The History of Disney: Part 1 – The Golden Age

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The Golden Age of Disney animation refers to the first few years of feature animation, from 1937 – 1942. During this time, Disney produced five films that are considered classics to this day: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942).

Disney entered this period as a complete underdog. Everyone and their mother assumed that “Disney’s Folly,” better known today as Snow White, would fail and with it destroy the dream of feature-length animation. After three years of grueling work with no guarantee of success, the movie premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in L.A. and the rest is pretty much history.

Not only was Snow White not a failure, it was a smash hit. It was both a critical success, praised for its animation and artistry, and a financial success, grossing nearly 8 million dollars in its original run. Adjusted for inflation, that would be almost 137 million dollars. Not a bad profit for a movie that cost 1.4 million to make. Disney had shown all the naysayers. After moving production to Burbank, they began to work on their next groundbreaking films.

Instead of reaching new heights, what Disney got with their next few films was a couple of critical darlings and commercial failures. Pinocchio was the first Disney film in to win the two musical Oscars, Best Original Song and Best Original Score, and only the second ever, being beaten to the punch by The Wizard of Oz the year prior. Fantasia, meanwhile, was and is still considered an artistic masterpiece and a brilliant marriage of music and visuals. However, both of these movies were expensive to make and neither brought in enough to cover their costs. As a result of this, Disney was forced to lay off several animators, fueling the underlying discontent in the company and leading to the animator’s strike of 1941, during the creation of Dumbo.

It was also during this strike that Walt took a trip down to South America as a goodwill ambassador at the suggestion of Nelson Rockefeller, head of the Latin American Affairs branch of the State Department. Removing Walt from the scene helped calm things down and led to the production of some films we’ll talk about more next time.

Due in part to the strike, Dumbo was made cheaply and quickly, becoming Disney’s second financial success. After the strike, a little over half of the animation staff remained at the studio, and irreparable damage was done to the internal psychology of the company. Bambi was also in development at this time and also failed to break even at the box office. The main reason for the failure of these critical successes was a little thing called World War Two, which effectively closed off the European market. Due to this and a variety of other war-related factors after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Disney temporarily shuttered feature animation, halting production on several films that would see the light of day after the war was over.

The driving force behind the Golden Age films is innovation. The techniques used to such great effects to create these memorable images had to be created during production. Because of this, they were created to fulfill the specific requirements, like Fantasound, the first stereophonic sound system attached to animation. The use of older techniques, like the multiplane camera, were also used to great effect, creating some of the most memorable images in Disneydom like the witch’s transformation in Snow White.

Through these films, you also see the development of the Disney style and the balance between cartoonish and realistic. The use of rotoscoping for more realistic-looking humans in Snow White and Pinocchio is effective, but kind of jarring from a modern perspective. The balance tips more towards cartoon for Pinocchio and Dumbo. Bambi manages to find a good balance between the two, making the animals look like real animals but still looking like cartoons. Disney was apparently unimpressed by the animals in Snow White and brought in animals from the L.A. Zoo as reference. The payoff is visible in the final product.

However, these movies are not perfect. Many of them are short, yet feel unnecessarily padded. Several shots across these films seem as though they were only intended to give the animators’ something to do or set up visual gags that have weak payoffs for the length of build up they are given. Very few of these movies last much longer than an hour, yet they tend to drag in places. Back in the 40s, the groundbreaking animation may have been enough to get by, but the weaker stories are pretty obvious today.

However, not all movies in this period suffer from these problems to the same degree. To wit, here are my thoughts on and rankings of the Golden Age films.

5. Dumbo (1941) – A cute film and colorful enough to distract younger viewers, but there are major structural problems that really hinder any enjoyment beyond the visuals. The whole movie feels like an Act One with zero Act Two or Three to follow it. What’s baffling to me is that the basic concept – outcast gains powers and becomes famous, then learns fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – is a pretty common story, and Dumbo hits a lot of the required beats, just in the wrong ways. If it had given more than five minutes to the latter part of that above concept, maybe it could have been something more. As it is, let’s just say there’s a reason the most memorable scene in this movie is the drunken hallucination.

