Thoughts on Veteran’s Day

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Today, November the 11th, marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, the first truly modern conflict in history. Since that date, this day has been remembered around the world as a time to come together and remember and show our gratitude to those who have served.

World War I is a seminal moment in world history, but too few people understand that history. There are no veterans still living, so this history is at risk of being lost. This Veteran’s Day, I’d like to recommend some interesting series here online to get you better acquainted with this moment in time that still has so much relevance today.

Crash Course has been my go-to for good overviews of history since high school. Their videos on the causes of World War I are good for a quick look at why this complicated war happened.

Extra Credits has also done amazing work with their Extra History series, looking at various events throughout history with clear, easily understood narration. They also have a series on World War I’s causes that goes into more detail, as well as one on the 1918 flu pandemic that was exacerbated by the war.

As it’s getting close to the holiday season, though, I also want to recommend their two-part series on the Christmas truce. It’s a beautiful little pair of episodes that strips away some of the mythology surrounding the truce and gets into the real human element of the story, which just makes it all the more meaningful to me.

If you’re looking for something more in-depth, it would be remiss of me not to mention The Great War. This channel has, for the past four years, gone through the story of World War I, week by week, on top of doing additional content about the history of the period that doesn’t have to do with battles or generals. Pick a topic you’re interested in and start binging. There’s an entire war’s worth of content to uncover, so you’re bound to find something you’re interested in. They do have recap episodes if you want to get caught up quickly, but it may be appropriate to start with today’s episode, which details the last few days of the war before the armistice.

As we often say, those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. While the precise circumstances that led to the First World War will likely never appear again, it is still worth your while to remember those who served and died in the conflict, if only to ensure that they will not die forgotten.

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Election Day – Midterm Edition

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Hello everyone,

I rarely get expressly political on this blog, but I feel like it’s important to put something out there today. Tomorrow is Election Day here in the U.S. I encourage everyone who is eligible to vote to make informed decisions when you step into the voting booth. Don’t just listen to the rhetoric from politicians or from your more politically-active friends. Look into what’s on the ballot locally, because those officials and ballot measures will have a much greater impact on you and the people around you than your Senators and Representatives in Washington (though they are still important). And seriously, if you can vote, please go out and vote.

To everyone outside the U.S., I hope you have a lovely Tuesday tomorrow. To everyone here, go vote, then treat yourself to something nice. Politics can be stressful, but we really can make a difference if we take voting seriously.

History of Disney, Part 5 – Disney Renaissance

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This is Part 5 of my look back at the history of Disney animation. For more information on this project, check out the introduction, and the previous four posts which cover the Golden AgeWartime EraSilver Age, and Dark Age.

The Disney Renaissance refers to the films produced and released in the years between 1989 and 1999. There were eight films released in this period: The Little Mermaid (1989), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999).

We’re going to approach this a bit differently, folks. Ordinarily, I’d start with a brief overview of the history and then discuss the artistic trends in the era. This time, though, I want to dive into the big question that underpins Disney’s resurgence – why now? Other Disney eras changed based on larger political and economic events, but there were a number of less wide-reaching changes that combined to cause the changes at Disney. Changes in areas such as:

1 – Leadership

I said in my past installment of this series that The Great Mouse Detective (1986) was the first real movie of the Disney Renaissance. That’s because it was the first Disney movie made under the administration of Michael Eisner as CEO of Disney and Frank Wells as president, with Jeffrey Katzenberg in charge of motion pictures. Things at Disney animation were immediately shaken up when Katzenberg suggested that The Black Cauldron could be saved by editing it, a practice unheard of in animation. The painstaking process of animating a scene wouldn’t be done unless the scene had to be in the story, which really meant that a stronger hand was needed to edit at the beginning of the filmmaking process.

2 – Corporate culture

The vision of the high-powered business executive in a power suit running his company with an iron fist is almost a cliche of the 80s, but like all cliches, there was a grain of truth in that. At Disney, however, things were much more laissez-faire and easygoing. Long executive lunches and production schedules bred a culture very used to taking things at their own pace.

This changed immediately once Eisner, Wells, and Katzenberg entered the picture. Those three came from the broader Hollywood system and were the first outsiders brought into Disney at such a high level. They had been brought up in the corporate culture of the 80s and their prerogative was to turn around Disney using this model. This caused a lot of friction between them and many of the employees, but eventually, the new model won out.

3 – Broadway theater

The film musical in the United States is based on the aesthetic of the Broadway musical. The idea of the event film was largely built on the backs of high-profile adaptations of Broadway fare throughout the 1940s and 50s, adapting the plays of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe into lavish pictures that earned the studios lots of money. By the 1960s, however, exponentially increasing budgets, troubled productions, and middling returns ultimately led to the death of the classic Hollywood musical.

This was mirrored on Broadway as well. The Broadway musical left its roots in the big band and jazz standards of the 30s and 40s and began to embrace a more counter-cultural sensibility. From rock music and hippie protests in Hair to the darker themes and Brechtian approach of Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret and Chicago, the Broadway show became much more experimental, which also made them more difficult to adapt to film. If done correctly, like in the case of Cabaret (1972), it could have been phenomenal, but that was a risk many studios didn’t want to make.

One composer who came into his own in this more experimental era, and helped usher in the new era of Broadway, was Andrew Lloyd Webber. His more experimental earlier works, like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, were commercially successful, even if they were sometimes controversial with critics. This strategy of appealing to popular tastes, even if the Broadway critics may turn up their noses, helped usher forth the era of the mega-musical.

Webber can’t take all the credit for this shift: one of the first mega-musicals was Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil’s Les Miserables, which opened two years before the musical largely responsible for this trend: the wildly popular Phantom of the Opera. These musicals were marked by huge spectacles and massive success, both in their initial runs and internationally. These movies revitalized interest in the Broadway musical as a genre, and many elements from these productions were ripe for adaptation in Hollywood.

4 – Aesthetics and marketability

There has always been a certain idea of the Disney brand, largely informed by the aesthetics of Disney animation. There has always been an idea of the “Disney style” and that has changed over the year. That said, there has also always been experimentation within that style. Throughout the Silver and Dark Ages, the classic Disney style was developed and played with to its fullest extent. Moving into the Renaissance, these aesthetics were refined and married to the ideas from artists like Al Hirschfeld, Gerald Scarfe, and Richard Purdum.

As the animation became more refined, so too did the story structure. Influenced by Broadway musicals as above, the stories of the Renaissance movies became much more structured than in years past. The Disney formula became very important to the creative process. It provided a backbone for animators to experiment with beautiful visuals while staying grounded narratively, it gave composers an easy framework to slot in songs (more on that later), and it gave the marketing teams new ways to take the world by storm.

Marketing for Disney movies became intense in this era. This initially started with the decision to release Pinocchio on VHS, a contentious choice that made truckloads of money. Eisner’s modus operandi was to turn Disney into a profitable empire, and part of his success was to milk each and every film for all they were worth.

Now, let’s bring all these disparate elements together and get back to history. Katzenberg and Eisner host a “gong show” for the animators to pitch ideas. Though the initial pitch of doing an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” by John Musker and Ron Clements is gonged, Katzenberg likes the idea and gives them the green light. Katzenberg remarks to animation head Roy Disney that he needs his own Katzenberg, someone to do the dirty work and act as a liaison to management. Roy brings in theater producer Peter Schneider from Broadway to help out. Schneider suggests bringing in Broadway lyricist Howard Ashman to help out on the production of Oliver and Company. Ashman gets wind that they’re developing Mermaid and is brought on to the project, bringing with him composer and writing partner Alan Menken.

Ashman’s firm hand in and enthusiasm for the production helped to fire up the animators. According to the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, after hearing Ashman’s demo of “Part of Your World,” animator Glen Keane practically begged to be given the lead on Ariel. To help speed up production, the animation was split between the main facilities in Glendale, California and a second unit at Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, Florida. The intensive special effects needed to make convincing underwater effects added a third unit to the production: Pacific Rim Productions, a Chinese-based firm with facilities in Beijing (which only gave the animators mild heart attacks once the protests in Tiananmen Square turned deadly.)

