Friday, December 17, 2010

'Tron: Legacy,' a Cinematic E-Ticket Ride

Maybe it was because I was sitting at a midnight showing with a theater full of enthusiastic TronGeeks.  Maybe it was because, after being up all day, I was wired on caffeine and sugar. Or, maybe it was simply because I refused to listen to the critics who nitpicked everything that's wrong with Tron: Legacy and didn't focus on what's right about it.

I had a blast. Tron: Legacy is one helluva fun ride.

It's not a perfect movie by any means. Yes, the characters are thinly sketched, some plot points are confusing and there's very little emotion at it's core.

I don't care. Fire up the lighted discs and the virtual winged-thingies. Let's go!

The original Tron is one of those movies that's remembered for being better than it really is. Its computer effects at the time were groundbreaking, but they were interlaced with lame dialog and a wisp of a story involving Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) trying to recover some video game programs from a corporate tight-ass (David Warner). But, in 1982, the light cycle races on the game grid Flynn gets zapped into were very cool to watch--they still are--and that nearly made up for Tron's shortcomings.

So, why even bother to make a sequel 28 years later?

Dude, have you seen what they can do with light cycle races these days?

As critical as I've been of 3D movie-making, I broke down and watched Tron: Legacy in IMAX 3D. For the first time, I can say it was genuinely worth it. IMAX was made for movies like Tron: Legacy, with larger-than-life visuals and bone-rattling sound. You get pulled smack dab in the middle of the game grid sequences, full of thrilling chases and pulse-pounding action. As I watched, out of the corner of my eye, I could see a couple of teen boys on the edge of their seats, leaning forward, absolutely riveted by what was on-screen. I'm not embarrassed to say I was doing the same.

At this point, does the story even matter? Well, yes it does, kinda. Twenty years after Kevin Flynn has mysteriously disappeared, his grown son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) stumbles upon the secret of his missing father and suddenly finds himself battling for his life in a virtual world where "Game Over" means "Game Over." Sam gets help from Quorra (sharp and sassy Olivia Wilde), a grid program who turns out to be the protege of Sam's father. Together, they do battle with Kevin's evil--and younger-looking--computer doppelganger Clu (also played by Bridges with the help of some creepy, but effective, motion-capture technology) and try to escape the world that has become Kevin's virtual prison. A lot of it won't make sense, so don't over think it. Just let the sound and light show--with an astounding electronic score by Daft Punk--wash over you. This is not a movie to analyze. This is a movie to enjoy strictly for its guilty, visceral thrills.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Back on the Grid; 'Tron: Legacy' Premieres This Weekend

The reviews are mixed, but that's not stopping me from getting my game grid geekery on tonight and catching the midnight showing of Tron: Legacy.  I'll post my own review later, but in the meantime, here's a behind-the-scenes look at the film with some "blue carpet" comments from the cast and crew:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' Trailer - Die Hard Fans Sail With the Dawn

Forget about seeing the whole movie, how early would you get up to be first to see a trailer for a movie?  A group of dedicated Pirates of the Caribbean fans, many dressed in full buccaneer garb, tested that idea at the AMC Theatre in Disneyland's Downtown Disney district yesterday.  Winners of a local radio contest, they were lined up before dawn to see the trailer for the newest installment of the Pirates franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, hours before it was released to the public.  They were also treated to an invitation-only reception and a special ride on the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction before the park opened.

Here's a peek inside the event, along with the complete trailer and comments from On Stranger Tides director Rob Marshall:

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides opens May 20, 2011.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

My Interview With Walt Disney Biographer Neal Gabler

In October 2006, I interviewed film historian and Walt Disney biographer Neal Gabler for MiceChat. At the time, Gabler's book, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, was just days from being released to mostly favorable reviews. The book is a detailed chronicle of Walt's life--the best biography written about him to date--and it would go on to win the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography.

With today being Walt's 109th birthday, I'm happy to repost the interview and share some very revealing insight on Walt Disney, the man.

Walt Disney is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To many, he is a visionary founder of an entertainment empire that includes movies, television, theme parks and Mickey Mouse. To others, he's "Uncle Walt," a paternalistic icon of a childhood fantasy world. To many of those who knew Walt personally, he is an ambitious, driven, even obsessive, creative force with a short temper and few friends.

Contradictions. Walt was a series of them and biographers have attempted repeatedly over the years, with varying success, to capture the essential Walt. Books have ranged from the reverential (Bob Thomas's Walt Disney: An American Original) to the critical (Richard Schickel's The Disney Version) to the scathing and apocryphal (Marc Eliot's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince).

Neal Gabler may have finally nailed it.

In his new book, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Gabler presents a meticulously researched look at Walt, warts and all. Gabler was given unprecedented unlimited access to the Disney Archives with no caveats other than to write an honest assessment of Walt's life. The result is as thorough and detailed a book on Disney that has ever been written. Gabler does take occasional side trips to explore Walt's psyche that, more times than not, get in the way of the narrative, but the end result is a dense, fact-rich treatment that will appeal to Disneyphiles everywhere.

I had the opportunity to talk with Gabler on the phone about his book, the mountain of research it took to complete it (the book contains over 160 pages of footnotes), and what it was exactly that made Walt tick. At the time of the interview, Gabler and his wife were in Atlanta visiting their daughter who is a student at Emory University. Gabler is an affable and charming man, with an unflagging enthusiasm for movies in general and Walt Disney in particular.

Tim: You put seven years into researching the book. Why such a long time?

Neal Gabler: There was an awful lot of work that went into that book. I didn’t want people to think I cut corners in any way, shape or form because I didn’t. People may disagree with the interpretations. They may have objections to certain things I do or do not do in the book, but I didn’t want anybody to think that I hadn’t done the full research job. I was given a rare opportunity and I knew it. And I wanted to take full advantage of that opportunity.

Tim: When you first started, did you have any idea it was going to take that long to finish the project?

