Thursday, February 27, 2014

A New "Shrek" Film on the Way?

Jeffrey Katzenberg
DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Only a couple of days ago, we suggested that given all the DreamWorks Animation plans in place to capitalize on their "Shrek" franchise with theme parks and the like (excuse me, "interactive adventures"), another Shrek film might be under consideration.

Well, what do you know?

DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg apparently had this to say in the latest Variety:
"We like to let them have a little bit of time to rest. But I think you can be confident that we'll have another chapter in the 'Shrek' series. We're not finished, and more importantly, neither is he." 
No, we did not know about this when we made that suggestion. And yes, we are wearing out our hands patting ourselves on the back.

There's too much money being left on the table, and DreamWorks just reported some very weak financial results that hammered the stock price. Katzenberg is a sharp businessman and knows how to prop up his stock in a hurry. Don't believe for a second that there is any question that he wouldn't say something like that unless he already had a script ready or in preparation, had talked about it with some or all of the leads, and was thinking ahead to a possible release date.

In our view, the only question is when.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"Batman Vs. The Terminator" Fan Video

Batman vs. The Terminator
Batman... with a mustache!
I am all for supporting independent/fan animation. Yes, we all love Disney films that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to put together. However, there also is value in an independent view imposed on accepted characters without the burden of appealing to the lowest common denominator in the US or China or Europe.

Producing their own shorts is where a lot of the industry big shots began, simply working up their own treatments and honing their skills.

This effort, "Batman Vs. The Terminator" is one of the better ones you will ever see. It is a five-minute animated film from Tony Guerrero and Mitchell Hammond, with music by Noir Deco.

According to the creators' synopsis:
30 years have passed since Bruce Wayne survived Skynet's nuclear blasts in August of '97. Iron demons now roam the planet, and without the requirement to defend the innocent against crime and injustice, Wayne has seeked refuge in the bomb shelter that saved his life; the Batcave.
Having scavenged the wasteland for resources, he discovers the radio of a dead soldier. There is static over a frequency. Flesh and blood is rising up to the west. With The Stinger; a riot control vehicular unit built before the apocalypse along with a refitted bomb blast vest, Batman makes his way across what remains of the United States to join forces with the man determined to neutralize the electronic menace - John Conner.
The original concept is credited to Tony Guerrero, the animation and sound editing to Mitchell Hammond. Do I know who these guys are? No, I haven't a clue. I do know they do good work without an entire studio behind them.

It appears to be Green Arrow and Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid with John Connor in the three-man strike team. The tank is similar to the Batmobile in "Batman: The Animated Series Batmobile." It may just be me (probably is) but I see echoes of "2001: A Space Odyssey" in some of the design layout.

Overall, a solid effort.

Oh, and just to show that this mixing of superheroes is not completely unknown, below is an interesting poster that features "The First Filipino Batman in Full Eastman Color!."


Monday, February 24, 2014

Shrek Coming to London

Shrek Wants YOU... To Come to his Theme Park

Shrek DreamWorks Animation
DreamWorks Animation is taking a page out of the Mouse Factory's playbook and is finding a new home for the world's favorite ogre. Shrek is coming to London!

The animation studio is partnering with Merlin Entertainments to open a "live interactive adventure" devoted to Shrek and his friends. The "adventure" will open in summer 2015, right in time for tourist season.

I'm not really sure what a "live interactive adventure" is, but it sounds awfully similar at first glance to the kinds of meets and greets that are a top attraction at Walt Disney World.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks' CEO, fills in a bit of the detail:
"It's not like anything else, if you can imagine a theater-like experience where you the audience are part of the story. This is just a continuation of what we have been working on in the last 18 months, which is a broad diversification of DreamWorks into a family entertainment company."
Now, I am no legendary impresario of animated feature films like Mr. Katzenberg, but I'm not so sure that people going to theater necessarily want to be part of the show. But maybe that's just me.

Current plans are for there to be an interactive walk-through as the main attraction. In addition, Merlin is designing a 6,500-square-foot courtyard where visitors will be able to meet Shrek, along with characters from other DreamWorks movies including "Kung Fu Panda" and "Madagascar" (see what I was saying about Walt Disney World?). Included will be a rotating exhibit showcasing DreamWorks Animation film and DVD releases, with a handy store nearby should the original thought strike you that perhaps buying a DreamWorks DVD would provide a memorable memento of your day there.

The company made it clear that the "adventure" won't be just about Shrek, but also Princess Fiona, Donkey, and fan-favorite Puss In Boots who will be part of the ensemble. And all the other beloved DreamWorks characters, of course.

Merlin, for those who don't know, is behind all sorts of London, er, entertainments. These include the famous EDF Energy London Eye, the London Sea Life Aquarium and Madame Tussauds wax museums. Basically, if you have been a tourist in London, you have become good friends with Merlin without, perhaps, even knowing it.

