Friday, February 20, 2009

Disney Animation Marathon: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Not many films can be considered timeless. The Wizard of Oz is often considered timeless, as are films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark or Casablanca. These are all films that have not only stood the test of time as great works of art and entertainment, but films that also seem to transcend the time period in which they were made; Raiders was made in the 80s, but it certainly doesn’t feel like an 80s film, and it would probably shock a good portion of the population to learn that this year is the 70th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz. With this, the start of the Disney Animation Marathon, I believe that I have found the single most timeless film ever made. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a work of imagination as well as artistic and technical achievement that is still impressive today; the themes and storytelling are so simple and iconic that it can be difficult to comprehend that the film was released as long ago as 1937.

Watching Snow White, it is clear that the film was not made yesterday. Elements of the animation do seem less polished than current animated fare, and the soundtrack and voice work are typical of the era in which they were produced, but even these potentially dated qualities are superseded by the gorgeous artwork and the universally relevant story and action. It is hard to imagine a child - or any other person for that matter - who would not be won over by the film within minutes. This is a film that can be watched alongside modern animated masterpieces such as Wall-E or Coraline and it fit in with them naturally.

Snow White is a simple film, but analyzing it is a daunting task. There are an astonishing number of aspects that can be explored deeply, and likely all of them are deserving of time. Having watched the film twice in the space of a few days and for the first time in nearly a decade, I was overcome by many potential topics of discussion. First and foremost, I was awestruck by the level of quality and detail in the animation and background as well as the numerous special effects that went into making the world of Snow White enticing, believable, and an overall immersive experience. I was also fascinated by the simplicity of the storytelling employed by Disney in order to weave a universally appealing tale. In the same vein, I noted the interestingly simplified character work at play in the film, which allows the film to never be bogged down by extraneous character development. Finally, I was quite impressed by the dark imagery present throughout the film. In my opinion, it was these qualities in the film that made it stand out as both a great family oriented film and a masterful work of art.

From the opening frames of animation after the initial image of the Snow White storybook, we are immediately pulled into the world Disney has created. We see a shot of a mildly lit and somewhat sinister castle. The shot pulls in as though through the scenery in a manner that seems based in the reality of camera motion, but at the same time, it provides a style unique only to animation. In order to create a cohesive visual world with realistic movement and the illusion of three-dimensional depth, Disney developed the multi-plane camera; each cel of animation could be placed on a separate layer (each with its own adjustable distance from the camera), allowing the camera to appear to move through foliage and in front of objects. This depth adds a crucial element of believability to the film and it is no wonder that the same or similar techniques have been used in almost all traditionally animated films since that time.

The multi-plane technique is only one of the beauties of the film though: the backgrounds, which are hand painted in a detailed watercolour style, add extraordinarily to the visual style of the film. More than any animated film before, and most since, Snow White is an experience tantamount to stepping into a picturesque illustration.

Here is a clip from the famous Heigh-Ho musical number:

Everything - from character to shadow to background and effects - is striking. Also striking is how, in some shots, the environment appears to almost be back-lit, silhouetting the characters in a manner almost as beautiful and certainly as iconic as similarly styled shots in Gone With the Wind.

The characters are animated using a number of techniques. The humans are mostly done using a combination of hand animation and rotoscoping to give a realistic feel to their movements. The dwarfs in the film are clearly animated without any help from rotoscoping or other such techniques; they are expressive and each possess their own unique characterized animation that serves to show how much work a character animator has to do. For each character to not only look different but have both unique facial expressions and movement is a testament to the quality team that Walt Disney put together for his first animated feature.

One element I found particularly interesting was the animation of water as well as other similar distortion effects. I’m not actually sure how these effects were accomplished, but in almost every case, the distortion and reflection is done seamlessly. Here is an example of Snow White singing into a well. Notice how the ripples are animated and the distortions created by them appear realistic and flawless:

As you can see, Disney intended to create a wholly believable world, and that meant no detail (or expense) was spared; even the water looks absolutely perfect in the film.