NG: I knew it would take a long time. I set aside about five years—and I knew that was about how much money I had, but like Walt Disney, money became immaterial. It took me, obviously, at least two more years than I thought, and the money ran out. It was a difficult situation and my family was constantly wondering when I was going to finish this thing. But, again, I felt very much like Walt Disney. There is a kind of parallel when you write a book like that. Walt could never cut corners. He was constitutionally unable to do it and I was constitutionally unable to do it. I couldn’t do it to myself. I couldn’t do it to my readers. I couldn’t do it to Walt Disney.

Tim: So, did you set out to write the definitive Walt Disney biography?

NG: Well, you never want to use the word “definitive” because somebody’s always going to slap your hand and say, “How dare you do that!” My delusion—and obviously you operate under delusions or you don’t get through seven years—was this was going to be the book that I thought was worthy of a figure that was as important as Disney.

One of the reasons that I wrote this book in the first place was that it occurred to me years ago that there are probably two great visual imaginations of the 20th century. One was Picasso and one was Walt Disney. Picasso has two dozen biographies written about him. Walt Disney has a few biographies—Leonard Mosley, Marc Eliot, Richard Schickel, Bob Thomas—but he had never had a fully annotated full scale biography about him. And I thought that gap just has to be filled. He deserves a big biography.

Tim: I agree. For years I’ve considered Bob Thomas’s biography—there’s that word again—the “definitive” biography, but it was still a very Walt-friendly, very studio-friendly version of his life.

NG: Well, he had access, obviously, to materials in the archives, although he didn’t have full access, or at least he didn’t take advantage of it. The very first day I went to the archives, after I got approved to use them, (Disney Archives founder) Dave Smith came (in) and he put a manila folder down on the table that was at least two and a half inches thick. I said, “Dave, what is this?” He said, “This is what Bob Thomas used.” And Dave had apparently filleted the archives and taken out key documents in his estimation.

Now, I’m not saying Bob Thomas didn’t conduct interviews and do other things, but I am saying this is where he began. This was the prime meat of his biography and that wasn’t the way I was going to operate. I looked through the folder, but then I proceeded to begin at the very beginning. I research my books chronologically, so I began with Walt’s grandfather’s deed in Ontario and worked my way all the way through to Walt’s death. That’s why it took two more years than I thought, because that just took years and years to read every piece of documentation in the archives.

Tim: I keep picturing the Disney Archives like the last scenes in “Citizen Kane” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where you have this massive warehouse of crates.

Disney archivist
Dave Smith
NG: (Laughs) It was like that, except the people were a lot friendlier. I had people like (archives manager) Robert Tieman, Dave Smith and, probably above all, (assistant archivist) Becky Cline to assist me and to kibitz with me on those long, long days. But, that’s exactly what it was like. You’d take out one tray with all of these boxes and I’d start working through the first one, and then the second one, and the third one until I literally read every piece of documentation in the box. And then they’d bring out another one and another one, so I’d get all these carts one after another. It was a long and sometimes tedious process depending on what you were rummaging through at that moment.

Tim: Of course you used other sources besides the Archives. Walt’s daughter was a big help to you too, wasn’t she?

NG: She was. You know, it was funny that Diane Disney Miller and I circled each other warily for an awfully long time. She was very dubious about what my intentions were. She had been burned in the past, seeing things written about her father that she didn’t think were accurate, or they weren’t laudatory or whatever.

Tim: Marc Eliot . . .

NG: I won’t mention any names . . . I was cautious because I knew that she was wary and I didn’t want to do anything to offend her or put her more on alert than she otherwise need be. And at the same time I didn’t want people to think, well, this was just going to be hagiography—it’s going to be Saint Walt again—and that was the kind of book I was going to write.

When I finally did approach Diane, near the end of this process in fact, she could not have been more gracious or more generous. I told her when she granted the interview the first time, “You know Mrs. Miller, I don’t want you to grant this interview under false pretenses that this book is going to be a whitewash of your father and you’re going to like everything in it, because I guarantee that there are things in this book that you won’t like.” And she said to me, almost verbatim, “You know what I really hate? I hate books that make my father out to be a plaster saint. I don’t want that. I’d like an honest appraisal.”

She loved her father. This wasn’t one of those things where she had some kind of latent hostility toward him. This isn’t Mommie Dearest. She loved her father, thought he was a great father. That wasn’t the issue. What she did want—much to her credit I think—is an honest account of his life.

Tim: And you do take an honest approach to his life and even set the record straight on several of the urban legends involving Walt. For instance, you start the book right off by discussing the infamous story that he was frozen after his death.

NG: I’ll never forget I went to the Walt Disney exhibition at the Ronald Reagan Library a number of years ago. There was this father and his two kids going through the exhibition. He bent down to the little boy, who couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old, and said, “You know that Walt Disney’s frozen, and some day maybe they’ll thaw him and he’ll come back to life.” And I thought, “Oh my God!” (laughs). So I thought the best way to start the book was to address that right off the bat.

Tim: How important and how challenging was it to separate the Walt of legend from the Walt of fact?

NG: I’ll tell you what made it challenging. The Walt of legend often subsumed the Walt of fact and he knew it. Part of the difficulty was that the image of Walt Disney was an image to which Walt frequently subscribed because he thought that it would be good for the company.

Tim: You quoted critic Richard Schickel. He said, “In the last analysis, Walt Disney’s greatest creation was Walt Disney.”

NG: Sometimes people take that idea to mean that Walt was not fully aware of the process. Walt was a very smart guy. And he was fully aware of the process. He knew precisely what was happening and in some ways engineered it. That’s what made it difficult. The Walt of legend and the Walt of fact, particularly near the end of his life, began to converge more and more. And it’s a hard thing to tease out the real Walt from this image that surrounded him, particularly when he knew that that was this image he was subscribing to. I have a line in the book from (Imagineer) Marty Sklar (quoting Walt) where he says—I’m paraphrasing now—“Walt Disney doesn’t smoke, but I smoke. Walt Disney doesn’t drink, but I drink” as if there was this other Walt Disney.

