Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Fluke is the Duke of Soul

I hope someday the cartoonist who bills himself as "Merlin Jones" will expand his multi-part The Rise and Fall of Disney Animation into a full-length book. Until then, the piece is a great read. Starting with The Little Mermaid, the Disney company seemed to have hit on a winning formula that would guarantee hit after hit -- and only four films and five years later, they had almost completely lost their way. It's an astonishing thing, and the essay is an object lesson in the fact that decisions in Hollywood often don't make commercial sense any more than they make artistic sense. The money-grubbing, bottom-line thing to do would have been to make more funny/touching fairy tales in the mold of Little Mermaid, or Bambi-style fables like The Lion King. Instead, as "Merlin Jones" tells it, producers who thought those stories were too "corny" pushed the films toward things they liked better: overblown musicals with politically-correct messages about tolerance (Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame). It's a moral that's not unique to this story: Hollywood executives care about making money and pleasing the audience, but they also care about prestige and awards and a reputation as forward-looking, progressive people. And that stuff can hurt a movie much more than crass commercial considerations.

Addendum: Remember, however, that "Merlin Jones"'s point of view is one among many; it's likely that Michael Eisner deserves somewhat more credit for Disney's resurgence than the recent kick-him-while-he's-down stories are willing to give him. (Just because someone runs a company into the ground doesn't mean he did nothing to help it in the past.)

One of the few non-cartoonists who comes off well in "Merlin Jones"'s telling is songwriter/writer/producer Howard Ashman, whose songwriting skill and whimsical sense of humor were essential to Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, and whose death from AIDS was a major, tragic factor in ending the short-lived Disney animation boom. One thing about Ashman is that while his work was routinely described as Broadway-style, it actually was kind of out of step with the musical theatre of the late '80s, when he came to Disney. The hits of that era were mostly big, serious, self-important shows like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. And the prestigious shows of the era were shows like Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods: musicals laden down with Big Themes about art and life and death. (Into the Woods, a musical deconstruction of fairy tales, tore down all the Disney-style stuff that Little Mermaid would soon help revive.) In coming to Disney, Ashman and Alan Menken not only helped revive the style of old-fashioned Disney features; they revived an old-fashioned style of musical theatre writing, with zippy, instantly-catchy songs, a sense of fun and whimsy, and eschewing Big Themes in favor of the kind of simple themes that make for good popular songwriting. When, after Ashman's death, Disney decided that they were the "new Broadway," they made Pocahontas and especially Hunchback as big, preachy musicals with songs in the vein of the late '80s hits -- the kind of Broadway that Mermaid had been rebelling against, and the antithesis of the kind of musical theatre that Ashman had been helping Disney to revive.

Another thing about Ashman's work for Disney -- and this is noted a couple of times on the Beauty and Aladdin DVD commentaries -- is that he filled his lyrics with references to specific physical things: objects, animals, actions. This is an important characteristic of good lyric-writing in general (good lyricists deal in specific images; bad lyricists deal in generalities and platitudes), but it was absolutely essential for a song in an animated movie, because without the physical images, there's nothing for the animators to animate, and everything stops while a song is going on. "Under the Sea" in Mermaid was a great number because it was such a fun song, but also because the lyrics contained copious visual cues, including the famous list of different types of fish and the instruments they're playing, that allowed the number to proceed as a combination of song and visuals.

Post-Ashman, Tim Rice did a decent if unexceptional job on finishing Aladdin and doing The Lion King, writing lyrics that weren't terribly specific but at least fit the onscreen action instead of slowing it down. But Stephen Schwartz, lyricist of Pocahontas and Hunchback, wrote technically-assured but generalized lyrics ("Colors of the Wind?" what's that about? multicolored smog?) that brought the action to a dead halt while somebody sang. After those two movies, you heard people complaining about all the pointless singing in Disney movies; you didn't hear it after Beauty or Aladdin, because the songs in those movies are so much a part of the action that you're often hardly aware of them as separate self-contained numbers. Does this mean that, in addition to blaming him for Godspell and Pippin, we can blame Stephen Schwartz for killing the animated musical? Probably not. But it's worth a try.

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