Apr 282013
 

—-> Episode 16: Fantasia – Nutcracker Suite <—-

Our two biggest references for this podcast series on Fantasia are VERY MUCH WORTH YOUR TIME!

Fantasia Box Set A three disc Fantasia collector’s set, featuring two different audio commentaries, unseen animatic, unused sequences, SO MUCH production art from both Fantasia and Fantasia 2000!

Fantasia by John Culhane The definative book on Fantasia – and available in good second hand condition for a VERY low price!

 

The Nutcracker Suite is the second section of Fantasia. It has been called by John Canemaker the  most exquisite expression of fantasy that came out of Disney and a special effects tour de force. Let’s find out why it’s so highly spoken of!

MAJOR PLAYERS
Sequence Director: Sam Armstrong (Snow White background artist) He oversaw a team of 53 artists )only 22 recieved credit in the program of the Fantsia performances)
Story Director: Dick Huemer – He was in charge of this entire section – making sure the scenes ran well together, doing daily checkins with everyone under him, as well as Walt.
Continuity Development: Jerry Brewer
Storyboard Artists: Sylvia Moberly-Holland, Bianca Majolie, Ethel Kulsar, Norman Wright, Albert Heath, Graham Heid
Character Designer: John Walbridge (concept sketches), Elmer Plummer (the mushrooms in color) and Ethel Kulsar (the thistle dancers), Curt Perkins, Herman Schultheis
Art direction: Robert Cormack, Al Zinnen, Curtiss D. Perkins, Arthur Byram and Bruce Bushman
Background painting: John Hench (later SVP at WED, the company founded to design the Disney parks after working on Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Alice), Ethel Kulsar and Nino Carbe
Animation: Art Babbitt (and his assistant, Bill Hurtz), Les Clark, Don Lusk, Cy Young, Robert Stokes (responsible for the distinctive skip-stepping of the frost fairies), Ugo Dorsi, Don Lusk, Sandy Strothers, Brad Case, George Rowley (responsible for the falling snow sequence)
Choreography: Jules Engel (head of the graphics and animation department at CalArts until his death in 2003)
Layouts: Bruce Bushman

Earliest known production date: Ballet Des Fleurs – 1935

A note on Sylvia, Bianca and Ethel – they are particularly known for picking flowers in the lots around Disney studios, bringing them back and then painting them until they morphed into the creatures that would populate this section of the movies. As a bit of a girly girl and as an artist, I can’t say that I can think of a much cooler job than this. Huemer recollected their work and sense of fun fondly.

I also want to take a second to point out that women were an essential part of the Disney Studio. A google search will lead you to many examples of rejection letters that Disney Studios sent to women in this era, telling them they could not be accepted into specific departments because they weren’t jobs that women did, so we don’t want to romanticize the facts of the era or the studio, the truth is that Walt Disney employed women in areas that required craftsmanship and artistic abilitiy – and the women he emplyed were very, very good at what they did. Mary Blair is perhapts the most famous of them, but here’s a link to an article published my the Walt Disney Family Museum called “Worth as much as man: Cracking the celluloid ceiling”

THE MUSIC

Is from a ballet called The Nutcracker composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. What you are hearing on Fantasia is the Nutcracker Suite – Suite being a musical terms for shorter movements selected from a larger work to be performed on their own. The Nutcracker ballet tell a very specific story of a young girl from a Dickensian era called Clara, who receives a Nutcracker as a gift for Christmas who comes alive, has a battle with the mice and rats who live in the house, and then takes her on an adventure to the land of candy.

It’s a very specific story – and Disney wasn’t interested in adhereing to it. Tin Soldier piece that would make it into Fantasia 2000 had been in development since the original Fantasia, so it would have been two similar concepts – or maybe Disney just wanted to do his own thing.

Let’s put this in contex of the music history of the time. The Nutcracker was a ballet first, but at the time of Fantasia’s making it was not in production anywhere as a ballet – only as a concert piece. It wouldn’t be revived byt the NYC Ballet as a Christmas piece until 1954 – but it has stayed in production there ever since!

THE GOAL

“This type of cartoon did not rely upon telling a story, but rather it attempted to create an emotional response in the audience by using form and color in motion to interpret fine music.” Disney, The Story of the Animated Drawing Nov 30, 1955.

