Sunday, March 18, 2007

Squaw No Dance! Squaw Get-Um Firewood!

Thad Komorowski has a mini-tribute to the Disney animator Ward Kimball, with this post and also this one.

Thad writes that Kimball was Disney's "most original animator" and I think that's definitely true, though I don't think it's always a compliment. Kimball had a unique style; he did the cartooniest animation of any of Disney's "Nine Old Men". And whereas the other animators toned down as they went on, Kimball actually got broader, so by the '50s his scenes and characters (like Lucifer in Cinderella) are all goofy moves and rounded shapes.

The result is that some of Kimball's scenes seem to belong in a different movie -- though I hasten to add I'm not talking about the crow scene in Dumbo. But the stuff he handled in Cinderella, all the stuff with the cat and the mice, really doesn't seem like a full-fledged part of the movie. Though, of course, it probably would seem that way no matter who animated it: the cat/mice stuff is the weakest part of the film, not because of Kimball but because it's what you see when you look up the word "padding" in the dictionary.

Amid Amidi's piece on Kimball makes it clear that his work didn't completely fit in with the way Disney's features were developing, and other films utilized his talents better:

While Kimball brought to life many of the now-classic characters and moments from the Disney features, it became increasingly apparent by the late-Forties that Kimball's talents were not being utilized to their fullest extent as an animator. It wasn't until the Fifties, when he made the switch over to directing and producing films, that his sophisticated graphic sensibility and humorous and intellectual tendencies found a receptive home.

I should add here that I have a lot of admiration for the less cartoony animation in Disney's early-'50s features -- a lot of people seem to think it was just a matter of duplicating the live-action reference, but I think there's more to it than that, and there are many touching and beautiful moments in the animation of the human, drawn-from-life characters. I think some of these characters, because they are based on live-action acting, are a bit underrated today.

Addendum: I just found Kimball's "What Makes the Red Man Red" sequence from Peter Pan -- dubbed in Arabic.

I find it odd, by the way, that the Disney company doesn't feel obliged to include some kind of disclaimer before Peter Pan on account of this sequence. Not that I want a disclaimer, mind you (and I was horrified when I heard someone argue that Disney should have cut this scene out to make the movie less "offensive"), but it's weird that the company includes all kinds of disclaimers for any other racial stereotypes, and still doesn't have the guts to release Song of the South, and yet this particular set of stereotypes doesn't seem to worry them at all.

Oh, and one other thing: is this the first time someone had used the gimmick (later to become an animation cliché) of the tracking shot into a character's mouth?
Update: It wasn't the first time, as Thad explains in comments. But Kimball sure seemed to like that particular gag.


Thad said...

I agree with most of what you've said... But I'm sorry but the cat/mice stuff is the highlight of "Cinderella" for me. The drawings and timing is just too damn funny. The long Cinderella/Prince Charming scene sort of drags.

If you want my honest opinion, Cinderella, the Prince, and the Stepmother all look like they belong in a different movie. The other human characters are drawn with a lot more leeway to use squash and stretch.

And the contrast between those characters and the cartoony designed characters made them that much more different. It separated Alice from her imaginary world. This stuff is planned and done for a purpose. Nobody can do stuff like the characters in "Alice in Wonderland" or "Peter Pan" (my two favorite animated features for the record) today.

Thad said...

Oh and to answer your question, that gimmick was used in a bunch of Fleischer Screen Songs/Talkartoons first. Though the first elaborate one was Disney's "Mother Goose Goes Hollywood" (in a scene animated by, gasp!, Kimball).

Anonymous said...

I seem to recall some of the Warner Bosko cartoons using a tracking shot into Bosko's mouth.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Thad:

Kimball had it right in Cinderella with his designs and animation of the mice and the cat ...the other stuff is for the most part pretty boring (the story is solid and that's what saves it). The other animators should have come up to Kimball's level, not he down to theirs. Of course, that's not fair, they were all capable of coming up to that level, but were saddled with middle-of-the-road character designs and as animators their feet were "nailed to the floor" (as Thomas and Johnston put it in their book The Illusion of Life) by the live-action footage shot for the film. Kimball wasn't nailed to the floor , so he danced, gamboled, and flew across the screen with his scenes, magic feather grasped firmly in his hand. Milt Kahl does some great Lucifer scenes in the sequence where Jaq and Gus go to gather the beads, so yes, the other animators matched Kimball when given something to work with.

By the way, I really like Cinderella. The story is well-crafted and despite what I said about a lot of it being middle-of-the-road "boring" , I love the Bibbidee-Bobbidee-Boo sequence with the Fairy Godmother and the final drama of those mice (by Woolie this time) climbing the mountainous stairs to get that key to Cinderelly .

Anonymous said...

Here's my take on the Indians in Peter Pan:

Coming from the original Barrie play they are based on a child's fantasy version of "Red Indians" , as a British child might imagine them from reading various yarns of that exotic frontier land , America, with it's Wild West and Tall Tales. Doesn't make it right , but I think that's what it was intended to be , not intended to be overtly offensive to native Americans ,although I understand why it is.

The film takes place in Never Land. Is it a real place or a dream ? Is it all in Wendy's head ? So, yes the Indians are childish fantasy versions , not supposed to be taken as real any more than the singing , dancing , funny (only somewhat menacing) pirates realistically depicted what actual pirates were like (go read a book about real pirates and then the phrase "scourge of the seas" starts to mean something). They are romanticized, children's fantasy pirates , just as the Indians and other elements of Never Land are a child's fantasy. That's the context and that's how it has to be viewed or else it does become offensive.

Honestly, if it wre up to me I'd rather that sequence were not in the movie, other than losing out on some very funny animation, because even by the standards of the 1950's it was over the top and borderline offensive. I'm not suggesting that Disney cut the sequence now, after the fact; I don't like whitewashed historical revisionism; it is what it is, warts and all. But what I mean is : it probably would have been better if they had just left it out all together or given the indian sequence a more dignified treatment without the silly song.

It really is a very odd film , originating in the odd story from Barrie. I'm never quite sure if I like it (the original). I enjoy the Disney version because of the great animation, but a lot of it makes me a bit queasy, not just the Indian sequence.