Disney, Da Vinci and Dumbledore

Monday, 16 August 2004 — 4:18pm | Animation, Film, Harry Potter, Literature

Ain’t-It-Cool News has a lot of production art from the post-Chicken Little Walt Disney Feature Animation pipeline – American Dog, A Day With Wilbur Robinson and Rapunzel Unbraided. I heard about these upcoming projects two weeks ago by way of a recent article on one of my daily stops, Jim Hill Media, which was highly critical of the new WDFA policy that prohibits animators from working on a production until it had an approved screenplay, contrary to how animation actually works.

American Dog is from Chris Sanders of the delightful but perhaps slightly overrated Lilo & Stitch, and the preliminary art boasts a charming, edgy aesthetic. Of course, what makes animation great is not the individual frames but how they connect to one another to tell a visual story, so let’s cross our fingers that it all comes together. A Day With Wilbur Robinson, slated for 2006, is an adaptation of William Joyce’s children’s book of the same title, which I have never read, but have heard is fantastic. The story reel, the animation equivalent of the storyboarding and pre-visualization that goes into live-action, is reportedly phenomenal.

The art for 2007’s Rapunzel Unbraided is enchantingly beautiful, but the content itself is a big question mark; I know very little about the film at this stage, but it looks like Disney is trying to pull it closer to the Shrek end of the spectrum like they once tried with the never-made Frog Prince. To which I say, go ahead and make it satirical (The Princess Bride, anyone?) but please, for the love of Mickey Mouse, don’t try to make it all hip and contemporary. PDI’s approach is already showing signs of overstaying its welcome; no need to imitate it further. The Disney reputation was built on timelessness, not the cheap temporal appeal that has reduced many a feature from great to good. Case in point: regardless of whether or not you like the music of Phil Collins, he has absolutely no place in Brother Bear, and I am quite serious when I say that his inclusion takes away from the movie.

I really do hope Disney digs itself out of its hole with these three projects. Hopefully they are as daring and creative as they look, and escape the executive-level mismanagement that has led the Disney brand down a path of decay. Unfortunately, scoring box-office hits with these upcoming features will have the side effect of further convincing Michael Eisner and his cronies that traditional animation is dead, and we may have a long wait ahead of us until Disney returns to its roots.

There are few things the movie industry needs more than a kick in the pants to remind studio execs that 3D computer animation does not a better film make. Or, considering the success of the outstandingly funny Chicken Run and next year’s anticipated hit The Wallace & Gromit Movie: Curse of the Wererabbit, 2D traditional film does not equal a bomb. So maybe the dollar figures say, “Yes it does,” but that is an oversimplification. What we really need are distributors who recognize a great film when they see one and know how to promote it properly, unlike how Warner Brothers completely dropped the ball with The Iron Giant, which will hopefully see a revival as its upcoming DVD re-release rides the hype around The Incredibles. We don’t need people releasing Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki’s seminal masterpiece and the biggest box-office hit in Japanese history, dubbed over in English when foreign films have demonstrated a record of doing better when released properly – that is to say, subtitled. We don’t need more grounds for marketing conspiracy theories like the ones surrounding Home on the Range.

SaveDisney.com‘s feature, “Killing Traditional Animation”, says it better than I do.

While on the subject of Disney films, I want to say a few words about a book that mentions some of them in passing: Dan Brown’s mega-hit novel The Da Vinci Code.

Normally I don’t review the novels I read, and there are a number of reasons for this. Foremost is that if I afforded each and every one of them the analysis I wish I could, I would never get through my extensive reading list. Then there’s the matter of personal pride, in the sense that I do not wish to reveal the full extent of how much I haven’t read. Following that is the fact that I spend most of my time reading established classics instead of current releases, and in most cases have nothing to add to the volume of discourse that already exists around them.

Once in a blue moon, though, I get a little curious about just what it is that has propped up authors like this Dan Brown fellow into the #1 slot of The New York Times for such an extended period of time. Besides, it is always good to get an indication of what it is that the public is consuming at large.

So my question is this: is it just The Da Vinci Code, or is the prose in all contemporary pop literature so juvenile?

I’m not saying Da Vinci is bad – far from it. The plotting is tight, the puzzles are clever, the premises are a conglomeration of outlandish but intriguing theories that run contrary to all conventional wisdom, and are proud of it. It’s just badly written. The two protagonists that carry us through the mystery, symbologist Robert Langdon and cryptologist Sophie Neveu, are not characters so much as they are physical manifestations of their respective -ologies. At times, we see every tired prosaic cliché worthy of a loud and sonorous groan – among them, childhood flashbacks and italicized internal monologue up the wazoo. It’s like the entire thing was written with the prospective movie rights in mind, because if anything, The Da Vinci Code feels like a detailed screenplay treatment.