Disney executives were optimistic about the project, but warned the animators not to get too excited. They stressed that a movie aimed primarily at young girls was likely not going to do as well as their last film, Oliver & Company, which had been aimed at young boys. Katzenberg also got anxious after some incidents involving fidgeting kids at test screenings, though his suggestion to remove key song moments were ultimately ignored.

The Little Mermaid grossed over $84 million in its initial theatrical run and was lavished with praise by critics. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and four Golden Globes, winning both awards for Best Song and Best Score. Disney animation was back in a big way. But, could the momentum hold?

After some ups and downs in the production cycles, Beauty and the BeastAladdin and The Lion King proved that Disney’s success was not a fluke. Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture and Lion King is still the highest grossing traditionally animated feature of all time. However, with success comes discontent.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, as head of motion pictures, began to take more and more credit for Disney’s success, much to Eisner’s chagrin. Articles from the production of The Lion King barely mention Eisner, while painting Katzenberg as the hero. Eisner and Katzenberg’s relationship was deteriorating rapidly, and things came to a head in 1994 when Frank Wells died in a tragic helicopter crash. Katzenberg had been promised Wells’ position and came to Eisner in the aftermath to make good on this promise. Eisner felt Katzenberg had come too soon, though he likely wouldn’t have given him the job anyway. Katzenberg would leave Disney after the premiere of The Lion King in 1994.

Post-Katzenberg, some of the magic seemed to leave the Disney studios. Eisner began consolidating power, delegating less and less to subordinates. The following films did decently well, but none reached the same levels of critical and commercial success as those at the beginning of the Renaissance. But, how do they hold up nowadays?

10. Rescuers Down Under (1990) – This movie is only a Renaissance movie by association. It’s better than The Rescuers (1977), but that still just makes it mediocre. I really like this movie’s style and it marks the first use of the digital coloring system CAPS in a Disney movie, but, much like its predecessor, there’s just not much to it. It’s so low only by the sheer bad luck of its release year.

9. Pocahontas (1995) – This movie was going to be the movie for Disney, the one that finally broke the glass ceiling and win Best Picture. It’s high art, it’s a classic story, it’s West Side Story with Native Americans. And what we got is a fairly bland movie with bland, stoic characters, a weak score, admittedly some gorgeous imagery, and a window into 90s ideas of racism and American history. Now, I’m not saying we needed a truly realistic and horrifying depiction of American colonization, but the “both sides-ing” this movie does has not aged well. Regardless of your politics though, it’s an overly serious movie that needed some deft hands at every point to make it fully work.

8. Hercules (1997) – The story behind this movie is more intense than the actual movie itself: star directors Musker and Clements were tasked to make an insane hit in order to get their passion project off the ground. The result is a mess of a movie, designed to appeal to as many people as possible and instead turning out something jumbled and misguided in its ideas. Its biggest problem is its flawed themes, as the combination of superhero and sports story never really gel. The art style is incredibly unique and it has some of the best supporting characters of the Renaissance, so it’s at least an enjoyable mess.

7. Mulan (1998) – A beautiful movie that takes a completely different stylistic approach from the rest of the Renaissance, there are some major plot problems. We don’t really get going until the second act, and the music is never quite on par with the rest of the Renaissance. It pains me to put this movie so low as it was my favorite movie by far as a child, but as this whole project is pretty much designed to confront my nostalgia, so I can’t make excuses. I still love this movie, even if it is a little weaker than the rest.

6. The Little Mermaid (1989) – The movie that started the Renaissance is a solid piece of cinema that was just overshadowed by the movies it inspired. Everything here set the template for how to succeed in this era – the characters, the story, the art style, and the music. This is one of the better scores of this period and it’s used in such an effortless and natural way that it almost makes you side-eye musicals that do this wrong. This movie was a breath of fresh air in this rewatch. It’s only so low because everything above it learned from what this movie did and ran with it.

5. Tarzan (1999) – With some impressive animation and a quite engaging story, this was the big surprise for me in how much I like this movie. The characters are well-realized and well-performed and there are some honestly stunning bits of animation. What keeps this movie from going any higher is the soundtrack, which for a Disney musical, is important. I’m fine with most of the songs in isolation, but the way they’re used in the movie as overlays and not woven into the story makes the music feel distant.

4. The Lion King (1994) – An excellent movie with simply breathtaking visuals that is also the namesake of what I call “The Circle of Life Problem.” Both on screen and onstage, “Circle of Life” is a song number to end all song numbers, where the most creative ideas and beautiful work was placed to create a showstopping number. The problem is, even if the rest of the movie is a solid 10 the whole way through, it feels like a let down because we started at 11. And Lion King is not a 10 all the way through, with some pacing issues and general tone strangeness towards the second act. Still a wonderful film with a pretty decent soundtrack.

3. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) – This gorgeous film rivals The Black Cauldron (1985) in terms of tonal darkness, but it actually manages to make that tone work with an amazing score and some of the most beautiful animation I’ve ever seen. And while it’s always good to break up the darkness with some more light-hearted elements, especially in a Disney film, the way Hunchback does it really just feels out of place and holds it back from being as good as it needs to be.

2. Aladdin (1992) – It was a close call between this and my number one film, as both are perfect marriages of animation, music, and story. Aladdin‘s biggest strength is its speed. There is not a moment of this movie that feels too slow. The animation is all snappy and just moves with such a speed that I’m left in awe by it. Watching this movie feels like going on a high-speed magic carpet ride and you’re left breathless by the end.

1. Beauty and the Beast (1991) – I’m biased here as this movie means a lot to me, but I truly believe this is one of the best films I have ever seen. Not best animated film, not best Disney film, best film period. Everything about this film works for me: the gorgeous animation, the incredible performances, one of the best musical scores in film, all of it just comes together to create a movie that makes me tear up from how beautiful it is. Where Aladdin was punchy and energetic, Beauty and the Beast is stately and elegant, which is just an aesthetic I’m a little more a fan of. If this movie doesn’t wind up being my favorite of all the Disney canon, I will be thoroughly surprised.

The Disney Renaissance was the peak of Disney animation and only foretold great things for the company to come. But, even the brightest stars must eventually fade. The Renaissance films had seen increasingly diminishing returns post-Katzenberg, so how will they fare once the goodwill truly runs out? Next time, we will be covering the ever-so creatively named Second Dark Age to find out.

Those interested in learning more about Disney under the administration of Michael Eisner should check out James B. Stewart’s DisneyWar. It’s a fantastic read that really delves into the political dealings that went on in the company that made these movies we all know and love. I didn’t think I’d be a fan of such a dense book, but Stewart’s writing helps keep everything easy to understand and enjoyable to read. It gets a hearty recommendation from me.

Prompt-ober Finale

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Well, this is the end of this year’s Prompt-ober! It’s been a blast answering these prompts and sharing them with all of you. I hope everyone had a safe and happy Halloween and has been enjoying these posts. Without further ado, here’s the end of Prompt-ober.

 

Day #22 – Describe one of your world’s man-made wonders.

At the far eastern ends of Deralan, where the Zëdepaza River forms a barrier between Deralan and the plains of the horse lands, a great monument rises into the sky. A statue of a rider on düran-back made of granite and gold stands over thirty meters tall. A massive Deralan flag, its golden eagle resplendent on a field of blue, white, and green, waves proudly behind it. Its base is an unassuming brown building, but inside is this monument’s true purpose.

The monument’s official name translates to “Remembrance to the Defenders of Freedom,” and commemorates the hundreds who lost their lives in the fight for independence. The interior of the base is filled with large red columns, each representing a different battle. The columns are inscribed with the names, armies, and in some cases, the hometowns of the soldiers who fell in that battle. Monks care for the place like any other temple and host events to remember the fallen. Very few families still make the trip out east to memorialize their family members, but there are still visitors coming to learn about the history of their nation.

 

Day #23 – Describe some plants from your world.

