Monthly Archives: March 2008

March 28, 2008

Disney Canon #5: Bambi (1942)

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ADAM A greater contrast with the preceding movie could not possibly be imagined.

BROOM You say that because you found this boring?

ADAM It’s not just that. The politics of Dumbo are very subversive, whereas Bambi is just a paean to conformity. It’s all about doing the socially accepted mating thing; the animals are all exactly like one another despite their superficial species differences.

BROOM Is this the “queer theory” reading?

ADAM It’s not even that; it’s just what stood out to me while watching it. I thought, “God, this is so” – not even “hetero-normative” – just “normative.”

BROOM Well yes, exactly. It’s about discovering the cycles of life.

ADAM But Dumbo was about finding your inner weirdo and reveling in it, and that had much more joyous humor and excitement in it, to me.

BROOM Bambi took a cosmic perspective, presenting the “Circle of Life,” as they would call it 50 years later in The Lion King. Inevitably that’s going to be a different worldview from Dumbo. I don’t think it’s fair to say that one is more progressive than the other. So, given the subject matter of Bambi, do you feel they should have presented it in a more progressive way?

BETH At least a more entertaining way. It was really dull. Didn’t you think so?

BROOM I sensed that you guys were bored.

BETH It was really boring! You liked it?

BROOM I had mixed feelings.

BETH I thought some of the animation was beautiful, like the fight in rainbow colors. All the stylized stuff was nice. Even the snow.

ADAM I had seen two of the scenes, I realized, on the Disney Channel when we would get it for free for three days. One was when Bambi and Thumper skate on the ice; the other was when Flower, Thumper, and finally Bambi are each gobsmacked by the wiles of the feminine.

BROOM All of the cutesy stuff was very familiar to me, and the rest of it I think I had seen only once. I must have had an expurgated version on tape.

ADAM The sole dramatic event that I was already aware of was his mother’s death, and yet nothing really happened.

BETH Yeah, it was all off-screen.

ADAM Nobody mourned her or mentioned her ever again.

BROOM Well, years passed.

ADAM Three months passed!

BROOM However long it was, everyone grew up.

BETH But they made it seem like everyone had been out of touch.

BROOM That was just so they could reintroduce their adult selves.

ADAM I thought it was that in the winter they had been out of touch, and in the spring they all had antlers. But on that same point: The first forty minutes are all about motherhood and babies and babies and mommies, and then all the mommies vanish. Mommies don’t play any role whatsoever as soon as you have antlers. If I were a woman I would be creeped out by the gender politics.

BROOM I understand what you’re saying about the movie’s politics, about it being “normative,” and I was bothered by some of those things too, but I was trying to see it first for what it intended to be. Did you find its intentions baffling, or dated, or misconceived?

BETH Poorly executed. I just didn’t think it was engaging. I thought the idea behind it was nice, but I don’t know if there’s a way to do it that could keep you interested in the characters, because the characters aren’t the point.

ADAM I was interested in Thumper as a character.

BETH Thumper was the only character with a personality. And the owl.

ADAM I thought the owl was going to get a girlfriend.

BROOM He was gay, Adam.

ADAM In retrospect I understand that. But I thought it was going to be like Beatrice and Benedick for him. But no. All the characters were cardboard. I think my ideological complaint and Beth’s entertainment complaint are related, because the one-dimensional, mechanistic view of human life portrayed here is what makes it uninteresting.

BROOM Well, let’s be careful about using the word “human,” here. I looked up the original book the other day and it seems to have been an early ecological awareness sort of book, purporting to show what life is “really like” in the wild, where humans are the bad guys.

BETH The movie was obviously anti-hunting.

BROOM As for it being boring and having no characters – I was reminded of what it was like to watch movies as a child, because when I was a child, those scenes that now seemed too long were perfectly satisfying. I remembered what it was like to watch the sequence where they were on ice, and it worked for me exactly as they planned it: first they try one thing, then another, then he has to unhook his legs, then he finally manages to get going, and then they slam into the snowbank! That felt like a perfect little skit to me as a kid. That was enough event; each of those moments mattered. A lot of the construction of the movie is like that, based on choreography rather than plot events.