Tim: That was the public persona of Walt Disney, especially in his later years. He was your Uncle Walt that appeared on television every week. He came across as this very gentle, fatherly figure, but the reality was he was a very difficult man to work for, wasn’t he?

NG: He was obsessive and he was a perfectionist. I will say to his credit that, though he demanded tremendous loyalty and hard work, it wasn’t for him personally. Typically people in his position—and I know this from writing about other Hollywood moguls—demand this kind of loyalty, work and respect because they want it personally. But Walt didn’t really care about that. Walt wanted it because he was on a mission. He wanted it for the animation and he wanted it for the theme park. He didn’t care about himself in that regard. So that makes him different from so many other people that ran studios.

Tim: And because of that loyalty and because of that devotion, you liken the early years of the Walt Disney Studio to that of a cult.

NG: After reading all this material and interviewing all these people, suddenly it struck me that the way people talked about Walt Disney, and the things they were willing to do for Walt Disney, were not customarily the way that one talks about his boss or not customarily the things one would do for his company. It struck me, my God, this is a cult with Walt as the head of it. He was like a deity. I’ve got the line in the book where (Disney gagman) Roy Williams is expatiating about how great Walt is and his sister-in-law, who was married to a minister, says, “You talk as if he were a god.” And Williams says, “He is.”

Tim: But Walt wasn’t always easy to work with and was very demanding of his employees. I compare him to an abusive football coach who bullies and berates his players, but they’ll do anything for him because he’s going to take them to the championship.

NG: Exactly. That’s a very apt analogy. Everybody wants a championship. Everybody wants to be great and Walt was an avenue to greatness.

Tim: And, of course Walt was able to attract very talented animators at a time when animation was still considered a novelty—an entertainment—and not an art form. That he was able to offer this artistic potential to his employees made them support him all the more.

NG: Yes. Some of them could’ve made more money elsewhere, but the Walt Disney Studio on Hyperion and later in Burbank, that was Mecca for animators. That was the place you had to make the pilgrimage to because that’s where the great work was going to be done. And to the credit of Walt, this was not personally directed. It was directed to the work. To the credit of the animators, their work was directed toward greatness too. There was that period—not a long period—when everyone at the studio was on a mission. And the mission was greatness.

Tim: One of my favorite parts in the book is right around the time that Snow White is going into development in the mid-1930’s and you see the talent that is coming to the Walt Disney Studio—many of the animators that would become the "Nine Old Men." That was truly the golden age for Disney.

NG: That was exciting. All of these people were coming in on this new mission and nobody had ever done it before. And they were striving for new techniques and striving to triumph over the notion of a cartoon and striving for art. Gosh, that was an exciting time. That was just a time when everybody was so filled with that sense of mission.

Walt's parents
Flora and Elias Disney
Tim: There are several passages in your book where you try to get inside Walt’s head and figure out what made him tick. You talk about his hardscrabble upbringing, his stern father, and the idyllic days in Marceline, Missouri where he spent some of his younger years. How did these influences continue to affect him throughout his life?

NG: That’s a very good question. Of course, life can’t be reduced to a series of factors because life’s more complicated than that. But it always struck me, in hearing Walt talk about his upbringing, that whether it was that bad or not, Walt thought it was that bad.

Tim: He did tend to do that in interviews, didn’t he? He gave more romantic recollections of how things happened in his life.

NG: He was very much a self-mythologist in a lot of respects. (With the exception of his years in Marceline) he saw his childhood as very, very hard. I couldn’t help but think as I tried to project myself into this little boy that so much of what motivated Walt was to create a world that was as far from this one as possible. And he had one kind of afforded to him in Marceline. Because whether Marceline was as pristine as he recollected it was, that was clearly an idyllic environment. It still looks idyllic to this day. It’s not all that changed. The Disney farm is still intact. So is the tree that he used to play on—all those things are still there. One couldn’t help but feel again—and there is a certain degree of projection involved here—that this was Walt’s touchstone. How do you return to this? The animations—and later Disneyland and later EPCOT—were ways, in my estimation, of escaping the hardships of childhood and finding some kind of adult equivalent to Marceline.

Tim: He was always trying to create some kind of utopian ideal.

NG: Oh, there’s no question about that. You are absolutely right. Walt’s a perfectionist. He’s a perfectionist in his work but he’s also a perfectionist in life. The perfection of life for Walt was creating this utopian ideal. He hoped that the studio would be a workers’ paradise, this utopian place where everyone would operate in happy camaraderie and make these great films. And later, after the strike (in 1941), that got transferred into Disneyland. And once Disneyland had reached a kind of maturity, that got transferred into EPCOT.

Tim: He was always moving forward with new ideas, but when he was creating these ideal environments, he was constantly getting let down by them. There were the issues he had with Charles Mintz (the cartoon distributor who wrested Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from Walt along with many of his animators) and Pat Powers (the distributor of Disney's early Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies cartoons) and then the strike. Those disappointments affected him deeply, didn’t they?

Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks
NG: Oh, absolutely. All of those things affected him deeply. The problem with reality is it has a way of coming and biting you on the butt. And that’s exactly what happened to Walt Disney. Here he dedicates his life, essentially, to creating a better reality. Yet reality keeps on intruding. The situation with Mintz was devastating to him, having to start from scratch, having everything taken from him—even the betrayal of so many of his employees. Powers was another person in whom he had placed great trust and felt betrayed. And through Powers he was betrayed by (Mickey Mouse’s original animator) Ub Iwerks as well because of Powers luring Iwerks.

Tim: But Powers differed from Mintz in that Walt was more leery of Powers even though he saw him as a means to an end.