The Shrek "experience" will be on the South Bank near Merlin's other properties, making it convenient to go from one to the other and perhaps get a bundle ticket that you would actually use.

According to a statement from Merlin Chief Executive Nick Varney:
"Developing an attraction based on Shrek and his friends is hugely exciting for Merlin Entertainments and the start of what we hope will be a wider collaboration with DreamWorks Animation." 
By "wider collaboration," CEO Varney means plans that are already in the works to put similar exhibitions in six other cities around the world. And, who knows, maybe more cities. And then Mars. And then...

This is not a first for DreamWorks. It previously licensed its characters for exhibits in Russia, China and ... New Jersey. And that is not to even mention the popular Broadway Show "Shrek the Musical."

It sounds like a right jolly time to be had by all. If they keep this up, we may even eventually see that ill-fated fifth Shrek film.

Puss in Boots


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Disney on Ice Does Thailand

"Disney On Ice" Spans the Globe

Disney on Ice
All of our old friends made it all the way to Thailand.
"Disney on Ice" is everywhere these days!

It's easy to lose track of the fact that the Mouse Factory is not just popular in the States and the major foreign markets such as Europe, China, and Japan. In fact, it is growing in popularity everywhere.

One such place is in Bangkok, Thailand.

"Disney on Ice" serves up a medley of your greatest Disney characters and riffs. Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck and Goofy are there from the old days, while Ariel the Little Mermaid, Tiana from "The Princess and the Frog," and Buzz Lightyear and Woody from the "Toy Story" films are among the top representatives from the newer generation of Disney/Pixar films. Other characters are from "The Lion King," "Alice In Wonderland" and other classic Disney animated feature films.

Now, Bangkok, Thailand is hardly a skating hotbed - well, it may be the hotbed part - but these days everyone around the world, even in Southeast Asia, loves Disney.

There will be eleven shows March 27-30, two or three each day. Mickey is everywhere!


Puss in Boots TV Spot Old Spice Spoof [HD] 2011

Hola Amigos. Now Look at Your Cat. Now Back to Me.

Puss in Boots Old Spice ad
Where are you? You are on an adventure! With a cat, your cat could act like.
Puss In Boots is our old amigo, and we can't get enough of him. We first met him in "Shrek 2," then "Shrek The Third," then "Shrek Forever After," then in his very own film "Puss In Boots" and its short follow-up "Puss In Boots: The Three Diablos."

Puss in Boots Old Spice ad
Look at your cat. Now, look at me. Now, look at your cat. Now, look at me.
Well, here he is again! And doing all the double-talk we know and love.

Puss in Boots Old Spice ad
What is in your paw? Holy Frijoles!
Yes, it's just a spot, but it's very amusing and completely in character for our caped feline. The promotion is low-key and this is more a celebration of this iconic character than anything else.

How can you not like this if you like the character? Extremely well done.



Saturday, February 22, 2014

"My First Crush" (2007) - A Look at Real-World Relationships

My First Crush Julia Pott

This is an edgy animation based on interviews by artist Julia Pott, conducted with real people about their actual experiences. As she puts it, “their animal counterparts tell their stories of humor and heartache” and, through doing so, give voice to these stories in a way profoundly different to any straightforwardly representational strategy for conveying narratives.

The artist's full description from her Youtube listing:
Using interviews with people about their first encounters with love, their animal counterparts tells their stories of humor and heartache. This was my graduation film at Kingston University.
I don't know a thing about this animation apart from that. It is proof that animation does not have to involve a single princess, troll or ogre.

Animated By Julia Pott, Music, Sound Design by Christopher Frost.


"A Bicycle Trip" (2007) - A Real Trip in More Ways Than One

Albert Hofmann A Bicycle Trip

The animated short “A Bicycle Trip” (2007) recounts the fateful day in 1943 that Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann ingested a chemical compound he had synthesized. It was lysergic acid diethylamide, better known to Joe Friday of "Dragnet" as LSD.

Mr. Hofmann thus became the first person to intentionally experience an acid trip (he had accidentally dosed himself with acid a few days prior). The animation was created by Lorenzo Veracini, Nandini Nambiar, and Marco Avoletta.

There is orchestral operatic accompaniment, with the ordinary sounds of life (bird chips, a cat meows) dialed way up to (presumably) mirror what actually happens during an acid trip. This is a dreamy film, full of odd moments, weird perspectives, and ethereal vistas, perhaps best viewed ... during an acid trip. It may not be the best thing for young viewers. It is, in any event, a kind of history lesson of something that actually happened, and you certainly can't say that about most animation films.