ADAM I don’t think it’s unfair to contrast this with Dumbo. Dumbo was wickedly funny, it had a fine eye for social observation, it had actual catchy songs – the music in this was appalling. This just seemed like a shoddier effort.

BROOM The songs in Bambi were poor; the music in general did its job. The chorus stuff hasn’t aged well, I’ll grant you, just like the chorus at the end of Fantasia hasn’t aged well.

ADAM The movie is like Mickey Mouse to Dumbo‘s Donald Duck.

BROOM Yes, it obviously is that. The question is whether that is in itself invalid, or just not as much to your taste.

ADAM Well, it certainly is not as much to my taste, but I also get irritated at its universalist stance. And maybe I do get upset because it’s kind of hetero-normative, but it’s hard not to see it that way. And it’s kind of fucked-up, psychologically. I mean, what a recipe for creating smothering mothers and absent fathers! Why can’t Bambi stand next to his wife when the babies are born?

BROOM That is upsetting. During the movie I was thinking that it was a perfect movie for kids because it’s so basic, but there were things like that in it that I wouldn’t want kids to internalize and grow up with. What I did admire about it, this time, was the way it portrays sex as a cute, sympathetic part of the scheme of life, while still being overtly sexual. That seems like a good thing for kids to see.

ADAM I’ll give it that. This was not babies and storks. Thumper was really thumping hard there.

BROOM I thought that wouldn’t be a bad way for my kids to have an impression of sex. But the image of the father standing on the cliffside is no good; neither is the way that the mother just disappears. I feel like both of those were ways that the movie said, “This is the wild world of animals,” like a nature documentary. “This young deer will never see his mother again.” I think they were going for “primal wildness,” meant to be intriguing because we recognize ourselves in it but only partially. “The nobility of the stag,” and all that. But it rode an uncomfortable line between complete anthropomorphism and nature documentary.

ADAM Regarding the normative aspects of it that bothered me: I was irritated, at the very beginning, by the overt monarchism of it. He has to be a prince, and everyone has to come pay obeisance to him and simper, “good morning, sweet prince!”

BROOM They weren’t paying obeisance to him at all; it was just a scene of what it’s like to go look at a new baby. There was nothing royal about it; they just happened to be calling him “prince.”

ADAM Well, nobody went to see the baby possum being born. To me it almost felt a little bit like Song of the South.

BROOM What’s like that in Song of the South?

ADAM The white children being fawned over by the black “uncle.” Now, this wasn’t racialized – I’m not saying that – but, you know… hierarchy portrayed as a benevolent thing creeps me out.

BROOM I take issue with the way that you seem to have been offended by the mere shapes of things that would be offensive if they had specific values attached to them. Are you saying that life should never be portrayed in a “normative” light? “Normative” is such a strange word. The movie wanted to say, “A child comes into the world and learns about the way things are; here, this is the way things are.” Are you saying it’s never fair to say that? Or just that this movie got some of the details wrong?

ADAM Of all the “life in its grandeur!” content in the movie, I was most sympathetic to the portrayal of the way a baby comes to perceive things in the world. I was sympathetic to him learning to walk, discovering objects around him, learning about reflections. That all seemed genuinely universal, as opposed to constricting social mores thinly veiled as universalism.

BROOM You have to acknowledge that “thinly veiled” is just your analysis of it now. All that stuff is in this movie because at some point, to some people, all these things seemed to be on an equal plane. You can argue that learning to walk isn’t on an equal plane with, say, having sex with a woman…

ADAM Deferring to your elders. Leaving your friends to go off with your wife.

BROOM Well, that’s something that happens, and the dudes in an office in L.A. thought, “we should put that in!”

BETH You don’t think there were any gay animators?

BROOM I’m sure there were gay animators!