The story of Snow White is, of course, taken from the famous Brothers Grimm tale. Little about the actual story has been changed from the basic elements of the original. Just as the Grimm tale was simple and effective, Snow White is too. I’m not going to go through the plot of the film; if you don’t know the story I’d have to call your childhood into question. What interests me is that Walt chose not to play around with the outline or simplicity of the original story. Snow White is first and foremost a fairy tale: the morals are easily understandable and the protagonist and antagonist are both clearly defined. There are no grey areas in a fairy tale and there are none in Disney’s film. The film starts off by setting up the Evil Queen and her motivations and then proceeds to a scene completely juxtaposed in tone in which we are introduced to Snow White through a song. Joss Whedon has spoken about the song at the beginning of Snow White and many other similar musicals in which the motivations and wishes of the main character are set up simply, effectively and memorably. The film continues to alternate between extended songs and set pieces involving Snow White, the dwarfs, and the Queen. This dichotomy of tones and actions means that the film never loses its playful nature while simultaneously maintaining the ever-present threat of the Queen.

One of the few plot points of the original story that was changed for the film is the ending. In the original tale, while the dwarfs are carrying Snow White’s coffin, they trip over some bushes, causing a piece of the poison apple to dislodge from Snow White’s throat and she is revived. Walt Disney opted to pilfer the ending from the Sleeping Beauty tale. This was a fantastic idea as it makes the ending all the more satisfying. How could you not love an ending in which “love’s first kiss” saves the day?

Of course, this would later cause trouble for Disney when he finally decided to make his own animated version of Sleeping Beauty. Luckily the ending in that film works equally as well, but we’ll get there later in the marathon.

Along with its simple story, Snow White has equally simple characters. Snow White represents all that is good and enviable in the world. She is beautiful, naïve, child-like, bubbly, and compassionate. There is nothing about her not to like (except perhaps the actress’ shrill voice) and she does not seem to change at all through the film. The evil Queen is also obviously very simple; she is evil and represents the ill sin of envy. The prince is almost not worth mentioning. Yet somehow, these characters need no more depth than what they are given. The audience doesn’t want to see Snow White grow as a person: she’s already perfect! Nobody wants to see the Queen learn from her mistakes. That would be boring. Instead we can’t help but want to see her defeated and hopefully punished for her wicked ways. The dwarfs are essentially all caricatures of their names: Sleepy is sleepy, Grumpy is grumpy, Dopey is dopey, etc. The only way they develop at all is that they are taught by Snow White to be neat and hygienic in a story tactic that seems aimed at making cleaning the house and washing your hands seem way more fun than in reality. Another funny thing about the dwarfs that I noted was how their being shown as working in the mines collecting jewels must have been a way to extol the virtues of a hard day’s labour during the Depression era. (Also, with the amount of precut and shining gems and diamonds they dig out of that mine, how do the dwarfs not live like kings?)

There is, actually, one character that shows growth over the course of the film: Grumpy.

Grumpy goes from being, well, grumpy, to nearly falling in love with Snow White. It’s not much development, but it adds a nice little subplot and it shows that only the most soulless, vile people are immune to Snow White's charm.

Snow White is a bright and cheery film, perfectly suitable for children, but do not make any mistake: it is also an incredibly dark film at times. The Queen is frightening even to me today. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to see her as a child. I wouldn’t be surprised if I had soiled my pants. Just take a look at this scene (and is it just me or is it not reminiscent of a certain set of shots seen only a few years later in Citizen Kane?):

That cackle is absolutely terrifying.

There are many scenes, mostly, but not exclusively, revolving around the Queen, which are very dark tonally and visually. This is an area where Snow White truly excels over most other children’s films, particularly those made today. The film is unapologetically dark, sinister and scary, but this makes it an incredibly exciting and effective film. There is a constant sense of danger; at any moment, the Queen could snap her fingers and everyone on screen would be killed in a bloody massacre. Many films today seem to be too politically correct to try and scare children. It is amazing that, as early as 1937, there were films that had no trouble striking fear into the hearts of its audience in order to make the final confrontation and emotional payoff far more successful.

