The History of Disney: Part 0 – Introductions and Beginnings

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Hello everyone!

Today, I am going to start a new series on this blog. If you’ve read some of my previous work on this blog, you know that a few of my interests include history, moviemaking, and Disney. If you haven’t picked up on that yet, might I suggest some light reading for you: On Plot Holes & Talking about Writing, where I discuss the writing of Beauty & the Beast (2016) and the online reaction to it, and On Historical Revisionism & Wonder Woman, where I talk about how Wonder Woman (2017) plays up historical fallacies surrounding World War I.

In this series, I want to take a look back at Disney’s history and give a quasi-academic overview of the various trends and historical perspectives that influenced these movies that a lot of us grew up with. Is this just an attempt by me to justify doing a Disney marathon when I have other work to do? Yes, but doing work that I choose for myself is more fulfilling. Also, has anyone used “Quasi-Academia” for a blog title yet? I might be rebranding.

To keep this series from turning into a stream of movie reviews for movies from the 1940s, I’m going to be looking at broad trends in the various eras in Disney history. Disney history can be broadly divided into seven eras (at least how I’m defining them): the Golden Age (1937 – 1942), Wartime Era (1942 – 1949), Silver Age (1950 – 1967), Dark Age (1968 – 1988/1989), Renaissance (1989 – 1999), Post-Renaissance/Second Dark Age (1999 – 2008/2009), and the Second Renaissance/Revival Era (2009/2010 – present day). If you notice the lack of concrete dating on some of these eras, that’s because there’s some wiggle room when it comes to which movie belongs in which era. For each of these seven eras, I will be watching the animated movies they contain and discussing the broad themes, artistic trends, and historical context that can be found in them.

One era I want to discuss now, though, as a preview of what’s to come and to provide some context for my first part is the beginning of Disney animation before Snow White. The rest of this post will be dedicated to that era: Disney’s Beginnings (1919 – 1937).

It all begins, as things often do, with Walt Disney. Disney was born in 1901 in Chicago, Illinois. He spent his early years in Missouri, where he developed a love for drawing. In 1919, after a brief stint in the Red Cross, he got a job as an artist at the Pesmen-Rubin Commerical Art Studio in Chicago, where he worked as a commercial artist and met Ub Iwerks.

Disney and Iwerks tried a number of different projects together before making it big. Laugh-O-Grams, short cartoons based on fairytales, led to the creation of their first studio, which folded in 1923. That was the same year Disney moved to Los Angeles to be with brother Roy and got his big break when film distributor Margaret Winkler commissioned six shorts based on Disney’s earlier adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Disney convinced Iwerks to move out to L.A. in 1924, and the two began work in the newly created Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio.

In 1926, Winkler’s husband Charles Mintz took over her role as the distributor of the Alice comedies. When Mintz needed a new series to distribute through Universal Pictures, Disney and Iwerks came up with a fun, lovable mascot by the name of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. In 1928, contract negotiations with Mintz, who had never seen eye-to-eye with Disney, fell through. Many of the artists Disney had convinced to work with him left to work with Mintz, and it was revealed that Mintz, not Disney, held the rights to use Oswald. If Disney wanted to continue to work, he’d need to find a new mascot. He and Iwerks finally settled on a design based on the pet that ink artist and Disney’s wife, Lillian, had adopted while working on the old Laugh-O-Grams. I shouldn’t have to explain who this mascot is.

Throughout the 1930s, Disney produced a tremendous amount of short cartoons, both with Mickey and without. This is the main reason I’m discussing them here instead of in their own separate post: there are just too many. Like most things in the early days of film, a lot of work was produced, and not a whole lot was saved. Disney eventually creating the corporation to end all corporation means we have most of his shorts, but there are still some that are hard to find or simply lost to time.

Still, Disney’s success has to be attributed to the quality of his work, not just the volume of it. He was always eager to embrace new technology if it would help him tell stories in new ways, whether it be sound with Steamboat Willie (1928) or the use of three-strip Technicolor in Flowers and Trees (1932). Disney won 2 Academy Awards for Best Short Cartoon in this era for Flowers and Trees and The Three Little Pigs (1934), as well as an Honorary Award in 1932 for creating Mickey Mouse.

After 1934, Disney began to look towards his most ambitious project to date: a full, feature-length animated picture. In hindsight, it’s easy to see Disney artists beginning to experiment with techniques to achieve this impossible task, particularly in The Goddess of Spring (1934), where they started to work out how to animate humans realistically, and The Old Mill (1937) which first used the multiplane camera.

