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'Classic' Disney and me
by Camus

Another slight language warning applies - if you jump with alarm when you see certain words, hit the back button now

"I'm gonna be a mighty king, so enemies beware..."
- Simba, The Lion King


In Los Angeles terms, that is to say, in an imagined hierarchy of motion picture supremacy, Walt's legacy sits damn near the top. Sure, there have been some rumblings in the interior; Jeffery ("the golden retriever") Katzenberg jumped ship to join and form Dreamworks with 'Steven' and David Geffen; a helicopter crash took out a high ranking Disney exec; a steady box office decline in traditional animation outpourings was marked (Treasure Planet hurt Disney just a little but it hurt); in comparison to their bastard son Pixar, Disney was the poor father, lending only its colossal distribution and marketing might to make Lassiter's Toy Storys outshine the Mouse House (or as unkind folk have dubbed the house of Mickey, 'Mousewitz').

Ever since The Lion King, an absurdly globally successful piece of coming of age that pitted Nazi hyenas against the good and might of all that is cuddly, sellable and leonine (and Matthew Broderick), Disney have floundered. Imagine getting thirty three cherries on a one armed bandit and some bastard hides the HOLD button. Hollywood movies are formulaic but do not perform to formulas. Michael Eisner was desperate for a template based on The Lion King so that he could cookie cut hit after hit. That ploy didn't work and wily computer animation guru John Lasseter came along and stole Disney's crown. What reigned as a lion in acetate and paint gave way to pixels and nurbs voiced by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. Of course the argument could go that Pixar wrote their screenplays to death or perfection (another reminder of the power of the writer in cinema) while Disney threw writers at projects the way wayward people throw themselves at stars' feet.

In the late thirties, Walter Elias Disney had a dream. By many accounts, Uncle Walt was a curmudgeon and an untalented artist whose real genius was delegation and his canny business sense urging him to purchase acres of car park space for his Disneyworld. He spent a vast fortune (perhaps not all his own) bringing to the screen the story of a little wooden boy. If made today, Pinocchio would not be. Made today. No. No right minded exec would greenlight so prohibitively expensive a project. It's no wonder that 1940's Dumbo's running time of just over an hour barely qualified it as a motion picture but it clawed back some of the wooden boy's expenses. Of course, these 'classics' are now absurdly into profit but Walt's work in the golden age of cell animation still provokes awe. Pinocchio is a stunning tour de force of breathtaking multi-plane animation over 60 years ago. It was the first film this writer can remember seeing and the metamorphosis of Pinocchio's friend Lampwick into a donkey while braying for his life still sends shivers Fed'Exing southwards. It's the reason I forsook alcohol (well, beer anyway) until someone introduced me to spirits.

In 1966 Disney died and his empire was maintained as a globally recognised brand. The theme parks were in full swing (although some took a malicious pleasure in the apparent failure of Euro Disney, a commercial limb rejected vehemently by its host, France, specifically a woodland west of Paris). Even now, the Disney rides are providing grist to the mill. One of the most enjoyable films of last summer was based on a Disney ride. It sounds like it would have turned into a terrible venture but no. Get Johnny Depp doing Keith Richards and all will be entertaining. Pirates of the Carribean was a joy, albeit a fluffy one.

So what of the two principal Disney dollar generating sources? Firstly there is their traditional cell animation arm and secondly their enor'mouse'ly successful video and DVD outlet. Disney took on Pixar a few years ago by buying up everyone who could move a mouse (who weren't on Pixar's payroll). They created 'the secret laboratory', teased in The Emperor's New Groove. Here, Disney's computer animators would create an epic motion picture experience. Guess what? They shelved the picture and started from scratch because of the relentless march of technology. The R&R period was so long that the lab was leapfrogged by progress and so they started again. Some say it was a 200 million dollar movie... It makes me shudder to think that that much was spent on such a lame effort called Dinosaur.

Sixty years ago, Pinocchio. An unqualified work of art. Four years ago Dinosaur. Sigh. That is progress with a capital R-E-G-R-E-S-S.

So let's move to the video/DVD arm of a once mighty empire. FACT - Disney products are 15 to 20% more expensive than 'standard' fare. This, argues the company, sets its product apart (yeah, by a few quid) so it is viewed as a separate higher quality product. Disney often have 'Disney' shelves in high street shops. The company seems to have monopolised on its own brand name. But there is hearty dilution. Straight to video sequels have dampened the fire and even the once unassailable Jungle Book has been cheapened by its terrible, terrible sequel.Once in your home, the Disney brand starts its Ka-like hypnotism. The Jungle Book's snake could not be less persuasive. The bland English narrator (picked for his boyish enthusiasm and appeal to the kids) exhorts your young to recognise those titles they don't own... Such an extraordinary marketing ploy deserves more than a mention. Disney animation films are now - drum roll - classics. This is the definition of classic.

Classic: judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality...

Not so for Michael Eisner and chums. No. Each outpouring is a readily acknowledged classic. The amount of time that the dictionary says should be 'a period of time' seems to be measured in days. That would make most soap operas classics... What that says about Dickens's work is anyone's guess.

So regardless of the fluff that's churned out, they're classics and no one can argue.

I argue.

Brother Bear has an extraordinary line of sung lyric in it. As Codec (or some similar name given to a baby bear) runs up a tree, Phil Collins rather appropriately sings out; "I, cunt-face, another day..." which kind of sums a lot of things up - except for the bit of it being a 'classic'. Codec's hunter is named what sounds like 'Sidcup' which makes for very skewed viewing.

Made 60 years ago, Brother Bear would have garnered oooohs and aaaahs. Made today and the general cry of "It's no Finding Nemo..." reigns. Can Walt's Disney break though the other side and pull a Pinocchio out of a hat? Or are they just whistling 'Pixar'?

'Classic' Disney and me

by Camus
article posted
24 December 2003