NG: Yes. I think Walt became disillusioned with Pat Powers relatively quickly. I think when he met Pat Powers he thought, “Here is the answer to all my prayers.” (Walt’s brother) Roy thought, nuh-uh, he’s not. And Walt, who was way too trusting and na├»ve, did come to the realization that Pat Powers wasn’t everything he cracked himself up to be. But, Walt lived a life of disappointment. There were so many disappointments because, again, it’s very difficult to have your work live up to your aspirations for it. Walt had such high standards, impossibly high standards. Nothing could ever be as good as Walt wanted it to be or dreamed it would be.

Tim: Roy, of course, was instrumental in the successes Walt eventually enjoyed, but their battles were legendary. Without that conflict, the studio would’ve never succeeded, though, would it?

NG: There was no question in my mind that if Walt Disney hadn’t had Roy Disney, There would be no Walt Disney Studio. No one who wasn’t Walt Disney’s brother would’ve allowed him to do the things he did. Roy was tremendously indulgent. When you look at how difficult the financial situation of that studio was—and I think one of the revelations in the book was how often that studio was in financial difficulty. That studio was in financial difficulty all the time, except for a brief respite with Snow White, a brief respite with the war, and then Disneyland. But, other than that, it’s in constant financial peril in part because Walt’s demands are so great. And it’s Roy who has to find a way to meet those demands financially. Roy was not a creative figure. There’s no question about that. Walt often slapped him down because he wasn’t creative. In Walt’s assessment, he was essentially a bean counter.

Tim: Yes, but Roy was very creative financially.

Walt and Roy Disney
NG: Oh yes, very creative financially. Without that bean counter, Walt would’ve not been able to do any of the things he did. This really was a partnership of the sort that didn’t exist at any other studio because they were brothers. Any other financial officer at any other studio would’ve said to Walt Disney, “You can’t do this and that’s all.”

Tim: Besides Roy, the other thing that certainly saved the studio was all the work they turned out during World War II.

NG: Yes, although Walt resented it deeply.

Tim: And that, of course, came on the heels of the strike. How did that period of time affect him?

NG: He was very despondent. Walt was a man who was despondent at several points in his life. I don’t think he was a manic depressive or anything like that. I think his despondency came from a very understandable source. Walt lived to create great work and now the studio could only survive by doing essentially lousy work. Walt did not fool himself. That’s not Walt Disney. I think a lot of detractors of Walt Disney seemed to think that Walt was always deluding himself. Walt never deluded himself. He knew the kind of work the studio was turning out. He knew the quality of that work. Of course, it was for propaganda and for training films, so it wasn’t meant to be Bambi or Snow White or Dumbo. It was a completely different kind of film. It really hurt Walt that the studio was now dedicated to making these sorts of films. And it irked Walt that he was essentially subjugated to governmental officials, particularly military officers who were telling him how to make movies.

Tim: He didn’t like being told what to do.

NG: No. Absolutely not. This was not a happy period in his life. Nor was the post-war period particularly happy.

Tim: You could see, particularly during this time, Walt got bored with things. If he felt he was doing the same thing over and over again, it didn’t interest him as much. You saw the passion and his hands-on involvement in his early films—with Snow White, with Fantasia. But after that early spurt he never really had his hands on animated films like he did before. Partly because of the enormity of running the studio, but also because it didn’t seem to interest him as much.

NG: I don’t think it was so much boredom. I think there’s another factor. And that’s the factor of excellence. Walt came to believe, rightfully so, that he could never do films as good as those done before. He was passionate so long as he was making films that were improving on the preceding films. The animation in Pinocchio is superior to the animation in Snow White. When he goes to make Bambi, he’s doing something different—not necessarily better, but different—operating in a much more realistic vein. But when that’s completed, he realizes that because of the financial situation and partly because of the animators themselves, he’s never going to make a better animation. Walt Disney has a tendency throughout his life to disengage from things that he doesn’t believe will be great, and, by the same token, to engage with things that he thinks he can make great. So, I think the disengagement from animation is largely a function of the fact that he just feels that it’s not going to be great. You look at a movie like Lady and the Tramp. That’s a really good movie. But Walt didn’t have very much to do with it. He felt, “I’ve already done that, and I’ve done it better.”

Tim: His later animated films, Lady and the Tramp and Peter Pan for example, were successful largely because of the skill of Walt’s animators. Walt had an incredible eye for talent, didn’t he?

NG: He sure did, but it’s the difference between being personally invested in something and delegating. He was going to delegate at that point. He didn’t delegate Disneyland because that was a passion of his and, in the end, he didn’t delegate EPCOT because that was a passion of his. He thought these things could be perfected, but animation could no longer be perfected. It was the same thing with the television show with which he had very little contact. He appeared on the show and he essentially approved the scripts and the agenda, but he really didn’t have very much to do with those programs. That was (producer) Bill Walsh’s work.

Tim: But Walt did see television’s potential at a time when other movie studios didn’t.

NG: That he did. He was very visionary in two respects. Visionary in the way that he saw the way in which that could finance his theme park, and visionary in the way in which he saw how the relationship between television and movies could work to the benefit of both. Those television shows were made at a tremendous loss financially if one just looks at the budget. But Walt thought they were being made at a tremendous advantage financially, because he was able to promote his films and promote his theme park.

Tim: It was a means to an end. It also helped attracted investors and corporate sponsors for Disneyland.

NG: Yes. There was no question about that. It was very, very clever. Not too many people would’ve sat there and taken a loss—a very substantial loss—but Walt had the foresight to see the advantages of this arrangement.

Tim: One of the things I was surprised to read in your book was that Disney hated the Goofy cartoons. Why was that?