“Disney’s Folly,” as this movie was called, went three times over budget. Everyone believed it could only lead to Disney’s bankruptcy. Instead, it led to an empire. In the next part of this series, we will examine the story of one of the most important films in movie history as we discuss The Golden Age. Until then, thanks for reading.

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On Historical Revisionism & Wonder Woman

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In the United States, we have a lot of similar sounding holidays celebrating the men and women who serve and have served in our military.  Heck, it was in doing research for this piece that I realized Armed Forces Day is even a thing.  Today, however, is Veteran’s Day, a day we Americans celebrate all those who have given their time to keep us safe and promote our interests abroad.

Throughout the Commonwealth of Nations and many others, today is instead Armistice Day or Remembrance Day.  It has a function similar to the American Memorial Day: a day to commemorate those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.  This day was chosen to celebrate the ending of World War I on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, 99 years ago today.  It is from this connection that I want to discuss one of the biggest hit films of this year, Wonder Woman, and its ties to the broader narrative we have surrounding the Great War.

World War I is covered much more sparsely in American history classes than World War II.  This is partly due to America’s lack of involvement in the war, fighting for about a year and a half compared to the nearly four fought in the Second World War.  But it is also probably due to the lack of coverage postwar in media.  There are far more films about World War II than World War I, for example.  Even ignoring the vast amounts of propaganda films on all sides created during the wars, Wikipedia’s list of World War II films eventually just contains links to other lists for later decades.  Meanwhile, World War I films seem to come in spurts every few years or so, but never in the same numbers.

The root cause of all of these is likely the lack of clear narratives to be found in the events of the First World War.  The events of World War I were the culmination of a messy system of alliances and increased military buildup, and the aftermath of so much bloodshed was basically nothing.  Whatever victories could have been gleaned from it seemed even more shallow after the dust had settled from World War II and it became clear that World War I’s biggest contribution to history was allowing the second to happen.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that this is the war that gave birth to Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and other writers of the “Lost Generation” who struggled to find meaning in the pointless waste of human life, both during and immediately after the war.

And yet, almost a hundred years later, this war becomes the backdrop for one of the most positive and optimistic superhero movies to come out in recent years.  World War I feels like an odd choice for Wonder Woman.  Historically, she’s never fought the Central Powers, although that’s mostly because of her creation during the Second World War.  For a movie focused on overcoming the evils of mankind and seeing our better nature, was it really the best choice to set it in one of the pettiest and destructive conflicts of recent history?

When discussing the villains of this film, it almost feels as though they were originally written as Nazis, then changed when the time period did.  General Ludendorff plays like many similar superpowered Nazis, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Captain America.  More chillingly, there are shades of the many Nazi mad scientists, both fictional and real, in Dr. Maru, though the use of gas as her obsession is a nice, period-specific choice.  Is this simply our familiarity with evil German stereotypes that makes us see these characters as Nazis?  Was Warner Bros. worried that their version of Captain America would be too similar to Marvel’s if they set it in the same time period?

This speaks to a certain historical revisionism that has gone on regarding Germany’s role in the First World War.  As early as the Treaty of Versailles, we see Germany being decried as the instigator by those wishing to see the newly ascendant German Empire weakened, particularly France and Great Britain.  After the rise and defeat of Hitler, who very clearly did start the Second World War, it became easier to retroactively set a precedent to explain a militaristic Germany as the cause of both.

The thing is, Germany wasn’t responsible for World War I.  That honor goes Austria-Hungary, whose quarrels with Serbia led to the intervention of Russia, which then led to Germany’s involvement.  However, prejudices and later events have made it easy to read fault into where there was none originally.  And, through nearly a century of culture and historical revision, it becomes easy to put cartoonishly evil Germans as the bad guys of a film set at the tail end of World War I.

How we define our history has been a very, very hot topic in the past few months.  I think it is important to realize how the way we talk about history can vary from the actual facts, and how even small things like an admittedly excellent movie can help to skew our perceptions of the past.

Finding Creativity in the Worst Places

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Neo Yokio is a new show on Netflix.  The show is animated in the style of Japanese anime and features a lot of anime’s stylistic influences.  As an example, the title refers to the city of Neo Yokio, a futuristic vision of New York City where advanced technology and magic work side-by-side.  Our main character is Kaz, a young demon-hunting aristocrat played by Jaden Smith.  The show follows Kaz’s adventures through the upper echelons of Neo Yokio society, attending parties and sporting events while also trying to stop demons from taking over the city.