Among the upper echelons of Deralan society, there is much praise given to the fabric made in Jiehidem. A lightweight material made on domestic soil, it is inexpensive but still of moderately high quality. This linen is made from a beautiful golden flower that grows in mass around the city of Jiehidem, giving the city its name, which translates to “golden fields.”

These delicate flowers are plants similar to flax, tall stalks with thin leaves and delicate yellow blossoms. Soft and flexible fibers are woven into a light and strong fabric, cool to the touch and easy to wear. These plants are also grown for their seeds, which can either be eaten whole, ground into meal or flour, or pressed to become oil. These plants are a common crop in much of the northern nations as they are hardy and can handle some variation in climate.

 

Day #24 – Describe an extreme form of weather that exists in your world.

There are stories told in the deserts of Luzain of the distant past when the sands of the north were lush and fertile. Great rivers coursed across the plains and massive trees sprung from the ground. Great beasts roamed these lands and were felled by hunters wielding powerful magic. In fact, it was this magic that made the desert bloom, and when this magic failed, the sands reclaimed the land. These are the stories told by elders as people huddle around fires against the vast desert nights.

Whether these stories are accurate or not, it is true that the deserts of Luzain were once as fertile as the plains of Deralan. Now, this southern kingdom is split in two, between the deserts and nomadic tribes of the north and the rainforests and cities of the south. One of the perpetual dangers of the desert are the sandstorms. In the winter, winds blow sand south, fertilizing the soil of the southern rainforests. In the summer, the winds shift and blow it north. Several winds can meet up and blow into massive sandstorms, all converging on the northeastern reaches of the desert. Sand tornadoes are not uncommon in areas where winds crash into each other and swirl around. These intense sandstorm seasons only aggravate life in the already harsh desert summers and force those who live there to shelter in the mountains for the season.

 

Day #25 – Describe a prey animal from your world.

The coastal waters of Deralan teem with life. Cold currents sweep in nutrients from the open ocean and turn the seas around the peninsula into a gold mine for fisherman. The key species being hunted in these waters are the leaping fish. Named for their tendency to leap out of the water as they swim against the current. These fish school in massive swarms beneath the waves, making them easy targets for both fishermen and predators alike.

These fish are staples of coastal diets. Highly oily and full of protein, these fish contain many vital nutrients that form the basis of many meals along the south and west coasts. Visitors from the northern and central parts of the country are often confused by the lack of actual meat in the south, with many people only eating various types of fish.

 

Day #26 – Describe a predatory animal from your world.

The apex predator of many ecosystems is the dragon. These terrors of the skies are rare, as the typical environment can only support a handful of these lonely beasts, but they are monstrous to those unfortunate enough to live in their domain. Each species of dragon is known for their elemental affinity, which drastically alters how these beasts hunt and live.

Water dragons are the largest and live exclusively in the open oceans. They use their water magic to trap schools of fish for their prey. They often mistake ships for larger prey and can completely destroy a naval fleet in minutes. These are also the most social dragon, often coming together in schools of a dozen or so.

Earth and metal dragons are of a similar size and live in similarly mountainous biomes. The main difference is in specificity. An earth dragon can be found in most mountains, whereas metal dragons live in mountains with rich mineral deposits.

Fire dragons are the closest to the classic European dragon as it is known on Earth. They typically need wide open spaces where they can prey on grazing animals. Areas that are home to a fire dragon are often plagued by wildfires.

Wood and wind dragons are the smallest of the dragon species. Wood dragons live in forested areas, while wind dragons prefer high mountains or windswept plains. These are the dragons who can more easily live alongside humans, though this also means they are the ones most easily hunted by humans.

 

Day #27 – Describe an average citizen’s home.

The average peasant’s home in Deralan is a simple building. The house is built around a central room, a combination of kitchen, living room, and formal dining room. A fire pit in the dead center acts as the main feature of the house. The thatched roof is built into a conical shape with a tall chimney over the fire pit to help keep in heat.

In poorer areas, this is the entirety of the house, while in some wealthier areas, they will have separate sleeping areas. Some houses might have a pit toilet inside the house, especially in colder areas, but most will have their toilet outdoors.

In urban areas, houses have become smaller as they combine into large apartment buildings. They are largely one-room affairs without the central fire pit. Cooking in the cities doesn’t happen in the home, instead happening at communal kitchens that crop up throughout the various neighborhoods.

 

Day #28 – Describe a common pet or companion animal.

When looking for a companion animal, most people will choose something low-maintenance and useful. A dog can help keep the home safe or herd animals, a cat can keep pests like mice and birds out of the fields. Another common pet, especially among the wealthier sects or those with the ability to use wind magic, are birds.

The most common pet bird in Deralan is the kogieran or “morning bird.” A small songbird with long pronounced tail feathers, it is best known for having an affinity for wind magic. Wind mages find they have a connection with these birds especially. Their feathers are often components in potions and they can be used to help carry messages through magic. Those with an even closer relationship with their pets can even channel magic through them, amplifying their natural affinities and creating spells with even stronger effects.

 

Day #29 – Describe a ceremonial object.

In the religions of Deralan, there are many rituals intended to purify the soul and body. Before entering a temple, one must wash out their mouth and hands and remove their shoes in order to leave behind all forms of impurity. Once inside, the priest will use incense and prayers to purify the body and spirit, ending the ceremony by applying a salve to the forehead in order to seal in the protections.

This salve is made from crushed fruits and flowers mixed with waxes or oils to give it a pasty consistency. It is reddish purple in color with a strong sweet aroma. It is applied to the forehead with a single stroke in order to protect the person from bad influences. This is often used in rituals of purification before traveling or major life events like weddings or funerals.

 

Day #30 – Describe a ceremonial piece of clothing.

As part of the marriage ceremony of Deralan, the two lovers will exchange ceremonial scarves. Traditionally made from silk or another fine material, these scarves are intended to be hand sewn by the bride or groom for the betrothed. They are traditionally embroidered with messages of love or proverbs to ward against bad luck. If one cannot read, they can instead choose to embroider a design or images representing their relationship. At the wedding ceremony, the bride or groom places their scarf around the other person’s shoulders and receives that person’s scarf in return. This is as symbolic as the exchanging of rings in certain Earth cultures, and it can be said that this is the moment when two people are wed.

 

Day #31 – Sum up a culture in one object.

The Deralan eagle is the cultural symbol of the people of Deralan. The eagle itself is a common predator in Deralan, similar in size and color to Earth’s golden eagles. The eagle is considered a symbol of the sun god, the highest deity in the Deralan religion. In the throne room in Deralan City, the golden throne of the King is molded into the shape of an eagle. A powerful symbol since ancient times despite its lack of magical abilities, the eagle is even featured in gold on the flag of Deralan. Since ancient times, outsiders have called the people of Deralan “the people of the eagle,” cementing this image as the dominant cultural icon of Deralan.

Prompt-ober Week 3

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Getting this one in close to the wire, but here is week 3 of Prompt-ober!

 

Day #14 – Describe what your inhabitants wear in warm weather.

During the heat of a Deralan summer, most people opt for lightweight linens and fewer clothes. The typical male outfit is a lightweight shirt and pants, though many working out in the fields or on the docks may go without one if they have a large enough hat to protect them from the elements. Women wear similar clothes, though many opt for skirts to provide a little breeze. Wide-brimmed hats made of straw or reeds are common to keep the sun off of one’s face.

Those who are rich have the ability to coordinate their outfits with the seasons. For summer, the typical colors are vibrant: deep blues, emeralds, golds, fiery reds and oranges. These colors are either layered with coordinating accessories or clash together in loud floral or geometric patterns. Rich people will often use natural elements such as flowers and feathers in their accessories, placing them in hats or their hair, or even incorporating them into their outfits.

 

Day #15 – Describe what your inhabitants wear in cold weather.

During the cold of a Deralan winter, most people opt for heavier wools and furs. The typical outfit, regardless of gender, is a shirt and pants, with a heavy jacket and boots. For intense rain or snow, wide-brimmed lacquered hats, coats made of water repellant fibers, and insulated fur-lined boots and coats are commonly seen.