NG: He talks constantly about how much he hates them, but never really specifies what he hates about them. He thought they were stupid, I think, at some point. There was no emotional engagement in them. They’re just a bunch of stupid cartoons with gags tied together, which in a way was getting way back to the early days of animation. Walt had striven so hard to get away from that notion of just putting a bunch of gags together that have no kind of larger narrative context and no emotional context. Walt alwayshated Goofy and he would’ve deep-sixed Goofy a long time ago if the studio didn’t need to make those movies to give ‘make work’ to so many of the animators. Boy, he hated Goofy (laughs).

Tim: Getting back to the strike and the unionization of the Walt Disney Studio. Certainly the unionization of the animation studios at the time was nothing new to Hollywood, but this still caught Walt by surprise and, to a degree, he brought it on himself, didn’t he?

NG: In most respects, yes. Walt thought paternalistically. He thought, “I’ve created this great environment,” which he had. “Why would anyone want to turn on me after I created this great environment? Why would anybody want to spoil this place?” That’s exactly how Walt saw it. Walt saw it as, “These people are spoiled. This is paradise.” Now, to that extent, he brought it on himself because he didn’t think about the workers as employees with families and needs. He thought of them as kind of guild workers who were engaged in this great mission. But, to a certain extent, he didn’t bring it upon himself. That is the extent to which the unions seemed to be spoiling for a fight with Walt Disney. I think I indicate in the book that Walt thought this was all Communist-inspired—the Communists were going to get Walt Disney—and he wasn’t entirely wrong. And I say this as someone whose own politics are on the left. Walt Disney was, in some ways, targeted by Communists. Not Art Babbitt (the Disney animator who led the strike), certainly, but (animator) David Hilberman and later (union business manager) William Pomerance.

Tim: Art Babbitt had more of a personal axe to grind than anything else.

Disney employees strike, 1941.
NG: Exactly. He and Walt had personal animus, but that wasn’t political animus. There was a sense in which the union thought Disney was the biggest, and taking him down in some way—winning over that studio—would have tremendous symbolic ramifications. Not only for labor but, I think, for culture. So, Walt wasn’t entirely wrong. But, by the same token, he could have diffused that situation in my estimation, if not easily, than without a great deal of effort. And he chose not to do so.

Tim: He probably listened too much to his legal counsel, who was strongly anti-union.

NG: You’re absolutely right. Gunther Lessing was as much a villain as anyone in that situation. More of a villain, really, if Walt were to look at this objectively, than (Conference of Studio Unions head) Herbert Sorrell was. But Walt was also stubborn. He wasn’t going to capitulate to anybody. He wasn’t going to let anybody push him around. That, in a labor situation, doesn’t get you really far.

Tim: He wasn’t very flexible when he needed to be.

NG: No. Now that’s a great quality to have when you’re making animation and creating art. It’s a terrible quality to have when you’re dealing with individuals who are, after all, human. They’re not pieces of celluloid. They’re human beings and they wanted something from Walt that he was adamantly opposed to giving to them.

Tim: And, of course, Walt’s belief that the strike was fueled by Communist influences helped motivate him to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

NG: I think it was the reason for his testimony before HUAC.

Tim: Other Disney historians have made a big fanfare about Walt’s testimony, but after reading it in your book, it appeared to be just Walt’s sincere testimony of his beliefs and, ultimately, much ado about nothing.

NG: Yes, I think that is absolutely right. The strike happened in 1941 and he doesn’t testify until six years later. So, a lot of time has passed, but Walt still burns with anger about what had happened to his studio. Now, Walt’s not a political man. And that’s something that I think a lot people who don’t like Walt Disney have a very hard time accommodating themselves to. Walt’s not political. Walt cares about his studio. Walt cares about his theme park. He really doesn’t care about politics. He only cares about politics insofar as they affect his studio and his theme park, which they did in the case of the strike. So, when he goes to Washington I don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s Walt sincerely speaking his mind about the treachery that he felt had been done to him.

Tim: It was very personal to him. It wasn’t about Communists infiltrating every aspect of American life at the time.

NG: No, he didn’t care about that. What he cared about was he had this great studio that was perfect, and everyone was on line doing the same sorts of things and then, guess what? It was all ruined and things were never going to be the same after that, which they were not. That was a devastating blow for a man like Walt Disney who lived for his utopian vision. To have that utopian vision spoiled was something he could never reconcile himself to. But his politics were very personal. What people did to him at his studio was very personal. He was no ideologue. (There are) people who try to make him out to be some hidebound conservative who had this strong ideology. None of that is true. Walt couldn’t have cared less about politics most of the time, except insofar as it affected his studio.

Tim: And if you look at the bulk of Walt’s work, from animation to live-action films to television to theme parks, he managed to do it without getting tied up in any American social or political movement.

NG: Yes, because Walt Disney saw himself insulated from all of those things. I won’t say (Walt’s films) were an escape from those things, because that’s too simplistic. But, I think everything Walt did was an alternative to reality. Now that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some kind of cultural subtext to virtually everything Walt Disney did. You can read that cultural subtext in a number of different ways in the book, in contradictory ways. You can read him as being the protector of very conservative values or you can read him as being the man who promoted, as Douglas Brode says in his book, counter-cultural values.

Tim: And you point that out in your book, particularly regarding the live-action movies of the 50’s and 60’s.Mary Poppins and Pollyanna, for instance, aren’t just the sweetness and light stories you may think they are.

NG: No. What makes them very effective is that they’re not all sweetness and light. Pollyanna is a young girl that is really challenging the prevailing social order. And Walt, for all the accusations of his conservatism, hated corporations, was suspicious of money, was suspicious of power, (and) was suspicious of authority. And that’s as much Walt Disney as the guy who kind of extolled 19th century American values. In fact, those things are not mutually exclusive. I don’t want to pin a label on Walt Disney politically, but one could say he was closer to being a Libertarian than he was to a Republican conservative.

Tim: What does it say about Walt Disney, as we’re coming up on the 40th anniversary of his death, that we’re still debating how Walt would’ve run the company? That mentality helped fuel the stockholder revolt that eventually ran off Michael Eisner. What does it say about Walt’s legacy that we still wonder how he would do things all these years later?