If that brief summary seemed interesting, let me know, because it will mean I am a better writer than the creators of Neo Yokio.  I watched this show last weekend with some friends.  We had heard about the show and thought, what the heck?  We’d seen the memes, and we all enjoy ridiculously bad stuff, so we gave it a watch.  Two episodes in and we all decided that anything would be better than continuing to watch the show.

There are a lot of problems I have with Neo Yokio.  The animation is fine, if ultimately uninteresting.  The voice cast is really odd: our leads have bland, uninteresting deliveries, while side characters get strange accents that feel out of place.  But my big problem is the writing (gee, a writer having problems with writing, who would’ve guessed?).

In any piece of writing, there are two major aspects to consider.  I’ll call these story and delivery.  Story refers to the structure of the narrative and plot, while delivery refers to the actual manner in which the story is delivered through prose and dialogue.  If the story is good, that means the plot is consistent and realistic, and the added thematic and symbolic depth enhances the reading experience, rather than subtract from it.  If the delivery is good, that means the actual writing of the piece, the dialogue and additional prose, is enjoyable to read and sounds fitting to the tone of the book.

For an example of this difference, let’s look at one of the most famous plays in English: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Like most of Shakespeare’s plays, the story of Romeo and Juliet is flimsy and hinges on misunderstandings and mistakes to move it along.  The delivery of the play elevates it above its narrative flaws.  The poetry of Romeo and Juliet makes the story seem more romantic than it logically should be.

Neo Yokio has issues in both delivery and story.  Delivery-wise, the dialogue often comes across as unnaturally formal.  The wooden performances don’t help this at all, but the dialogue is too often comedic where it shouldn’t be and flat where it tries to be.  They make good Twitter memes and reaction GIFs, but not a great viewing experience.

Story-wise, there are even more flaws.  Neo Yokio is a story about the upper class, but it doesn’t really know whether it wants to be for the upper class.  A lot of jokes are made based on luxury items (the infamous big Toblerone among them) and potential social and fashion faux pas, but it’s never clear if we’re meant to laugh at the absurdity of these concerns or at the social implications of them.  In the second episode, a major story point involves Kaz accidentally wearing a midnight blue tuxedo to a black-and-white party.  Is it supposed to be funny because of the audacity of wearing that color to such an event, or is it supposed to be funny because of how little that matters to us?  This extends to the characters as well.  Kaz is a demon hunter constantly called to help protect the city, but he only does it begrudgingly, preferring to play field hockey and lounge around doing nothing to saving people.

This is where I start getting conflicted about the show.  While I was watching and trying to piece together what was going on, I started to see faint glimmers of a good show underneath the terrible writing and acting.  This was just the latest example of me seeing something so bad yet with some redeeming factor that I desperately wanted to rewrite it.

There are two ways the show could work, and two possible ideas that you may see from me later down the line.  The first is the easier route: go straight for the absurd.  Skewer the 1% and make it clear that the petty concerns of which perfume to wear or what to order are stupid and mean basically nothing.  Make it clear to the audience that this is something to be laughed at.  This is what I think the show may have originally intended, but ultimately failed at achieving.

The second idea is one that fits a more classic structure.  Start with an aristocrat, the heir to an old family legacy and secret.  Show them in their charmed life of decadence and luxury.  Then, rip the wool from over their eyes and reveal the world around them, in all its wonder and magic.  Have them learn their family destiny and go on a quest.  They may lose some friends to their own self-obsession, but they will gain a sense of perspective and self-actualization that makes their return to a comfortable life all the more rewarding.  This is a basic story structure grafted onto the show’s aesthetics, but it feels more cohesive and less aimless than the current show itself.

Neo Yokio now joins the proud club of “things whose potential I desperately want to squeeze out.”  It’s not a good show.  I really don’t recommend it.  But, there are a lot of shows and movies I’ve seen that I don’t recommend, but have one idea that grabs me and won’t let go.

Rewrite News

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Hello everyone!

I have some exciting news today!  I have hust finished the latest draft of the Birth by Flame rewrite!  It is currently a 114-page bundle of papers resting in my backpack.

Things are moving along at a great pace.  At this point, I’ll go through this draft and make some edits, then, depending on how the first round goes, either republish or do a second round.  It’s actually really exciting to be at this point!  Hope to have more news shortly.

On the Merits of Reality TV

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Hello everyone!

Today was officially the start of my second year at film school!  I am super excited to be back, surrounded by all my friends, and working on something I love so much.  To celebrate the occasion, I thought I’d write one of my rambly thought pieces about an aspect of my chosen field that often gets an unjust amount of critique and scorn.

