Whenever people ask me to name my top ten films, I can’t do it. How do you narrow down hundreds of exceptional motion pictures to a measly top ten? I’m sure if I thought long and hard enough about it, I could make it work – but I just don’t have that kind of time.
I am, however, always able to answer the question: “What’s you favorite movie?”
King Kong – the original 1933 stop-motion special effects film starring Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot; directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. I don’t know how young I was when I first saw it but I have watched it countless times since. It, more than any film, impacted my sense of creativity and my desire to tell stories.
Let me say this right up front: I am not accusing Walt Disney Animation of being sexist in the present day, not with this article at least. Instead, let us look to that happy period of between 1937-1959. Here it was possible to do a story like Cinderella, a tale of a woman being abused and denied any real right to exist until she marries a man, and people’s only reaction was “that’s outrageous! Mice can’t talk!”
Thankfully times have changed.
This article is going to examine an interesting discrepancy I noticed when re-watching these films (namely Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty). All of these films feature female characters in multiple roles. Specifically, in each film there is a positive woman character and a negative one. I’m stretching a bit for Tinkerbell but there you go. Let’s look at the levels of animation involved bringing their expressions to life, shall we?
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
The first, the very first animated film done by Walt Disney and company: way back in 1937. For this film, there was no precedent, no manner to be like “just animate it like we did the one before.” So, they experimented, using a technique called rotoscoping for some of the animation. For those out there who don’t know, rotoscoping is essentially tracing the animation over preexisting live action footage. Specifically animator Grim Natwick used this technique for certain scenes involving Snow White. That helps explain how images like this exist:
It is worth noting that Natwick made his claim to fame by animating Betty Boop. So really, anyone who looks back at Snow White being like, “hmmm she seems kinda doe-eyed”
Anyway, it is worth noting that his style of animation was not used for every character. Art Babbit was the man placed in charge of animating the Evil Queen. (also known as Grimhilde). Let’s see how successful his animation was at bringing a character to life:
A simple animation but it proves a point. Grimhilde (in both her forms) offers much more in the way of emotion than does Snow White. This could be chalked up to the restrictive use of rotoscoping (a process that is only restrictive in price) but… let’s look elsewhere.
Fast-forward to 1950 and times have changed. Walt Disney Animation was no longer a brand new company new to the art of animation. No doubt the characters benefited greatly from this increased knowledge and experience. Let’s look at the titular character:
Cool, one emotion down, what else she got?
Surely there are many other forms of emotion she includes. After all, she is the main character of the movie. Surely those aren’t the two primary… oh they are?
Cinderella does not do much besides smile and look pretty in her film. It took two people (Marc Davis and Eric Larson) to animate and… yeah, she smiles or cries – really only crying in one scene. It is worth pointing out that Davis also was involved in animating Snow White, another character who… smiled and cried a lot. Well, okay Frank Thomas had Lady Tremaine (the evil stepmother), let’s see what he did:
Starting to see what I’m driving at? Disney had their villains showing off a lot wider range of emotions. Cinderella is the good guy, so she never looks mischievous. Why is it that Lady Tremaine gets to showcase more emotion? Let’s look at one more. I know I mentioned five movies in the beginning but the repetitiveness of this is getting to me. Plus it’s my blog so I can do what I want.
Nine years after Cinderella, and of course I have to mention this one. SPOILERS! Here is the face that Princess Aurora makes throughout most of the movie:
Yes, when she isn’t in a magically induced coma, Aurora is wearing a smile across her lips. Literally, it is the first and only emotion she forms after waking up. Someone needed to tell Marc Davis (who else) that “good” women did occasionally make different expressions. They enjoy the same freedom as their “evil” counterparts.
Of course, what I’m ultimately trying to say is nothing new. I don’t think any of the animators I just mentioned were outright openly sexist, but this was the norm of the day. Again, thankfully times have changed. It is very interesting to note that Ariel was the first (grown) female protagonist in a Disney animated film to really break this mold. That is kinda sad for two reasons. One: that film was released in 1989. Two: have you really examined the plot and lessons that movie is teaching? Oh well, at least it was better from an animation standpoint. Since then, Disney hasn’t been doing many films that feature both a female protagonist and villain, so it is tough to say.
The most recent attempt at this was Frozen, and script changes stopped Elsa from being the bad guy. Instead audiences were treated to this.