NG: That’s a great question. I think what it speaks to is how profound his influence was and remains, how large his personality was, how overwhelming his imagination was. This is an outsize personality and, to this day, he is used as a kind of touchstone for our culture. Only the very largest figures in our culture have that kind of influence. Forty years he’s going to be dead on December 15th and yet there is a very real sense in which people say, “What would Walt do?” just like “What would Jesus do?”

Tim: One of the things I find amusing in that is, using a recent example at Disneyland, the changes made to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride—introducing Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow to make the ride more relevant to contemporary audiences—had many Disney purists in an uproar. This was the last big attraction Walt personally had his hand in. How dare they? After reading your book, however, it occurred to me that if Walt had lived longer, he may have tinkered with the ride a few more times himself.

Walt at Disneyland (courtesy of
the Walt Disney Family Museum)
NG: He would never leave well enough alone. That wasn’t Walt Disney. In fact, the thing he loved so much about the theme park—and it’s been written about before my book—is that it was never going to be completed. It was always a work in progress. He loved that idea. This gets back to what we talked about earlier. When something was completed and couldn’t be improved upon, Walt disengaged. But, when something was always a work in progress and could always be improved upon, that engaged him.

Tim: But even Walt disengaged from Disneyland with the promise of EPCOT, didn’t he? And by EPCOT, I mean Walt’s concept of the city of the future, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, not the theme park we know today.

NG: Exactly, because he found something that was even more in the vein of perfectionism. It’s one thing to have a theme park where you cross the berm or go through the gate and you’re in this kind of fantasy world that is better than the reality outside. But, imagine if you could have the outside world being permeated by that perfection. EPCOT represented to Walt, in my estimation, a way of taking perfectionism and bringing it into life rather than bringing you and putting you into the perfection. The whole notion of EPCOT was absolutely his passion at the end of his life. The last year of his life it was the thing he was thinking about 24/7. EPCOT was going to be the culmination of everything he’d done. If you were a novelist and you put EPCOT at the end of a novel about a character like Walt Disney, people would say, “Oh, come on. That’s laying it on a little thick.” But that’s exactly the coda of all the things that Walt was working toward. Perfection in life.

The Epcot that exists now, which is essentially a glorified world’s fair, couldn’t have been more different. Walt had in mind a fully operational city of roughly—and it kept on changing—100,000 people with greenbelts and underground transportation systems and underground garbage collection and, at it’s most grandiose, a giant dome that would protect the city from the vagaries of weather. It would have outlets to deal with juvenile delinquency, with senior citizens, even with religion. This was a fully engineered environment. That’s what Walt Disney thought of EPCOT as being. And he thought this community—the things he developed here—would then be disseminated throughout the country and throughout the world so that other cities could be made perfect too. That was Walt’s last dream.

Tim: How would you sum up Walt’s life and legacy?

NG: Walt Disney affected so many areas of American life, from animation to theme parks to conservation to history to space exploration and technology generally. But, I think if you had to focus on one thing, to me it would be this idea of the power of wish fulfillment—the power of the human mind to conquer our reality and perfect it. I think he somehow got that consciousness into the American consciousness. When you think of Walt Disney, you don’t just think of a series of animations, or theme parks, or live-action films or the EPCOT he had planned. You think about a way of thinking about the world. Walt Disney is as much a mentality and a consciousness as he is either a human being or a series of accomplishments. He is a state of mind to all of us, even those who hate Walt Disney. Even if they don’t want to live inside the Walt Disney state of mind, they do, because it’s so pervasive in our culture.

Walt Disney is an endless source of debate. That’s what he does. If I’m part of that debate, that’s good. I don’t intend for this book to foreclose debate. Quite the contrary. I hope that it will get people to think about Walt Disney. There are going to be other biographies of Walt Disney, other versions, and that’s as it should be.

October 29, 2006

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

'Waking Sleeping Beauty,' 'The Boys' and 'El Grupo' Explore Disney's Past

This week, Disney offers up a wealth of video releases for the holidays. The flashiest choice is Walt's great experiment of animation and classical music, Fantasia, presented for the first time on Blu-ray and packaged with the updated but less compelling Fantasia 2000. Noteworthy for Disney completists and armchair historians, though, are three recent documentaries that saw only limited release in theaters and are finally reaching a broader audience on DVD. Two of them are honest and heartfelt looks at creative passion and dysfunction. The third is a curious misfire set at a critical turning point in Walt Disney's career.

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Peter Schneider, Roy E. Disney
and Jeffrey Katzenberg, back in the day
Between 1984 and 1994, the Walt Disney Studios had one of the most remarkable runs in film history, producing the classic animated features The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. They were critical and commercial successes that ushered in a new golden age of animation. That these movies came from a company almost broken up and sold for scrap in the early 1980s is even more amazing.

After Walt died in 1966, the company he co-founded--particularly the animation division--languished. Rudderless without the presence of the great man and paralyzed by a "what would Walt do?" mentality, the studio released a number of mostly forgettable animated films including The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron. The studio was still attracting talented young animators like Glen Keane, Tim Burton and John Lasseter, but they lacked direction and the studio had difficulties retaining many of them. Troubles were compounded when Disney became the target of a hostile takeover in 1984 that threatened to dismantle the company. It wasn't until "the perfect storm" of creative forces and studio leadership miraculously came together that Disney began to rise from the ashes.

Producer Peter Schneider and producer/director Don Hahn were there during those tumultuous and ultimately exhilarating years, but Waking Sleeping Beauty isn't about them. It's about everyone and everything that went on around them, from the long, exhausting hours put in by the animation department to the ego clashes among top executives Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy E. Disney to the mercurial brilliance of the late lyricist Howard Ashman (in the bonus features, do not miss his eloquent lecture to studio employees about the connection between Broadway musicals and animated feature films). It takes hard work and more than a little office politics to make magic and Waking Sleeping Beauty never shies away from that harsh reality of the motion picture biz-ness.