Snow White is a film full of darkness, whimsy, striking artwork, imaginative songs and even more imaginative characters. There are fabulous effects and beautifully realized animals and flora. It’s a film that’s not afraid to be surreal at one time and funny at another. Take the famous forest sequence, for instance:

This sequence is the perfect example of how the film uses beautifully fluid animation, special effects, abstract style, terrifying imagery, effective music, and even a little lighthearted comedy at the end, all adding up to one action-packed, scary, exciting and fun experience.

And that seems to be the true strength of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: It’s a brilliant piece of animation that can easily be enjoyed by anyone and at any age, and that’s why it’s quite possibly the most timeless of any film ever made; it provides for a wealth of entertainment, while never forsaking artistry or technical craft. It is jam-packed with memorable songs and memorable characters and at its heart it is a simple story that translates universally worldwide. The fact that this was one of the very first animated features ever produced makes its achievements infinitely more impressive. My highest compliment is probably that having seen it twice in less than a week, I cannot wait to watch it again. If that isn’t the sign of a masterpiece, then I’m not sure what is.

As an addendum, I’d like to share the Top 5 Lessons that can be learned from Snow White:
5. Don’t be envious. It’s evil.
4. Being beautiful and naïve is irresistible.
3. Wash your hands before you eat.
2. Clean your house on a regular basis.
1. Never, under any circumstances, should you ever eat anything given to you by an ugly old woman. Never. Just don’t do it!

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Most action movies, and in fact most mainstream movies, act as vehicles to test out Murphy’s Law, which loosely states: anything that can go wrong will go wrong. The idea is to have everything go wrong and then have a hero come in to fix everything. It makes sense because if things didn’t go wrong then there would be no conflict needing resolution and we’d have no movies. Liam Neeson’s new movie, Taken, really runs with Murphy’s Law. It does more that that, actually. Taken sees Murphy, raises him and then proceeds to kick his ass.

Taken stars Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills, a retired CIA agent and general badass. Mills has moved to LA in order to live near his daughter, Kim. She is living with her mother, played by Famke Janssen, who is now married to a ridiculously rich man named Stuart, played by Xander Berkley. Mills is constantly one-upped in wild fashion by the other father in Kim’s life: Bryan buys his daughter a karaoke machine for her birthday while Stuart buys her a horse. He buys her a horse. This is that kind of movie.

In between this introduction and the main plot of the movie Mills gets to play security guard for a famous pop star. Usually nothing serious happens at these shows, but given this is a movie, and given Murphy’s Law, it cannot be that simple. It leads to a nice bout of kick-assery in which Mills saves the day and wins the respect of the young starlet. It’s also a nice indication of where this movie is headed in terms of the action element.

In trying to rebuild his strained relationship with his daughter Bryan agrees to allow her to travel to Paris with her stock blonde friend (here named Amanda.) He gives Kim explicit instructions on calling him when she lands and every night before she goes to sleep in an effort to make sure she will be safe. Of course, again, this is a movie: Kim will not be safe. Murphy simply cannot be denied. When Bryan finally reaches her on the phone in Paris she is already at an apartment and soon begins to witness Amanda being taken by kidnappers. This is where the film really takes off. Bryan, in his amazingly stern voice, gives her instructions to go hide under a bed. Once there we are treated to one of the most suspenseful single minutes I’ve sat through in a theatre. The scene is in the trailer, but it is still extremely effective in the film. He tells Kim point-blank that she will be taken and that he will be coming to rescue her. And when Bryan Mills, ex-CIA, says he’s going to rescue his daughter he damn well means it.

It all leads to a film in which Liam Neeson uses his CIA training, know-how and contacts to expose a nasty ring of Albanian human trafficking, while also killing, maiming and destroying just about everything in his path. Allow me to be frank: there is nothing particularly intelligent about this film. It is mindless entertainment, but nothing really beats well-made mindless entertainment. The action is great here. It’s shot in that shaky-cam Bourne style, but like the better sequences in the Bourne movies the action is still exciting and provides a nice adrenaline rush. There’s also something extremely satisfying in seeing Liam Neeson killing everyone involved in this horrible crime. It’s the kind of criminality that is so vile and putrid that I doubt the audience would have any qualms about the way Bryan Mills serves justice to those who take part in it.