The apologists undoubtedly say, well, plot-driven thrillers don’t need characters, tone and style, or thematic resonance, and only the most pretentiously snobby Ulysses-wielding literati would presume to demand such literary luxuries. Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald and Ian Fleming beg to differ. To name a few.

Full marks for plot construction, though – well, aside from an obvious villain with a concealed identity and a few puzzles that should not have posed our heroes as much trouble as they did. I won’t deny that this is a book that kept me turning the pages to find out what happens next. It’s easy to see why The Da Vinci Code has attracted so much discourse: whether by accident or design, Brown often diverges into passages where he dumps a lot of detailed information geared towards supporting his ideas about revisionism in theological history, and presents them with a non-fictional authority that sends people straight to their search engines in an attempt to separate what is real from what is not.

The downside is that when you do this in front of people who know their stuff, they see right through some of the more frivolous contortions of truth. I’m not referring to the theological debates about the Council of Nicea and the deification of Jesus Christ, but the small things, the details that make the book seem really clever in the eyes of a layman. Observe how in one instance, Brown claims that the Romans referred to the wonders of anagrams as ars magna, the Great Art. Nice try, Mr. Brown. Ars magna is a clever anagram of “anagrams”, but the English word itself was derived from the Greek word anagrammatismos, which lacks the same connection. Such a claim is like saying the Eastwoods dubbed their son Clint deliberately because they could rearrange his name to spell “Old West Action”.

This is also where the Disney connection comes in. Brown has obviously been reading a lot about the surreptitious symbols and malicious metaphors in Walt Disney’s secret destructive agenda, or something to that effect – without much regard for who does what in the development of an animated feature. He claims how Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty is concealed under the name “Rose” as an extension of Disney’s purported agenda to spread the truth about the Holy Grail and goddess worship that lies at the centre of the novel – neglecting to mention, of course, that the name is taken directly from Briar-Rose, Sleeping Beauty’s name in the original text of the Grimm fairy tale. Then he leaps forward to make a connection to the modern era of The Little Mermaid, over which Walt had no direct say, being dead and all. Sometimes it is hard to tell if Brown is intentionally mistaking memetics for conspiracies.

In spite of these misgivings, I do think The Da Vinci Code is worth a read, if only to catch up on the controversial things it has to say. But this may be a case where the movie, currently attached to Ron Howard, may very easily eclipse the book.

On the subject of bestselling literature: J.K. Rowling delivered a reading of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in Edinburgh this weekend, and followed it with a question-and-answer session about a number of things, The Half-Blood Prince among them. The book itself is halfway to completion, and Rowling draws attention to some unanswered questions to consider. Very interesting indeed:

There are two questions that I have never been asked but that I should have been asked, if you know what I mean. If you want to speculate on anything, you should speculate on these two things, which will point you in the right direction.

The first question that I have never been asked – it has probably been asked in a chatroom but no one has ever asked me – is, “Why didn’t Voldemort die?” Not, “Why did Harry live?” but, “Why didn’t Voldemort die?” The killing curse rebounded, so he should have died. Why didn’t he? At the end of Goblet of Fire he says that one or more of the steps that he took enabled him to survive. You should be wondering what he did to make sure that he did not die – I will put it that way. I don’t think that it is guessable. It may be – someone could guess it – but you should be asking yourself that question, particularly now that you know about the prophecy. I’d better stop there or I will really incriminate myself.

The other question that I am surprised no one has asked me since Phoenix came out – I thought that people would – is why Dumbledore did not kill or try to kill Voldemort in the scene in the ministry. I know that I am giving a lot away to people who have not read the book. Although Dumbledore gives a kind of reason to Voldemort, it is not the real reason. When I mentioned that question to my husband – I told Neil that I was going to mention it to you – he said that it was because Voldemort knows that there are two more books to come. As you can see, we are on the same literary wavelength. [Laughter]. That is not the answer; Dumbledore knows something slightly more profound than that. If you want to wonder about anything, I would advise you to concentrate on those two questions. That might take you a little bit further.

Now there’s an author of bestselling literature who knows a thing or two about presenting elaborate mysteries under the cloak of witty wordplay and a dramatis personae worth volumes of character analysis.


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