Those who are rich have the ability to coordinate their outfits with the seasons. For winter, the typical colors are muted: dark blues and purples, greys, browns, bright whites and creams. These colors are either layered with coordinating accessories or clash together in loud floral or geometric patterns. Furs from many different animals are basically expected from those of a high enough social standing.

 

Day #16 – Describe a high-ranked individual.

The highest ranked lord in Deralan, second only in power to the royal family, is the Duke of Heyoderalan. This title is reserved for the younger siblings and cousins of the Jiediran kings, and are the first in the line of succession outside the immediate royal court. Their seat at Jiehidem is the ancestral home of the Jiediran family, surrounded for miles by the rich fields and forests of central Deralan. The Duke of Heyoderalan also controls the great city of Aguižun, the so-called “gateway to the kingdom.”

The Duke of Heyoderalan operates as something like a Prime Minister among the other higher lords of Deralan, presiding over meetings and acting as the King’s right hand should the king be too busy to answer certain matters. The lords of Heyoderalan and Deralan work in tandem, meaning this position is incredibly coveted. Any lord hoping to exert their own will over Deralan’s politics must first attempt to sever this connection if they wish to have any chance of succeeding.

 

Day #17 – Describe an average low-ranked individual.

The typical Deralan peasant lives an agrarian lifestyle. They live in small rural communities of a few families surrounded by personal farms. These farms are small affairs, typically only producing enough to sustain the family and sell some surplus in town. A typical farm will have a few animals, but not many. The typical Deralan peasant lives a lowly existence, making just enough to survive and pay taxes, with a little left over for other needs.

In recent years, more and more peasants have begun to work in the growing cities. Life here can be harder, as work in the new manufactories is more laborious for less obvious gain. Many commute between the city and outlying villages, but many also live within the cities in new tenement buildings being built up in newer areas of town. As with all forms of modernization, this influx of new people is causing friction with the older, more entrenched city dwellers.

 

Day #18 – Describe the uniform of the military or police.

Most of the military of Deralan is pulled from peasant levies, outfitted in whatever armor they can bring themselves or can be supplied by their feudal lords. Peasants would typically wear thickly padded armor made from fabric or chainmail. Though these wouldn’t offer the best protection in a battle, they were more than enough to keep someone on their feet and were the best many could afford.

Those who can afford armor typically outfit themselves with the emblems of their houses or feudal lords, to show allegiance and to divide themselves evenly amongst the armed ranks. Armor is typically made of iron and leather plating and one full set can weigh up to fifty pounds. This heavier armor is mostly ceremonial or used by commanders, with average sets weighing around twenty pounds.

 

Day #19 was draw something in a prominent art style in your world. As this is really hard to describe, I hope you’ll excuse my just skipping it.

 

Day #20 – Describe an important historical figure.

Libon Kosü Jiehidem was the first king of Deralan. Born into one of Deralan’s most ancient noble families, the Jiehidem, their lands were heavily reduced under Imperial rule. Legends state that one day, while riding through his domain, Lord Jiehidem saw Imperial soldiers torching a village for not paying their taxes. He was so moved by the suffering of these peasants that he declared he would not rest until all of Deralan was liberated from the Emperor’s clutches.

In reality, there was no single moment like this that spurred Lord Jiehidem’s rise to power. The Empire’s hold on Deralan had been slipping over the years, and many of the more powerful native lords sensed an opportunity to strike. Libon was just the first to act and the first to suggest a union of the various lords under his leadership to create a unified nation. After the War for Independence, several lords in the north and east of his proposed kingdom declined to join the new kingdom of Deralan, forming the so-called “sister kingdoms” of Zubashi and Zuogaban. In honor of his new role as king, Libon founded the royal dynasty of Jiediran, a name that means “golden bird” in allusion to the symbol of the Sun God.

 

Day #21 – Describe one of your world’s natural wonders.

The island of Jëdečëda, named for its endemic population of forest bears, is one of the most unique places in all of Deralan. Situated southwest of the mainland, it is one of the warmer regions of the kingdom. It is sparsely inhabited by small native communities who speak their own language found nowhere else and communities of fisherman from the western end of Deralan who use the island as a landing pad during the season.

The first person to see Jëdečëda’s potential as a resort location was King Garüs, who built a home on the island after he abdicated the throne to his younger brother. After Garüs, other nobles began to build similar winter homes, turning the northeast shore of the island into the place to be. Thankfully, Garüs was also enamored with the natural splendor of the island, including its dense forests and many waterfalls, and commissioned many artists and explorers to document the interior of the island. As a result, much of the island was known to the noble population and kept in its natural state, even as more and more people began to view it as their preferred vacation spot.

Prompt-ober Week 2

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Here are my responses for week 2 of Prompt-ober. It’s a little shorter than week 1’s but was no less fun to write.

 

Day #8 – Describe a food that is eaten on special occasions.

The Winter Festival is an amalgamation of many different traditional celebrations that take place during wintertime in Deralan. All have a common theme of fending off the darkness and lifting spirits during the harsh cold of Deralan’s winters. These are commonly celebrated with large public celebrations, including fireworks, bonfires, dancing, and traditional food.

The specific foods eaten during the Winter Festival vary from region to region, but most are fried. Meat, fish, seafood, vegetables, even dough is battered and deep fried in boiling oil. While food is not the scarcest by early winter, deep frying them covers up the drier bits of meat and tasteless vegetables. Vendors will save up their money for months to afford the oil needed to sell these treats. They usually don’t make much, if any, money off of this endeavor, but they are happy to partake in the holiday festivities. Besides, people remember their local business people come springtime, and if this can help drum up a little business, it’s all worth it.

 

Day #9 – Describe a common game or sport.

If you ever find yourself with a group of Deru in a boring situation, someone will inevitably bring out a small bag of dice and suggest a game of küžidem. The rules are simple: throw six six-sided dice and try to get a certain number of points based on what you roll, similar to Yahtzee. The game is a common one all over Deralan, popular with peasant and noble alike. The game’s name reflects its simplicity – küžidem simply translates as “six stones.”

What’s unique about this variant is its use as a makeshift form of divination. The numbers one through six are ascribed a particular magical element. Oftentimes, if a question needs to be answered and no one knows the answer, a quick throw of the dice can be interpreted to provide one from the gods, like oracle bones or a magic eight ball.

 

Day #10 – Describe a form of music or dance.

Classical dance in Deralan is a delicate, meticulous art. Using round hand fans and dressed in light, airy fabrics, dancers portray scenes of heroes and gods from Deralan mythology with careful precision. Dancers train for years before being considered good enough to perform at a high level, building up the strength and dexterity necessary to perform the complex movements involved in these dances.

Deralan classical dance is a spectacle usually reserved for the highest members of society. They’re the only ones with enough money to finance the intense training, as well as the elaborate costumes and sets required for the biggest spectacles. The typical costume of a classical dancer is a simple dress with a knee-length skirt made of light fabric to enhance the dancer’s movements. They are accessorized with a decorated hand fan that represents their character and simple hairstyles. More elaborate roles, such as those of gods or kings, may require more elaborate outfits and headwear.

Typically, troupes of dancers are female-only. Male roles are often performed by women in drag, although the occasional male dancer has been taken into dance schools on personal recommendations. Men would be treated equally to women, performing the same moves and wearing the same costumes.

 

Day #11 – Describe a temple or important sacred space.

Rising high above the skyline of Deralan City, the Grand Temple is the tallest temple in the kingdom. It is constructed in the traditional style: a six-sided tower with gold-tiled roofs and pale white walls. Topping this massive structure is a spire with three golden orbs, representing the sun and two moons that are the symbols of the most important deities in the mythology of Deralan.

The interior of the temple is large and mostly open in the center. Spiraling around the walls are large stone statues of the gods. Each one is meticulously hand-carved and painted lovingly. Placed on pedestal bases, these idols are placed in front of large windows, so their shadows play across the central worship floor. Worshippers ascend to their god of choice and lay their offering at the statue’s feet, burning incense and saying prayers as they do so.