Liam Neeson is really the piece of the puzzle holding this film together. He brings a collected calm and cool, with a serious level of anger buried under the surface. I would actually love to see the Bryan Mills character in more films, though the plot of this one isn’t necessarily open for a sequel. Pierre Morel who was also responsible for the equally adrenaline-pumping District B13 directs the film, and he directs it with confidence and style. Except for the excess of setting up the plot at the beginning of the film there is little other than forward momentum once the main plot gets rolling. Nothing distracts Mills from his mission, and nothing in the film distracts the audience from it either. The film was also produced and co-written by director Luc Besson. Besson is best known for directing La Femme Nikita and Léon, as well as writing the Transporter series of movies. Taken seems to find some middle ground between those two extremes. It has a lot of the gritty realism of Nikita and Léon, while never having shame in its ridiculous over-the-top nature also seen in The Transporter.

The truth is, this film is nowhere near as smart as the Bourne series to which it has been endlessly compared. Luckily it’s made well enough and features a fantastic performance from its action hero lead. From beginning to end I had fun with Taken and that’s really all I could ask from it. It also proves that Liam Neeson, who was at one point up for a role as the new James Bond, easily has more chops for that kind of character than Daniel Craig. And now I’m left to imagine how much better Quatum of Solace might have been if Neeson had been the star. We’ll never know, but at least we have Taken, which provides a much needed thrill-ride for this dull movie season.

The ball's in your court, Murphy.

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Monday, February 09, 2009


Most people seem to forget that The Nightmare Before Christmas was not actually directed by Tim Burton. Unfortunately Henry Selick rarely gets the credit owed to him as a great artist due to the overshadowing of Tim Burton on his career. I know people who even believe Selick’s stop-motion adaptation of James and the Giant Peach was directed by Burton. Hopefully Selick’s new film, Coraline, will change that and finally make clear the creative and artistic force he represents in the industry. That’s because Coraline, which was years in the making, stands out as Selick’s masterpiece and a beautiful entry into the world of modern animation.

The film is based Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed novel and the influence of his unique brand of fantasy storytelling is felt very strongly in the film. I haven’t read the book, so I cannot say how faithful the film is to its source, but I can’t imagine Gaiman would be anything but ecstatic with the final product.

Coraline is about a young girl, named Coraline (which nearly every character mistakes for Caroline,) who, with her mother and father, moves into a new apartment in a big old house. In one room Coraline discovers a locked door sealed behind a layer of wallpaper. At night the door magically opens and she goes through it only to be transported into a world almost exactly like her own, but everything is exactly how she would want it. Her “other” mother and father are more caring and pay more attention to her while her new friend, Wybie, has his mouth sewn shut so he can’t speak incessantly. She soon discovers that this other world may be hiding a darkly insidious force that must be stopped.

The film begins with Coraline’s arrival in the new apartment and sets up in very calm fashion the simple, boring, but slightly oddball world in which she lives. Her parents are writers for a horticultural magazine and as spend far too much time focused on their work with little time to spare for their daughter. What struck me immediately in these opening scenes was the quiet nature of the film. Most children’s films like to start off loud to capture the attention of the audience, but Coraline seemingly needs no such artificiality. Instead, the film relies more heavily on visual tone. Coraline’s world is dark and dreary, but it is slightly askew, making it less boring and more uncomfortable. It may be a simple and uninteresting place, but it is open to the unique potential of a child’s imagination.

The characters living in the other apartments are kooky and weird, and just like the apartment complex itself these people are not the types that a child would take interest in, but whose personalities and looks would make for wonderful dreams and playful stories. And this is exactly what we get in the “Other” world. The world just beyond the small door in the wall is magical and new. It is a place where everything is fascinating and fun and nothing is quite as it seems on the surface.