In many ways, Nutcracker Suite was the punctuation to a decade long artistic endevour by the Disney animation group to explore and vitalize nature int he medium. There had been a Silly Symphonies episode for each season of the year put out from 1929-1930, and an unevolved form of what would eventually be developed into the Nutcracker Suite called Ballet de Fleurs was in preproduction as early as 1935 (technically making it the earliest known production of anything relating to Fantasia, although not the official earliest date of any work done for the movie itself.)

We’ve said that Disney wanted to tell a differnt story than that of the original ballet. The decision was made to cut the first two movements of the Nutcracker Suite (the Overture and the March) and theme the selection around nature almost at the same time, although each decision supports the other one. The concept of ballet never left the project, and throughout this piece plants of all kinds dance – not just actually as in the Russian Dance or the Chinese Dance, but interpretively, as in the Arab Dance, and symbolically, as the leaves blown by wind in the Waltz of the Flowers. You dont have to be an artist (or six years old) to look at flowers and see decorative skirts where the petals are!

 

THE ANIMATION  

The Nutcracker Suite section of Fantasia is about fifteen minutes long, and it  consists of six of the eight movements of the  Nutcracker Suite section of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker, animated around the theme of nature. The Nutcracker (the ballet) is  a modern Christmas favorite, but as it appears in Fantasia, winter only briefly makes an appearance, and religion not at all. The changing seasons of a year are described, starting with plants waking for spring, and ending with ice covering and snow falling. We see a lot of fairies in this section, far predating Tinkerbell’s appearance in Peter Pan. You can also see similarities between the goldfish in this section and the goldfish in  in Pinocchio. The underwater scenery clearly inspired the underwater decor of the Little Mermaid.

Mary Cicely Barker's "The Poppy Fairy"

Mary Cicely Barker’s “The Poppy Fairy”

Audience response has indicated that this section is the most delightful to the viewer.

The original idea Disney had had was to bring the sprites seen in this section in every section of Nutcracker Suite. In fact, the concept of the fairy- born of the Sugar plum fairy – was the only concept from the story told in the original ballet that came forward, but the desire was to very much to set the whole Nutcracker Suite in the setting of fantastical nature. This was a huge trend of the era I think, although Roy Disney has said that part of the reason that sort of thing isn’t as popular anymore is because we’re a more urban society, so we’re not as aware of what nature looks like as we were even in the 1930′s. I’ve seen a lot of examples of flowers and fairies being a part of storytelling in art in the 1800′s – the beautiful work of Mary Cicely Barker comes to mind – but the trend tend to die out with the globalization of the 1950s and 1960s.

 

Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. About minute and a half long, this sequence shows  a multitude of faries bringing spring to the world. In the blue light of what could both be the early morning and the last cold snap of winter,  delicate fairies the color of early flowers spread light and dew across a natural landscape, encouraging flowers to bloom, and bringing low level light to small area. Just to drive the point home, one sleepy warm-yellow fairy is woken when another fairy’s misfired dewdrop catches her on the head. The land is waking up from winter, and it’s time for all the ice to melt! The sequence ends when several fairies collide in a shower of dewdrops, which drift down to the mushrooms of the next sequence.

This sequence was produced after the concept for the Russian dancers as thistles had been developed by Ethel Kulsar. because of her success, Disney sent four artists, including Ethel to an actual nature preserve to develop sketches for this section. The most interesting thing that I learned about this section of Fantasia is that in terms of development, lots of the theories of abstraction crossed over into this first piece to follow on the Toccata & Fugue section. In order to decide what elements of nature belonged in what section of the Dance of SugarPlum fairy, Disney sat in a dark room, listening to Sugar Plum and having the concept art that Ethel and her coworkers brought back from their trip to the nature preserve played on a big projector, so he could decide what imagery belonged with what part of the music. Does a drwing of a front fairy belong here? Yes. Does the color orange belong in this part of the music, no, no … Should milkweed be a plant you see with this phrasing? Maybe … Frankly it sounds awesome. I want to sit in a dark room, listen to classical music and look at beautiful art!

The fairies were designed to move like hummingbirds by Les Clark. The decision to do that may not seem a big deal to the viewer, but it was one of the subtle ways in which this piece was so carefully designed to create a specific atmospheric effect.

