Thursday, May 17, 2007

Wally VS UPA 3 - Walt Craves Respect

Does this look like a wacky cartoonist?

Walt’s Bid For Respect

In the 30s, Walt Disney caught the respect bug. He wanted to be up there with the bigshot Hollywood celebrities, not down here with the lowly cartoonists.

That's why Walt Disney kept trying to imitate live action and why he continually toned down the cartoony impossible stuff. The real magic. By the way, I didn't make this up. Lots of people thought that even at the time.

Realistic water is more respectable than cartoon water.
(wouldn't it inevitably follow that a camera is more respectable than a pencil?)

He made Fantasia to try to get high brow critical respect. (Or maybe to convince his low brow audience that he was above them?) He figured if he did classical music in cartoons, real critics would consider him high class and hoity toity.

It backfired. He couldn't stop himself from inserting naked babies’ butts, cutesy pie fish with sexpot girl eyes and hippos in tutus into the classics.

This outraged serious music critics, which is OK with me. But it also bored the general audience who wanted cartoons to be funny - and that's the real shame.

Fantasia's Reviews

Alas, Walt's method of gaining artistic respect didn't really work.

Now, I have to say that I like a lot of stuff in Walt Disney pictures.

I even like Fantasia, despite the extreme kitschiness. I mean I'm as kitschy as can be. I love pop culture and entertainment. I'm a cartoonist with no pretensions of trying to be a serious artist.

But I admit it and am proud of my cheesiness.

The thing that really helps Fantasia - for me - is the great music. I love Stokowski's highly caricatured emotions. I love his rendition of the Nutcracker Suite. Combine that with the Disney artists' design and color styling and I'm completely swept away.

If I actually stop and think about what the ideas are behind the art, it's pretty damn embarrasing...

Mushrooms with Chinese faces, little naked imps that change the seasons, fish with human girl eyes, Russian Cossacks made of weeds...I mean now, that's just brutally DUMB, isn't it - content-wise?

Funny cartoons can be dumb too, but they're not trying to have you take them seriously. Dumb is funny, it's not high-class. It's hard to take low brow stuff seriously.


Can you imagine anyone could possibly take this seriously and call it art? I just like all the techniques and the way everything moves to the fantastic music. It's superficially pretty.

But it's neither a cartoon nor art...and that's the best part of Fantasia.

The rest of the movie is even more kitschy and less appealing at least to me. Like I said I like kitsch- but there are two kinds of low brow taste: Fun, unpretentious kitsch and then there's gay kitsch- the kind of stuff you might see in a man-couple's love nest.
Much of Disney to me is gay kitsch, surely not very highbrow. What a strange style and what fruity content to force straight grown men to animate! I'll never figure it out. It's weird enough that one single cartoonist would want to animate babies' butts turning into hearts and that kind of stuff, but what's unfathomable is how many others copied him!

Whole studios abandoned what they were good at to blindly follow the gay kitsch cartoon parade - just because Walt was doing it!

That's the ungodly power of trend-thinking, which is not thinking for yourself, but rather following what everyone else is doing unquestioningly. (Look at how many animated features today are all the same formula! And still gay-kitsch!)

By contrast, Ub Iwerks' cartoons of the 30s, though influenced by Disney are more imaginative, fun, earthy and cartoony:

Other resources...
... In the Bach Toccata and Fugue portion, for example, Disney artists were encouraged to experiment visually and boldly, in ways never before imagined. This sequence, early in the film, signals its experimentalism, departing from the usual Disney style and moving in abstract directions, imitating the techniques of Oscar Fischinger, who was originally to direct that sequence but left the project before completing it, after discovering the studio had altered his original designs. Other experiments are elsewhere in evidence, as when the sound track is visualized through animation midway through the film, recalling the abstract experiments of Len Lye and anticipating those of Norman McLaren. More conventional Disney whimsy is elsewhere in evidence, however, and there is perhaps the danger of vulgarizing the music through the imposed visual patterns. In fact, the sequences are diverse and uneven.

The film has been criticized for its "ponderous didacticism" (the visualization of the "paleontological cataclysm" in the Stravinsky Rite of Spring sequence, for example, and the simplistic contrasts of the final sequences—Moussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain against Schubert's Ave Maria, with Good triumphing over Evil in a finale of Christian tranquility) and praised for those sequences in which Disney contented himself with being Disney and avoided self-conscious attempts at being "artistic."


For the first time, moreover, Disney became his own distributor with Fantasia, since, as Variety reported, the film was so different as to require a different sales approach. It premiered on 13 November 1940, at the Broadway Theatre in New York, and was not an immediate success. Its original running time, with an intermission, was about 130 minutes, later cut to 81 minutes. It was reissued in 1946, but it would only build its audience strength over time. By 1968, for example, it had earned $4.8 million in North American markets, more than doubling its original investment, and finally taking its place among the top 200 grossing films.