The film benefits by relying entirely on archival material to tell its story. There are no reminiscing talking heads or crosscuts to present day to get in the way of the narrative. You're totally immersed in the sights and sounds of late 20th century Disney, whether from old news clips, interview footage or home movies shot by studio staff. Modern day comments are provided in voice over and they come from most of the major players. At times, it's quite candid, particularly from Schneider, Eisner and Katzenberg, who are not always depicted favorably, but are still treated honestly and fairly by Hahn. He proves that under the right circumstances, even the most dysfunctional family is capable of greatness. As Eisner notes in the film, "Go to any institution, any university, any hospital, any corporation, any home, any house. You know what? The human condition overshadows bricks and mortar, every time. And it's about fear, and envy, and jealously, and comfort, and love, and hate, and accomplishment. Every institution has it."

This willingness to look unflinchingly at Disney's past and revel not only in its enormous successes, but also its glaring imperfections, gives Waking Sleeping Beauty its strength. If you have any appreciation for Disney history, do not miss it.

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story

Robert Sherman, Richard Sherman
and Walt Disney
Sherman Brothers songs have never been complex in composition or theme, but as younger brother Richard points out in The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story, they are "simple, singable and sincere."

They also obscure a distant, contentious relationship between Richard and Robert Sherman that has lasted decades.

The Sherman Brothers made their names as the house songwriters for Disney in the 1960s. Their output was staggering: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Spoonful of Sugar, Chim Chim Cher-ee, Let's Get Together, On the Front Porch, FortuosityIt's a Small World (After All), There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, and Winnie the Pooh, just to name a few. Nearly as impressive was the music they created outside the Disney stable: the single You're Sixteen and the soundtracks for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Charlotte's Web and Snoopy Come Home, among many others.

But, as much as their songwriting partnership required them to work closely professionally, they were never, even as brothers, close personally. Robert was the thoughtful and introspective writer. Richard was the gregarious and volatile composer. Over the years, those differences in personality coupled with stubbornness on both their parts eventually divided the duo. These days, Robert resides in London while Richard lives in Los Angeles. They still make appearances at events together, but they're always separate, not part of a team. To see them at the 2006 Broadway premiere of Mary Poppins--a few feet from each other, but miles apart--is one of The Boys most touching and maddening moments.

The back story to the making of The Boys is a movie in itself, as Robert's son Jeff and Richard's son Gregg set out to tell the story of their famous fathers as a means to somehow bring them closer together. That the sons' efforts are unsuccessful forms the emotional core of the film, which laments the estrangement of the Sherman Brothers as much as it celebrates their uplifting song craft.

Walt & El Grupo

In the summer of 1941, Walt Disney and a small group of studio artists, including Frank Thomas, Norm Ferguson and Mary Blair, set out on a goodwill tour of South America. The trip was made at the behest of the U.S. State Department, which was looking for all the friends it could get as World War II raged in Europe. Walt saw it as an opportunity not only to reach out to Latin culture, but also as a means to collect material for future cartoons and feature films. The trip ultimately inspired the movies Saludos Amigos and The Three CaballerosWalt & El Grupo is the story of that trip.

Unfortunately, the trip itself is the least interesting part of Walt & El Grupo. While it's certainly fun to see Walt atop a horse in Argentinian gaucho duds, so much of the footage in the film has been seen before, either in Saludos Amigos or in period newsreel footage. What El Grupo lacks is sufficient historical context. The South American trip came as Walt's studio was embroiled in a serious labor dispute which resulted in a strike while Walt was out of the country. It came on the heels of the box office failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia and production delays on Bambi. Only a few months after Walt's return to the states, the Japanese would bomb Pearl Harbor and the U.S. would be at war, thrusting the studio into a period of austerity as its film output went almost exclusively to support the war effort. These events are certainly touched on in El Grupo, but they aren't given any real gravitas. What were left with is Walt's home movies, What I Did During My Summer Vacation While My Studio Was Going to Hell.

Walt & El Grupo does throw in contemporary footage of South American locales to give it sort of a that-was-then-this-is-now feel, but I never quite got what the point was. Is there any real purpose to seeing the gutted remains of Rio de Janeiro's once grand Casino da Urca, the entertainment nightspot shown at the end of Saludos Amigos where Walt and his crew once spent some time? Are the film makers lamenting its demise? Is Walt Disney somehow to blame? I was left scratching my head.

Disney's Saludos Amigos travelogue is included as a bonus feature on the El Grupo DVD. I recommend getting your hands on the Classic Caballeros Collection instead. It has both Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros and contains the newsreel South of the Border with Disney. Combined, they give a more entertaining--albeit studio manufactured--take on Walt's South American adventure.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

'Tangled' World Premiere in Hollywood

I cobbled together some media footage from last weekend's premiere of Tangled at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. This is somewhat of an experiment as I don't do a lot of video editing, but I liked the results and hope you do too. My apologies in advance for the murky voice over. I'm working on a microphone upgrade as we speak.

I was skeptical at first of Tangled, but I have to admit a few days prior to its U.S. release that it's growing on me. I was leery of Disney purposely distancing itself from The Princess and the Frog by changing the title to Tangled from Rapunzel and I didn't feel comfortable at all with the early trailers focusing mostly on Flynn Ryder. Disney seemed seriously afraid of making another "princess" flick. As more movie material has been released, however, I'm relieved to see how Tangled could work not just as a fairy tale, but as an action adventure with a sense of humor. The animation looks rich and the characters benefit from a talented voice cast. The early buzz is excellent with Tangled scoring a 100% rating from a handful of critics already on Rotten Tomatoes. I'm looking forward to seeing it this week.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Christopher Robin Gets Botox: A First Look at 'Winnie the Pooh'

This week, Disney released a new trailer and stills for next year's Winnie the Pooh film coming out on July 15. Fans of the original shorts Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree and Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day are going to love the look of the new Pooh movie, which recreates the simple hand-drawn animation and lush watercolor backgrounds that helped make the originals so appealing. The movie will also get back to its roots, adapting story lines directly from A. A. Milne's series of children's tales.

