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Transfixed and Goggle-Eyed

R.O. Blechman, who has long charmed us with his films and illustrations, takes a humorous and often sardonic look at the resurgence of all things Disney and what it all means.

blechman12.gif R. O. Blechman. © R. O. Blechman.

It seemed too special to miss. The 1991 New York Film Festival was offering a sneak preview of Disney's latest film, Beauty and the Beast, presented as a work-in-progress with pencil test segments interspersed with final footage. Despite ambivalent feelings about Disney (I admired Pinocchio; I hated Cinderella), I had to go.

The theater was packed, and no wonder! Aside from the draw that any Disney animation had, there was the special attraction of seeing the inner workings of a Disney feature--the boney armature as well as the flesh and blood of the film.

Fifteen minutes into the film I felt an irresistible urge to turn from the screen towards the audience. I already had a strong reaction to the film and was curious what other people felt. I turned around. The audience was goggle-eyed. I was no less transfixed, but for a different reason. Here was a cross section of film-lovers--this was The New York Film Festival, after all--clearly loving a film with formulaic artwork, a banal story, and cliché personae. Did these Frenchmen ever inhabit anything resembling a real France? The village these folk inhabited was straight out of a theme park. The stereotypical heroine, Belle, with her enormous sunny side-up eyes, seemed to resemble nothing so much as a Keane painting (remember that Fifties artist -- the butt of Woody Allen's Sleeper--who painted outsize eyes on street waifs? Well here he was, alive again, and on a big screen). Belle exclaims at one point, clutching a book to her bosom (heaving on ones), "I just finished the most wonderful story!" The wonderful story turns out to be... Jack and the Beanstalk! This is literature? This is a role model for children?


Scenes from Beauty and the Beast. © Walt Disney Pictures.

But there were more basic problems with the film. The visuals were often dogged with a literalism of the sky-equals-blue, grass-equals-green variety, which is the very antithesis of art. Art is stylization if nothing else, and there was precious little of it in what I saw.

I got up from my seat, standing alone in that vast theater, and walked stiffly toward the exit, hoping that people would think I was headed for the Men's Room. But I doubt if anybody in that rapt audience noticed.

Back to the Forties

Home again, my time clock shifted back to the Forties when I was a young art student in Manhattan. In those days the creative Scylla and Charybides were two artists to be steered well clear of: Norman Rockwell (although I've since come to admire his painterly technique, something not apparent on the printed page) and Walt Disney. Disney himself was aware of his waning hold on the American public.

The Disney studio had been eclipsed by the popularity of an upstart bicoastal studio, UPA, which pioneered a highly graphic approach to animation design. The new studio was producing an often brilliant group of shorts using such talents as Ludwig Bemelman's in the faithfully visualized retelling of his classic children's book, Madeline, and James Thurber in his masterful Unicorn in the Garden (which I saw, incidentally, as a soldier, billed as The Uniform in the Garden). Rankled by the critical and popular success of these films, Disney came out with his own stylized short, Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom. If animation is the sincerest form of flattery, it is also the surest sign of artistic bankruptcy.

So what has happened in these intervening years? Why would a look considered so bankrupt in one decade be so bankable in another? Why has the taste of the American public shifted so radically--and the taste of the media critics, those presumed watchdogs of the national taste? Something profound, I suspect, and something frightening. Something that goes beyond mere aesthetics (although there is nothing "mere" about aesthetics. It is the barometer of a civilization). It touches on no less than the American psyche.

blechman22.gifblechman23.gifMadeline, Bob Cannon, 1952. © UPA. The Unicorn and the Garden, Bill Hurtz, 1953. © UPA.

I suspect that this decline of visual standards--this willingness to accept kitsch, and worse, this inability to recognize it--has something to do with a galloping infantilism, a product of lessening educational and loosening media standards, perhaps fed, literally, by the junk food we consume. "We are what we eat,"goes the old adage, and it may not be far afield of the truth. Whatever the precise reasons for this decline, Disney is enjoying an unparalleled success.

A mere waif at the turn of the century, the bitch goddess Success has become a reigning queen. And success has triumphed over the more solid virtue of achievement. This was brought home to me recently when I attended the National Magazine Awards luncheon. Inducted into the "Hall of Fame" by the Association was that cover-to-cover gossip magazine, People. I couldn't help thinking that in a world threatened by various apocalypses--nuclear and environmental--how could something as trivial and, worse!, diverting--be honored? Well, what was being honored was its circulation success, not its editorial achievement. What, may I ask, had People done to uplift our culturally impoverished (and financially impoverished--and perhaps the two are related) society? Nada. Zilch. Now back to Disney.

A Cachet to Die For

I believe that the sea change in Walt Disney's popularity has a lot to do with the massive publicity machine spearheaded by that mother of all cocktail table books, the gorgeously written and produced Abrams volume, The Art of Walt Disney. Here was an imprimatur and cachet to die for, and it gave Disney a foothold in the American psyche that has become a stranglehold on independent animated filmmaking--at least in the theatrical area. Name a breakthrough in animated theatricals in the past 10 or 20 years? None that I've seen--none, at least comparable to those in the field of publishing such as Maus, or comic strip artists such as Joost Swarte, Charles Burns, Kaz or Mazzucchelli. In the world of theatrical features, what is there but Disney and Disney Redux, or else things pretested and pretasted in the animated kitschens of television?

Of course there are admirable types such as Bill Plympton who dare the impossible and work with 11 fingers on 25 hour days to produce their own features. But for filmmakers with only 10 digits and 24 hour days, or families to support, or studios to manage, there is little hope.

But Leonard Bernstein maintained that hope is a sixth (or is it fifth? I can't remember which) instinct. So there is always the hope that the telephone will ring--the fax machine will buzz--and there will be an offer from Pie in the Sky Productions, "Mr. Brilliant Filmmaker. We read your latest proposal (or read your latest book)"--either fantasy will do--"It would make a great feature..."

R.O. Blechman pursues a dual career as an illustrator and as head of his own animation studio, The Ink Tank, in New York. Starting this fall, Stewart, Tabori & Chang will be publishing three of his books: The Life of Saint Nicholas, a reissue of The Juggler of Our Lady, and a contemporary retelling of The Book of Jonah.