Category: Disney

The Song In The Scene

Let’s compare two songs.

First, from The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, the narrated piece, The Bells of Notre Dame.

Second, from Moana, Jermaine Clement’s song, Shiny:

Now, these songs don’t have a lot of similarity between one another, really. Shiny is a comedy piece, a sort of mid-stage development point for the characterisation of Maui and Moana, and Bells is the introductory piece for Judge Frollo, Quasimodo, the Priest, and Notre Dame itself.

These two songs, however, show to me a distinct difference in how Disney does things these days versus how they did. First of all, let me clear up that Shiny is a straight-up comedy song. It’s definitely funny – Tamatoa breaks the fourth wall, he tells jokes, he’s very big and exaggerated. It’d be pretty easy to file it as the comedy number with just some details in it.

The thing is, I see these two songs as being startlingly similar and also extremely different. The main thing about them that’s similar is that they’re both songs that tell you about the setting, tell you about the characters involved, incorporate narrative, and reveal a backstory element of a character. Shiny’s a jokey song but it’s a song that does as much as Bells.

The thing they do, however, that’s both songs have a component of the movie’s story happen in the middle of them: In Bells, that component is part of the song, and is implemented as such, but in Shiny, it interrupts the song, and is unrelated to the song: This is particularly interesting because the singing in Disney movies is usually diegetic but also nondiegetic: Nobody really explains that a character is actually singing in any given scene. Moana even uses its diegetic music to convey the transition between languages you saw in We Know The Way:

See that? The way the people of the tribe are singing the song when it’s in their native language, but they’re not shown singing it when the song transitions to English? Wonderful stuff, ingenious.

Now, the thing that prompted this whole idea, though, is something I don’t like that much: These songs are of their space in this story – inextricably. The songs in Moana cannot be easily removed from the movie to listen to as a song, which I think, emperically is kinda harder and more impressive? It means that those songs exist as pieces of the whole, that there’s more work and difficulty involved in constructing the musical.

But at the same time, there’s still something of me that admires and respects the difficulty in the song being the song; that you have 3 minutes to convey what the song’s doing, that it is a discrete piece of media, and the movie implements it – in the same way that a good piece of dialogue can be removed from a scene, and still implies the rest of it.

Anyway, that’s a really minor, aesthetic point and just something I think is interesting, particularly since this habit of breaking structure – of using music to build a structure then breaking out of it by the use of diegesis – is a very hip-hop thing to do.

Donald Duck, The Dork Deputy Dad

What follows here mentions some themes in the 2017 Ducktales reboot. Not an actual spoiler of details in the series, just a mention of some of the themes that come out in the first two episodes. If you think you need to go in cold to the first episodes of a tv series about talking ducks, well, okay. Just so you know.

Donald Duck’s a dork.

Really, Donald Duck is an older generation of media, the same generational space as Mickey Mouse. I’m sure animation historians will be able to point to the specific gaps in between first appearances, or the evolution of a character over time, but the experience I’ve always had of Donald Duck is that he’s something old. There’s something of an older time, a time when cartoons were about… something else. It wasn’t like he really belonged in Ducktales either, which as a kid, still felt old to me – perhaps because I didn’t see it until it’d already existed for quite a few years, perhaps because it still centered Donald as important. Somewhat. Sort of.

In the new Ducktales reboot, though, they’ve done something magical by leaning in to this dorkiness. Donald Duck is boring, and unimpressive, and not cool. Who else is boring, and unimpressive, and not-cool, to most kids the age of the triplets?

Your parents.

Ducktales touches on a really weird space, a space between the places I’m at: The children are at a point where they don’t like their parent figures, and don’t see them as people. The parents are at a point where they can’t really see the kids as people, either.

Now, Donald isn’t a parent. It’s worse than that. He’s not the kids’ parents: he’s a person those kids have to respect, because their parent told them to, but he doesn’t have the authority despite the hard work he does to provide for and care for the kids. What’s more, Donald has a hard time communicating in the most pure way with the kids. They don’t have to like him – they like each other, they have one another as friends, they can conspire and confide with one another.

I didn’t like Donald Duck. Yet here, as the series seems to set up the idea of these kids discovering that their uncle is a person, a person like themselves, a person who’s done things, tried things, a person who has achieved and adventured and still has plenty of fun left to have in him?

I really am cheering for the guy.