4. Fantasia (1940) – I commend Fantasia for everything it does right, but I also completely understand how it flopped. Fantasia is not a movie, it’s a symphony, and your average moviegoer doesn’t necessarily want to watch a symphony. The various sections also fluctuate in quality. Night on Bald Mountain and Sorcerer’s Apprentice are still used in Disney marketing to this day (I was so excited to hear a snippet of the former at Disneyland last Halloween, you have no idea), while some like Rite of Spring are forgotten for a good reason. This is definitely Disney’s most ambitious film possibly of all time, and it’s fairly successful overall, if a bit dull in places.

3. Snow White (1937) – Watching Snow White after watching newer Disney movies in theaters is an interesting experience. It’s the main reason I wanted to do this series, to reexamine these old films and, in some cases, actually see them. Snow White is definitely a movie of its time, and while there are some pacing issues and the epilogue-as-ending is really weird to my structuralist mind, it’s an enjoyable film. Besides, how many family films are likely to scare the pants off the little kids in the audience? Definitely a fun one for babysitting and watching with nieces or nephews.

2. Bambi (1942) – By this time, the Disney aesthetic had been solidified and the Disney animators were able to experiment in some interesting ways. The real star of this movie is the gorgeous background art, designed and created in some instances by the underappreciated Tyrus Wong. They really help convey the tactile presence of the environments. It really feels like you’re in a cool, misty forest while watching it. Easily one of the more artistic films I’ve seen that isn’t trying to be artistic (cough Wes Anderson cough).

1. Pinocchio (1940) – My top two are mostly down to preferences. If you’re more of a visually focused person who can mind a meandering story, I’d recommend Bambi for movie night. I’m more of a story guy, so I’ll choose Pinocchio. Of all these early films, Pinocchio has the tightest handle on its story and characters. The movie never feels padded unnecessarily and nothing feels superfluous. It’s also just a really fun movie to watch, which is more than I can say for some other films on this list (cough Dumbo cough).

We end the Golden Age at a turning point for both Disney Animation and the world at large. Clearly the matter of defending liberty and democracy in Europe is more important than some silly cartoons. But, all these animators who weren’t off fighting for freedom still had to eat, which meant they had to make something. Strap on your sombreros and strike up the band as next time, we look at the Wartime Era.

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Birth by Flame: Amazon Update

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Hello folks!

This is just an announcement to say that Birth by Flame is now officially available in both physical and e-book format through Amazon.com! I am beyond thrilled to finally have a physical book out there in the world. It’s a surreal feeling, but it is a wonderful feeling nonetheless.

If you do decide to purchase the book on any platform and read it, first of all, thank you so much! Secondly, it would mean the world to me if you would take the time to give it a quick review. For smaller authors like myself without access to a lot of marketing tools, reviews help my work reach more people, so any review is appreciated.

Happy reading!

Getting Political about Health Care and Discrimination

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Normally, I don’t like getting political on this blog. While this is a place for me to express my ideas, I also want this to be a place for my writing, first and foremost. When I have touched on current events, it’s usually at a point when I feel I must speak up. This is one of those times, so turn back now if you’re not into that. I promise I’ll be back soon with something lighter (the first Disney retrospective is coming, I swear!) Otherwise, here we go.

News broke today that the Trump administration is considering a new ruling that would allow health care workers to cite “religious objections” as a reason for not treating certain patients. In a recent Heritage Foundation report, current head of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights, Roger Severino, specifically cited reasonings that directly target transgender and other non-binary individuals, though it takes little stretching, if any, to see how these rule changes could affect the rest of the LGBT+ community. For more information, read this article from LGBTQ Nation. A friend of mine on Facebook shared it with me, which is how I came to know about this story.

