Friday, March 28, 2014

Disney Films: Fantasia- Revolutionizing Animation...Again.

Third in line in the Disney canon is another film that I like not only for what it was (which is pretty amazing, by the way) but for what it did:

If Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs elevated animation to the level of legitimate story telling, then Fantasia elevated it to the level of pure, unadulterated art. A two-hour epic journey into the world of classical music paired with breathtaking animation, Fantasia was more than just a movie. It was an experience.

Walt Disney was a man of many talents. He was, first and foremost, a story teller. He loved reading and telling stories to an audience. But he was also a pioneer and innovator. Nothing fascinated Disney more than the concept of the new. With each successive film, he worked to push the envelope of what animation could do. And so it was with this project. It was never Disney's intention for Fantasia to be just a film. He wanted a continuous, evolving experience. Instead of simply releasing the film like he had with Snow White and Pinocchio, Disney envisioned a touring roadshow. He planned on having new material added every few years. He also wanted audiences to feel like they were really at a symphony, with the orchestra playing all around them. So, he developed a new system he called Fantasound. In essence, Disney pioneered the technology that would become surround sound, some thirty years ahead of its time.

Unfortunately, Disney's gift was also his curse. RKO, his distributor, was uncomfortable with the roadshow format, and only issued a limited release. The film was a huge success and was wildly popular, but the production costs of setting up the equipment and leasing the theaters decimated any profits the movie made. Disney also had some unfortunate timing. The advent of WWII caused demand for certain materials to skyrocket, and a lot of the Fantasound equipment was scrapped to help the war effort. In an attempt to regain some of his losses, Disney allowed RKO to issue the film in a general release to audiences, but to save costs and encourage higher ticket sales, the film was released in mono sound and was heavily edited for time. Subsequently, Disney's dream of an evolving experience was shattered, and he was forced to abandon the idea.

What remains of the project (and what most video and DVD copies contain) is still considered by many critics to be an artistic masterpiece. Disney had hired Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, to conduct and gave him free reign over the musical aspect of the project. Stokowski was so thrilled with the concept, he offered to work on it for free. The music is brilliantly conducted and the passion that Stokowski has is obvious, even though all you ever see of him is a silhouette.

Disney had his animators choreograph the various musical pieces in differing styles:

Bach's Toccata and Fugue is backed with abstract shapes and designs that moved with the rhythm of the music.

Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite depicts various elements of nature (and some fairies) in sprightly dances.
Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice has the only recognizable Disney character, Mickey, playing out the story as originally written by Goethe. (Fun trivia tidbit: the Sorcerer's name in the film is Yensid. It's Disney spelled backward!)

Stravinski's Rite of Spring shows early life on Earth, including the reign and subsequent extinction of the dinosaurs.

Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony portrays various characters in Greek mythology gathering for a celebration of Bacchus, god of wine.

Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours is a 4 act ballet, with the dancers played by various animals.

The final piece is a combination of Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and Schubert's Ave Maria. The music is accompanied by the Slavic demon Chernabog forcing the spirits of the dead to dance for his pleasure. (Trivia tidbit: Chernabog's facial expressions were based heavily on Béla Lugosi, best known for his portrayal of Dracula.) The festivities come to an end when the demons and spirits hear the sound of church bells and a choir singing Ave Maria, while monks walk through the woods to a cathedral.

A brief interstitial is shown after the Rite of Spring sequence that introduces audiences to the orchestra, and shows how sound is rendered on film with the help of an animated line displaying the vibrations of various instruments.