ADAM And Flower was so promising… Look, I’m not calling for a gay manifesto in Bambi. I just feel that Dumbo shows that something different is possible, and I was much more sympathetic to that than I am to this. I found this depressing in the way that I would often find it depressing to watch an episode of The Jetsons right after I had watched an episode of The Flintstones – depressed at the idea that despite the fact that everything is different in all of its superficial particulars, in reality we’re programmed to the hilt. George Jetson and Fred Flintstone have the exact same life, regardless of the fact that thousands of years have passed. That always creeped me out a little bit – or maybe I’m projecting backwards, but certainly it creeps me out now. You can wear stone age clothes or space age clothes, but you are the same zhlubby office drone with a boy and a girl, and a maid or a dinosaur.

BROOM So what I’m hearing is that you personally need to be reassured that individualism will hold the day in giving shape to your life.

ADAM I don’t know that I need to be reassured, but I find a story that’s all about “try as you might, you can’t escape our tropes” to be dismaying.

BROOM But that’s not at all what the message of the movie was! The message of the movie was: “We all experience life, from birth to death. It has common aspects in it. Life is cyclical, and there’s something beautiful and poignant about that. Here in the world of animals it’s abstracted, and we can see life in its primal beauty.” Do you think that’s an illegitimate motivation for a work of art?

ADAM No.

BROOM Is it a perspective that you would never like, or was it the particular execution of Bambi that made it impossible for you to enjoy it?

ADAM No, it’s the execution of Bambi. If you think forward to The Lion King, that’s a more deftly handled version of the same thing.

BROOM I’ve only seen it once, but as I recollect, I thought that The Lion King invoked the “circle of life” thing undeservedly. They sing a song about the circle of life at the beginning and then again at the end, but most of the movie is about, like, the machinations of Jeremy Irons. It isn’t about the life cycle. Bambi was really about the life cycle.

BETH It definitely was.

BROOM It wasn’t about individuals.

BETH No.

BROOM It was about the life cycle.

ADAM Do you concede why that might be boring to watch?

BETH You seem to be defending it, and I’m a little surprised.

BROOM Because you found it that boring?

BETH Yes.

BROOM I am defending it. I didn’t think it was successful on every count. I had mixed feelings, but I wasn’t struggling against the kind of gut distaste that you guys seem to have had. I saw what it was trying to be: primal beauty – and adorable – and a couple of other things. They didn’t quite fit together, but I understood and could sympathize with what each moment was supposed to be. My problem was proportion. This is the first truly “cute” Disney movie, the first one with really big eyes, and now we make fun of that sort of thing immediately, but during the first “cute” scene with the baby prince, I thought that the cuteness was actually being done conscientiously. It didn’t feel like it was going for cuteness in a cheap Hallmark card way, as a ploy. They were trying to be genuinely adorable. But then there were three scenes in a row that were trying to be adorable, and that was too much, too one-note. I just kept feeling that the proportions weren’t right.

BETH Early on, when they introduced the rabbits, I thought that they had found a way to make very cute rabbits not be cute. Rabbits are inherently cute, but these rabbits were cloying and annoying; I didn’t like watching Thumper. That turned me off. I’m fine with the animals saying hello to the prince; they just weren’t appealing enough. Things like that weren’t working for me and eventually I decided that it was all misguided. I think they had good intentions, and it seemed like the animators got excited every time they had to do something dark; I thought the forest fire and the fight were really excellent and interesting. Finally! That all came in the last fifteen minutes of the movie.

BROOM I thought the fight looked beautiful but was actually boring. The shots kept coming and I was thinking, “none of these shots signifies anything different from the previous one.”

ADAM I will concede that the baby animals were legitimately cute. I was moved by the lines of quail.

BETH I also thought the quail were the cutest.

ADAM When we call something “Disneyfied” now, we mean saccharine and over-cute, and this is where that starts. To the extent that it inaugurated a thing in culture, it was well done. It became the basis for a lasting trope.

BROOM I like that you’re granting it respect for being the place where something annoying started.

ADAM Well, yes, something that becomes iconic, even if later copies are irritating, deserves credit.

BROOM I wanted to give it credit for being that kind of cuteness but not yet being some kind of quick and easy formula like “just slap some big eyes on it!” It seemed like they had to think about what they were doing.