I'm trying to add some short animation films to this site because that is where a lot of the really creative stuff appears. Also, anyone really interested in animation knows that there are creative animators around the world, so this short helps fill that gap a bit as well. These creative folks deserve some recognition before Hollywood co-opts their fresh ideas!

A bicycle trip (Short-film 2007) from lo on Vimeo.


"The LEGO Movie" Sequel Coming in 2017

There Are More Toys in Your Future!

The LEGO Movie

In perhaps the least unexpected announcement in animation feature film history, Warner Bros. has officially stated that there will be a sequel to "The LEGO Movie." The studio also has made the official release date for the sequel: May 26, 2017.

The date is the only thing that was up in the air. Note that Warner Bros. has staked out that Memorial Day holiday weekend for its sequel release. That shows extreme confidence that the studio expects the follow-up to be one of the top films of that year. An early announcement of a release date for a major holiday weekend so far in advance is one way for a studio to scare off other studios from choosing that date. Nobody wants to open a competing animation film on the same day as a presumed blockbuster, that is how you get lost in the shuffle. Well, unless it is "Toy Story 4" or something like that, in which case Warner Brothers might "adjust" its own release date at some point in the intervening three years. However, that is unlikely, and you can mark your calendars with confidence: May 26, 2017.

The movie has proven a bonafide smash hit, having crossed the $200 million worldwide gross mark in less than two weeks of release. It won its opening weekend with a big $69 million domestic gross and is expected to hold on to that title for the third weekend in a row. One can only speculate so far at the effect the film has had on sales of LEGO products at retailers, but it probably is as impressive as the box-office totals.

If Warner Brothers had known before the release of "The LEGO Movie" how well it would perform, it very well might have held it for this coming Memorial Day weekend.

The film has come in for some mild criticism for making the bad guy played by Will Ferrell, "Lord Business," into a sort of anti-Capitalist caricature. However, the public no doubt feels there are bigger problems in the world to worry about than that. The animation is superb and the story works.

"The LEGO Movie" stakes Warner Bros.'s claim as a major player in Hollywood animation, joining Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks and the rest. As I noted in my review, Warner Bros. actually has a long and storied animation history, but it was known more for occasional cult classics than as a real competitor for theater-goer dollars. Until now.

Warner Bros. confirmed before the film even opened that it had hired Jared Stern and Michelle Morgan to write a script for the sequel. Only an utter failure would have led to the cancellation of a sequel, and "The LEGO Movie" is far, far, far from being a failure.

The LEGO Movie was written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, with animation by Animal Logic. Produced by Doug Davison, Roy Lee and Dan Lin, the movie features the voices of Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Channing Tatum, and Liam Neeson.


Friday, February 21, 2014

Shakespeare in Disney Animated Films

The Immortal Bard Gets His Due in Disney

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare.
It is easy, but wrong, to dismiss animated feature films, especially Disney films, as intellectually lightweight. While they often appear designed for younger audiences, the Disney people aren't stupid, and they don't think you, the viewer, are stupid, either. While children might not be up to speed on the Bard of Avon and his 38 plays, they can enjoy scenes for simpler reasons in which the people behind the greatest animation films of all time throw in an occasional treat aimed at adults. A key to increasing the popularity of animated films has been to broaden their appeal beyond children and create films that are more than mere cartoons. Adding Shakespearean references has been one sly way to do that.

Nothing in a Disney animated film appears there by accident. Every scene, every character, every bystander is planned and discussed and reviewed and approved. Believe it or not, there are people at Disney who delight in figuring out appropriate references for Shakespeare in their films, and they usually find a way not only to fit one or two in but also to use them to add depth to the film's larger plot.

I am not going to run through all possible Shakespearean connections - I've seen a far-out theory that "Frozen" is a reworking of "The Winter's Tale" which is intriguing but pretty darn subtle if it is even true at all - but only the most obvious. And there are plenty enough of those to complete this article!

Without further ado, here are the best Shakespearean moments in classic Disney movies.

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

The original "Beauty and the Beast" is one of Disney's most beloved animated feature films. It came right at the height of the famous "Disney Renaissance" in 1991 and subsequently was turned into a smash-hit Broadway play.

Beauty and the Beast

When re-releasing "Beauty and the Beast" following its smashing success on Broadway, Disney looked at their material anew. It added the song ‘Human Again,’ which is so good it should have been in the original release. In addition to the song, they added a short scene at the end where Belle says “There never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo” as she finished reading Romeo and Juliet aloud to the Beast. He smiles and asks her to read it to him again. Here we learn that the Beast has never learned how to read, and Belle begins to teach him.

It is a pivotal scene where Belle coyly expresses her feelings for the Beast and their relationship develops.

