This is an interesting moment to be a Disney observer.
Remember that Walt once mined the most peculiar material, resulting in abstract
weirdness in his collaborations with Ub Iwerks. The reason it’s a joy to watch Silly
Symphonies is they are gloriously bizarre. A spine being played like a
xylophone? Sure, and the boneyard of Skeleton Dance isn’t the half of it.
Eventually a new model began, fortified by Snow White, of
using fairy tales from sources like Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen.
This has been the studio’s enduring box-office engine, witness Frozen. However, all these years
later and with Disneyland turning sixty, we are now in a post-Pop universe:
movies don’t reference literature, they reference pop culture and even
A sign of this has been the Disney initiative to turn its
rides into films. There have been duds—Haunted
Mansion, Mission to Mars, and
yikes Country Bears—but we have also gotten
the rollicking Pirates franchise and
now Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland. These
are success stories because they care less about faithfully adapting the rides
and more about capturing the spirit of them.
Sort of like jazz, it’s a riff on the original, improvised
to become its own thing. And we are in the midst of a new post-Pop achievement:
a Pixar director dips way back into the Disney playbook to make a strikingly
unique film inspired by Reason and Emotion a 1943 propaganda film that peeks
inside people’s heads.
This is something new going on, so let’s take a moment to
applaud. The source material is so obscure, despite its long-ago Academy Award
nomination, that it has no perceived value in the market for Disney. It does,
however, make for a terrific place to start loosely inventing an on-screen
world, which is what Pete Docter and crew have done with Inside Out, finding their muse in an old oddity.
The originating cartoon was simple but clever, zipping
between brains, showing an inner-caveman at war with a gentleman’s finer
nature. With the opportunity to riff on its weird mindscape, Docter ultimately
builds up a world with such an original set of operating parts that it completely dazzles, each brick
of the psyche re-imagined by animators.
Out is a great
example of how you can get there from
here. If ‘here’ is a trip, then ‘there’ will be trippier.
One can imagine what
kernels of goodness still live in those Disney vaults. If not inspirational concept
designs or gag sketches, then surely even just the studio’s early film catalogue
can offer lots of wild ideas.
And while we’re
in the aisle of classic Disney, let’s reach past the obvious singles and pick
out those deeper cuts. Here’s a few for the playlist: Wilfred Jackson’s Music
Land (1935) and Ward Kimball’s stylized Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953). What crazy and indelible landscapes!
more: Lullaby Land (1933), Pigs is Pigs (1954), Donald in Mathmagic Land (1959) and the mechanical nuttiness of 1920s Iwerks cartoons. Of course, on
their own merits, these are not films that necessarily translate to great new cinema.
But in the hands of the right creative team, with enough jazz riffs, who knows
what these chestnuts might grow.
re-makes, but re-inventions. Yes, we know that a movie based on It’s a Small World is on the horizon,
and I’m eager and optimistic for it. But you want to know a classic Disney
property that really would make me go ‘wow’? A feature-length movie inspired by
“Pink Elephants” from Dumbo. Weird!
is really that inspiration can come in many ways, and Inside Out is the product of various stimuli, but it seems an old
cartoon was the germinating idea. Reason and Emotion is exactly the kind of thing
that sticks in your mind because it is strange, a wartime film that used a
visual metaphor to make a case about Americans keeping their calm during WWII.
Let’s not forget, this has both a caveman and Hitler in it.
Pete Docter, the chestnut was a cartoon landscape of a professorial Peabody-type
riding a man around like a bus driver in the brain, trying to overcome Emotion.
Bravo to Disney and all its artists, in Glendale and Emeryville and elsewhere,
for their interest in its rich history, even the obscure stuff, in building new
treasures on a classic foundation.