The only thing noticeably different about the look of Winnie the Pooh is Christopher Robin, who's gone from the solid dark eyes of the earlier films . . . 

. . . to a more doe-eyed appearance:

It looks like Chris discovered Botox, but actually it's the Disney animators enabling him to be more expressive. Pupils are everything. It's a minor change that should work just fine. 

Another nice element to the new Pooh film is the casting of Monty Python alum John Cleese as the narrator. Cleese's style and delivery (and yes, the English accent) will be the perfect nostalgia trip for those of us who grew up on the dulcet tones of the first Pooh storyteller, Sebastian Cabot.

Also, this will be the first time since 1977's The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (itself an edited compilation of the first Pooh shorts) that a Pooh feature film has come under Disney's premiere film label. More recent releases like The Tigger Movie (2000) and Piglet's Big Movie (2003) were produced by DisneyToon Studios, Disney's on-the-cheap creator of (mostly) direct-to-video releases. While these movies were generally entertaining, they lacked the richness in story and appearance that the earlier films had. Credit Winnie the Pooh executive producer John Lasseter (who knows a thing or two about reviving classic Disney properties) and story supervisor Burny Mattinson (who animated the original Pooh films) for giving the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood the attention they deserve. After 34 years, it'll be great to have them back.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

D23 Launches 'Armchair Archivists'

Disney's official fan club, D23, has launched a new online video series called Armchair Archivists.  Each week, D23 staffers Josh Turchetta and Steve Czarnecki go inside the Walt Disney Archives to discover new items and artifacts rarely seen by the public.

In the first episode, we see the last ever film footage shot of Walt Disney in the fall of 1966 and we meet Archives director Becky Cline, who shows off a few of Walt's personal items dating back to his teen years.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Legacy of 'Tron'

OK, let's be honest here. Tron was never a great movie.

Visually stunning for its time, yes, but not much else. The story had something to do with a video game geek (Jeff Bridges) getting back the game programs that the evil corporate hot shot (David Warner) stole from him.  The game geek hangs out with the computer geek (Bruce Boxleitner) and the lab geek (the hot chick from Caddyshack). Lame dialog, trite storyline. The game geek gets zapped into a computer grid. Complications ensue.

If Disney had made Tron ten years earlier, Kurt Russell would've starred as Kevin Flynn and Cesar Romero would've been Master Control. But, this was 1982 and computer animation was about to change everything you knew about movies. What do you remember about the first time you saw Tron? It sure as heck wasn't the story. It was all about super-cool special effects and light cycle races. Am I right?

But, 28 years later, it's still with you. And come December, if you're of a certain age, you're taking your kids--maybe even your grandkids--to geek out once again on the private lives of computer chips. And the special effects might have improved just a wee bit this time around. I took in the 23-minute preview of Tron: Legacy at Thursday's nationwide "Tron Night" presentation.  As a first impression, it did not disappoint. The movie's darker, even brooding at times, with young Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) pulled into the same computer world where his father Kevin (Bridges) apparently disappeared 20 years ago. When we discover Kevin this time, though, he seems less a prisoner of the game grid and more its sullen Zen master. For now, let's just call him the Dude in the Machine.
To get to his father, Sam must fight his way through a series of games, throwing deadly lighted discs and, oh yes, racing light cycles. He's assisted by the chirpy but mysterious Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a cross between Trinity from The Matrix and Abby from NCIS.
Even in the preview, there are story elements that don't quite make sense--like why was the phone service turned off at Flynn's Arcade 20 years ago, but not the power?--but the purpose of the whole movie is to get you on the grid, and once you're there it looks fantastic. There's a sense of realism in Tron: Legacy that simply wasn't possible in 1982. The grid looks like a real place, not a day-glow computer effect. Credit director Joseph Kosinski for using real light whenever possible, even embedded in the characters' costumes. It's makes the CG enhancements that much more realistic.
Allow me to gripe about 3D again, however. It's superfluous and doesn't improve the look of Tron: Legacy. I'll be catching the final release in 2D, thank you very much.
Tron: Legacy opens December 17. I'll be the one in line with all the rabid fanboys. We've waited 28 years for this. That's an awfully long time to wait for a sequel to a mediocre movie.
But, geez, that light cycle race was cool.

Remembering a Legend: Ollie Johnston

Disney Legend Ollie Johnston was born today in 1912.

A master of personality animation, Johnston grew up in Northern California, studied art at Stanford and later attended the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. In those early days, animation interested him, but he was never truly inspired by its potential until he saw Disney's 1934 Pluto cartoon Playful Pluto.

The flypaper sequence in Playful Pluto is an animation landmark for being the best earliest example of a cartoon character demonstrating a thought process. It was drawn by Norm Ferguson, a gifted Disney artist who went on to be a supervising animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio. He was also an animation director on such films as Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Johnston joined Disney in 1935 and had a career at the studio that spanned over 40 years. He was one of Walt's "Nine Old Men," the core group of animators who created virtually all of Disney's animated feature films from the 1930s to the 1970s. Among Johnston's most notable characters were Thumper (Bambi), Alice (Alice in Wonderland), Mr. Smee (Peter Pan), Baloo (The Jungle Book), Prince John (Robin Hood) and Sir Hiss (Robin Hood).
Johnston forged a lifelong friendship with fellow animator Frank Thomas. Together they wrote several books, including what is considered to be the bible of modern animation, The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation.
Johnston passed away on April 14, 2008 at the age of 95. He was Disney's last surviving "Old Man."
Video clips are from the 1995 documentary Frank and Ollie© Disney.