The Chinese Dance. About a minute long. Seven anthropomorphized red and white mushrooms  perform a short dance. The youngest is both the focal point and the clumsy child trying to keep up – one of the many moments of comic relief sprinkled throughout Fantasia. The original program calls them “Hop Low and the Mushroom Dancers.” Possibly the most succinct expression of the principles of animation that has ever been made. Roy Disney stated proudly that they sold a lot of mushroom salt and pepper shakers because of it!

Originally planned as dancing lizards, commanded by a frog Mandarin, using mushrooms as background details. Designer Walbridge – under Armstrong’s direction – created the mushroom creatures for their bit parts of lamplighters. The inspiration for translating the mushrooms into a symbol of the east is said to have come from a member of the Disney Camera Club who had a bound book of mushroom photos kept in the studio – but we weren’t able to find the name of that photographer. John Walbridge was the first artist to interpret the the mushrooms into characters on paper. (DATE HERE) Brewer’s original  vision included has the dance being “Chinese, Japanese, Javanese or Siamese: with “decorative headdress, short, tightgt skirt, and curled toed shoes … before a background of swaying oriental girls.” The animation was developed in this direction for a year, with the mushrooms as background characters, until (DATE) when Brewer brought the animatic to Disney, who looked over things such as a Frog Mandarin, saw the mushrooms and fell in love with them. He told Brewer that less is more, to keep it simple, and that the mushrooms were all that was needed to make the point. Walt was not a man afraid to say that it was time to give up everything that had been developed in a year and going back to an earlier stage of development. Sam Armstrong took over this piece from Brewer at this time, and it was at this time that the idea of having the big mushrooms moving with the ‘big’ part of the music (INSERT MUSIC SAMPLE) and Hop Low moviing with the ‘little part of the music’ (INSERT MUSIC SAMPLE)

In the version that made it to the final cut, Art Babbitt drew inspiration from the three stooges when he was setting up the choreograpgy – especially Curly’s leg movements. He’s spoken of Hop Low as a warm sympathetic character, and said that while he didn’t know a lot about music, the musical phrase that is made and repeated in the music allowed him to create the architecture of the piece. He kept the score at his desk, so he could visually see the melodies of the piece, and relate actions to every line in the music. Babbitt’s ability as an animator, often spoken highly of (Culhane referrs to him as “A Camera with brains and a pulse”), can be exemplified by the fact that the only direction he was given by Walt was to have Hop Low’s final bow come a moment too late for the timing, emphasizing his childlike inability to keep up.

We’ll have a pick of his jump sequence for Hop Low on the website. If you’re an animation student and want to learn about squash and stretch, look at it. In fact look at it anyway – in a minute’s time, one character with no words and practically no faces communicates to the audience everything they need to know about him!

Hop Low's jump cycle

Hop Low’s jump cycle

The art in this, to a modern eye, relies pretty heavily on some stereotypical imagery. To put this in the context of the time, keep in mind that Fantasia was worked on just prior to WWII, when US sentiment about many China wasn’t that great, and much more negative depiction than this was pretty standard. See some of the WWII political cartoons of Doctor Seuss for example!

An example of Dr. Seuss's WWII political work.

An example of Dr. Seuss’s WWII political work.

Dance of the Reed Flutes. About a minute and a half long. Chaplin once told Disney not to be afraid to make his audience wait for things. This is advice he took specifically to this section. Falling blossoms dance on the surface of a brook. Love the animations of flowing water. If the previous section belonged to Art Babbit, this one belonged to Cy Young – who was an animator as well as a special effects artist. This section is so lovely, so light and delicate. I love especially how the cenral flower, when she stars danceing, she turns one way , then back, then back again, and her petals  swirl like skirts – continuing to move in the other direction even after she’s stopped turning. This sequence looks like it must have been so labor intensive – so many moving pieces!

Arab Dance. 3 minutes – the longest of the Fantasia sequences. Filmy-finned goldfish dances underwater. The most sinister (for lack of a better word) music of this section, coupled with the alternating shyness and seductive (again, for lack of a better word) approaches of the fish leave the viewer with the unsettling and accurate sense of the true forces of nature being beyong our reach and out of our control.