These rules, which in all likelihood will be a thing, are utterly disgusting. As stated in the article, similar rules have already been used to discriminate against LGBT+ individuals. In 2015, a pediatrician in Michigan refused to even see the infant daughter of a lesbian couple due to her “religious beliefs.” Let me repeat that: a licensed pediatrician refused to even be in the same building as her six-month-old patient because the child’s parents were two women. More information on that story here as reported by The Washington Post. Other rulings, as mentioned in the above article by LGBTQ Nation, have resulted in the death of several individuals over the objections of ambulance drivers, and the refusal of several hospitals to admit LGBT+ individuals who have suffered from violent attacks. This isn’t happening in countries often used rhetorically to shut down people talking about issues, folks; this is happening in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

These events prove that there is discrimination against this community on multiple levels. There have been incidents where LGBT+ people have been denied service, like the Kim Davis case or the more recent example of the bakery in Oregon. These always get pundits fired up about discrimination and moderates hand-wringing, asking “Where will this end?” Believe me, I know a couple people who I’ve had that exact conversation with.

To these people, I say, when you are denied a basic human right for characteristics you do not control, then you can complain about discrimination. Article 25, Section 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, and I quote, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” Emphasis on “medical care” was mine.

I try to be open-minded to a lot of viewpoints and belief systems that aren’t mine. I recognize that I was raised in a specific environment and that environment has only offered me one way of seeing the world. But, my one rule when considering a belief system is this: any point of view that denies the humanity of another’s point of view should not be tolerated. That is what this is, an attack on people’s humanity.

The constant clamor against LGBT+ rights after the same-sex marriage ratification in 2014 tends to go along the lines of “You’ve already got marriage equality, what more do you want?” Here’s the thing: it was never about marriage equality. Saying the LGBT+ rights movement was about marriage equality is like saying the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was about the bus system in Montgomery or that the Latino rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s was about grapes. It’s never about the action, it’s about the intended outcome. Every movement for social, political, and civil rights has been about getting the dominant culture to respect the humanity of those pushing for rights. These movements go in stops and starts, but ultimately, we need to keep pushing.

As an example of a larger goal to push for, may I suggest making sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes in the United States? There is currently no federal protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as there is for race, sex, and religion, among others. There is a patchwork of state protections, however, there is no protection against housing discrimination or employment discrimination in twenty-eight states, and no protection under hate-crime laws for sexual orientation in eighteen states and gender identity in thirty-two. Efforts were made under the Obama administration to address some of these issues, but that can only buy eight years of protection at most. There was some promising news on this front, as just this past year the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that sexual orientation could be included under the definition of “sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (read more here) but that didn’t really seem to amount to much. Without more sweeping protections, we will have to fight this battle every so often. I’m not saying that this would instantly solve all the problems facing this community, but it would sure help stop new ones from being made.

Next time, we’re going to talk about something a little lighter. Thank you for listening. Hopefully you learned something today.

Birth by Flame Updates

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Hello everyone! Welcome to 2018! I wish all of you a pleasant year ahead with good things in your future.

I’m also excited to announce some more news about Birth by Flame! The book has now been accepted into Premium Distribution over at Smashwords. What this means is that Birth by Flame will be distributed through online retailers like Barnes & Noble and Apple. If you prefer reading on an e-reader, you now have more options with where to purchase Birth by Flame.

I am also working on physical publishing and the results are looking promising so far! I will keep you updated when this becomes an option. Until then, I hope you all have a wonderful day!

Birth by Flame Re-Launch

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Hello everyone!

I am beyond excited to announce that, after many long months of work, my novel, Birth by Flame, has finally been re-released! To commemorate this momentous occasion, we also have a shiny new cover, courtesy of my amazing friend Gaby.BirthByFlame_v1_coverimageshadow

*sniff*  It’s so beautiful…

Birth by Flame is available for purchase at Smashwords.com.

I first started to develop this story in various forms in 2011. As I grew up and matured throughout high school, I kept rewriting and developing the world more and more. The initial ideas grew more ambitious and, after discovering self-publishing, I made it a goal to publish my novel by the time I submitted my college applications. I made that deadline on September 30, 2015.