For major holidays, the statue of an appropriate god will be wheeled out carefully into the main floor, which is inlaid with the sacred six-pointed star of the Deralan religion. Worshippers file in to lay their offerings at the god’s feet, usually flowers and fruits that pile up in great mounds. These offerings are usually distributed to the poor or used to decorate the temple by the monks.

 

Day #12 – Describe the item’s on an average person’s nightstand.

The average person in Deralan wouldn’t be able to afford a nightstand, nor would they really have need for it, keeping anything valuable at their bedside on the floor. The rich typically have servants who can fetch anything they might need in the night for them. Only the middle class would have a nightstand, on which they would have a candle and anything else they needed handy during the night – a book, glasses, a cup of tea, whatever. Most people’s bedrooms are kept largely unadorned, as the more public spaces in the house are the focus of decoration.

 

Day #13 – Describe a depiction of a god in your world.

It can be dangerous to travel through the wilderness of Deralan, especially alone. Bandits, wild animals, even general weather can be disastrous, even fatal. Therefore, the smart traveler will take precautions of the supernatural variety before beginning their trip. Before leaving, it is a custom to give offerings to the god of journeys, Zëčüdiebalun. He is depicted in the same style as many gods, with a humanoid body dressed in fine robes. His head is that of a hare’s, representative of his fleet-footed nature. He carries a walking stick that takes the form of a long stalk of grain, and his attendants, little rabbits dressed in uniforms, play around his feet. It is believed that if you spot a rabbit on your travels, you will definitely reach your destination safely, as long as you’ve made the appropriate offerings and prayers before departure. Like all gods, Zëčüdiebalun loves incense, flowers, and bowls of grain. Carrots, not so much, so take care.

Prompt-ober Week 1

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For those who are looking at this title confused, check out this post to learn more about Prompt-ober. Once you’re all caught up, keep on reading!

 

Day #1 – Describe your world’s non-human sentient occupants.

Though the main inhabitants of this world are not human per se, they are fairly indistinguishable from humans at first glance. Instead, we will discuss a highly intelligent creature that is vital to the way of life for many peoples – the düran. Dürani are large birds used as beasts of burden throughout the world, similar to how horses are used on Earth. Broad-chested and typically standing around five feet tall, these creatures are intelligent and highly social. Wild dürani move in herds of ten to twelve family groups following an alpha matriarch. Domesticated birds, meanwhile, will try to form similar family groups with their owners and other dürani.

While the word düran is often used in Deralan as a catch-all term for all of these birds, there are actually a number of species that have been domesticated in various parts of the world. The breed of bird most associated with the term is native to the grassy plains east of Deralan, an area commonly referred to as the düratem or “land of birds.” This species is best known for their large wingspan and bright plumage. These birds are the largest of all species of dürani, standing between five and six feet at the shoulder on average, with a wingspan over six feet. Females are typically brown in color with hints of gold or green, while males are brightly colored.

The other main species can be found in the river valleys of the former Empire. These birds are smaller, usually between four and a half and five feet tall, and have a similarly smaller wingspan. Their defining trait is their prominent tail, the feathers of which are used in mating displays. These feathers are also often used to decorate ceremonial clothing as well.

Many cultures around the globe use these birds as beasts of burden and transportation. The people of the düratem are somewhat unique, as their traditionally nomadic lifestyle relies entirely on these birds, with wealth and social status being inherently tied to them. The social structures of these roving bands mirror that of the dürani themselves, with caravans of a dozen or so family groups herding their animals across the vast plains. In other cultures, such as Deralan or the old Empire, dürani are also seen as status symbols, with the most brilliant and exotic specimens being coveted by the highest members of society.

 

Day #2 – Describe an example of magic usage in your world.

Magic is an esoteric ability innate to the peoples of this world. Rare is the individual who is unable to detect even a hint of the natural magic that permeates the world. Also rare is the individual who can harness that power into a physical element. There are many ways magic can take form, as each magic user is blessed with the ability to harness one of the six described magical elements: fire, water, wind, wood, earth, or metal.

Fire magic has the potential to be the most dangerous. It is easier to produce than other forms but more difficult to control. Losing control of fire magic can be deadly, so most fire mages restrict themselves to small uses of magic in their everyday life – lighting candles and torches, maybe working as a blacksmith or a party magician. Those that learn how to harness their power often become powerful warriors, comprising small shock corps of grenadier-like troops.

Water magic is deceptively powerful. Water mages learn to see the world as endless sources of fluid for them to manipulate. Anything can be at their whim: a faucet, a geyser, the blood inside an enemy’s body. Learning how to manipulate water in all its forms is a difficult and highly technical skill to master. Most water mages stick to the basics: purifying water and manipulating both fresh and salt water.

Wind magic lends itself well to creative usage. At first glance, it may not appear to have many practical applications. But, a wind mage can produce large gusts of wind, carry messages long distances, levitate objects, and make themselves louder or softer. Wind mages tend to excel in stealthy roles as spies or secret agents. In the right hands, there are no limits to what wind magic can do.

Wood magic is the most practical of all the elements, and the element most common people will be familiar with. The ability to heal wounds and illness as well as affect the growth of plants make wood mages vital to small agrarian communities. Aside from these common applications, wood magic is similar to water magic in the wide variety of places where it can be applied.

Earth magic is powerful and straightforward. It shows itself in large movements of earth, and earth mages often find themselves with easy work as contractors or engineers, both in civilian and in military life. But earth magic is more than just moving rocks. It’s an element focused on defense, and skilled earth mages learn subtler arts of defense as they grow.

Metal was the final element to be determined as magical, and it can be somewhat difficult to describe. Similar to earth, it is an element with incredible defensive capabilities: a skilled metal mage can turn their skin to armor at will. But metal can also be used offensively. A blade can be sharpened or rendered useless, or even be formed from nothing at all with enough practice.

 

Day #3 – Describe a small village in your world.

The village of Suočedyan is fairly standard for small agrarian villages in Deralan. Nestled in the forests near the city of Jiehidem, Suočedyan is a small town of a few families. Life in Suočedyan takes two paths. Some stay within the village, keeping their houses clean and their fields healthy. Every household has a small plot of land which they farm for themselves and hopefully to sell any extra in the city. Some choose to venture into Jiehidem for work, plowing the gold flower fields and other menial chores to earn a living. By urban measures, it is undoubtedly poor. However, like other rural areas, it runs on a different economy to the big cities. Those who can provide food for themselves and their families are considered rich indeed, not just those with a heap of gold underneath their beds.

Suočedyan would be largely unremarkable if it weren’t for one notable inhabitant: Širo Küdiyan Lieban. Second son of a Jiehidem dock worker, a chance encounter with Prince Garüs during the succession crisis of 1117 changed the course of his life. His latent powers of wood magic helped save the young prince from an assassination attempt and allowed him to ascend the throne. Širo served King Garüs faithfully, both as a trusted advisor and as a loyal and loving husband. On one anniversary of their marriage, the young man was immortalized in a beautiful statue in the center of town. The statue has become something of a shrine for young lovers to commemorate their relationship.

 

Day #4 – Describe a cultural rite of passage.

Children in Deralan are typically dressed in similar fashion: long robes and wide pants to accommodate movement. At twelve, when a girl is now to be considered a young woman, she makes the transition from wearing the clothes of childhood to the dress of an adult.

This transition begins around the girl’s twelfth birthday. The process begins with the fabric. This either means purchasing the fabric or creating it herself with her mother. What material is used depends heavily on local custom. In the north, wool and other warmer fabrics are common, while in the south, linen is much more popular. The time needed to make enough fabric for a dress can take several months, between spinning, weaving, and dyeing. Once it’s all made, work can finally begin on the garment itself.

