Monday, February 28, 2011

"When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are..."

Recently I watched two great documentaries about Disney animated films that I found fascinating, interesting, and a little bit sad. I grew up not only watching Disney films (initially in the movie theater and on TV, and eventually on VHS & DVD), but also listening to the long playing records of the stories and the songs. (I could use the Fisher Price record player on my own before I could properly tie my shoes, and I probably knew most of the Disney movie songs before I went to kindergarten.)

The first one is The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story. The songs of the Sherman brothers are ingrained in American pop culture. You may not know the names Richard and Robert Sherman, but you probably know the words to their songs: "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", "Wonderful Thing about Tiggers","Wanna Be Like You", "Portobello Road", "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang", or "It's a Small World After All". This documentary recounts the personal and professional history of the brothers, including their great successes (the Oscar for Mary Poppins), personal clashes, and the eventual decline of their songwriting. The most interesting part of their story is their early collaboration with Walt Disney himself, who signed them as the first permanent staff songwriters at the studio during the first golden age of Disney. There are wonderful interviews with the brothers as well as the men and women who performed the songs in the films; I particularly enjoyed the one with Dick van Dyke. The documentary was made by the brothers' sons, who due to their fathers' estrangement, hadn't seen each other in 25 years, and the film really is a kind of olive branch to their dads.

The other Disney documentary is Waking Sleeping Beauty, which examines the decline of the Disney Animation studios in the early 1980s following the departure of head animator Don Bluth and the box office failure of The Black Cauldron (which I actually saw at its premiere at Radio City Music Hall; it was AWFUL-read the books instead) through the rise of its second golden age in the early 1990s with the smash hits The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Focusing on leadership and management at Disney (rather than the technical aspects of creating the films), the film is a fascinating look at the Disney outsiders who came in to shake things up and give animation the shot in the arm that it needed to put Disney animated films back at the top of the box office. Because the film is done by men who actually worked at Disney animation during this period, it is chock full of home movies (Tim Burton is in one of them!! Pixar's John Lasseter is there too!) and first hand accounts with many of the animators. It is honest and doesn't whitewash much: crazy hours, massive egos, power plays, and a completely scrapped first go at Beauty and the Beast. There are some really beautiful things in the film too: the inspiration lyricist Howard Ashman brought to projects, the camaraderie of the animators, and the support of Roy Disney for continuing Disney film making when it was falling out of fashion. Watching this documentary knowing that Tangled is going to be the last animated Disney fairytale for the foreseeable future is bittersweet, but this film gave me an even stronger appreciation of the legacy of the Disney Animation Studio.

Both of these get a strong B+ from this Disney fan.

*Every time I hear "When You Wish Upon a Star", I get a little choked up. It is a good one.

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