If you listen to this piece of music with no for knowledge fo the story or association with Fantasia, it comes across as beautiful, and probably feminine, but a little bit sad and a little bit sinister – which makes sense, because Disney wanted the piece to communicate what you saw in video travelogues of Harems at that time.Disney used a lot of specific words that refelct this when he was describing his desires for this sequence. Suggestive, voluptuous, shadowy, transparent, fascinating, graceful, coquettish, and my favorite: ‘almost like a hootchie-cooch.’ He also drew connections between the natural patterns of exotic fish and the lingerie fashion designs of the era. Naughty! Remember that the original context of this dance within the story of the Nutcracker ballet is that Clara is being entertained by the old-fashioned stereotype of a harem girl. I would go so far as to say that there are many aspects of sensuality being explored through this piece – there are fish that get startled and run away when they realised they’ve been seen, and there are groups of fish moving together pretending they don’t see you watching them, then there is the final performace from a fish who makes this very sultry eye contact with the watcher, clearly moving around in a ‘see how beautiful I am?’ kind of a way.

These are some sexy fish!

Keep in mind when you watch this sequence that the animation team was doing multiple exposures on one set of film – Frank Thomas has been quoted on some of the scenes taking up to 20 exposures. No room for mistakes – one mistake and everything’s ruined. Think about that, especially when the water flurries the scene in and out of focus!

The whole thing is totally child appropriate of course, but if you’re an adult, you look at this and it brings to mind what we think burlesque entertainment was like back then. The whole scene is laid out to channel that harem feel – the idea of private, enclosed entertainment (we never see the surface of the water), the bubbles rising constantly like inscence smoke (or perhaps the smoke of something stronger.)

Technically speaking, a lot of the things learned from the fish in Pinnochio were brough to this piece. As we hear over and over again, something was invented specifically for this purpose by Disney studios – transparent paints.

I love this sequence!

Russian Dance. One minute, fifteen seconds. Dancing thistles do a traditiona Russian dance, with flower women playing their partners. Disney saw this section almost as energetic as a tumbling act, and that’s carried through in the opening jumps from the thistle dancers. Sylvia Moberly-Holland, Biance Majolie, Ethel Kulsar are credited with developing this segment entirely, picking wildflowers near the set and sketching them into cossacks and peasant girls. We’re still in summer flowers and colors here, as we were in the Chinese Dance and the Dance of the reed flutes. The major animator on the piece was Art Babbitt again.

John Canemaker once asked Babbitt how he managed to work this scene so that there was no confusion at all about what was going on. His response was that he used a lot of subtle stretch and squash drawing, and overlapped action in a discrete way that makes it impossible for the viewer to not pay attention to what’s going on.

Waltz of the Flowers. About 4 and a half minutes. Winter comes, with a return to the fairy and flora motif in the dance of the Sugarplum Fairy. He was concered about this sequence repeating something that had already been said, which is why the colors and patterns of autumn and winter became the drive behind this piece, rather than the summery stuff that had already been explored. They continued with the theme they’d been exploring throughout the Nutcracker Suite section of Fantasia, the dance that a ballet dancer would do is performed by leaves, petals, seeds and other elements of nature being carried by wind and water. Green becomes gold, accompanied perfectly by the sound of harps strings and deep woodwinds. There was suposed to be a sequence in Bambi where the two last leaves of fall converse before dying and falling off the tree – which would have taken its roots from the dance duets of the two orange maple leaves that takes place here. As in the first sequence, fairies are helping the season change, and my favorite example fo this is when one fairy opens a milkweed pod, and all the fluffy seeds slowly are carried away by the wind, looking for all the world like deliacate ladies in fluffy ballet skirts. Putting it in perspective, each individual drawing of each individual milkweed ballerina took AN HOUR or more to complete due to the complicated coloring process which involved the standard inking and coloring, but also the ubtlest puff of airbrushing, AND THEN drybrush texturing! This whole sequence can be seen in action in the film “The Story of the Animated Drawing,” a 1955 Disney Television film about the history of animation to that point. You can see selection of this film, as well as Ethel’s beautiful thistle-men drawings, the unused frog-mandarin from the Chinese Dance section, and some lovely concepts of ent-like tree creatures, some sexy fish drawings that are frankly, hilarious, and some very sultry flower fairies on the Fantasia DVD box set we keep talking about. Canot say enough how great that thing is!