Beauty and the Beast
Belle teaches the Beast a thing or two.
Toward the end of the film, Gaston leads the villagers in singing, saying "Screw your courage to the sticking place." Now, this line might seem odd - what exactly is a sticking place, anyway? - unless you know it is from Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 7, Line 59.

Beauty and the Beast Gaston
Gaston gets in his own reference to Shakespeare.
So, "Beauty and the Beast" is full of references to Shakespeare. Who knew?


Aladdin The Genie Sebastian
"Aladdin" has several sneaky references you may not notice. You probably realized that is Sebastian from "The Little Mermaid" - right? Well, guess what, it also references the Bard of Avon.
"Aladdin" also came at the height of the Disney Renaissance and was marked by Robin Williams' brilliant turn as the Genie. This film is usually considered one of the top ten best-animated films ever made. It also was remade into a live-action film, but if you're a Disney animation fan, you probably prefer the original animated version like me.
Aladdin Iago
There actually are several references to the Bard of Avon in "Aladdin." First and foremost, a key character is named Iago, which many will recognize as the name of a character in Othello. You don't get much more obvious than that. In Shakespeare’s play, the character of Iago is an extremely manipulative villain, although no one except the audience has reason to distrust him. Similarly, the sultan considers Iago simply a mimicking bird that eats crackers, and not someone plotting his downfall. But appearances are deceiving to the characters, to their detriment. And, this actually ties in with our next reference, to Brutus.

The Genie, voiced by Robin Williams, got off all the good lines in "Aladdin."
The next reference comes when Aladdin makes his first wish to the Genie – to become a prince. Genie quickly runs through a magical spellbook. Muttering to himself, he says "Caesar salad" and an arm draped in a toga holding a dagger reaches out to stab him. The Genie responds “Et Tu Brute” and pushes the arm back down into the book and turns the page. Many will recognize that this line comes from Julius Caesar Act III Scene I, Caesar’s dying words to Brutus.

The Genie gets a surprise or two himself in "Aladdin."

Oliver and Company

Oliver & Company
"Oliver & Company" was one of the most popular animated films of the 1980s.
"Oliver & Company" immediately preceded the Disney Renaissance - some would say that the film set the stage for it, along with The Great Mouse Detective" - and isn't exactly a high-brow affair. However, Disney did manage to shoehorn in an odd reference to William anyway in a clever manner and begin the modern trend of Shakespearean homages.

In "Oliver and Company," the dogs all have drastically different personalities and Francis, the bulldog, is portrayed as somewhat snobbish. He has an appreciation for art and theatre and an abhorrence of anyone using a short form of his name. At one point during the film, Francis is seen watching television where the production of Macbeth is playing. Not only does Francis yell at Tito to keep it down while he is watching, but he also begins to mouth the words alongside the television.

The scene played on the television shows Macbeth during his monologue in Act V Scene V. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” The hopelessness that Macbeth feels in this speech is echoed amongst the vagabond canines who know their master Sykes might arrive momentarily.

Oliver & Company
Francis watches Macbeth in "Oliver & Company."

The Junge Book

The Jungle Book film poster
"The Jungle Book" (1967).
Shakespeare's "Henry IV" at its heart is about a young man (Prince Hal) who shirks his royal responsibilities with his idle friend (Sir John Falstaff). Prince Hal spends his time in taverns, whiling away the days and pulling foolish pranks just to get a reaction out of others (much like a modern-day troll, but let's not go there). One need look no further than "The Jungle Book" to see a modern Disney parallel.

Like King Henry, Bagheera watches the boy's idleness with concern.
Mowgli and Baloo in "The Jungle Book" (1967) mirror the relationship between Hal and Falstaff. Mowgli is a "man-cub," like Prince Hal. He also is torn between two opposing father figures, namely the wise Bagheera the panther (the stand-in for King Henry) and the frivolous Baloo the bear (Falstaff). Ultimately, like Prince Hal, Mowgli accepts that he must grow up and cannot lead a careless life in the jungle forever. Instead, he must leave the jungle and return to the "man-village" where he belongs, just as Prince Hal must leave the wild taverns and accept the burden of responsibility at the royal court.

Make no mistake: Baloo, like Falstaff, is basically the star of "The Jungle Book," the secret ingredient that turns a dusty tale into something vivid. One understands and likes Baloo and Falstaff even as it is obvious their leadership actually leads nowhere. Both figures lead our hero astray. Neither Baloo nor Falstaff succeeds, but not for lack of trying and not without our sympathies.

The Jungle Book Mowgli and Baloo
Baloo and Mowgli enjoying a carefree existence in the jungle.

Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World

Pocahontas 2
"Pocahontas II" picks up where the original left off.
The appearance of William Shakespeare himself in "Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World" is the most organic of all Shakespearean references in any Disney film. You can't get more direct with a Shakespeare reference than to show the man himself. Pocahontas and Shakespeare were both real people and contemporaries. Showing them in scenes together thus is completely believable, save for one small detail: Shakespeare died in England in April 1616, while Pocahontas only arrived in England in June 1616. Thus, they never crossed paths or for that matter were ever in the same time zone (if they had time zones back then) at the same moment while alive. But... they could have been because they did live during the same years.

Pocahontas 2
Pocahontas never looked better.
Anyway, anyone who has studied "Pocahontas II" knows that it does not follow real events particularly closely. However, in this one instance, it borrows from real history in an interesting fashion. Opposed to a line of dialogue, Shakespeare himself is seen singing with the townspeople in the song ‘What A Day In London’. As a gravedigger pushes his cart by, a skull rolls off the top into Shakespeare’s hand and he sings, “What is to be or not to be,” echoing a line from Hamlet. Then, as if inspired by the incident, Shakespeare throws the skull away and begins writing on his parchment. It is a very strange intermixing of fact and fiction which (who knows?) might be surprisingly close to the truth.

Pocahontas 2
Shakespeare holding the skull is an apparent reference to the "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well" speech from "Hamlet.

Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3 is one of the best-liked Disney animated feature films.
Admittedly, we are cheating just a bit when we assign "Toy Story 3" to the list of Disney films. It actually was a Pixar product, and a sequel to purely Pixar products. However, in our defense, Disney had bought Pixar by the time of this film's release, so, no matter your definition, "Toy Story 3" is a Disney film.

At the end of "Toy Story 3," all the toys get together and not only reference but actually put on a stage performance of Romeo and Juliet. We see an adorable snippet of the infamous ‘balcony scene’ with a hedgehog as Romeo and a Little Green Man as Juliet. Hedgehog reads a Shakespearean line, "But soft what light through yonder window breaks" and the Little Green Man quotes the most famous line in the play and perhaps the entire Shakespearean oeuvre, “Romeo oh Romeo wherefore art thou Romeo.” Both lines come from Act 2 Scene 2, perhaps the most famous of Shakespeare’s scenes.

Toy Story 3
The toys put on a Shakespearean play, "Romeo and Juliet," in "Toy Story 3."
Afterward, the piggy bank and the horse are chuckling to themselves in the audience saying next season they want to do "Cats" or "Shakespeare's "Hamlet."

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" was one of Disney's films during the famous "Renaissance" of the 1990s.
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is an oft-overlooked Disney classic that came out just past the peak of the Disney Renaissance. The reference to Shakespeare is one of the odder in the pantheon because the story is set in the 15th Century, long before Shakespeare even existed. That, however, does not stop our intrepid Disney crew from working him in any way.

The film is dark and littered with references for adults. Included is a surprisingly subtle nod to William Shakespeare’s "Merchant of Venice," one of the Immortal Bard's darker plays and not one that gets referenced much these days.

Victor The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Gargoyles such as Victor serve as a sort of Greek chorus - which is not itself a Shakespearean reference, but one that he would have understood.
When we first meet the gargoyles, who provide much-needed comic relief, they are trying to convince Quasimodo to attend the festival of fools instead of watching it from the bell tower. In an effort to explain their differences they mention how Quasimodo is flesh while they are mere stone. Then Victor, the more literate of the three speaks, “Yet, if you kick us, do we not flake? If you moisten us, do we not grow moss?” This is a take-off from "The Merchant of Venice" Act III Scene I. It is from Shylocks speech, “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
"Do I not flake?"
You may not recognize the relationship to Shakespeare upon first viewing because they changed the quote slightly due to the character being a stone gargoyle who obviously cannot bleed. You may even recognize the reference, but not know which particular play this comes from - you have to really know Shakespeare's canon well to know that. This particular reference is particularly apt, poking fun at the nature of the character saying the line - since a stone gargoyle obviously can't bleed, they had to change the line to fit him. This should make anyone familiar with the original line smile at its incongruity in this fictional context, but also its universal aptness to the situation anyway. If you spotted this reference straight off, you're a scholar. Pat yourself on the back.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Frollo and the Gypsies come from different backgrounds, just as did the characters in "The Merchant of Venice," and the same sorts of cultural conflicts arise.
There is one more step to the allusion. "The Merchant of Venice" deals strongly with issues of racism between Christians and Jews, whereas "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" explores similar issues with a racist tinge between bad-guy Frollo’s idea of the Christian Church and the Gypsies in France. This plays out in the interactions between Frollo and Esmeralda. It is Christians vs. Jews in Shakespeare, and Christians vs. Gypsies in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." In both cases, it is a cultural clash with an edge of darkness. Thus, referencing "The Merchant of Venice" in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" creates an allusion to Shakespeare's basic theme in "The Merchant of Venice," not just one particular speech or scene. The allusion is intended to evoke the same emotions and understandings that you may have experienced when watching "The Merchant of Venice." This is perhaps the most subtle Shakespearean reference of any we discuss in this article.