The style of dress also changes from region to region. Generally, styles in rural areas are more conservative, as dresses are constructed for maximum wear time. In short, a girl will not get a new dress until she grows out of this one, so the style must work no matter what age she is. Among the upper classes, the style is typically a youthful one, as new ones can be made more easily. Generally, all dresses are floor-length with wide sleeves and a neckline that, while still not overly provocative, is lower than that of a child.

A girl will work with her mother to sew this dress. This rite of passage strengthens the bond between a mother and daughter, while also teaching a girl skills that will be important to her life as a woman. After countless hours of weaving, dyeing, measuring, and sewing, the dress is complete. The girl will wear her dress for the first time at a sort of coming out party, announcing to her community that she is now a young woman. Though it will be some time before she will marry, she will now be expected to help out with the duties of the home and will be looked upon no longer as a child, but a young adult.

 

Day #5 – Describe a custom surrounding birth.

When a child is born in Deralan or one of its cultural neighbors, Zubashi and Zuogaban, the first person who is alerted outside the family is the local fortuneteller. Part astrologer, part herbalist, and often possessing magical powers, they are often referred to as išütážuni – seers.

Their knowledge of medicine and folk remedies often means that they are with the mother while she gives birth and helps both her and the baby get through the process safely. Especially in rural areas, they may be the only doctor within hundreds of miles. In the rapidly growing urban centers, the importance of an išütažun is waning, but many still employ them in place of or in addition to a more scholarly doctor.

The išütažun will continue to check in on the mother after birth to ensure that both mother and child are healthy and recovering correctly. Six days after the birth of a healthy child, though, they come with a more esoteric purpose: divination. Using the position of the sun, twin moons, and three major planets at the time of the child’s birth, the seer casts stones to divine aspects of the child’s life. In this first ritual, aspects of the child’s personality and health are divined to give a glimpse into who the child will likely grow up to be.

The išütažun returns three more times throughout a child’s life to perform this ritual. At six weeks old, the stones are cast to reveal how the child will interact with their family, both intimate and extended. At one year (as a year consists of six months in this calendar), the stones divine their relationships with the outside world, including friendly, romantic, and combative ones. The stones are cast for the final time when a child turns six years old, an unfortunately uncommon occurrence. This occasion is given great importance, as this ritual will determine their future success, as well as more mystic elements often little understood by all except the išütažun.

Those whose children have been given less than favorable readings, or who disagree with the process, often slander these fortunetellers as kogerani, demon witches. Despite these protestations, it seems true more often than not that the prophecies of these seers are fulfilled.

 

Day #6 – Describe a custom surrounding death.

The traditional method for sending a departed person into the afterlife among the people of Deralan is cremation. Once a person has passed on, a priest or seer will be contacted to prepare the body for the ceremony. The body is dressed in white clothes and anointed with incense as prayers are chanted over it, wishing it safe passage to eternal rest. Then, the body is taken to a funeral pyre and burned before all those willing to attend. In some communities, only close family members and a priest are in attendance. Meanwhile, thousands dressed in white to attend King Oderan’s funeral in Deralan City in 1117.

It is believed that our spirits lived at one point in the heavens before incarnating into our mortal bodies, and to the heavens they shall return. As such, there is little memorializing of the person beyond the artifacts they leave behind. The ashes are usually collected into urns and buried beneath the family home, forever rooting them to the place. In the palace complex in Deralan City, there is a small memorial where the graves of Deralan’s kings and their families are interred. This is the closest to a formalized graveyard as can be found in Deralan, though again, there are only ashes in these tombs. Some noble families keep similar, if less expansive, memorials in their private manors.

 

Day #7 – Describe the decorations used for a holiday in your world.

The New Year’s Festival takes place at the beginning of spring, a celebration of new life after the devastation and hardships of winter. The New Year celebrates the overcoming of the gods of winter and ice by the resurrection of the sun god, the principal god of the religion of Deralan. This holiday is the most important in the entire calendar and marked by massive festivals throughout the kingdom.

Though each region has its own local traditions, the consistent trend throughout these celebrations is the use of light. Light is used to symbolize the return of the sun and the defeat of the long night of winter. This takes many forms: candles, torches, bonfires. The most common way light is used is in paper lanterns.

You will find these paper lanterns strung up everywhere around New Year’s time. They decorate individual homes, city streets, taverns, government buildings, everywhere one might think. These lanterns are made from wood and colored paper, then decorated with wishes for good luck and prosperity in the new year. Seeing strings of lanterns in a town is like seeing the combined wishes of that town in one place, all glowing with hope for what the new year will have in store.

Prompt-ober 2018 – What is it?

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Hey everyone!

If you aren’t clued into the art scene on this glorious Internet, you may not know about the Inktober challenge. For those who haven’t heard about it, Inktober is an annual drawing challenge where artists do one drawing a day for the month of October, usually using ink as their primary medium. It’s similar to NaNoWriMo, but for artists.

Since I’m not the greatest artist, I’ll be doing a slightly different challenge created by the people over at the worldbuilding subreddit: Prompt-ober. Basically, come up with a response to each of the following prompts during the month of October.

Promptober

Credit to u/Siletha for the idea and u/alex3omg for this beautiful calendar

I’ll be posting these responses in bursts of a few prompts every few days. I’m really looking forward to this challenge and I hope you enjoy what I come up with.

I’ll also be posting my next History of Disney parts some time this month as well. It’s going to be a busy month over here, and I hope you’ll enjoy the ride as well.

History of Disney, Part 4 – The Dark Age

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This is Part 4 of my look back at the history of Disney animation. For more information on this project, check out the introduction, and the previous three posts which cover the Golden AgeWartime Era, and Silver Age.

The Dark Age of Disney animation refers to the films produced and released in the years between 1970 and 1988. There were eight films released in this period: The Aristocats (1970), Robin Hood (1973), The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), The Rescuers (1977), The Fox and the Hound (1981), The Black Cauldron (1985), The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and Oliver and Company (1988).

Walt Disney Studios in this era is a company at a crossroads. The Silver Age was a string of successes, with the final film in that era, The Jungle Book, on its way to becoming the seventh highest-grossing traditionally animated film of all time (when adjusted for inflation). Yet, Disney is also a company reeling from the loss of its two leaders: first Walt in 1966, then brother Roy in 1971. Under the direction of men like Donn Tatum, Card Walker, and Walt’s son-in-law Ron Miller, everyone at Disney, from the board of directors to the individual animators, struggled with the same burning question: what would Walt do?

The answers they came up with didn’t really work out. Top brass at the company felt pressured to maintain the Disney brand, a brand that even Walt had felt was limiting. He famously lamented after a screening of To Kill a Mockingbird “I wish I could make movies like that.” The focus on family entertainment, on wholesome values, on the kind of idyllic Americana Walt had famously enshrined in Main Street, U.S.A., came back to bite Disney where it really hurt: their bank account. Miller’s pitch for Touchstone Pictures, a more adult-oriented film branch for the company, was blocked by Walker for years before finally being allowed. Previous flop collaborations with Paramount, like Popeye and Dragonslayer may have helped push off this pitch as long as it did.

Or maybe it was simply a case of old ways and ideas coming into conflict with the new world. When the board proposed raising parking fees at Disneyland, Walker refused, citing Walt’s intents to make Disneyland the happiest place on Earth. Walker’s refusal to aggressively market and advertise their films, instead relying on word of mouth to generate buzz, led to a long dry spell at the box office. Walt may have said “the only publicity worth the money is free,” but this attitude led to them writing off much of the budget for Tron after it failed to make waves.

Simply put, Disney’s old aesthetic and ways which we now regard as timeless and nostalgic, must have seemed hopelessly old-fashioned at the time. “Uncle Walt” with his fairy tales and belief in the power of dreams and a good honest work ethic fit right at home in the monoculture that exploded out of the 50s. But in the 60s and 70s, the era of second-wave feminism, protests for black, Latinx, and gay rights, rising divorce and gas prices and failing economies? Snow White and Cinderella must have seemed quaint to the mass audience.