Then we get frost sprites, bringinf frost to the plants and ice to the water. The snow starts to fall, and the snowflakes themselves are faries. Here we see some of the background  effects that we saw int he Toccatta and Fugue sequence. This part reminds me of the Tom and Jerry episode where Jerry floods the house and freezes it so he can go skating. The fairies ancing on the ice were clearly modelled after real iceskaters.

Lets’ talk about the falling snowflakes. The process for this was another multiple exposure, but the exposure that had just the snowflakes on them worked something llike this: scientifucally acurate drawings of actual snowflakes were created and colore int he susual way, but instead of being filmed rotating by hand, they were mounted on rotating cogs which in turn slowly moved down a curved track. The machinery was covered in balck velvet (the greenscreen of it’s day) and the flackes were filmed that way. Mind blown yet?

Disney wished he could have done the whole thing as a ballet in the air, and he got very close to it. It’s so beautiful!

PERSONAL RESPONSE

Suz: There’s a lot of water aanimation in this section of Fantasia. Animating water (and horses) are two of the hardest things to do in animation. To give you an idea of how hard water is, I first saw Ratatouille in the theatres with an animator who actually cried in the falling down the sewer sequence in the opening of the movie because the water had been animated so well. And yet here, 70 years earlier, is water refelcted naturally and beautifully, and done by hand, in one shot takes. It absolutely blows you away!

TRIVIA

Not relevant to this part specifically, but I just found this out – Christopher Lloyd based part of his performaces as Doc Brown in Back to the Future on Leopold Stochowski!

Christopher Lloyd and Leopold Stokowski

Christopher Lloyd and Leopold Stokowski

Disney said that you really had to lose yourself in music, almost fall asleep to it, and let it in through the skin. He really described the act of listening to music in a way that makes it sound like he thought of it as a transcendental experience. The man said of himself that he didn’t know anything about art apart from he knew what he liked, but he sure sounds like someone who knew how to appreciate the stuff!

It’s worth picking up the Fantasia book by Culhane just to read the story about a dancer who came in to do reference dancing for the Arabian Dance section!

Guess what’s next in the Fantasia series …

Dec 092012
 

—-> Episode 15: Adventure Time <—-

Buy Adventure Time Season 1 Here
Download “I Remember You” Here

In this episode, we’re going to discuss Adventure Time, alternative storytelling and Rebecca Sugar. This episode of the Animated Things Club contains heavy spoilers for “I Remember You,” the episode of Adventure Time that aired on October 15, 2012.

It only seems fair to say that this episode of our podcast will include some topics that might be hard for some people to listen to, just as the episode of  Adventure Time we’ll be talking about took on an issue that brought out a lot of emotion in some of it’s viewers. First I’m going to give you an overview of why storytelling in Adventure Time is different than anything else on TV. Then I’m going to give you the background of the specific characters that the episode “I Remember You” involved. Finally,  I’m going to talk about the episode and why it’s important.

Before I get started, I’d like to give a shout out to Susan from the History Chicks Podcast, for inadvertantly getting this podcast episode started by asking me how to better appreciate Adventure Time, as her son is a big fan. The History Chicks is a fantastic podcast that discusses the lives of all sorts of historically important women, and Susan and her partner Beckett really make history entertaining. My initial response to Susan had been something along the lines of “This might be something you just don’t like.” I thought about it for a while, and decided that this wasn’t a good enough answer. My hope is that if you just don’t get Adventure Time, at the end of this podcast, you’ll understand why it is so appealing.

This episode was written ands storyboarded by Cole Sanchez and Rebecca Sugar, the latter of whom is the first woman to ever land a gig creating a solo show for the Cartoon Network. This 2009 (guessed) graduate of SVA  writes quite a few of the songs in the show as well as writing and boarding the show itself, and I can’t wait to see what she has in store for us.