It is the perfect world for our young hero to carry on her adventures. In many ways the film is very similar to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, and Coraline in particular is very reminiscent of that film’s leading protagonist, Ofelia. Both are creative young girls who are alienated from their respective worlds and find solace in a magical place that is hard to differentiate from a beautiful, or often nightmarish, dream. Both characters are also tenacious and incredibly brave. Coraline is especially fed up with her parents and the magical realm reflects her concerns realistically and poignantly.

The film also recalled Pan’s Labyrinth in its simply constructed but thematically dense and captivating fairy tale story. There is often little rhyme or reason to what happens except that it is by magic and magical convention, and this works brilliantly to underscore the childlike nature of the fairy tale being told. When Coraline has to find three magical eyes that look nothing like eyes in order to save the souls of three young children in order to go about saving her parents it all feels very arbitrary, but such is the nature of fairy tales, and in many ways is also the nature of a child’s existence. The ends are clear, but the means to those ends often feel illogical and created only to be an obstacle. The means still need to be accomplished though, and Coraline excels at playing out the adventures they create.

Her parents are not bad people, but as is the case in many modern families, work often takes priority over children, and the film captures this sad reality starkly. Coraline never attacks the parent characters. As an audience we don’t hate them. We are simply irked by the reality portrayed in them and wish they would acknowledge the bright young girl they have raised.

All these thematic elements are infinitely enhanced by the beautiful stop-motion animation on display. The movement of characters is very smooth, but not so smooth as to make them lifeless as though they had been poorly created by computer animation. The feeling is that the world we are viewing is tangibly real while also being detached from reality. This detachment serves to create a cold distancing effect in Coraline’s real world, while producing an animated warmth and vibrancy that allows the magical world to be emotionally inviting. It also helps that the animation is just so damn beautiful to watch. I would imagine that even if the story and character work weren’t so good I would still recommend the film for the visuals alone. Nearly every sequence in the film is utterly breathtaking.

Of course, the film is also in 3D, and this only adds to the beauty on hand. The third dimension is not used here as a gimmick, and it isn’t even used only for its simple effect of perceived added depth as seen in many new CG films. Selick instead uses the 3D effect to enhance the artistry of the visuals he has created. The sense is that the world we are witnessing truly exists right before our eyes. We are able to see the minute special details of the design work and the characters appear to truly bounce about in front of us as though the barrier of a screen is non-existent. The screen is not simply a window to the world of Coraline, but rather an opening through which the film’s elaborate sets and characters can almost be touched and felt. I have seen several films projected in 3D and none have used the technique so superbly and skillfully as in Coraline.

Dakota Fanning provides the voice of Coraline, and generally I can’t stand Fanning in movies, but here, using only her voice, she breathes life and confidence into her character. She sounds mature, but also young and vivacious. Teri Hatcher, of Desperate Housewives, delivers the other big speaking role, as Coraline’s mother, and she manages to be plain, sweet, caring and creepy, and often all at the same time. John Hodgman plays the father, and his voice is almost unrecognizable here because of the character’s quiet and monotone nature. The music in the film is generally understated, but what is there is both haunting and and mesmerizing. It helps with the film’s generally languid and dreamy pace, while also enhancing its eerie tone.

I’m not sure whether Coraline would actually be a frightening film for children, but for those old enough to sit through a moderately paced creepy dream-like film there are likely few better than this one. Selick brings to the medium a great maturity and uniquely imaginative styling that makes Coraline a perfect treat. It is a beautiful and dark story about childhood and it is a fantastic experience in animation. It is particularly spectacular in digital 3D, and I really can’t imagine watching it any other way. The film is so wonderful and the 3D effect is so good that I really do wish to see it again before it comes out on home video, limited only to its 2D presentation. There are a number of unique family films in the works for this year – including among them Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are and Wes Anderson’s own stop-motion adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox - and Henry Selick’s Coraline has truly set the bar high, and in the most magnificent fashion.

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