There was also the issue of costs. Inflation had more than caught up with Disney’s operations. Walt Disney World opened in 1971, with its big expansion in EPCOT opening almost exactly a decade later. Tokyo Disneyland, the first venture internationally for theme parks, opened in 1983. Though these brought in revenue, it wasn’t enough to keep up with costs, as maintenance and expansion inside the park continued. Costs on the film side increased as well. 1985’s The Black Cauldron, a movie often blamed with nearly killing Disney Animation for good, was the most expensive animated movie ever made at that point. It barely made half of its eventual $44 million costs. Clearly, something needed to be done.

In 1977, Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew, left the Disney company, citing dissatisfaction at the leadership under Walker and Miller. By 1984, blood was in the water, and the corporate raiders were swarming like sharks. As a last ditch effort to avoid a hostile takeover, Roy led a boardroom coup that forced Miller’s resignation and led to the naming of Michael Eisner of Paramount and Frank Wells of Warner Brothers as chairman and president of the Walt Disney Company, the first time an outsider had been brought into the Disney bureaucracy at this high a level. With Eisner came his assistant, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who took over as head of the motion pictures division.

This, to me, is the turning point for Disney animation, the real change from the Dark Age into the new Golden Age. For all their flaws, and there are many, Eisner and Katzenberg brought just the right kind of new energy the studio needed to get back on track. Success came almost immediately, with The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and Oliver & Company (1988) grossing over $50 million each, though the former lost big at the box office to a different movie about a mouse done by ex-Disney animators, An American Tail.

This is where I’m going to stop the history section of this post as this story really gets going in the next part. Instead, we’ll clumsily transition into talking about the artistic elements of the movies released during the Dark Age.

The majority of the Dark Age films are the culmination of the classic Disney aesthetic from the Golden and Silver Ages. This is the era when the old guard who had been working since the beginnings of the company began to retire and were replaced by new upstarts who would become animation rockstars in the following years; people like Glen Keane, John Lasseter, John Musker & Ron Clements, Tim Burton, and Brad Bird to name a few. 1981’s The Fox and the Hound marks the end of this era, as it was the last film to feature animation from any of the Nine Old Men. It was also the last film to feature animation by Don Bluth, who left Disney with a number of animators during production. They went on to challenge Disney at the box office throughout the 80s with films like The Secret of NIMH (1982) and An American Tail (1986).

Most Dark Age movies feature the classic Disney style seen in movies like The Jungle Book. However, there was less of an emphasis on creativity as there was in the old days. Several sequences throughout these films feature recycled animation, a practice not new to Disney, but that has become much more noticeable to me doing this retrospective.

Not to say there was no creativity at all. Innovations in computer animation were put to great use in the later movies in this period, like The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and Oliver and Company (1988). Still, the preoccupation on doing what Walt might have done prevented the company from experimenting too much. Producer Don Hahn described the films of this era as “lighthearted comedies for kids” in his documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009) and, while that can put money in the bank (even though here it didn’t), it doesn’t usually leave much of an impression.

But was this era more stagnation or refinement? Well, let’s see what the rankings have to say:

8. The Aristocats (1970) – Well, we’re certainly starting this ranking off with a bang; the first movie in this era is my least favorite. The Aristocats is the best example of the “lighthearted comedy for kids” moniker used as a pejorative. It’s cute and sweet and nice to put on the keep the kids entertained for an hour, but the animation and music are nothing to write home about. The story also has some of the worse plot cul-de-sacs I’ve seen so far in this rewatch. So many of these older films have scenes and characters who come into the movie, barely affect anything, and then just disappear. They’re not subplots because they aren’t developed at all, and they aren’t memorable or enjoyable enough to stand on their own merits. That said, “cute but boring” is more than I can say for a few movies I’ve seen so far. And hey, we can only go up from here.

7. The Rescuers (1977) – The Rescuers is second-to-last on this list largely by virtue of being “pretty but boring.” There are some nice sequences, I generally like the aesthetic of the film, and the relationship between Bernard and Bianca is fun to watch at times. That said, this is probably the dullest of all the movies in this era. At least the scenery’s nice and the plot, though pretty sparse most of the time, is fairly straightforward. I dunno, there’s not much to this movie.

6. Oliver and Company (1988) – Oliver is really just The Rescuers but better. A supposed adaptation of Oliver Twist, it also happens to share the basic structure with the number 7 entry on this list. A group of talking animals helps rescue a little girl from the clutches of a greedy, one-note villain. Despite an all-star cast and one of the best Billy Joel songs of all time, this movie just fell victim to release order, finding itself sandwiched in between two much better films, one of which I’ll talk about shortly.

5. The Black Cauldron (1985) – The movie that nearly killed Disney by being so expensive and taking nearly six years to come out. They were already coming in with the odds against them; a tonally dark adaptation of the five Chronicles of Prydain books into one film was going to be a hard sell even if it was amazing. The movie we get has some excellent visuals but a really poor story, as all that condensing leaves the characters just kind of floating. Had they waited two decades and taken lessons from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, this could have been the animated answer to that phenomenon. As it is, we’re left with the pieces of a better film trapped inside. Disney still has the rights to these, so maybe they’ll be able to do it right this time.

4. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) – Too many early Disney movie try to have both an episodic story with a lot of side characters and also have one solid narrative. This movie is the only one I’ve seen do it right. It’s an episodic narrative where the throughline is that all the episodes focus on the same characters. The episodes are fun and wholesome and the movie is very enjoyable. Definitely good for a rewatch, though it’s probably exactly how you remember it as a kid.

3. The Fox and the Hound (1981) – This movie hits a lot of the same tonal and atmospheric beats that made Bambi really work for me. It’s somber and rustic, and really subtle in the way it handles its larger themes. This one is a tearjerker, but it’s so good that you won’t really mind having your heart ripped out at the end.

2. Robin Hood (1973) – This is the best example of the “lighthearted comedy for kids” meant as a compliment. Robin Hood is an extremely enjoyable romp through a good old-fashioned medieval tale. The Robin Hood story is such a staple in film that most people will have a basic idea of what’s going to happen going in, but that still doesn’t sap any enjoyment out of the film. This was one of my biggest surprises in this rewatch, and it’s one I’ll be revisiting soon after I finish.

1. The Great Mouse Detective (1986) – For my money, this is the movie that started the Disney Renaissance. The directorial debut of Musker & Clements, this film really nailed what a Disney movie should be. The plot is engaging, though it does slow down a bit much in the middle, the animation is incredible, and the dynamic between the hero Basil and the villain Ratigan is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Ratigan especially is one of the most enjoyable villains in all Disney-dom, and his song is one of the catchiest. This movie is severely underrated, and if you haven’t checked out many of the Dark Age films, this is the one to watch.

As we leave the Dark Age behind, things are beginning to look up for Disney. In the next part, we will see the true rebirthing of Disney Animation, watch it reach its highest heights and see how it falls victim to its own success when we cover The Disney Renaissance.

If this has interested you in any way, I recommend checking out the documentary I mentioned in this post, Waking Sleeping Beauty. It’s a fantastic look into the transitions that went on in the Disney company between 1984 and 1994. Highly recommended if you’re a fan of animation history (which I assume you are if you’re reading this post.) Until next time!

History of Disney, Part 3 – The Silver Age

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This is Part 3 of my look back at the history of Disney animation. For more information on this project, check out the introduction. Part 1 focuses on the Golden Age of Disney animation, while Part 2 focuses on the films made during the Second World War.

The Silver Age of Disney animation refers to the films produced and released in the years between 1950 and 1967. There were eight films released in this period: Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955), Sleeping Beauty (1959), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), The Sword in the Stone (1963), and The Jungle Book (1967).

The great miracle of the Second World War was helping America fully throw off the economic downturn of the Great Depression. Transitioning from a wartime to a peacetime economy provided the general public with an increased standard of living and, for the first time, invented the idea of the middle class. With renewed economic strength at home and broad diplomatic influence abroad, its no wonder why this century would come to be known by some as “the American century.”

