless of age or familiarity with the classic piece, can follow. There’s no reason why Disney couldn’t do the same now and – considering they’ve used Mickey and Donald in previous Fantasias – include some beloved characters. Who wouldn’t want to see a new Anna and Elsa adventure? Who wouldn’t be excited to see Rapunzel and Flynn dancing to some wonderful classical piece?

There’s a terrific template set down in Peter and the Wolf, and I for one would love to see it expanded on. Mr Lasseter, if you’re reading (I know you are), over to you.

Willie the Whale
I’ll end this edition of Mouse House Movie Club by paying tribute to Willie the Whale, star of the final short, The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met. As the title suggests, Willie is an abnormally talented fish* who can sing opera and wants to do so at the Met. Lovely.

He’s hunted and killed by a jackass. And there our film ends.

Have fun, kids!

Next time on Mouse House Movie Club, I’m following up my crush on Paperman’s Meg by spending two hours obsessing over my other Disney love, Anna from Frozen. Yes, for the first time in forever, I’ll be letting it go and delivering a fixer upper to my love for Disney’s modern masterpiece. Preceding this will be the suitable wintery, The Art of Skiing, which stars Goofy and predictable disaster. 

*YES, I know whales are mammals not fish, I’m being facetious. 

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The Mouse House Movie Club #4: Meet the Robinsons

meet-robinsons

Welcome to The Mouse House Movie Club. Each week (or whenever I get the chance), I dig out a Disney film (either animated or live action) from my shelf, pick a Disney short, and watch both together in one superb evening of Disneyfied goodness. I then write about it in a blog much like (well, exactly like) the one you’re about to read. So, without further ado, here’s this week’s edition of The Mouse House Movie Club.

Short Film: The Little Match Girl, in which Disney get depressing. Really, really, really depressing.
Feature Presentation: Meet the Robinsons, in which Disney starts down the road to recovery through retro futurism, Walt quotes, and The Goob. The poor, poor Goob.

The Little Matchgirl
You know how Disney often takes criticism for changing fairy tales to have happy endings? Like how The Little Mermaid ends with Ariel finally gaining happiness, rather than turning into a big ol’ puddle of foamy mess in the ocean like at the end of the Hans Christian Andersen story? (Some people seem to think this would have been a better ending! Because apparently that’s a totally fitting ending for a character who’s full of joy and optimism and in no way deserves such a nasty death.) Anyways, if you’re one of the people who want less happy Disney endings, say hello to The Little Matchgirl.

Like Little Mermaid, The Little Matchgirl is also based on an Andersen story, and it finds a young homeless girl trying to warm herself up on a cold and snowy night with a box of matches. She lights each match, feels its warmth, and sinks into a wonderful fantasy of a better life. Awwww, lovely.

She then runs out of matches and dies of hypothermia…

Yep, she dies. It’s dark territory for a Disney film (even a short) to move into and that’s reflective of the fact that The Little Matchgirl was originally produced for a scrapped third Fantasia film (Fantasia 2006). It was meant for slightly more adult Disney audiences, and I wonder if the film would have ended in the same way (or indeed, if it would have even been produced at all) were it intended to precede a feature film release.

Either way, the death is beautifully released, with the film cutting from one of the girl’s fantasies to the real world, where she sits, covered in snow, with the matches all burned out. Her grandmother wakens her and we think all is well. Until she and the little girl walk through the little girl’s body and into a wall, glowing with warming orange. The camera pans up to the sky as the snow swirls around. The End.

Andersen wrote the original tale to draw attention to child poverty. This film, and its devastating ending, reiterates that point with equal eloquence.

I chose this picture purely because I enjoy its ridiculousness
I chose this picture purely because I enjoy its ridiculousness

Meet the Robinsons
In my essay about modern Disney films, I made the argument that Meet the Robinsons kicked off the new era of Disney classics, and that idea will form the backbone of this edition of Mouse House Movie Club. Watching the film again only underlined how significant it is to Disney’s current themes and style, as well as its respectful approach to its history.

So yes, this will very much be about giving the sadly overlooked but entirely lovely Meet the Robinsons its due. But I’ll also talk about other stuff – mostly The Goob (poor, lovely, sad Goob) –  so it’s fine. Chill everyone.

Keep moving forward…
These three words are repeated throughout Meet the Robinsons. It’s the Robinson family motto, and it gets a mention in the Walt quote that appears at the end of the film. If anything, these three words and the manifesto they push somewhat overshadow the emotional core of the film, which is a rather lovely tale of loneliness and what it does to children (more of that later). But that’s not necessarily a bad thing…

After an unsteady period, Meet the Robinsons needed to send a message, but it needed to be a balanced, considered one. You see, I’m not necessarily of the opinion that Disney was in crisis in the early part of the last decade. As a business, yes certainly, there was a lack of direction that was hurting all aspects of the company, but as producer of art (as Disney should always be viewed, first and foremost), I don’t subscribe to the idea that the company was down in the dumps.

Let’s look at the films…

Assuming the swansong of the Renaissance is Fantasia 2000, the first film of ‘the slump’ is Dinosaur, and fair enough, that’s pretty ropey. But then we get Emperor’s New Groove, a flawed film, but one brimming with life, wit, and Eartha Kitt being goddammed hilarious. Hardly a disaster, then. Atlantis: The Lost Empire followed, and with its Mike Mignola art and Indiana Jones-esque story it’s one of my favourite Disney films of recent times. Then came Lilo and Stitch, a pretty unusual film that’s nonetheless deservedly gone on to be seen as a classic. The mediocre Treasure Planet followed, with Brother Bear (lovely, under-rated), Home on the Range (not without its charms) and Chicken Little (ok, pretty awful) coming pre-Meet the Robinsons.