For the rest of senior year and into college, I had that book in my back pocket but didn’t really push it too much. The whole drama of ending one chapter of my life and beginning another pushed it out of my head. By the time I came back around to my novel, however, I wasn’t really a fan of it. Like most creatives, all I could see were the mistakes. Worse, it felt amateurish and juvenile. I’m not so full of myself as to say I matured immensely in a couple months. That said, I felt I could write a more nuanced story than the one I was selling. Add to that the feeling of too many half-formed ideas to pick one to focus on and very few sales, I felt like it would be a good idea to devote myself to reworking this book to make it hold up to my new expectations. As of today, December 27, 2017, that resolution was actually achieved.

Does this mean I may hate it in another two years? Yes, but hopefully I’ll be able to move on from this and onto other works that can help rectify any new problems I may find. However, as it stands, I couldn’t be happier with what I’ve created. I hope you enjoy it and have a wonderful new year. Here’s to 2018!

The Winter Festival

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The Winter Festival (or gieda eyozehüaz ün süogem, the “happy day of winter”) is one of the most important folk holidays for the people of Deralan. During the last full moon before the last month of the year, people gather in their city squares to celebrate the past year with food, music, gift-giving, and dancing in the streets.

Most winter holidays on Earth usually originate from a particular religious observance. The Winter Festival is less focused on a specific event in Deru theism; instead, its significance is attributed to both the physical and spiritual connotations winter has for the Deru people.

It is said that the first winter happened at the end of the First Age, the age when only gods ruled, when the goddess of the moon went on a journey to save her husband, the god of the sun, from dying and plunging the world into endless night. She left a piece of her essence to safeguard the home of the gods, creating the twin moons of Deralan as they are known today. However, despite her success, she was not able to stop new spirits from forming in the chaos: gods of darkness, of ice, of cold, of famine. In short, winter was unleashed. The sun god, though restored, was unable to keep burning constantly, and so night was created and the Second Age, the age of mythical heroes, began.

In less mythological and more geographical and socioeconomic terms, winters in Deralan can often be harsh, with temperatures dropping below freezing and brutal snowstorms, especially in the south and west of the country, burying the landscape. For many poor farmers and artisans, winter means struggling with both cold and hunger, relying on the fall harvest to maintain them through the long night of the year.

The New Year’s Festival (gieda eyozehüaz ün u küzëftem zëcodus, or “happy day of the new year”) is a more important holiday for the Deru, as it marks the return of spring and the beginning of the planting season. The Winter Festival grew out of local celebrations of winter, showing solidarity with each other as hard times approached by giving thanks and throwing one last party before the bitter cold truly sets in. As such, the actual festivities during the festival vary greatly from region to region and town to town, though certain similarities can be found.

All celebrations involve the community coming together in a public square and sharing food. In small towns and villages, this usually amounts to a big potluck. In larger cities, local cooks and shopkeepers will set up stalls alongside regular citizens to sell special holiday treats. Neighbors and family members may also exchange gifts of food with each other to celebrate the holiday. Food is the customary gift during the Winter Festival, as the lack of food is a major concern in the coming months.

No festivities are complete without music and dancing during the Winter Festival lasts long into the night. Simple folk dances are performed, often encircling large bonfires lit as a reminder of the warmth of spring that awaits them. In many places, fireworks light up the night sky as a final sendoff to the old year. Imagine if New Year’s Eve celebrations happened in early December, or if New Year’s Day were celebrated in March.

Early Winter Festivals were celebrated during the first full moon of winter and developed as extensions of harvest festivals. After the war for independence, King Ühüëyan reformed the calendar and assigned finite dates to major holidays. He divided the year into six months of about sixty days each, and moved the Winter Festival from the beginning of winter, in the middle of the fifth month, to the last full moon of the fifth month. This was done to provide space between it and the fall harvest, as well as keep the date from moving year to year. Before the calendar, most people marked the first day of winter by the first snowfall, caring not for when the solstice came. As such, Winter Festivals could vary wildly from year to year depending on precipitation and temperature. Now, the Winter Festival would always be at a secure date and, even better, always at least a month before the spring equinox which marked the New Year. Many rural communities still use their old reckonings to mark the Winter Festival, but the practice is slowly being phased out or modified to align with the royal calendar. Winter may have started a few weeks back at this point, but the true cold usually doesn’t begin to set in until the last month of the year anyway, so the date and the weather usually align.