Disney's exceptional vision for the enormous potential of animation as legitimate art has left history with one of the greatest gems of the 20th century. While a few sequences might frighten younger children (the Night on Bald Mountain sequence and the Rite of Spring sequence), most older children, teens, and adults will thoroughly enjoy Fantasia, particularly if they have a love of art or classical music. Fantasia is much more than a film. It is what Disney envisioned from the beginning: an experience!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Disney Films: Pinocchio- A Tale of Christ? (A Counterpoint Review)

So, my husband, the budding theologian, has decided to put  his own spin on the Pinocchio story. After we discussed my review the other day, he had a few thoughts of his own, and his may be a bit more insightful than mine. I tend to look at things with a critical eye for the artistic value. But hubby has a mind set on the eternal. This is, perhaps, why we get along so well. We complement each other's view points. I see things from an earthly practical perspective. He sees them from a heavenly spiritual one. Take a look:
This is a good review. However, let’s look at the flip side of the coin here. Pinocchio, in my mind, has always been a story about a promise. That promise being of course that he would eventually be a real boy. This promise has stipulations; he has to be brave, truthful, and unselfish. The promise was given by a fairy who can be a picture of Jesus Christ who also gives us a stipulation. The rule is simple (Believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.- Acts 16:31) (For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.- John 3:16). Now getting to this point can be difficult, not because the solution itself is difficult, but because like Pinocchio we tend to disobey and at times choose to completely forget what was promised to us because we think we see a better option.

The second time the fairy shows up, she frees the boy. Pinocchio was not seeking her per se; he was just crying out for help. And isn't that what Christ does for the fallen? We did not go to Him, He came to us. Like the fairy did with Pinocchio, He comes to most of us when we are at our lowest point.  

OK, now the lad is free from the cage/prison that Stromboli put him in and like Pinocchio we who chose to believe are free from the cage/prison that sin puts us in. The question now is, do we no longer sin? No, we do sin, stumble, and fall. This can be pictured in the story when Pinocchio goes to Pleasure Island. The fairy has just freed the boy and he again chose to go his own way. But eventually the lad goes back to the "straight and narrow" after he sees what the place is doing to him, in this case turning into a donkey. He then runs for all he is worth to get out. The Bible records a similar conclusion to this called the prodigal son, found in Luke 15:11-32.

The final point I would like to make is the way the story ends. When the fairy comes after Pinocchio dies, she grants him the promise that she had made in the beginning of the movie. He becomes a real boy! New body, new look, new everything. This is portrayed in the Bible as well. When we die, the promise of everlasting life takes place. We also get a new body just like Pinocchio. (Philippians 3:20-21)

See what I mean? The guy can turn anything into a parable. That's why I love him. Thank you, babe, for a different perspective. Maybe I won't dislike the film quite so much if I approach it with this mindset in future.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Disney Films: Pinocchio- Messages, Morals, and Mediocre Writing

Ah, the second Disney animated film. After the masterpiece that was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, audiences began to wonder, could Disney do it again? Or was Snow White a one-off anomaly that would never be repeated? Disney had originally intended for Bambi to be his second film, but production difficulties led to it being released later. And so, the second film to try and capture that Disney magic premiered:

Pinocchio is, at its core, a morality tale. It emphasizes the importance of hard work, obedience, and a good education. It has heart! It has morals! It has everything a Christian parent (or any parent, really) would want to teach their kids. So... why don't I like it?

I don't entirely blame Disney for this. I blame his source material. The original novel by Carlo Collodi portrays Pinocchio as a selfish, spoiled, bratty, crude puppet. In the original novel, he only learns his lesson after being subjected to brutal forms of torture. Not your ideal "family" story. The book is also rife with what I consider to be lazy story writing. While Disney was able to tone down both the character's behavior and the story's brutality, the lazy story writing remained. But more on that in a moment.

For those that don't know the story (all one of you), Pinocchio is a wooden marionette created by lonely toy maker Gepetto, who has no children. When Gepetto wishes on an evening star for Pinocchio to become a real boy, the Blue Fairy, who overheard his wish, brings Pinocchio to life. Well, sort of. He's still made of wood. The fairy tells Pinocchio that he can only become a real boy when he learns to be honest and brave, and to do what is right and shun what is wrong. She assigns a cricket named Jiminy to serve as the lad's conscience, since he has none of his own (what with being made of wood and all).

Gepetto is thrilled to discover that his wish has come true, and the very next day, sends Pinocchio to school with the other boys. But our titular character ditches school, and ends up in one scrape after another. And of course, for every bit of trouble he gets into, he tells a lie to get out of it again, only to discover that lies cause his nose to grow.