Storytelling in Adventure Time

The main characters in Adventure Time are Jake the Dog and Finn the human, with Princess Bubblegum a close third. Adventure Time is a show that’s really approached storytelling in a very alternative kind of a way. The first season of the show gave me the impression that it was a show based entirely on random storylets. That was fine by be – I fell in love with the show when I saw the episode “Dungeon” from the first season (download it here).  It wasn’t until a little further along that I cottoned on to the fact that a universe backstory was being built for the Adventure Time universe though one-off comments, and easter egg style visual clues. Basically, it seems that this world (called Ooo), inhabited by one human and a variety of sentient creatures based on both mechanical and organic items (candy people, living robots, talking dogs) is intended to depict an earth that is many hundred years after a  nuclearapocalypse that is referred to in the show as the ‘Mushroom Wars’.

So not your standard cartoon.

Creator Pen Ward has stated that the full story of what happened to planet earth as we know of it today turn it into the Land of Ooo will never be fully spelled out, leaving the viewer to piece things together through backstory. This allows the present-day story arcs of Ooo to unfold with very little interferance. Each individual episode also has it’s own stand alone story.

This is one of the reasons why the comic book sales for Adventure Time have been so good. Fans know they can learn things about the backstory of the universe in the comic books that they can’t pick up elsewhere, and because understanding the backstory of the universe is like playing “Where’s Waldo” with every episode of the show, flying off the shelves.

Marceline and the Ice King

“I Remember You”  focused on Marceline and the Ice King, the first episode to show them interacting at all.

This is Marceline

This is Marceline

Marceline is a nearly-immortal vampire daughter of a character who is basically intended to be Satan. She, her father, and the Ice King are immortal or nearly immortal, having been alive for at least a thousand years, and are the only characters on the show that have been around since the Mushroom Wars. Before “I Remember You” aired, this is what we knew about Marceline …

  • Marceline is a vampire, but doesn’t eat blood, she eats the color red.
  • Marceline is a bit emo. She writes music about, and plays guitar. In one of her earliest episodes, she writes a song with the beautiful lyrics “Daddy, why did you eat my fries. I bought them, they were mine. Daddy, do you even love me?”
  • In the same episode, we find out that her dad actually is a jerk. Not just a jerk, also a stand in for the devil. (Hell in the Adventure Time universe is an alternate dimension called the Night-o-Sphere.)
  • At one point her father actually kidnaps her and brainwashes her to take over his job as the ruler of the Night-o-Sphere. It’s pretty clear at this point that she wasn’t just being emo – her father really is incredibly dysfucntional and sees Marceline as a pawn.
  • Marceline had only one posession that she cared about – a beat up, patched up teddy bear. It was stolen from her by her one known ex-boyfriend and sold to a witch, being valuable for spells because it was loved so much.
This is the Ice King

This is the Ice King

The Ice King is the first and primary villain of the Adventure Time series. In the earliest seasons, he was the most commonly used antagonist, as he was obsessed with kidnapping a princess to marry him – specifically princess Bubblegum, but his obsession extends to pretty much any princess. He lives alone in a palace made out of ice, a small penguin “army” his only company. Before “I Remember You” aired, this is what we knew about the Ice King …

  • He’s pretty bad at being a villain. He bungles a lot, and despite clearly being the most overpowered character on the show, rarely uses that power to win anything. Most of his attempts at causing mayhem seem to be deliberate attempts to get attention more than actual means to an evil end.
  • He’s delusional. Now, bear with me, because there’s a lot of cartoon character whose characteristics and personalities, when real life is applied to them, could be called psychopathic, delusional, bullies, sexual harassers, or a multitude of other analytical buzzwords, and that ususally doesn’t matter because it’s a freaking cartoon. However, in Adventure Time, characters have realistic reactions to realistic situations, and that plays a part in why “I Remember You” is so intense, and for that reason I’m using these descriptions for the Ice King.
  • The Ice King is delusional, easily confused, and easily angered.
  • The Christmas 2011 episode of Adventure Time dropped a huge bomb about the Ice King when Finn and Jake found a bunch of VHS diaries he had made apparently before and during the Mushroom Wars. In “Holly Jolly Secrets” a two-episode arc, viewers learned that the Ice King was once a bookish human named Simon, possibly an archeologist or anthropologist. In a classic horror trope, Simon discovered a crown that he put on to make his fiance (whose pet name was Princess) laugh, but was instead possessed by.  He experienced blackouts where the ‘Ice King’ personality took over, which slowly grew more and more common, until he was no longer human, with no memories of his human experience.
“I Remember You” reveals that the Ice King and Marceline met in the aftermath of the Mushroom Wars. She was a child, I guessed five or six, crying on the streets while everything is destroyed all around her. The Ice King, then still holding onto a majority of his human characteristics, gave her her stuffed bear. As is often the case with Adventure Time episodes, if a viewer then rewatches previous episodes, a huge amount of background detail corroborates the facts revealed in this one, and spell out an additional narrative. (For example, Simon/Ice King would coax a younger Marceline to eat when she was too depressed to have an appetite.)
Ice King meeting Marceline