The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid
"The Little Mermaid" began the Disney "Renaissance."
We mentioned "The Little Mermaid" above, and here it is again. "The Little Mermaid" is one of the most pivotal films in the entire Disney animated feature film canon. It began the Disney Renaissance in 1989, and continued the modern trend of Shakespearean references begun in "Oliver & Company." It also was a pet project of Walt Disney himself, though it did not get made until over two decades following his passing.

The Little Mermaid
Prince Eric and Ariel row out into the lagoon, where we get another "Romeo and Juliet" reference that is very subtle.
While under the sea there seems to be little knowledge of Shakespeare, on land things are rather different. Even Scuttles managed to pick up a few references. Once Ariel has been given legs and is sent to woo Prince Eric, they row out into the lagoon and Sebastian and all the fish sing "Kiss The Girl." Well, before this, Scuttle tries to provide some “vocal romantic stimulation" by singing a little tune.

What you may not have realized is that this "stimulation" (or song) is actually an instrumental version of composer Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet." An interesting metaphor is that Scuttle draws upon a purely orchestral work related to "Romeo and Juliet," meaning, it has no words. The song is "speechless" or "wordless," just like Ariel is while in the lagoon - until Sebastian comes to help the two along. Words are not necessary either within the song or in Ariel's heart.

It is an extremely subtle reference to Shakespeare, but certainly no accident. Remember this one rule and you'll never go wrong - there is nothing accidental about a Shakespearean reference in a Disney animated feature film. They put a lot of thought into them.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas
"The Nightmare Before Christmas" is a holiday favorite.
Once again, it may appear as though we are cheating when we introduce Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" as a Disney film. While not marketed as "a Disney film," "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is from Touchstone. Touchstone just so happens to be one of Disney's several film distribution labels of The Walt Disney Studios, owned by The Walt Disney Company.

The Nightmare Before Christmas
Look very closely at the back of the DVD jacket. I guarantee you that "Disney" appears there.
In other words, "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is a product of the Disney company just as much as the other songs on this list. Established in 1984 by then-Disney CEO Ron W. Miller, Touchstone typically releases films that feature more mature themes and darker tones than those released under the flagship Walt Disney Pictures label. I know you may not believe me, but Touchstone pictures are just as "Disney" as the original "Snow White" even if you don't see "Disney" prominently displayed on the box cover (but it's there even if they don't make a fuss over it).

Kenneth Branagh
Famed Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh with an old friend.
So, "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is a Disney film even though you may not have realized it. And, like a Disney film, it incorporates some of the same techniques - such as subtle Shakespearean references. You also could turn that reasoning around - the presence of the Shakespearean reference in "The Nightmare Before Christmas" helps to clue you in that it is a Disney film - if you understand the subtle patterns of references in Disney films such as this one.

The Nightmare Before Christmas
Jack Skellington makes a Hamlet reference in 'The Nightmare Before Christmas." It is to the famous "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him" scene from "Hamlet."
For those unfamiliar with it, in "The Nightmare Before Christmas" the lead character is a skeleton named Jack Skellington. This movie, like "Pocahontas II," makes use of a skull as a reference to a scene in a Shakespearean play. During Jack’s Lament he takes off his head and sings, “And since I am dead, I can take off my head to recite Shakespearean quotations,” a direct reference to Hamlet.

Kenneth Branagh

Let's pin this down with absolute certitude once and for all. The reason that "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and countless other films reference a man holding a skull comes directly from Hamlet Act 5 Scene 1. This is known by experts as “The Gravedigger’s Scene,” but is better known just by the famous line from that scene. Hamlet holds his deceased friend’s skull in his hand and proclaims “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” (I.V.160) It is a commentary on the impermanence of life. This is probably one of the most common references to Shakespeare seen in pop culture because it is a quick and easy one to make, requiring only a skull held at arm's length and a woeful expression. Once you understand the reference, you'll spot it instantly every time.

The Lion King and Lion King 2

The Lion King
"The Lion King" is one of the most successful animated films of all time.
Widely considered the absolute peak of the Disney Renaissance (no, that was not an intentional pun), "The Lion King" had somewhat murky roots. Some claim the story was stolen from an old African legend, others from a Japanese anime classic. The official story is that it is based on Hamlet, and that is as reasonable as any other explanation. "The Lion King II: Simba's Pride" continues the Shakespearean parallels by resembling the story of Romeo and Juliet. When something is out of copyright like Shakespeare's plays, we speak of such parallels being an "homage" and not outright theft.