During these festivals, it is customary to greet all fellow revelers with a hearty greeting of “Süogem eyozehüaz!” or “Süogem celüaz!” These translate to “Happy Winter!” and “Blessed Winter!” respectively. On this day, I would like to wish all of you a happy and blessed winter as well. This year has been an exciting one for me with many ups and downs, and I hope each and every one of you reading this can enjoy this holiday season to its fullest.

Winter Carols

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Many cultures around the world have their own version of a winter holiday. From Hanukkah to Kwanzaa to the Lunar New Year, people around the world take time during the winter to come together and celebrate with friends and family. No celebration is more famous than the Christian celebration of Christmas. Today, on the eve of Christmas, I’d like to share with you one of my favorite Christmas carols, translated into Deru. I haven’t posted a lot about Deralan in a while, so I decided to post some fun Deru stuff for the holidays, and in preparation for a big announcement in the coming days. Stay tuned and, in the meantime, enjoy this Christmas classic: “Silent Night” or “Güodem düëhüš.” This will be accompanied by a transcription into IPA as well as a direct translation of the Deru.

Güodem düëhüš, güodem celüaz

/gwodεm dweɪhuʃ gwodεm tʃεlwaz/

Quiet night, holy night

Giešëm zëcü zëpodas

/gjεʃeɪm zeɪtʃu zeɪpodas/

All is bright

Dieboızudem o müzo eyan a izuma

/djeboɪzʊdεm o muzo εjan a izuma/

Circling the mother and the child

A idëzum celüaza eyan jizeraza

/a ideɪzʊm tʃεlwaza εjan dʒizεɾaza/

The holy and soft child

Düogisan zu dezgan celüaz

/dwogisan zʊ dεzgan tʃεlwaz/

Sleep in holy peace

Düogisan zu dezgan celüaz

/dwogisan zʊ dεzgan tʃεlwaz/

Sleep in holy peace

Güodem düëhüš, güodem celüaz

/gwodεm dweɪhuʃ gwodεm tʃεlwaz/

Quiet night, holy night

Jëdiepoıon hëfejëdažuni je u išütëm

/dʒeɪdjεpoɪon heɪfεdʒeɪdaʒʊni dʒε ʊ iʃuteɪm/

Shepherds fall at the sight

Hüorižon zipëni ün celute

/hwoɾiʒon zipeɪni un tʃεlʊtε/

Stars flow from heaven

Yagüodıron celuni ‘Alelüya’

/jagwodɪɾon tʃεlʊni alεluja/

Gods sing ‘Alleluia’

Gisyowan a Kuristu

/gisjowan a kʊɾistʊ/

Christ is born

Gisyowan a Kuristu

/gisjowan a kʊɾistʊ/

Christ is born

Güodem düëhüš, güodem celüaz

/gwodεm dweɪhuʃ gwodεm tʃεlwaz/

Quiet night, holy night

Izuma ün celun, zipë ün sühodwon

/izʊma un tʃεlʊn zipeɪ un suhodwon/

Son of God, star of love

Hüorižon zipëni ünidem ižuhem

/hwoɾiʒon zipeɪni unidεm iʒʊhεm/

Stars flow from your face

Ko kogeda küdižwü celüaz

/ko kogεda kudiʒwu tʃεlwaz/

With a morning of holy beauty

Jisus, gisyowan a üdüohižun

/dʒisʊs gisjowan a udwohiʒʊn/

Jesus, born the king

Jisus, gisyowan a üdüohižun

/dʒisʊs gisjowan a udwohiʒʊn/

Jesus, born the king

Gieda ün Kuristu eyozehüaz! Merry Christmas, everyone! Tomorrow, we’ll have some more festive holiday traditions from Deralan to discuss.

 eyozehüazJesus, born the king

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.

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.