Susan Palmer reviews Mouse Under Glass: The Secrets of Disney Animation and Theme Parks.
How many can say they have never seen a Disney film? The number is small, but still, there probably are some who are the phenomenal few. In case anyone has been asleep for the past 50 years, David Koenig's new book, Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation and Theme Parks, will fill them in on the story-lines and fun facts of Disney's animated and live-action feature films. For those who are already acquainted with these films, this book will let them in on something new, an inside look at the origin of the stories, intended and unintended bloopers and how the films have been translated into rides at Disney amusement parks worldwide.
Koenig seems to have a great amount of respect for Disney's complex animated films. "Disney's formula seems simple enough," he writes, "but then you realize that no one else has been able to duplicate their success. Watch another studios animated features, visit other amusement parks, you get a sense something's missing. . . .They don't feel Disney." However, Koenig likes to nit-pick and dwell upon the smallest details.
The Secret's in the Story
Written in an easy to read, factual style, Mouse Under Glass takes the reader through 30 Disney features, from Felix Salten's Bambi: A Life in the Woods to Pocahontas. Each chapter begins with the synopsis of the original story concept and then Koenig takes us step-by-step through the plot of the Disney tale from beginning to signature end. The book takes a very analytical approach to questions that I am sure have perplexed us all, such as "Why doesn't Dopey (Snow White) talk?" However, the book is also full of quizzes, nuggets of Disney history and juicy tidbits from Disney's elite group of theme park designers, the Imagineers. Koenig mentions time and time again that the secret to Disney animation is the story. He cites how well everything is planned and then questioned again and again until the story is perfectly honed.
However, while praising their mastery of story-telling, Koenig includes in each chapter a section called "Plot Holes." Some of the holes aren't necessarily plot-driven, but rather revolve around facts such as Dick Van Dyke occasionally losing his cockney accent in Mary Poppins and that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is set in 1947, but features characters that weren't created in this world until after that date. Each chapter also contains an attack on the animation called "Bloopers." Koenig makes some far reaches to conclude that animators' mistakes hinder the stories. In a chapter on Beauty and the Beast, he complains "When Gaston arrives at Belle's house to propose, the cottage door opens out and is left open as they walk across the room. Soon after, Gaston backs Belle against the door, which has somehow closed, but she opens the door out and slips away, so Gaston falls through. Belle pulls the door shut, then quickly opens the door in and tosses out his boots." Upon viewing a film, animated or live action, one hopes to have such a great story that the human error factor will not interfere. No film made, animated or live-action, is 100% blooper-free. This kind of gripe seems trivial and unnecessary when doors have been known to swing both ways.
Not all of the bloopers are bad though. The most intriguing sections of Mouse Under Glass are the guided tours of the "hidden stuff" which can be found in selected films. Under close scrutiny, the educated viewer will find many racy images, caricatures of animators, and saucy words, implanted by many a clever animator. Be warned, however; to find these sequences, one must be quick of the eye and fast on the VCR pause button. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, for instance, the infamous "dirty" frames featuring the Jessica Rabbit character sans underwear is visible for only three frames, or, one eighth of a second. In a less controversial sequence in The Little Mermaid, animators inserted split-second cameo appearances from Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy appearing at the entrance to King Triton's underwater palace. These little-known "bloopers" are a real treat to watch.
Overall, Mouse Under Glass is a good entertainment guide to Disney films. It doesn't conquer tough questions or capture the essence of what makes Disney special. It does, however, have lots of neat facts. If you are a Disney fanatic, you will probably learn some new trivia that is not widely publicized and enjoy the book. If you have seen just a few of the films, rent one and then sit back with the book and enjoy the tour. But remember, you will need the book in one hand, and the VCR controller in the other to catch the slightly outrageous! If you are caught with the TV screen frozen on one of the more suggestive frames, just remember to say it's in the name of education and in the interest of art.
Mouse Under Glass: The Secrets of Disney Animation and Theme Parks by David Koenig. Bonaventure Press, 1997. 270 pages, illustrated. Hardcover, $23.95; ISBN: 0-9640605-0-7.
Susan Palmer is a freelance writer and an animator/illustrator living in Los Angeles, CA.