Ice King meeting Marceline

Has that sunk in yet? if you watch Adventure Time, this isn’t new to you. If you don’t, this can be a lot to take in.

 ”I Remember You” and Why It’s Important

This episode starts with the Ie King trying to write a song, and failing miserably. He packs up his music gear, and flies off to Marceline’s house, so he can learn how to write a good song from her. While initially resistant to the painful memories, his presence brings, the usually blase Marceline becomes frantic to make Ice King remember who he used to be, and what their relationship was.

If you’re not drowned in backstory yet, the basic concept that this story illustrates is the complex and painful emotions that arise when a loved and needed parent no longer has the capabilities to be a parent.  Here’s where I give you a little of MY backstory.

When we came back from our season break, our intention had been to produce two or three episodes a month. Real life interfered when a close family member of mine passed away after several years living with a mentally degenerative disease diagnosed as Lewy Body Disease – a disease which presents with symptoms associated with Alzheimers Disease, Parkinsons, Dementia, and depression. Basically, I went through a situation that many other people have – I watched a loved one slowly lose their identity to a disease associated with aging.

This episode is important because it deals with a real topic, and real emotions. This is a children’s show, and it has never been bland, but it makes a move here into art. Art does, after all, imitate life. I am predisposed to be moved by something like this due to my personal circumstances, but I can’t believe that I am alone in my reaction.

Children transition as they age from needing to be protected from things they don’t have the faculties to understand to needing to be funneled all possible information about the world around them. From what I remember about being at that age, I felt a little bit like Marceline, starving to eat, but wanting non-condescending stories rather than the color red. The first story I ever read or watched that hit that appeal for me was a Neil Gaiman Sandman graphic novel – and if you’re familiar, you know what I’m trying to say. Tweens are capable and hurgry for real emotions and interactions in their entertainment, and what the fine crew behind Adventure Time gave them here was a very satisfying meal.

Adventure Time episodes are short (only fifteen minutes long) and there’s a lot going on in this one. Two scenes stand out as delicately true to life – the Ice King tangling himself up in cords and not knowing how to get out, and reacting with shame and embaressment, and wanting to hide when he realises that he did something he shouldn’t have. The most moving sequence here is when Marceline sings to the Ice King a letter that he wrote to her when he was in an inbetween stage of the disease: fully aware of what was happening to him, knowing he couldn’t stop it, afraid that he wouldn’t be able to look after a child who needed him.

Ice King and Marceline

Ice King and Marceline

 

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Aug 272012
 

—-> Episode 11: Fantasia Intro <—-

This is the first of a series of podcasts we’ll be releasing about Fantasia. In this episode, you’ll get an introduction to the history and context of the movie, why it is so important, and who the major players are.

Fantasia was Walt Disnye’s second theatrical release, and the first movie to ever pair music and motion with the deliberation to create an ‘art’ experience. It might actually be the first ever art flick! It’s significant because it’s the first appearance of the modern version of Mickey Mouse, and some of the things that went into the making of Fantasia laid the groundwork for the the setup of Buena Vista, the Disney distribution company in 1953, but also because if you look behind the scenes a little bit, you get a fantastic look into the scope of Disney’s vision.

1940 Fantasia release poster!

1940 Fantasia release poster!

Here’s the gallery of movie release posters that have been issued with Fantasia over the years!

Additionally, since we’re taking such a close look at Fantasia throughout this podcast series, we want to plug our sources. There’s a book called Fantasia, written by John Culhane, which is probably the definitive work on the movie, but we also referred to Disney’s art of Animation by Bob Thomas and The History of Animation by Charles Solomon and the Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters by John Grant.

The Major Players!

