The Wonderful World of Disney Comes to TCM

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As a kid growing up in 1970s my Sunday nights revolved around The Wonderful World of Disney. It was my cherished respite before the much dreaded school week began and I savored every last minute spent in front of the family television set. At the time, residents in the San Francisco Bay Area where I was born and mostly raised, only had access to 10 or 12 available channels to choose from and many of those were locally run and operated. There were no video stores renting movies in those days and the idea of streaming films directly into your own home was merely a faraway fantasy. In these limited environs, The Wonderful World of Disney offered kids and adults of all ages a surprisingly diverse and family friendly smorgasbord of programming that included animated and live action films, nature documentaries, educational shorts and special broadcasts made especially for television. Much to my delight, Turner Classic Movies has recently teamed-up with The Walt Disney Studios for a new on-going program called Treasures from the Disney Vault hosted by Ben Mankiewicz and film critic Leonard Maltin that’s making its debut this coming Sunday night on December 21st. TCM’s impressive 8-hour block of television is a throwback to The Wonderful World of Disney of my childhood and I hope it will introduce a new generation to the wonderful treasures hidden deep within the vaults of the Disney Studios.

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Back to the Drawing Board

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)Next Monday, October 6, TCM presents an evening of early American animation, a must-see for cartoon fans of all ages. The line-up begins with the cartoons of Winsor McCay, followed by animation from two companies lost to the history books, the Bray Studio and the Van Beuren Studios. At 12:15 am, Lotte Reiniger’s unique Adventures of Prince Achmed airs, followed by the 1939 version of Gulliver’s Travels and the Japanese feature Magic Boy. Chuck Jones’s beloved Phantom Tollbooth concludes the evening’s entertainment, which has been dubbed “Back to the Drawing Board” by TCM. Of the vast array of styles and stories represented in this selection of pre-classic animation, I am most excited to see the work of the Bray Studios and Prince Achmed by Reiniger (above).

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Anime Goes West: Magic Boy (1959)

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In the 1950s Hiroshi Okawa wanted to make Toei Company the Disney of Asia. Toei had already become a prolific producer of jidaigeki (period drama) movies, focusing on cheaply made programmers to fill out double and triple bills. They made 104 features in 1954 alone. Toei president Okawa had grander designs, and acquired the animation company Nichido in 1956 in the hopes of competing in the international cartoon market. Toei followed the Disney formula of selecting local fables and fairy tales for adaptation, and adding on a menagerie of cute animals. They also followed the Disney edict of making only one film per year. In a test of the receptivity of the U.S. market, they released their first three films there in 1961, all through different distributors. Their first animated feature was The Tale of the White Serpent (1958), an iteration of the Chinese folktale “Legend of the White Snake”. It was dubbed and released in the U.S. as Panda and the Magic Serpent by the independent Globe Pictures. The first Japanese anime to receive substantial stateside distribution was Magic Boy, completed in Japan in 1959 and released by MGM in ’61. Alakazam the Great (1960) was released stateside by exploitation experts American International Pictures.  The overseas theatrical experiment failed, though Toei’s animation wing would start a pipeline into U.S. television, becoming a staple on Saturday afternoon matinees. Now the Warner Archive has given the U.S. version of Magic Boy its first DVD release, allowing us to examine part of Okawa’s grand plan (it also airs on TCM on Monday, October 6th at 3AM).

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Daliwood

Salvador Dali’s surrealist career was bookended by his experiences in the movies.

I have to couch that statement with the limiter “surrealist career” because Dali was a prolific and prodigious talent whose larger artistic career in toto is almost incomprehensibly vast—he was painting like a pro when he was a small child, and kept at it until 1989.  That’s right, Dali was around to witness the first Internet virus.  Just wrap your head around that.

But… he is known and celebrated primarily as a surrealist, and it is that phase of his career which intersects the world of movies.  And therein lies our tale.

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Zip a Dee Doo Dah

While celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary at Walt Disney World a couple of weeks ago, I had occasion to think about racist content in family movies.

No, no–hold on, bear with me. I was having a great time and was fully immersed in the magical world of Disney like I was supposed to, but I ran across an interesting paradox that got me thinking. You see, over the years, Disney has retired some rides because their source material was deemed too obscure (bye bye Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride), and even some that didn’t seem all that obscure got the axe to make way for attractions based on the latest releases (bye bye 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea).