ADAM They essentially invented filmic neoteny here. The whole science of making things exaggeratedly babylike had not yet been invented at that point, I don’t think.

BROOM I want to say that I thought the atmosphere was strong in several places. I thought the first time they go out into the meadow was very nicely done. And the lushness of the forest. Even the rain sequence, which was longer than I needed – maybe not more than a kid needs, but more than I needed – it was sort of like being in the rain. And after his mother dies and he goes out in the snow looking for her, and his father is there with heavy snow in front of him, I thought that had a nice feel to it. I’m not just granting the art department its due; I thought it actually felt right. And as with Fantasia, I want to give the whole movie credit for being a bold and risky thing to do.

BETH It wasn’t a story.

BROOM That’s right, it was an art picture. It just happened to be kitsch art.

ADAM I thought “Bambi” was a curious name for the ├╝ber-butch king/savior of the forest.

BROOM It comes from a German book. Was the name “Bambi” not as effeminate in Germany? Now it’s like the name for a porn star.

ADAM A lady porn star.

BROOM Yes.

[After reading the original New York Times review (link in the image below as usual!), which criticized the self-defeating effort toward greater naturalism:]

BETH It does bother me to see a perfectly drawn forest, with depth, and then see flat cartoon characters jumping through it. That’s why I liked the snow scene, because the snow was covering the flatness of the animals, so it all looked cohesive.

ADAM I did think it was striking when they moved from the long pan at the beginning, with careful blurring as things come in and out of focus, and then suddenly the camera turns sideways and the blurring stops.

BETH It looks like Colorforms pasted in to a world.

BROOM I disagree with the reviewer almost entirely. I admired throughout that they were moving like real deer.

BETH Me too; I like when they get close to reality.

BROOM The value of animation is not necessarily to be a complete fantasy, but just to be denser with fantasy, with aesthetic affect, than real photography can be. Everything is “colored” to the highest pitch; it can still benefit from looking like the real thing.

ADAM Like the beautiful rotoscoped fairy in Pinocchio.

BROOM Well, that didn’t work as well, did it? This looked much better. Everything here in Bambi seemed truly expert. The thing I love in Fantasia with the leaves falling, they did that ten times here, and beautifully.

BETH Did you notice all the extreme close-ups that they suddenly discovered they liked? Like the owl.

BROOM Or when the sexy bunny came right up to the camera. The only one of those we’d seen before was in Pinocchio when the coachman said “they never come back…AS BOYS!”

ADAM It was a little weird that the dogs were the only animals that didn’t get to have personalities.

BETH They were part of the human world.

ADAM Well, I felt badly for them.

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March 10, 2008

Disney Canon #4: Dumbo (1941)

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ADAM That was awesome. I love that movie so much. It’s the best one.

BETH Why?

ADAM Why? Because the whole movie I was quivering with indignation at how mean they were to him; it hurts my feelings. And all of the stock characters are highly appealing and individuated, and the songs are all great. I can sing every song, I think.

BROOM The musical score was miles above the previous ones; I think this was the first one that was done by Oliver Wallace. The movie is notably different from the previous three in that it’s really dialogue-based and contemporary.

ADAM Except that the hero doesn’t say anything.

BETH And neither does his mother.

ADAM She says the words “Jumbo Junior.”

BROOM I know, but the script actually gives weight to the dialogue; they talk out the plot. Timothy Mouse talks freely and there are a lot of verbal jokes.

ADAM Or just a lot of jokes – I mean the other ones aren’t funny, particularly. You can see hints of it in Jiminy Cricket, who is kind of like Timothy Mouse, as I said when we watched Pinocchio. But there’s a lot more adult, jokey humor in this. The gossipy bitch elephants are hilariously funny to me, in a way that I did not perceive when I was a kid.

BROOM In a verbal, scripted way. It allows itself to be funny in a way that the filmmakers thought was funny, whereas Pinocchio, though it did a little of that, felt very calculated and controlled. Here it felt like they did what they would be amused by.

BETH It felt contemporary. I guess working with original material helped it.