Robin Hood’s Canon

Robin Hood was one of those few story sources that could slip through the cracks of our tight ideological filter and land in my personal space as a kid. Disney’s Robin Hood was acceptable, for example, or old golden-book tellings of the stories of the man. There were anthologies and retellings and, of course, dozens of Christian versions of the same basic idea of a good person doing good in the woods dealing with an oppressing, wicked government, often with a queer-coded mincing villain.

Now imagine that you’re doing this from the perspective of a kid who mostly knows Biblical scholarship and doesn’t actually know that movies and TV shows are made by people, that they are stories. I actually thought for the longest time literally every single song was a literal, real experience of the person who had written it, that there was always an origin story for everything that was created.

Yes, that is weird.

The thing that I never quite put my finger on was what the story of Robin Hood actually was. I mean, we all know there are story beats about where the story ends up, and enough of things showed up in two or three of these overlapping stories that I knew there had to be something to it, but these things actually worked to reinforce in my mind that Robin Hood really existed. After all, there were all these stories about him splitting an arrow during a competition – they couldn’t all have made that up, right? It’d be impossible for them to all make it up and get the details so similar.

I guess what I’m saying is Biblical scholarship is a really silly version of media scholarship.

The funniest part of all this is that even now, thinking back on it… I still feel like the version of Robin Hood where he’s an actual fox is probably the truest one of the lot?

Notes: How Disney Uses Language

  • Comparisons between Frozen and Moana are sort of a sign that right now, because they’re only one of a small number of films with the similar premise (woman-centered narrative).
  • The riff in both Jungle Book and Aladdin feel kinda like the Oriental Riff, aka Aladdin’s Cave that opens a lot of other things like Turning Japanese. Like, the iconic ‘Oriental Sounding’ music isn’t from anywhere in the Orient anywhere.
  • Cultural Appropriation is a big topic and it’s hard to talk about it in Youtube spaces, and it’s even harder to talk about on Twitter.
  • The Bulgarian choir music thing is just straight up super interesting.
    • Is this fusional, using Bulgarian choir style with the Inupiat lyrics?
  • The thing about Librettists and Operatic Composers amuse me juxtaposed with a Gilbert and Sullivan quote because they hated each other so much by the end, because they couldn’t see it as a synthesis of their work.
  • English is a fixed-stress language; words have a proper emphasis in them, but words don’t have a proper emphasis in a sentence, or rather, the emphasis tends to indicate the subject.
  • Vocables! There’s like, a language for singing, in a language? That’s super cool! I wonder if it’s also part of transmission/commonality between cultures, so they can all sing the same songs even if their languages change over time and space.
  • I really do want to see Moana. It looks really great.
  • God, Lilo and Stitch was also great.
  • The question of cultural appropriation between Hawai’i and France and Polynesian narrative.
  • I really, really love the detail that the characters are singing the song in its original language, and then they stop singing it when the language shifts to English. It becomes nondiegetic, which is really cool.
  • This form of video isn’t actually so demanding of production values. I can do this. I can do this even with Microsoft Movie Editor.

Zootopia!

In 2015 I did not see any movie at all in a theatre. In 2016, I saw three; one of them was Deadpool, which I saw on a record heat day with a free ticket, and the other two were both Zootopia. I not only liked Zootopia, I liked it enough to see it twice. So here’s your spoiler-free penny-ante review and then I’m going to jump below a fold to say something about the specifics in the universe, about the storytelling of Zootopia:

Zootopia Is Really Good. I liked it a lot and I hope you enjoy it if you haven’t seen it.

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The Pathetic World of the Lion King

The morality of the Lion King is a fascinating thing because of the assumptions of the world, and specifically, how we interpret those assumptions.

Let’s get this out there, right away: Every single interpretation of The Lion King is unrealistic. We can’t kid ourselves on this: These are animals that do not communicate with one another, do not socialise with one another, there are no complex legal systems or societal boundaries to animals in the way we understand them, and birds don’t give mo-o-o-rning reports. It’s a story for kids. And that means we’re going to be talking about a diegesis that is already fundamentally fantastic.

Nonetheless, there is a popular line of conversation that forwards that Scar wasn’t so bad, and another that forwards the movie is similar to Hamlet, in which Scar, as Claudius, is very bad. I find both of these interpretations really tiresome but that’s okay, because I find the fact people are making them to be more interesting. I want to do a real quick unpack of something that the story outlines, and how people interpret that.