So, eight films there: one absolute classic, three overlooked gems, two that are just ok, and two (only two!) that are flat-out rubbish. These are not the stats of a slump, and that’s because when people talk about Disney’s post-Renaissance period as a disaster, they’re mostly reacting to the behind-the-scenes issues: Home on the Range bringing a temporary close to the studio’s traditionally animated output, the box office struggles of Atlantis and Treasure Planet, the behind-the- scenes shenanigans on Emperor’s New Groove, which began life as an epic called Kingdom of the Sun before being turned into the frenetic comedy it became.

Against that backdrop, the quality of the films remained pretty high, and while Meet the Robinsons marked a return to quality after Chicken Little, it’s for behind-the-scenes reasons that the film, in my mind, marks the beginning of the New Renaissance (or whatever it is we’re calling it – I personally like The Bronze Age). That’s because halfway through the production, Disney bought Pixar and John Lasseter made the switch from the latter to the former, making an immediate impact by changing large swathes of Meet the Robinsons and – I would think considering how deep in Disney lore he is – adding the Walt quote at the film’s end.

It’s probably a stretch to claim that the film intentionally espouses the same themes of self-actualisation that the likes of Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph would go on to explore, but in the binary it builds between Lewis and The Goob (poor, poor Good), it certainly has those ideas in its arsenal. And speaking of The Goob…

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Poor, poor Goob
LOOK AT THAT GUY. How could you not love someone who always looks like he’s on the verge of falling asleep? This little dude is a hero, a valiant warrior in mankind’s constant struggle to not catch 40 winks at any given moment. He’s also a pretty perfect representation of the way Bronze Age Disney (yep, I’m running with that now) would present evil, because when The Goob becomes the villainous Bowler Hat Guy, he doesn’t really become a bad guy. He’s a hero, a valiant warrior just someone who’s had bad stuff happen to him and deals with it in the wrong way.

After his failure to make a critical catch in a baseball game, The Goob is bullied and starts internalising all the resultant rage. While Lewis takes failure after failure with good grace and a desire to improve and eventually succeed, The Goob gets angry with his failure. ‘Keep Moving Forwards’ Lewis comes to realise to his benefit, but The Goob (poor, poor Goob) is always moving backwards, and eventually lets that frustration warp his personality from lovable and loyal dweeb into bitter and twisted (but still somewhat lovable) villain.

The Goob shares little in common with the likes of Gaston, Ursula, and Jafar – bad guys who generate little, if any sympathy – and a lot in common with King Candy, Hans, and Callaghan. Because in the Bronze Age, Disney hasn’t just realigned its vision of what it means to be a hero, but also what it means to be a villain. Bronze Age villains are – more often than not – victims who have lost something (their place in life, their place in their family, their relatives) and have been unable to deal with that loss. Rather than pushing forward, they’ve looked inward and found only darkness and a desire to put right the wrongs that have been inflicted upon them. By any means necessary.

There’s a whole other essay to be written on this subject, and I’ll get round to it some day, but for the time being, let’s all just say it together: poor, poor Goob.

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God help the outcasts
Outsiders and outcasts are often the subject of Disney films, be they in the shape of the bullied Cinderella, the “funny girl” Belle, or the tormented Quasimodo. Those characters often lose parents, but we rarely seen the fallout from children being alone: a trip to the orphanage and repeated failed meetings with prospective adopters. Meet the Robinsons tackles these things head-on and its emotional core is built on them: early scenes in which Lewis and Goob prepare for meetings with adopters and the fallout when the meetings go wrong are terribly sad and add much to the characters and story.

Meet the Robinsons then is, on an emotional rather than thematic level, about what loneliness does to children. Both Lewis and the Goob (poor poor…) are lonely kids who don’t fit in. Lewis eventually finds people who accept him and love him for who he is, and that helps save him. Goob, on the other hand, only becomes more and more isolated, so much so that his only companion is a nefarious robot hat. And when the only thing stopping you from being utterly, 100% alone is a nefarious robot hat, is it any wonder you slip into the odd act of evil?

Loneliness recurs throughout Bronze Age Disney, in the distance between Elsa and Anna, the banishment of Vanellope from Sugar Rush, and the desperation of Rapunzel to escape her tower and chase her dream. As I’ve said, suggesting that Meet the Robinsons intentionally began all that is problematic because with the production changes that were going on I seriously doubt the film-makers sat down and discussed how they could make their movie fit thematically with unknown future output. But there’s no doubt the seed of the idea is there.

Meet the Robinsons may have been an unwitting template creator, but a template creator is what it is. If nothing else, it certainly pushes a lesson the studio itself has steadfastly stuck to. Because with each film since, Disney, Lasseter, and his creative team have always sought to do one thing with each and every movie: keep moving forwards.

Wrapping it up…
I have nothing more to say than (obviously) poor Goob. Poor poor Goob.

Next time, I’m going to war. Well, wartime. Disney had to cut costs during the Second World War and produced a bunch of package films (a handful of shorts in one anthology), and one of those is Make Mine Music. Inkeeping with the nostalgia, this will be preceded by the already-legendary short Paperman. SWOONY SWOON SWOON.