The Lion King
Several aspects of "The Lion King" borrow heavily from "Hamlet."
If indeed loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, "The Lion King" accomplishes this feat with fewer deaths, as you might expect from a Disney (not Touchstone) release. For those unfamiliar with the parallels, there are several that appear in succession. Claudius (Scar) kills his brother the King (Mufasa). Hamlet (Simba) is visited by the ghost of his King father. He is led astray by Rosencrantz & Guildenstern (Timon and Pumba). He eventually returns to avenge his father’s death and take back his throne. There are similar parallels between the "star-crossed lovers" in Romeo and Juliet and "The Lion King II."

The Lion King II: Simba's Pride
"The Lion King II: Simba's Pride" (2010).
The parallels between the storylines are fairly obvious if you are an expert on "Hamlet" and "Romeo and Juliet." I understand they may not be so clear if you just sat through "Hamlet" once in high school or something, but pretty much everyone knows something about "Romeo and Juliet." The links between "Hamlet" and "The Lion King" have been the subject of scholarly articles, and there is little question that "The Lion King" contains the deepest references of all to William Shakespeare - the entire plot.

Special Bonus Shakespeare Influence

Dopey Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
Dopey dancing with Snow White.
Walt Disney once proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that William Shakespeare was very much on his mind while making his films.

The fairytales upon which "Snow White" was based did not have any named dwarfs; that detail was entirely the invention (one of the most brilliant in Hollywood history) of Walt Disney himself. Appropriate names for the dwarfs were hard to come up with, as they had to be both classical, appropriate for a medieval fairy tale (you couldn't just call them "Steve" and "Harry"). They also had to mean something to the film itself. Eventually, someone proposed the name "Dopey," perhaps facetiously, for one of the dwarfs, thinking it fit the character as drawn.

Dopey Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
Walt Disney was stuck - he had to name this character. It is an original sketch of "Dopey" from 30 September 1936, signed "MN" - possibly Maurice Noble or Mique Nelson (Walt Disney Productions).
Walt's people objected to "Dopey" as the name of a character, thinking that it sounded too modern.  It was a very common pejorative slang word of the 1930s ("He's kinda dopey" or "What are you - a dope?") - in fact, the word was very cutting edge in terms of its usage at the time. It basically meant "gullible rube," someone who just fell off the turnip truck. There was nothing "medieval" or "classical" about "dopey." (Parenthetical note - that did not stop such anachronistic usages in other Hollywood films of the period. In "Captain Kidd" (1945), for instance, the Randolph Scott character innocently uses the phrase "The coast is clear," which most definitely did not come from the 1700s when the film was set. But I digress).

Walt Disney himself, though, liked "Dopey." In fact, he thought it was perfect. Disney responded to the critics that "Dopey" was perfectly fine, and in fact had impeccable classical roots. Why, he said, even the great William Shakespeare himself had used the word "dopey." If it was good enough for Shakespeare, it was good enough for his animated feature film.

That shut up the doubters. After all, if the Immortal Bard of Avon had used the word "dopey" over three hundred years earlier, who were they to object to it being too modern for a medieval character? Dopey went on to become one of the most beloved characters in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves." Once Disney and his people had the name of one dwarf that related to his personal attributes, the names of the other dwarfs were easy to come up with. They all referenced qualities of the characters themselves such as "Sleepy" and "Grumpy" just like "Dopey."

Meanwhile, bemused scholars are still searching for any use of the word "dope" or "dopey" by Shakespeare. There is none - that they can find, at least. But they keep trying!

Dopey Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
"Dopey" became one of the beloved dwarfs.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Future Plans for "Frozen"

No Sequel Planned for "Frozen"

Many know that Walt Disney Animation Studios has been undergoing a transition over the past half-dozen years. The integration with Pixar has gone much smoother than many might have hoped.

Andrew Millstein is a Disney veteran - 17 years and counting - who has a unique view of the transition and Disney's future plans. He oversees day-to-day operations of the 800-person animation unit, so we owe much of the delight in films such as "Frozen" to him.

Andrew Millstein Disney Frozen
Andrew Millstein.
Pixar chiefs John Lasseter and Ed Catmull assumed the additional titles of the chief creative officer and president of Disney Animation, respectively, after Disney acquired Pixar for $7.4 billion in 2006. However, it is guys like Millstein who keep the institutional core of the studio headed in a seamless direction. He says proudly:
"We are showing audiences that we can make classic and timeless stories, musical fairy tales that have a very relevant and contemporary feel."
Mr. Millstein gave an interview to the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine, part of which (the part related to "Frozen") is reprinted below. It may be of interest if you are really interested in how a film like "Frozen" gets put together.

Director Chris Buck first pitched "Frozen" in 2008, but then it got shelved until "Tangled" turned into a hit, and Disney CEO Robert Iger asked whether you had anything else like Tangled.