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Here’s the rough thesis, presented from the affirmative:

Scar is a leader who wants to encourage a unity of all peoples, and the outcome of his ideology is meaningless, because a drought ruined Pride Rock and that’s something he has no power over

And the same idea, from the opposite position is:

Scar’s failures tie into dealing with a drought that hit his territory, and how he responds to it shows he is a bad leader.

Now, these are both, I feel, internally cogent positions. After all, you can point to the fact Scar beats his sister in law for comparing him to Mufasa shows him as thin-skinned and she evokes as if they’d had a lot of conversations about this same topic, suggesting that he wasn’t listening to (potentially) useful advice; at the same time, it’s possible that he was also heavily stressed by his position, and this one conversation isn’t proof of other conversations, so he might have been lashing out in a weak moment, and so on. In each case, there is enough flexibility in the text to interpret them.

But there is also the assumption in this that the drought isn’t anyone’s fault. There’s even a fan theory that Mufasa’s actions of segregation caused the drought, and another that, as a spiritual force, he made the drought happen in order to restore Simba to his throne (which, if true, heck to you Mufasa, people – or at least animals, or maybe even lions –  probably died in that drought). The point is, the idea is that The Lion King is a story where there is a natural procession of events, and the actions of the protagonists merely exist as interruptions, disruptions in the normal regular pattern of reality as it was going to transpire anyway, and we therefore interpret the behaviour of those characters as they respond to circumstance.

On the other hand, we could point to the storybook tropes, and framing, the definitively unique nature of protagonistic characters (there are not other Warthogs, there are not other Meerkats, Simba and Nala are visually signified as being of Different Type), and the way that events only matter as they immediately pertain to individuals (look at Rafiki’s tree when he first gets wind of Simba – the tree is fine, even if the surrounding area is rough). You could very reasonably say that this world is pathetic in the most fundamental way: That the world is perceived as its relationship to human entity, in this case, even the animals are human entities – the way Zazu hangs out with lions even as the opening does make it clear that Zazu is pretty much just prey to them. There is a tension between the reality of these animals and the humanity of them – a tension the story doesn’t really want to do anything to collapse. They’re human because we perceive their humanity.

With that in mind, even the environment is human; the canyon feels huge and imposing as Mufasa falls backwards into it; the Savannah is small and local enough that everyone can quickly journey to it in time for the announcement of Simba’s birth. And with that humanity, the world that suffers shows us that Scar has a drought because Scar is a bad king. It is an inherent response of the environment to reflect the king, even in ways that it is impossible to make true.

Anyway, these are just interesting different interpretations and none of them are wrong. It says a lot about how much attention was spent on making this narrative feel whole that there are these many different interpretations, and that none of them requires too much suspension of disbelief.

Gravity Falls

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Hey, why not let’s talk about something I really like. And I really like Gravity Falls, which is a cartoon show made by Disney, seemingly under a sort of duress. I mean, it’s a strange little piece of what I guess I can only really call rural urban fantasy, with a modern-day setting, complete with smart-phones and cars and despite that, it successfully manages to weave a multi-series conspiracy theory narrative that pulls together all sorts of wonderful stories from a variety of American folklore sources. I mean we’re talking alien crashes and roadside attractions and just general, all-purpose the weird and unsettling and paranoia-fuelling –

gah!

I have such a hard time talking about how good this show is because there really isn’t anything like it. I’ve called it glibly Tween Peaks, and I’ve invoked The X Files while talking about it but that doesn’t do the show justice because it’s so much smarter and so much better than both Twin Peaks and the X-Files. It’s coherent and it’s layered and its aesthetic is soaked through the whole thing, with this sort of beautiful postcard letters-from-the-road streetside ridiculousness. Rather than ignore the obvious and immediate concerns of the story space, like we do in most conspiracy narratives (why aren’t there any pictures of this), Gravity Falls uses its aesthetic and style – a small American roadside town – and its tone – comedy – to reinforce it. It’s a town full of weirdoes and that weirdness is part of the script. So much of the narrative folds back on itself, it’s just so dense with rewatchable traits…

And it’s also a super-sweet story about a wonky, fractured little family. It’s about a girl going through a boy-crazy phase, about a boy struggling with ideas of masculinity and family. It is also so enthusiastically itself. Even its cringe humour comes from a place of love.

So I guess what I’m saying is I really like Gravity Falls and wish I was better at saying that.