Admit it. You wish this happened to politicians.

First he is tricked into the clutches of a ruthless puppeteer who wants to use this "stringless" puppet for his own financial gain. He escapes, not by any act of his own, but mostly because the Blue Fairy shows up to magically set things right. Then he is conned by an evil coachman to visit Pleasure Island, a place somewhat reminiscent of a kid's idea of Las Vegas, where boys can drink beer, smoke cigars, and shoot pool all night, with no adults to boss them around.

However, Pleasure Island is a cursed place where naughty boys are turned into jackasses. (Kinda reminiscent of Proverbs 23:7, come to think of it. "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.") The donkeys are then sold by the coachman to work on farms and in salt mines as pack animals. Pinocchio manages to grow donkey ears and a tail before escaping.

Pinocchio returns home, only to discover that Gepetto has gone looking for him. What he doesn't know is that Gepetto has been swallowed by the giant whale, Mostro. Will the two ever find each other again? Will Pinocchio ever be a real boy? At the risk of spoiling the ending (again, for the one person in the universe who hasn't seen this movie), I will say that lazy story writing emerges once again at the end to set things right.

Very well drawn lazy story writing. But lazy story writing nonetheless.

There is a lot to like here, especially if you're already a big Disney fan with a love of nostalgia. There's Jiminy Cricket, the eternally optimistic "conscience". The climax is easily one of the most perilous and frantic in the Disney canon. And who could forget "When You Wish Upon A Star"? It's practically the theme song for all things Disney.

But there's one thing I simply can't get over. That fairy. They might as well call her Deus Ex Machina Fairy, because that's essentially what she is. She's the one who sets the plot in motion by bringing Pinocchio to life. She's the one who shows up to get him out of trouble. And she's the one who magically makes things ok in the end. I'm convinced if Jiminy Cricket hadn't tagged along to constantly remind the audience of the virtues of being honest and doing right, the only lesson learned would have been that whenever you're in trouble, a magical blue fairy will come save you sooner or later.

As I've said, this isn't entirely Disney's fault. He didn't have much to work with in terms of source material. If you're looking for a basic morality tale that will frighten younger kids into submission, then this might do the trick. But if you're looking for a well-written story on why listening to your parents is what's best, you're better off with the VeggieTales version called Pistachio- The Little Boy That Woodn't. The fairy takes a back seat to a story more centered on the father-son dynamic, and Pistachio (the Pinocchio counterpart in this version) must learn to trust his father's judgment before either of them can be rescued from the belly of the whale. In the Disney version, meanwhile, Pinocchio's own cleverness and courage are what save the day, and he doesn't rely on his father for anything the entire duration of the film. It's hardly a good lesson for children: "Disobey your parents, get in trouble, and then trust your own thinking to save you."

Sure, my poor decision making brought us here. But trust me, Dad. I totally got this!

On the whole, it's one of my least favorite Disney films. Not to say there aren't worse ones. We'll get to those in due time. But if Disney was looking to capture the same magic and wonder of Snow White, then they missed the mark. Fortunately, their next film completely made up for it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Disney Films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs- The One Start Started It All

I figured there was no better way to start the movie reviews than with Disney, since everyone can agree that they're pretty family friendly. I'll go through each of the Disney animated/semi-animated films in chronological order. Let's start with the one that started it all:

I like this movie, not for what it actually was, but for what it did. In the 1930s, animated cartoons were what you watched before the feature film started. When Walt Disney got the idea to have the animated cartoon be the feature film, most of the Hollywood execs wrote him off as delusional. Audience members would fidget through a 3 minute cartoon. There was no way they would voluntarily sit through an 83 minute one. Disney himself had such a hard time getting the film produced that he actually mortgaged his house to keep production running, all the while his own family trying to talk him out of it.

In the end, Disney got his way, the film was finished, and it premiered just before Christmas on Dec. 21, 1937. The film was a resounding success, received a standing ovation at its premier, and shut the mouths of Hollywood naysayers forever. People would voluntarily sit through an 83 minute long cartoon. And not just sit through it. They'd actually like it. So much so that Disney got an honorary Academy Award for "a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field".