"Tangled" was definitely a good catalyst. It showed that audiences like classical musical fairy tales. And Tangled's success really put a lot of fuel behind the effort on Frozen.

How consciously did you set out to make a movie that would answer criticism that's been aimed at other Disney princess movies by being empowering for young girls?

We wanted a film that would be accessible to everybody. Frozen is a story of two sisters who happen to be princesses. People are relating to their story as sisters and as empathetic characters rather than as princesses. It's got universal themes of love and sacrifice, overcoming personal flaws and self-realization.

When you brought in Jennifer Lee to write and direct with Chris Buck, was it because you wanted to add a woman's voice?

We learned when working with Jen on "Wreck-It Ralph" that she was a wonderful collaborator with tremendous energy, passion, and creativity. And, of course, she has a female voice. But with all the women who work at Disney Animation, we had a perfect, built-in research group, and we asked them to share their own experiences that would fuel telling this story.

The composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez have said that the song "Let It Go" was one of the first songs they wrote that actually made it into the movie.

You don't always know that the first version of something is going to be something that defines a character so well. In this case, the lyrics were so clear about expressing who Elsa is emotionally and her trials and tribulations, it was clarifying in terms of who this character was and what she is confronting.

Why has the song become so popular?

There are 85 million views of the English-language version of the song on YouTube. People are so emotionally invested in what she's experiencing and how she's expressing it -- everybody can identify with something they have in their life that is equivalent to that.

Ironically, the first trailers downplayed the music. Were you concealing that Frozen is a musical?

In the first presentation of the film through our marketing, we wanted to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. We love to set our films up so audiences discover something new in the film, something they weren't expecting.
Iger said in January that there will be a Broadway musical version of Frozen.

What about a sequel?

At the moment, there's not a sequel on the drawing boards. Could there be? Sure. But we're not engineered around the predetermination of that.

When John Lasseter took control in 2006, he ordered some changes, like opening up the floor plan to encourage collaboration. But what deeper changes did he make?

There had to be some structural changes. We went from something at Disney Animation that was executive-driven to more filmmaker-driven. How does the development department work, for example? Does the development group develop ideas and give them to directors, or are you asking directors and writers and story artists to come up with the ideas themselves? It's the latter, and that's a shift. We implemented a structural and process change around our Story Trust, which is like the Brain Trust at Pixar. Our directors and our writers and our heads of story, about 20 people, are all part of the Story Trust. They have a right and a responsibility and an obligation to give honest, direct feedback to each other to help elevate those films. There's a collective wisdom that you can bring to bear on the critique of a story in development and production.

How often does the Story Trust get together?

Whenever we need to. Our Story Trust gets together around treatment reads, around table reads, around screenings -- every time we screen a film, and we'll screen a film eight times, at least, on its way to the screen.

Disney used to have a tradition called The Gong Show, where animators would come in and pitch their ideas to the executives. How is all this different?

I would say our process now is much more organic. We will ask a director to bring ideas forward and share those ideas, generally around three. And the idea of three ideas is not to live with anyone too preciously. There may be elements of one idea that can live with another. But it's not like a Gong Show, where someone pitches an idea to a body and it's what the gong implies, yeah or nay.

How often do you and John Lasseter talk?

I see John when John comes down here or something pops up that we need to talk about. We don't have a set routine where I check in with John at a set time every week. I see John in creative updates, I see John at screenings, I see him in the hallway, and the same is true of Ed. We have, I think, a very healthy partnership, and part of that is knowing when it is important to talk to each other.

What's an example of something John contributed to Frozen?

He was a big contributor. He was very focused, very supportive of the idea that Elsa would sacrifice herself to save her sister and that that should be a critical part of the ending of the film.

So how much of a rivalry exists between Disney and Pixar right now? Certainly, there were years where the Disney animators must have felt overshadowed by Pixar.

I don't think there's a rivalry. Their work is brilliant. They continue to be brilliant. Visit Pixar, and you will feel the creative vitality is palpable. I think here at Disney Animation, we have a deep sense of respect for Pixar. I think fundamentally we are a humble organization. We want to push ourselves without a doubt. We want to succeed brilliantly. We want our films to be embraced by everyone to the same degree that any of the animation studios do.

How many films do you have in development at one time?

Anywhere from four to six. Sometimes things move well, and sometimes things get stuck and take a little longer than you would like. It's important that we have several films in development so we can maintain a healthy, agreed-upon pace.

When you're facing a release date, when do you stop working on a film?

Part of what makes our movies great is blowing things up late in the game. On Frozen, getting the troll song came later. You try to land certain things first and keep other things fluid. You always reserve the right to go backward, to rework material, to have a different take on the material. It's a calculation. What can you unravel without unraveling the whole film?

Olaf Frozen
Olaf approves