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Given this policy, the enduring popularity of Splash Mountain at the Magic Kingdom is something to marvel at, since the ride is based on perhaps the most obscure work in the entire Disney canon, Song of the South. Weirder still, Splash Mountain debuted in 1989, a few years after its source material Song of the South was decommissioned and mothballed. It would have been easier to just forget Song of the South ever existed–but there’s something about this film that is not so easily forgotten.

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Nature and Nurture: Wolf Children

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One of these images is from James Benning’s long-take experiment in landscape photography, 13 Lakes (2004), and the other is from the hit Japanese anime of 2012, Wolf Children. I’ll let you figure out which is which. Outgrossing Pixar’s Brave in its home country, Wolf Children crowned director Mamoru Hosoda as a legitimate heir to Hayao Miyazaki (for whom he initially developed Howl’s Moving Castle), and is now available to English speakers on Hong Kong Blu-Ray and DVD. Both directors are concerned with the relationship between nature and civilization, but while Miyazaki’s eco-parables soar into faraway lands, with Wolf Children Hosoda had directed his focus on the miniature dramas of everyday life. Wolf Children uses lycanthropy as an excuse to mount a gorgeous melodrama about the hard work of motherhood, and the resulting heartbreak when children heed the call to the wilds of adult life, away from home.

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TO LAUGH, TO CRY, TO SAY GOODBYE.

Last week the film series I program was graced by a visit from Eric Stough, the animation director for South Park. He was kind enough to let me select a recent episode for him to both screen and then provide us with a behind-the-scenes look at how it got made, along with a Q&A session. I picked the show they aired last October, A Nightmare on Face Time, because its riff on The Shining dovetailed nicely with the recent theatrical release of Room 237, and because it deals with a subject of interest to any movie lover: the demise of the video store.

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Which dreamed it?

Alice was a real person.  Her name was Alice Lidell, and the Alice in Wonderland stories are littered with genuine biographical details.  Lewis Carroll, however, was not a real person—that was just a pen name for Charles Dodgson, a complicated genius.  Dodgson was trained as a clergyman but was never ordained; he taught mathematics but resisted the most interesting mathematical discoveries of his era; he was a logician who turned his paradoxes and logic puzzles into children’s stories and absurdist poems.  He told Alice these fantastical tales as a way of entertaining her, and on her insistence he composed them into book form, a single private copy he gave to her in 1864.  Upon further prodding he expanded the text into the form we know it today, and published it for all to enjoy.  The final binding of Alice in Wonderland in 1897 combined Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with its sequel Through The Looking-Glass.  By that point, the thing had evolved into a ripe tangle of puns and non-sequiters, parodies of other children’s literature, Lidell-family in-jokes, and ridiculous situations.

During her travels, Alice is told that she is merely a figment of someone else’s dream.  It’s a wild and wonderful idea, equal measures disturbing and intriguing, that may be a bit outré for a children’s book.   In a way, it was true: Alice was merely “a sort of a thing” in someone else’s dream, and as such she could continue her adventures indefinitely, rummaging around the unconscious minds of generations of artists to come.

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Dreams of a Rare Artistic Fiend

While we’re on the topic of great animators, it’s well past time I got around to saying a few words about Winsor McCay.

He’s rightly hailed as one of the early pioneers of animated cartoons. You can’t call him the creator of cartoons–not only did others get there a little before he did, but really, every single movie ever made is animation. Real life proceeds seamlessly, continuously, while movies sample intermittent fragments. Live action takes samples at the same rate at which the resulting sequence of stills is going to replayed–the interstitial moments can be safely ignored. But anytime you extend that interstitial gap, and replay the footage at a different rate than that at which it was taken, you are invoking the principle of animation. This is the gimmick that underlies Melies’ trickery as much as it is the way that drawings can come to life.

But that didn’t stop McCay from staking out a claim for himself as the first cartoonist in his 1911 movie debut, Winsor McCay the Famous Cartoonist of the NY Herald and His Moving Comics.

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The secret genius of Preston Blair

There are certain names that have gone in history as legends of animation: Walt Disney, of course, Max Fleischer, Winsor McKay, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, John Hubley… but amongst their ranks there is an artist whose visionary talents graced some of the most important, influential, and beloved classics of animation but whose name did not pass on to posterity. A man who personally crafted some of the most memorable and beautiful moments of some of the most critically acclaimed animated features, while also being responsible foe some of the nuttiest moments of cartoon comedy.  His creations are thrilling, hilarious, sexy, and beautiful–sometimes all at once. 

This, then, is a tribute to the secret genius of Preston Blair.

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Whozzat? you say?  Well, gather round, and hear my tale.

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