And pop culture would just be one of the industries that arose in this time period. The middle class helped create a demographic that weren’t children but not quite adults: teenagers, listening to their rock and roll music and driving their fancy new cars to drive-in theaters. The new technology of television gained widespread appeal; 90% of American households had a TV by 1962. And one Mr. Walt Disney, having shepherded America through the war, was ready to grow into a true media mogul.

The low production costs of the Wartime films and their decent box office helped Disney recoup some of the massive debt he was in at the time from his pre-war films. But, it still wasn’t quite enough. Disney would need a big hit to help pull him out of hot water with the banks. When surveying the projects him and his team had been developing for post-war release, Disney decided to push forward a project with a sense of heart, one closest to Snow White in story and tone.

Cinderella (1950) was a smash hit for Disney. Both a critical and commercial success, Cinderella essentially bankrolled the entire 1950s for the Walt Disney Company, providing the much-needed capital to not only keep his studio at its present size but also to finance some more outlandish ideas, like entering television or building an amusement park.

In 1954, Disney and ABC partnered to produce Disneyland, the first title for what today is known as The Wonderful World of Disney and which is currently the second-longest running primetime program on American television. The show would be an important platform for Walt to discuss his upcoming projects, including the little theme park in Anaheim that would open the next year as Disneyland. The full scope of Disney’s expansions into television and vacation destinations is a little outside the purview of this series, but I’d be more than willing to dive more into it if people are interested. Regardless, it’s important to note just how necessary a financial hit like Cinderella was for Disney. It wasn’t solely responsible, but the ability to pay off debts and still have money left over made borrowing money in the future for projects like Disneyland much more possible.

With the proven success of feature animation in the postwar market, the studio shifted from shorts to feature films, pumping out four more before the decade was out, not to mention working on hybrid movies such as Mary Poppins (1964). Disney also continued to expand on TV, premiering such landmark series as The Mickey Mouse ClubDavy Crockett, and Zorro, and in the parks. Disney’s animators combined their artistic training with technical knowledge to become “Imagineers” and create some of the most beloved attractions, like the Enchanted Tiki Room, the Haunted Mansion, and Pirates of the Caribbean. On top of all of this, Disney envisioned a new community on the east coast, and quietly acquired acres upon acres of land near Orlando, Florida to create his theme park, hotels, and something called the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. In November of 1965, this would be officially revealed to be Disney World.

This era is noteworthy for its codification of the Disney aesthetic. While the animation style you probably associate with the term “Disney” was seen back in the shorts, this is the era where that style became formalized. This is the era of Walt’s Nine Old Men, a term he coined to describe his team of nine high-ranking animators who took on bigger leadership roles throughout the fifties and sixties. The techniques that would later be written down and shared by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in “Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life” (a great read for anyone interested in animation) were put to great effect in these films.

That’s not to say every film was the same. There was still plenty of room for experimentation in art direction and music. The Sword in the Stone (1963) was the first Disney film to feature music by Richard and Robert Sherman, the songwriters behind Mary Poppins and “It’s a Small World.” Their music is simple and obnoxiously catchy and has stayed in the public consciousness for good reason. Artistically, this is the era of Mary Blair, whose color styling on Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953) helped give those films their iconic look. Even still, films like Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Lady and the Tramp (1955) offer more stylistic interpretations of classic Disney aesthetics.

Now, before I get into the ranking, I feel it necessary to give a disclaimer. This era is really nostalgic for a lot of people. Even while watching, I found myself reliving a fair number of childhood memories through these films. It’s normal to get attached to media from our childhood. I just want to take a moment to describe what I’m looking for in these rankings. I am, at this point, halfway through film school. As such, when I watch these movies, I am judging them both on personal entertainment levels and also on how well they execute on story structure, cinematography, characterization, and other fancy film school ideas. This isn’t how most people view movies nor is it how most people should view movies. If a movie you loved is low on the list or a movie you didn’t like is high, don’t take this a slight against you or your tastes. Just read it as an expression of my personal opinion, which is motivated by different considerations than a regular moviegoer. With that out of the way, onto the list.

8. The Sword in the Stone (1963) – Has there ever been a really good King Arthur movie? Between the Guy Ritchie flop last year, and the meh adaptation of Camelot in ’67, it seems as though one of the most famous knights is box office poison. Sword in the Stone‘s biggest crime is that it’s boring. It’s just kind of aimless and things happen with little reason or consequence. The animation is also the worst in this era. The backgrounds aren’t interesting, the character designs are kind of ugly and the whole movie feels cheaply made. It’s a shame that this was how they decided to adapt King Arthur.

7. Peter Pan (1953) – This is the whole reason behind that initial disclaimer. If the line for Peter Pan’s Flight has taught me anything, it’s that people love this movie. I can see why. The swashbuckling adventure is fun and exciting for kids. However, everything around it is not that exciting. The characters are all really mean to each other. The lovely Tinker Bell is just a little too actively homicidal for my liking, while Peter Pan is way too conceited to be likable. The story itself is fine, and Captain Hook is the right level of camp you need for your villain, but the unlikable “heroes” bring the movie down.

6. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) – If Captain Hook was the right level of camp for Peter Pan, then Cruella is what happens when you turn camp up to eleven. She’s a joy to watch, but she is completely at odds with the rest of the film. She is so obviously, blatantly evil, that you don’t understand how the otherwise sensible characters would continue to put up with her. The movie comes alive with her, though, and feels a little dull without her. I like a lot of the ideas in this movie, but they weren’t executed as well as they could be.

5. Alice in Wonderland (1951) – It was a tough decision choosing between this and One Hundred and One Dalmatians. In the end, this won out for making less sense. The original book by Lewis Carroll laid out the groundwork for a style I’ll call “grade-school surreal.” You know, those weird books you read as a little kid that stick in your head until you don’t remember if they were even real or just something you made up. “The Phantom Tollbooth” springs to mind for me. That’s what this movie feels like, a G-rated acid trip that leaves you wondering if half of what you saw was real. At least it’s entertaining while it lasted.

4 Sleeping Beauty (1959) – Definitely the most interesting movie of this era visually. The art direction and style is gorgeous and lets the animators do some really interesting things with shots and lighting. It feels like a lovingly hand-drawn storybook. The story of Sleeping Beauty isn’t really about Sleeping Beauty, which can be tricky to deal with from a modern perspective. It’s a movie about the fairies and Maleficent, who is far and away the best classic Disney villain, using Aurora and Phillip as pawns in their power play. If the movie had framed itself more around this and focused less on the two “leads,” I think this could have been even better.

3. Lady and the Tramp (1955) – Screenwriters are taught that scripts revolve around conflict. This movie and Bambi are two really good counter-examples to that rule. If written and shot well, a film about someone living their life can be just as engaging as a story with a clear villain. This is one of the most beautiful movies to look at, and it’s kind of refreshing to have a romance that doesn’t start with the initial misunderstanding and hatred. It’s just a really sweet movie that can be enjoyed by everyone – the classic Disney formula.

2. Cinderella (1950) – This is classic Disney princess at its finest. Cinderella is without a doubt the focus of this movie and her world is rendered in a simply gorgeous way. I watched this movie a lot when I was younger and coming back to it really felt like going home. There’s something very calming about this film. It’s a reminder that sometimes good things come to deserving people and your dreams really can come true.

1. The Jungle Book (1967) – I just really can’t find anything to complain about or nitpick in this movie. Another one I could practically recite while watching, it’s just a really solid family movie. The score is one of the few that sounds very distinctive from this early period and the movie has this wonderful tone of mystery to it that helps sell the atmosphere. This isn’t quite as artistically well-done as some of the movies below it, but it strikes the perfect balance between a strong story and a well-done visual aesthetic.

All this momentum should have primed the Disney company for record highs and media dominance. However, all good things must come to an end. On December 15, 1966, Walt Disney passed away from complications due to lung cancer. The Jungle Book, released the following year, was the last movie with personal involvement from the company’s founder himself. This loss hit the world and the company right in the gut and left the studio asking how they would move on. We’ll discuss how Disney moved forward without Walt’s guiding hand in our next installment when we cover The Dark Age.