I’m here to defend reality TV.

I know.  Why would someone dedicated to studying television and making it as their career advocate for some of the lowest common denominator trash on TV, you might ask.  And true, the end result of reality TV is not often high art.  But, you see, I’m much less interested in the finished product than I am about the process of making it.As a creator, reality TV is a fascinating way to tell a story.

As a creator, reality TV is a fascinating way to tell a story.  While some may complain it isn’t truly “real” and that it’s actually largely scripted, that simply isn’t true for the majority of shows.  Yes, elements of an episode may be pre-determined beforehand and guests may be pre-booked.  For example, all competition shows need to have a clear order of challenges and shows that follow people’s lives often follow them to events they would have attended regardless of the camera’s presence.

The main difference between scripted and reality TV, and what makes reality very interesting to me, is that the actual actions of the character are not scripted.  This has led to some excellent moments where cameras just keep rolling and follow someone’s reactions.  Some of the most entertaining or emotional moments of TV have come from something that could never be scripted, like Tyra Banks’ meltdown on ANTM or the cast of The Real World: Chicago‘s reactions to the events of 9/11.

This challenge of never really knowing what to expect makes reality TV an exciting challenge for editors too.  Even in scripted work, the edit can make or break a movie or TV show.  In reality TV, however, the edit is probably more important than the actual footage.  The edit is where you make characters, plotlines, suspense, drama, everything that keeps you hooked and coming back for more.  Taking hours of essentially found footage over several days and stringing a cohesive 1-hour narrative from it takes a considerable amount of skill that I think is sometimes overlooked.  Believe me, editing is hard enough when you do have a script for reference.

That’s how we should look at reality TV, or at least, how I will from now on.  Not as a way for the talentless to get famous, but as a challenge to the creators to tell a story with no road map.

Hopefully, this was a nice palate cleanser from the last few serious posts.  In writing news, I am about halfway done with my rewrite draft and am really liking how it’s going.  I hope to be done with this draft and onto rewrites and finalizing the draft by the middle of October.

Until next time!

On Charlottesville

Hoo boy.

Initially, I didn’t think I’d be writing about what happened in Charlottesville this past weekend.  I wasnt sure what I could add to the conversation about it.  However, I didn’t want my silence to be misread as agreement for those events.  So, here we are.

What happened in Charlottesville is deeply troubling.  We are stronger together.  Humans can do amazing things when we work toward a single goal.  To see others actively trying to shut others out of the conversation is disturbing, to say the least.

It’s difficult to think of what to do in response to events like this, events that happen thousands of miles away yet still hurt so much.  Especially when you lack the ability to donate money or join marches.  So this is what I am planning to do.  It’s simple, cheap, and it’s honestly one of the only things I feel I can do.

I’m going to keep persisting.  I am going to keep being who I am, keep telling the stories I need to tell, and keep showing love and respect to all of those who need it.  If there is one thing we can do, it’s keep our heads up and focus on making a difference to each other.

I swear I’ll post some more lighthearted stuff soon.  Until then, stay safe out there and love one another.

Thoughts on the 4th

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Hello everyone!

Today is July 4th, Independence Day here in the United States.  241 years ago today, our Founding Fathers declared a new nation based on the belief that people are entitled to certain rights, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

A lot has happened since then, and, especially in the last year, it has been difficult at times to find anything worth celebrating about this country.  But, I believe that the US is something more than a president or a government.  Our country is our people and our ideals of liberty and personal freedom.  Maybe that’s not what the Founders wanted, but it’s what I want and what I am celebrating today.

We hold this truth to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.  And someday soon, we’re going to make sure everyone is included in the sequel.

Pardon the schmaltz, but it felt right.  Happy Independence Day everyone!

June Update

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Hello everyone!

As always, it’s been far too long since I last posted.  Just wanted to update everyone on how things are going as well as the status of the Birth by Flame rewrite.

I recently finished my first year of film school.  It was an amazing experience and, while I’m glad to be back home and relaxing for the summer, I can’t wait to go back.

Speaking of summer, I just came back from a week in Puerto Rico.  This was the big family vacation this year, and it was fabulous.  I’ve wanted to go to Puerto Rico for years, and I had an excellent time.  I might be posting some pics soon to keep putting out content.

Meanwhile, my focus for the summer will be cranking out a rewritten draft of Birth by Flame.  If all goes well, I’ll be in the editing phases by the time I’m back at school in August.

That’s about it for today.  Hope everyone had a great Father’s Day and is enjoying the summer.  Until next time!