The year: 1954, the movies: awesome. Seriously, so many of my favorite films came out in that year, it’s not even funny. While Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea may not make my top ten list, it was still one of my favorite movies to watch as a kid. Before I was old enough to appreciate the characters or the themes, I had the giant squid scene – and boy did I have fun with that.
Anyway, as time passed, I began to appreciate the more mature values of Richard Fleischer’s film. The bitter determination of Captain Nemo stuck out to me and I found a fascination with the character that encouraged me to read Verne’s novels (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and its quasi-sequel, Mysterious Island). Captain Nemo is still one of my favorite literary figures of all time. However, when I read the novel, one thing became clear to me: there are big differences between the page and the film treatment. Verne’s novel reads more like a fantastical scientific journal while the Walt Disney production is an action-adventure epic with anti nuclear war undertones. It makes sense, as with any good adaptation the film version was adapted to fit its time (things change between 1870 and 1954).
Still, that version was 70 years ago and I for one am ready to see Disney try again… too bad it doesn’t look like that is going to happen.
Well, scratch that. We’ll probably get one soon but I don’t know what kind of quality we can expect. After months of trying, an update came today that none other than David Fincher (Se7en, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fight Club, Alien 3 (can’t resist putting that one in there)) has left the project. As a movie fan, that sucks to hear.
While I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of Fincher’s work – I personally would rate Se7en as one of the most overrated films I’ve ever seen – I cannot deny his ability. He’s just a good fit for the project, anyone familiar with the original source material would attest to that. There’s certain combinations that just sound like a good fit. Remember when Gore Verbinski (The Ring, Pirates of the Caribbean) was going to do a Bioshock movie? Well, that was also a good fit that didn’t happen.
Anyway, the question then becomes: why? David Fincher is a critically successful director who produces commercial success. Even a big budget (and apparently he planned a big budget) shouldn’t frighten Disney away from the idea of a remake. It didn’t, it was a casting problem.
I know what you’re thinking: Nemo. Of course, the iconic character. One of the greatest creations ever given birth by the pen. Yes, who would play Nemo? Clearly Disney and Fincher must have had some debate over which way to go with the most important piece of the puzzle. Well, fact is they never got to Nemo. Couldn’t get past replacing this guy:
Ned Land marked the biggest change between the book and the original Disney movie. In the novel, he’s a fairly minor character who doesn’t make much of an splash (I’ll stop) on the plot. In the movie… well, he was Kirk Douglas. The fact that the casting of Ned Land was the first priority is telling. Clearly this remake intended to follow closer to the film original than to the book. This was not necessarily a bad thing.
Here’s what happened: initially David Fincher intended Brad Pitt to play the role. Again this fits as Pitt has a similar acting style to Douglas. However, Pitt wasn’t interested (for some reason or other) and the role went to both Daniel Craig and Matt Damon for consideration. While both were interested in the part, neither wanted to abandon their families for a 140 day shoot in Australia (the proposed location for the film). Good news about approaching veteran actors – they’re mostly good. Bad news – they mostly have families they don’t want to leave for long periods of time. So three great ideas for a replacement Ned Land, come and gone. Fincher decided to change tactics and proposed the much longer Channing Tatum for the role. Disney was… not on board with this.
Remember that big budget I mentioned? Well, David Fincher may be a good director name but Disney felt it needed a dynamite actor name to guarantee big box office money. They were fine with Pitt, Craig or Damon, but Tatum? In his (much shorter) career, he has not had the commercial success of the other three. So they said no and instead offered the idea of Chris Hemsworth (Thor) for the role. It was at this point that David Fincher left the project.
So that’s it. Forget Nemo, the studio couldn’t even agree on a Ned Land. This marks yet another dismal chapter in the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remake development. Oh yeah, Disney’s been trying to make this film for a while. Several directors have been either rumored (Sam Raimi) or attached (McG… thank god that one didn’t happen) to the project. Will 20,000 Leagues ever see the light of day? Of course, there is money to be made. However, it might not be good. Films that exist for long stretches in the dubbed “developmental hell” stage of production rarely turn out to be gems (other films on the list include The Wolfman, Prometheus and Alien vs Predator).
Regardless, the film will one day see the light of day. Who knows, Fincher may even return to the project in the future (unlikely but possible). But whether it is Fincher or (shudder) McG, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is too good a story to remain dead in the water for long.