In musical terminology, a fantasia is "a free development of a given theme." Disney's achievement, though often impressive and no doubt ahead of its time, has nonetheless had its detractors. Stravinsky was not pleased that his music had been restructured and that the instrumentation had been changed. "I will say nothing about the visual complement," Stravinsky remarked, "as I do not wish to criticize an unresisting imbecility . . . "The film succeeds best when it is at its most playful—the hippopotamus ballerinas in the "Dance of the Hours" sequence, for example, which Richard Schickel has described as "a broad satirical comment on the absurdities of high culture." The visuals for Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony strain contrivedly for a mythic charm in an Arcadian setting populated by fabulous creatures. Far more interesting are the animated dances from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, and the whimsical treatment of Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" or Mickey's struggle with the dancing brooms in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the conceptual core of the picture. John Tibbetts has written that the results of Mickey's "union with high art were questionable for some, just as Walt's collision with the likes of Stravinsky, Beethoven, and Moussorgsky raised (or lowered) many a brow."

Disney's undertaking Fantasia brings to mind an artisan who has only a superficial knowledge of religion undertaking to sculpt a monumental pieta out of sand as the tide moves in, threatening to erode it. Some passers-by will no doubt pause to watch out of curiosity, but the spectacle will not for most of them constitute a conversion. If anything, Fantasia does not teach a musical lesson, but it often fascinates and delights the eye.

Reviewing Fantasia in 1940, Otis Ferguson called it "a film for everybody to see and enjoy," despite its "main weakness—an absence of story, of motion, of interest." Bosley Crowther was less harsh, remarking that the images often tended to overwhelm the music, but praising the film for its "imaginative excursion" and concluding that it was a milestone in motion picture history. Despite its sometimes elaborate pretensions and its many innovations, the boldness of its concept quite overrides the "disturbing jumble" of its achievement. It is, indeed, a "milestone" in the history of animated film.

—James Michael Welsh


This post isn't really about Walt Disney. I'm just using him as an example of cartoonists abandoning their roots in search of something higher.

I don't even blame him for doing it. Maybe he sincerely loves his fruity content. That's just fine. If I had to be mad at someone, it would be at the cartoonists who actually liked funny stuff who followed what Walt did just because Walt did it. I wish more artists would follow their natural instincts and be more personally observant, rather than blindly doing what someone else is doing.

Every time a new trend comes along it sweeps away the good things that existed before, rather than absorbing some of the new things and combining them with the best traditions.

OK, just to go off on a tangent, I will tell you that I have seen every Disney feature at least 20 times, studied them all on many levels. I have almost all the short cartoons in my collection. I have watched the shorts in order year by year while watching the films of the other studios during the same years to compare them.

Walt was definitely good at some stuff, a genius at some. He just didn't seem to like cartoons.


Walt probably invented the whole concept of marketing. He marketed his characters, marketed himself and made everyone think his stuff was better than everyone else's. Everything he did came in a shiny package and promised that it would be the greatest thing ever-his cartoons, his TV Show, Disneyland, they all promised magic. Sometimes they would deliver a bit, but his marketing and packaging was his true creative genius. I don't think anyone was ever better.


His space series from the Disneyland Show in the 50s convinced regular folks that we could actually go to the moon, and explore Mars and beyond. Before these shows appeared, space travel was strictly science fiction. I think his marketing of space travel did more than anything to get us to the moon.

To me, that's his greatest achievement.


He had one creative storytelling ability that beat everyone else. The dramatic scenes in his movies- the ones he didn't water down with comedy relief really do approach and sometimes surpass the drama even in the best live action pictures.

The witch in Snow White.

Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty. (although they lessened the dramatic effect whenever they surrounded her with the wacky Ward Kimball style demons.)


He built an amazing studio and production system specifically geared to his own very finite tastes. Everyone in the studio was a specific tool to put on film what he couldn't himself.

The system had a lot of waste built in and was extremely expensive, but that's inevitable if you yourself can't put your specific ideas down on paper.

All the animation movie execs copy this system today but have exaggerated all the excesses, having less vision than Walt.


He was able to convince millions of people of anything he felt like convincing them of. Even of things that the evidence did not at all support. That an animator is an actor with a pencil. That his characters had rich personalities. That animation is magic, even conservative animation. That no other studio did anything good.

This is such an interesting topic that I'm going to devote some posts to it: The difference between taking someone's word for something and using your own physical senses to observe and analyze to see if you come to the same conclusion that someone else's words did.

Most people believe words more than physical evidence. Especially words in books. That's why I post so much art and clips to let you decide for yourself what you think and like. My words just offer you another view than the traditional "non-artists writing about art" one.


Obviously, his best films have amazing camera moves, fantastic background layouts and paintings. The scene planning and music is intricate. All that flash and intricacy does a lot to convince you that everything about the films is equally as good.


The animation Disney's artists do of deer, horses and dogs walking and running is amazing and otherwordly. Is it entertaining? I don't know, but it's impressive that anyone can animate difficult complex problems like that.

Is it a bit weird that they plop cartoon heads on top of realistic anatomically correct hindquarters?
It's kind of on the furry side of life, isn't it?



This post isn't about whether Walt's Cartoons are good or bad, it's just pointing out the sad need for respect that makes cartoonists ashamed of what their real abilities are.