Monday, July 18, 2011

The Devil, Smoking, and Walt Disney

The Disney Animated Canon is hardcore.

Seriously, take a look at it sometime. It's got dragons with the powers of hell, wizards who will turn you into fish, rats that like to drown widows and orphans, Nazi lions, lustful, genocidal judges, and even the devil himself.

Or, you know, Chernobog, depending on who you ask. Because Disney loves shout outs to obscure Slavic mythology. Apparently.

At the beginning of the summer I decided to try and get my way through the entire Disney Animated Canon. Why? Because I can. I'm working as a carpooler this summer, so I have a lot of time on my hands, and since I recently got unreasonably interested in the behind the scenes politics at Disney, I thought it might be a fun project.

There are fifty films in the official Disney Animated Canon. This includes the studio's primary theatrical releases, like Fantasia and Beauty and the Beast, but doesn't include direct to video sequels, like Return of Jafar, or things released by Disney but not made in house, like The Nightmare Before Christmas or anything made by Pixar.

Most of the official "canon" films are easily recognizable because they're famous and you've seen them a million times, but there are a few that are more obscure. For example, when you think Disney, do you ever think Melody Time? Or Saludos Amigos? Or what about Home On The Range? If you haven't heard of that last one, consider yourself lucky. Supposedly, it's extremely prestigious to be a "canon" film versus just a standard Disney film. Disney is always going around treating the canon with a sort of reverence usually reserved for fine art or religious iconography. Not that Disney films can't be considered art. Certainly, some of the films are rich with detail and intricate artwork and boast some of the best music the world of animation has ever heard. But you can always tell which of the canon films Disney considers legitimately canon, and which ones are there purely by virtue of being animated, theatrical non-sequels.

For example, you know how Disney is always re-releasing their films whenever new technology comes out, or really just whenever they feel like it? Sleeping Beauty for instance, has "Masterpiece Collection" VHS release, a special edition DVD release, and a "Diamond Edition" DVD and BluRay release. All of these are crammed with special features, behind the scenes reels, production art, and a million other things that ensures that you'll get your fill of Sleeping Beauty. Now look at another film, 1985's The Black Cauldron. Not one of their better films, admittedly, but still technically in the canon. It got a a "25th Anniversary Edition" DVD release in 2010 containing one disk with a deleted scene, an interactive game, and a Donald Duck short. That's it. There was no marketing for it, nothing to at all signify that it was important, or really that it even existed. In discussions of Disney's films, it's almost never included, and I'll bet you anything you'll never see a ride based on it at Disney World.

So what we have here is fifty films considered to be the "true" Disney films, but half of which Disney pays little to no attention to. Go figure. It's not like they don't have a history of pretending things don't exist, though. Have you ever heard them discuss Song of the South? Despite being pretty damn racist, it does contain the first black actor the studio has ever hired. Granted, he was playing a stereotype in an idealized Old South, but he was a milestone.

And it's not like it's the only Disney film rife with unfortunate implications. Seriously, watching these all again has brought to light a lot of interesting things, the least of which being how ridiculously badass a lot of things are. I mean "pleasure island"? A place where bad boys turn into jackasses? Figuratively as well as literally.

Watching the 70th Anniversary Edition of Pinocchio is hysterical simply due to Disney's half-assed attempts at damage control. This is a film rife with drinking and smoking and all sorts of horrific debatchery. It's got drunk fox men in seedy bars, young boys smoking cigars, and...gasp! Billiards! It's all presented in a negative light, of course, but for some reason, it's assumed that modern kids have no way of knowing this from the film alone. Back when it was released, it was expected that kids would see it and know that all the irresponsible acts that the characters take part in were wrong, and that trying them out for yourself will result in terrible things. Nowadays, kids are apparently so unintelligent that merely putting hints of smoking and drinking into films, despite being presented as purely negative, will cause them to became crack whores. To remedy this, Disney put a small disclaimer before the movie telling us that not only is smoking bad, but that if you currently smoke, you shoul
d try to quit. It even provides a website where you can go to get help in quitting, all while showcasing the thousands of clips from the film showing various characters smoking cigars.

Hear that seven-year-olds? You need to stop smoking. Now. Because Pinocchio said so. Just because he does it in the movie and then it ruins his life by nearly turning him into a jackass (which, by the way, is literally said several times throughout the film) doesn't mean that you should try it yourself. While the horror of having your own body transformed and your own father eaten by a whale due to your poor choices does seem pretty attractive, it's still bad. So there.

Anyway, so far I've gotten through most of the more well known films, and have been working on trying to see some of the more obscure ones. The compilation films like Melody Time and Fun and Fancy Free are kind of hard to find since they've only been released on DVD once and most of them are out of print.

What do I think I'll take away from this? I honestly don't know. It's mostly so I can claim I've seen the entire Disney Animated Canon, and considering how often I write about animation, it's probably worth my while. The Disney Company is a fascinatingly warped corporation, and it's interesting to see how that comes out in it's films.