BROOM Remember, it’s based on a kid’s book; no one can find it now, but they did buy a property.

BETH Oh, I didn’t know.

ADAM It’s also very warm. The other stories seem stagier than this.

BETH That’s what I was trying to say. It felt less staged.

ADAM I almost cried during “Baby Mine.”

BETH I think BROOM always cries.

BROOM I didn’t this time because Adam was talking.

BETH I think that was calculated to prevent everyone from crying.

BROOM As for the others being more calculated and stagy, I thought this was a huge step ahead of Pinocchio. Fantasia is a weird one because it doesn’t work by the same rules, so you can’t quite tell where they were in their storytelling sophistication – but in this one, for the first time, you aren’t inclined to watch for the craft. They’ve really mastered it and you just watch the story. The sequences play so smoothly. The better musical scoring was a part of it – the underscoring works perfectly and draws you into it. I felt like they had gotten to a level of craft where now they could make any Disney movie.

ADAM There’s not really any showpiece animation in the movie except for “Pink Elephants.” But that’s amazing.

BROOM And creepy. What I never liked about that as a kid is – and I know they’re sort of bubbles and sort of elephants – but that they burst, that they keep being blown up. Or their flesh is torn – those elephants that are sewn together into a curtain and then ripped apart. Or one elephant throws a bolt of electricity at the other one and explodes it. Or they go around the screen and their heads twist together like balloons until they pop.

ADAM I don’t like the one where they turn plaid and then tug at each other.

BROOM It’s also disturbing to me when they turn into cars and a flag comes in and it’s made of an elephant’s trunk. I guess you’re supposed to imagine that an elephant is lowering it down but it seems to me more like it’s a flag somehow made out of elephant matter. That’s upsetting.

ADAM Much of this movie is upsetting. It’s terrible when she goes to the madhouse.

BETH I really did not like this when I was a child, and I think that’s why. Even though the Times review said it was a happy movie, and Disney himself said it was a happy movie, it did not seem happy. And the ending still seems a little bit abrupt. Suddenly he flies! It’s great! The end! There’s no real reunion with his mother.

BROOM They’re saving it for the very last second.

ADAM And all that happens to the lady elephants is they get hit with peanuts.

BETH Yes, and then they love him.

BROOM They love him because he saves the circus. They have a fancier train at the end.

BETH And he’s redeemed them as elephants; they don’t have to be ashamed of him.

ADAM Everyone is concerned with their own dignity: the elephants, the clowns…

BROOM The crows seemed pretty relaxed.

ADAM Well, I leave you to analyze that. Actually, I saw a gay subtext in this movie for the first time.

BROOM Well done!

ADAM Dumbo is excluded by all the grownups and then only discovers his true nature after a drunken evening when no one can remember what happened.

BETH I wondered if that was why you liked it so much. When I was watching it just now, I thought, “Maybe Adam is Dumbo.”

ADAM I don’t think I ever thought about it like that. I just think it’s touching and thrilling and sad.

BROOM When I was a kid I was bothered by things like, “They haven’t rehearsed this and they expect him to do it?” And “why can we see through one guy’s clothes but not the other guy’s?” And what are the clowns? I know it’s sort of a joke that when they take off their suits they’re still clowns, but that’s upsetting.

ADAM I find the scene when they’re erecting the circus in the rain horrible.

BETH I liked it this time, but I thought, “why did it have to be in the rain?”

ADAM And why did the elephants have to do all that work?

BROOM I thought that redeemed it from the uncomfortable lyrics. I know that the crows are obvious racial caricatures, but I find it more upsetting that while you watch the roustabouts laboring, they’re described in the song as being happy-hearted – and then they sing “when we get our pay, we throw our pay away!”

BETH The humans weren’t actually humans, they were just sort of figures.

BROOM Well, they were dark figures.

ADAM The only real humans, apart from the ringmaster, are those boys, and they seemed to be reused from Pinocchio. And the hippos seemed to be reused from Fantasia. I wonder if those are shout-outs.