Kong: Skull Island – Why Am I Still Thinking About this Movie?

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I went with a friend to see Kong: Skull Island last week, and I have not been able to get it out of my head.  What I thought was going to be a light, innocuous popcorn flick turned out to be a really engaging and enjoyable popcorn flick.  This isn’t going to be a review per se, but I do want to share some of my thoughts on this film.

The acting was wonderful all around.  The film is a very well-crafted ensemble piece, with everyone getting good characterization and story arcs.  There were definitely some standouts: John Goodman, John C. Reilly, and Samuel L. Jackson are the main ones that come to mind.  The story itself is well-paced with fun action set pieces that are varied and thrilling to see.  The filmmakers seem to have taken to heart the criticism Godzilla received over not showing enough of Godzilla because there were monsters aplenty in this film.

Speaking of the filmmakers, the film itself looks amazing.  Action movies can tend to look washed out, going for “realism” and ending up with “gray and brown.”  In this film, the colors popped and made every scene on the island feel vibrant and alive.  Even in quieter moments, there was always something interesting to see.  The action scenes were great as well, filmed so they were easy to understand but still had cool shots and moments that made you sit up in the theater (Tom Hiddleston in a gas mask with a katana, anybody?).

All in all, this was a really solid movie that won me over completely.  I can’t wait for the next one to come out, and until then, I will be stalking Tumblr tags for headcanons and crack fics.  4/5. (I wasn’t going into this film to rate it, so I’m hesitant to give it anything higher.)

P.S. Let me know if you’d like me to start doing reviews of movies and other things.  It would get me to start watching more things, and it might be fun.  They’d be more structured than this one, don’t worry.

On Plot Holes & Talking about Writing

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Judging by the sales numbers, I think it’s safe to assume that a good number of you watched Disney’s new version of Beauty & the Beast. I personally was not a fan, but that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about something that has bothered me for a while and I’ve been seeing more and more recently.

People seem to be really gung-ho about finding and rationalizing “plot holes” in movies nowadays. I’m sure that’s always been the case, but now with the Internet, it’s become much easier to find theories and make them go viral. I actually like overanalysis and crazy fan theories, whether it’s about movies, video games, or any kind of media. I think it’s a fun way to engage with a work that leaves you noticing things you otherwise might not have. At best, it can give you a new insight and deepen your appreciation for your favorite story, even if you don’t think the theory is true. At worst, it’s a fun diversion and ultimately harmless.

So, it’s important to preface that I don’t mind looking for and trying to explain plot holes in a movie. The problem is this discussion has seemed to overtake all discussion over a film’s writing, especially in regards to Beauty & the Beast.

For clarity’s sake, a plot hole is an inconsistency in the story’s logic, where something happens that doesn’t quite make sense. In the original Beauty & the Beast, the main plot hole concerns the Beast’s transformation: namely how old he was at the time of the curse and how long he’s been cursed. Given the information from the film’s prologue and Lumiere’s lines in “Be Our Guest,” we would assume that the Beast was cursed at 11 years old.

This revelation does call into question some of the logistics of the world and the motives of the Enchantress, which could hurt some viewers’ immersion right at the start of the film. And, to be fair, the new film does address this and fix them in fairly unobtrusive ways. However, this fact seems to be the focus of discussion of the film’s writing. A quick Google search for articles about the movie turns up no shortage of clickbait articles about how the remake “fixes” all the plot holes of the original. Meanwhile, actual reviews of the film that don’t mention these “fixes” give a passing mention to the script, mostly in how it added a few scenes and backstory. Rarely do they actually dig into the writing, which, as a writer myself, particularly irks me.

There are some big issues I have with the film’s writing that I haven’t seen addressed, and they don’t involve a leap in logic. The characterization of a lot of the characters is completely off. The Beast feels stiff and standoffish, unlike in the original where he falls head-over-heels in love with Belle in an adorable way. Gaston becomes a boorish idiot, losing some of the menace and charm that made him a memorable villain. For all the hype around making LeFou gay, the script gives him the lowest possible arc for a gay character, complete with a five-second pay off at the end. And the unnecessary backstory adds length to the movie, not really any depth to the characters.

These are problems with the script that directly affect one’s enjoyment of the movie much more than its internal logic. And yet I haven’t seen these discussed at all. I think this speaks to how we talk about movies, focusing on visual elements over the narrative itself, which is a shame, to say the least. If film is one of the great forms of storytelling, we should start really looking at the stories they tell, not just how they tell it.