Disney receiving his honorary Oscar (along with 7 miniature ones) from Shirley Temple.

The film itself is, by today's standards, a bit bland. But for its time, the concept of seeing animation tell a believably touching story was entirely novel. The protagonist really is genuine, the secondary characters really are sympathetic, and the villain really is evil and even kind of scary. Up until that point, animation was lighthearted and fun. Characters were stretched in goofy ways, villains were caricatures not to be taken seriously, and situations, while often perilous, were never truly sad. Characters, as a rule, didn't die. Especially the main heroine. For Snow White to do what it did was nothing short of revolutionary.

While a few parts might be a bit intense for the youngest of viewers (the spooky forest scene and witch's transformation come to mind), anyone older than 5 should be able to handle it without much of a problem. Just make sure to have some tissues handy for yourself. I don't know many adults who don't get misty-eyed when they see Grumpy start sobbing.

Tell me this doesn't get you every time.
Other than that, it's a lighthearted family film that merits a re-watch every now and again. And if the prince coming to raise the dead and carry his bride off to a castle in the clouds doesn't scream "Christian overtones", then I don't know what does.

A New Start

My previous journey into the whole "mom blogging" world turned out to be pretty pointless, as I really had nothing to add to the conversation. I wasn't crafty or "Pinterest-y", I wasn't good at cooking (still not good at it, actually), I've only got one kid currently and he doesn't do much all day besides crawl around and drool on stuff, and I have no unusual challenges or dramatic obstacles to overcome.

So, after thinking long and hard about it, I've decided to start again from scratch and talk about the one thing I'm capable of carrying on a lengthy conversation about: media. This is mostly going to be a blog about movies, but I will throw in TV shows, songs, books, and video games from time to time.

I plan on exploring movies both from an artistic perspective and from a Christian/family perspective. I'm sure there may be some objections to this, so let me clarify a few things:

First, I'm a Christian. Totally out and proud about that. But I'm also not a sheltered prude. If you think this is going to be a blog about nothing but faith-based films and Little House on the Prairie episodes, then you're way off. For one thing, I really can't stand Little House. Oh, don't get me wrong, it's a decent wholesome family show and I'm not knocking anyone who likes it. I'm saying I had a hard enough time getting through the ridiculously boring book series. I'm not going to watch it on television. Like it if you want. Just don't expect me to review it any time soon. I will however be including several faith-based movies in my reviews, in addition to the big-time blockbusters.

Second, I realize I'll probably get a few comparisons from veteran Christian parents who are familiar with Focus on the Family's Plugged In reviews. Well, while I am kind of doing something similar to what they do, I'm taking a bit of a different tack here. I enjoy the website. I endorse it wholeheartedly. I even check it a few times a year to see if a movie I'm interested in is any good. But because of who they are and what they try to do, they're a bit limited in their resources on some things. Their focus is on new films, particularly anything that's currently in theaters. This means that they review pretty much everything, even if they walk in knowing it's not going to be any good. Because they focus on the new, there are a lot of old movies that are great family films that they will probably never get to. Since I plan on reviewing stuff that I already know is worth watching (or at least family-friendly), I'm not limited to only the new. In fact, I plan on spending most of my time on older films and shows. So, just think of me as a parallel to Plugged In. We're both running in the same direction (reviewing movies for family friendliness and artistic value), we're just taking two different paths to get there.

Unlike most parental movie review sites, I'm not going to be counting all the instances of violence or bad words. I'm more interested in looking at the film (or show, or whatever) as a whole, particularly when it comes to the message it conveys.

Finally, you're free to disagree with anything I write. This is a free country after all. These reviews are strictly my opinions, and other people will have a different viewpoint. This opens things up for discussion, which is ultimately my goal with this blog: discussion. Still, even if no one ever reads this thing but me, at least I'll have the satisfaction of knowing I got my thoughts in print. It's better than nothing. :)