BROOM They weren’t direct “reuses.” The hippos did look the same, though without the eyelashes. The wicked boys weren’t quite the same but they were certainly cut from the same cloth.

ADAM I think that the shortness of it totally works; it feels packed with incident. The ending is a little abrupt – I thought it was longer. I was wondering where I had gotten the image in my head of Dumbo as a bomber, but it’s from the ending.

BROOM Dumbombers, from Time magazine, or whichever that is. Time magazine is where you see Timothy J. Mouse signing his contract. [ed. actually “The National Weekly”]

ADAM That’s the only time you learn his name, I believe.

BROOM And I don’t know when you learn Jim Crow’s name.

ADAM I don’t think you do.

BROOM When I was a kid, I didn’t understand why the song was “Look Out for Mister Stork.” All the animals in the movie are happy when Mister Stork shows up, but the song is saying “You’d better watch out, or Mister Stork will come!” He’s a good guy – why would you “look out” for him? And I asked my parents, and they gave me some unsatisfying answer. This time through I also noted that all they elephants are female, which, regardless of whether that’s true in the circus, is a necessity for the story. If there were any male elephants in the movie, we’d enter into the question of who his father is.

ADAM Also, it would be harder to orphan him. All the other animals have fathers.

BROOM It would screw up the purity of the stork delivery.

ADAM I can still clearly picture the personalities of the five elephants. There’s the vicious one, and the Florence Nightingale one, and the ditzy one…

BROOM I also think the personalities of the five crows are good too, although we’re not supposed to like them now. But I thought they were nicely differentiated.

BETH I don’t know… how racist was it really?

BROOM As racism goes, I feel like it’s pretty mild. They didn’t have to touch this movie up – we saw it in its entirety; they didn’t change any dialogue as far as I know.

BETH And why is it wrong to take personalities that existed in the culture and transplant them to a cartoon?

ADAM When I was a kid I did not understand that the crows were black.

BROOM I think I understood in a general way. I didn’t think of them as being like people with black skin, but I knew that they were the same general thing that other cartoon black characters were. Aren’t there black vultures in the Jungle Book?

ADAM What is Timothy J. Mouse?

BROOM He’s Walt Disney, he’s from Kansas.

ADAM He’s not a huckster like Jiminy Cricket, but he’s a little puffed up, full of bravado, starstruck little guy.

BROOM I still take issue with the idea that Jiminy Cricket is a huckster. When Timothy says “Lots of people with big ears are famous,” is he talking about Walt Disney, or Clark Gable, or who?

BETH I don’t know.

BROOM I would be happy to set kids down in front of this now.

ADAM Absolutely.

BETH I don’t have any reservations but I remember not liking it, so I would not expect them to like it. Maybe boys like it more; maybe boys can handle the material better. I was so upset by it that I did not want to keep watching it.

ADAM But what early Disney movies could you watch? They all have horrible things in them.

BETH So far, Snow White is the least upsetting to my child self. I mean, Fantasia doesn’t really have anything.

BROOM It does have one outright horror sequence.

BETH Which seems removed from reality. I wasn’t relating to any characters.

ADAM What do you think was the most successful song in Dumbo?

BROOM “Baby Mine” is considered the most successful. The catchiest is “Casey Junior.”

ADAM That’s what I was going to say.

BETH It is. They knew it, too. They kept bringing it back.

BROOM Though I find myself humming “When I See an Elephant Fly.”

ADAM I do too. I’ve often wished I could remember more of the puns; now I know more of them.

BROOM “Look Out For Mister Stork” delights me every time I see it, but I can never remember the real melody.

BETH The production of that is that beautiful forties sound.

ADAM “Look Out For Mister Stork” for me blends in with “Pink Elephants on Parade.”

BROOM Oh, I’m sorry, “Pink Elephants on Parade” is the best song. And the entire dance break is emblazoned in my brain. It’s so beautifully orchestrated. And there’s incidental music in the score that’s fantastic too – like when she’s washing him, there’s a lovely little waltz.

BETH All around, thumbs up.

ADAM I think this is an early peak which it will be hard to match.

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