Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Staging an Animated Song

I was looking at "Gay Purr-ee" again the other day, a movie that is less than the sum of its parts but will always have a following because the parts are so interesting (Judy Garland fans, Harold Arlen fans, Chuck Jones fans, and UPA fans can all find something of value in it even though it's none of those people's best work). One thing that occurred to me this time is that staging a song for animation can be surprisingly tricky.

The temptation in a cartoon musical, and one that Abe Levitow and Chuck Jones and the rest of the team didn't really avoid here, is just to illustrate the lyrics. So in the "Money Cat" song, there's a physical image to match most of the images in the lyric, including "bottle poppers" and having your "heart set" on something. It's like a live-action musical number where the singer acts out everything he or she sings about, and much of it is redundant: if they're singing about it, we don't need to see every bit of it illustrated.

This is a particular problem with these songs, because Yip Harburg was known for packing his lyrics with images that are at once very specific and hard to translate into physical terms -- in fact, that's arguably a problem with the score, that unlike Arlen and Harburg's songs for The Wizard of Oz, these songs don't have deceptively simple images and can seem over-sophisticated for a movie about talking cats. (In that they reflect the tone of the movie, which is also trying to load on more sophistication than the story can handle.)

If you compare the staging of "When I See an Elephant Fly," a song with (by its nature) lots of specific physical images, the crows don't act out a lot of the images -- and when they do act them out, it's in a simple way, by gesticulating; they don't contort themselves into the shape of baseball bats. The staging works with the song rather than just mimicking it.

Of course, to stage a song that way you more or less have to have full animation -- if the characters can't act in an individualized way, then they can't do much that isn't in the lyrics. With Gay Purr-ee, a movie that emphasizes layout and design over animation, the option to concentrate on acting and characterization may not have been available; certainly "Roses Red, Violets Blue" (an Arlen/Harburg song so typical of their work that I'm kind of amazed it was newly written for this film) seems a little lost when it comes to patches in the lyrics that don't led themselves to illustration -- when that happens, it's just Mewsette standing there and singing, or long shots of the countryside.


Steve said...

Like many other musicals, so many things just didn't quite work in that film. The main problem from what I've read is that they just didn't have the money to do it right. That "shadows" shot at the beginning looks very much like it was taken straight out of "What's Opera Doc?" Too many drawings were recycled. Too many shots held too long. The chorus of black cats is supposed to provide the funny business, but they aren't individual characters. They're just identical shadows. Next stop: Filmation's music video of "Sugar Sugar."

Compare that to the Dumbo clip: the characters are identifiable, nothing is recycled, and the song is better. Money doesn't solve all your problems... but it sure helps.

When I was a kid and I saw this film I thought the girl cat was a selfish brat who caused all the trouble.

MetFanMac said...

Hello Jaime,

Are you the same guy who used to maintain the Freakazoid Cultural Reference Guide?


Anonymous said...

Darrel Van Citters recently posted a four-part blog entry detailing the backstory of Saperstein vs. Bosustow. The link:

J Lee said...

Levitow's work with musical numbers was far better a year later with "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" than it was here, although part of the reason there might have been because the characters themselves were already set in place by the original Dickens story and were known to the audience. There was no need to completely act out the lyrics to define personality, because the audience already knew what the personalities were.

Steve said...

I think the lyrics in "Magoo's Christmas Carol" gave the artists more to work with... and without.

"Millions of grains of sand in the world, why such a lonely beach?"

That needs no illustration.