Walt Disney: Disney reminded Stochowski of Diaghilev – the founder of the incredibly important Ballet Russe in early 20th century Russia. Remember that comparison, it’s going to be important when we get to the ‘Rite of Spring’ podcast! Disney was 36 when he started working with the conductor, Stochowski. He met the man (according to Stochowski) when they were seated in nearby tables in a restaurant, and Disney invited the conductor to join him, and pitched the idea of animating ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ to a very favorable response.

Leopold Stochowski: 56 at the time of starting work on Fantasia. He had taken up a casual orchestra based out of Philadelphia in 1912, and turned it into what was referred to by the NY Times as “the greatest virtuoso orchestra in America and, most likely the world.” It’s hard to imagine in modern times, when there really isn’t a modern equivalency to what popular conductors were at that time, but Stochowski was famous not just for his accomplishments in the musical world, but was also a public figure — he starred in ‘normal’ movies as well as films made of concerts he conducted. He even dated Greta Garbo! Culhane (author of Walt Disney’s Fantasia) called him flamboyant, and Yehudi Menuin said “Stochowski epitomized for most Americans what the symphony  conductor should look like, how he should behave …”

Sources conflict as to whether this poster was from 1940 or 1942.

Sources conflict as to whether this poster was from 1940 or the immediate re-release, but it was most likely 1940.

Deems Taylor: was a prominent music critic and composer in his own right – ending up in the brain trust of development for Fantasia. He’d also the narrator.

We’ll talk about animators and story artists on each piece when we discuss those pieces.

Fantasia!

The movie consists of 7 pieces of classical music, each artistically interpreted through the medium of animation, with music conducted by  Leopold Stochowski, who also helped to adapt the music to shorter versions to keep the movie at two hours.

Fantasia was made in a new studio that Disney had bought with the money from Snow White. In context of history, it was made in the early era of WWII, so everything that was affecting the country also affected both the day-to-day running of the studio and the reception of the movie. Production began in 1937 — the same year Disney won an Academy Award fro the multi-pane camera system he had invented for Snow White. It’s creation was finished before the Disney workers strike and subsequent unionization that occurred in 1941. Disney’s rules on the production of the feature was that there had to be visual clarity, simplification of complexity, and a reason for everything that existed on screen.

The movie premiered on November 13, 1940, which is  really early considering the content, two days after

This is from the 1956 release. The characters look similar to the 40's poster, but the design elements have moved forward in time.

This is from the 1956 release. The characters look similar to the 40's poster, but the design elements have moved forward in time.

the last frames for the Ave Maria sequence were completed, two weeks after Hitler’s unsuccessful attempt to u=invade Britain in the Battle For Britain air strike, and 13 months before the US entered the war. It was intended to revolutionize animation as an art form (Disney’s original vision included pumping the smell of flowers into the theater, showing sequences in 3D, and making the sounds of the movie themselves really surround the audience). While it’s easy to see that now, it was critically received and the subject of quite a bit of controversy when it was actually released. The movie also lead to some landmark events in Disney history — Disney’s distributor at the time wasn’t all that enthused with the project, so he was allowed to hire a man called Irving Ludwig to do it, personally reporting to Disney. This is significant because Ludwig would go on to found Disney’s distribution company – Buena Vista – a little further on down the road. Ludwig personally installed  dimensional sound systems in theatres (at the cost of $30K each in 1940s money) and hired trained staff for each theatre so that they could be sure that a trip to see Fantasia would mean a very specific audience experience. Now, the multidimensional sound system that Disney developed for Fantasia was called Fantasound, and it has a really interesting history of it’s own, but we won’t really be covering it on these podcasts because that side of the technological advances aren’t really a priority interest for us.

It was released to only 14 theatres, but stayed in rotation on Broadway or a year – which was record breaking at the time. The cost of the music installations that Ludwig had taken care of drove the ticket prices up, which made it harder for the average person (who Walt firmly believed would be able to appreciate the film) to go to see it. Music critics declaimed the movie for the editing down of the various pieces of music, for the attempt to pair classical music with any kind of visual medium, and Stochowski’s editing choices. Movie critics said that the general populace wasn’t smart enough to appreciate the highbrow classical music at all. But Fantasia was neither attempting a big-screen concert, nor attempting to make the music itself more accessible – they were trying to push animation through to the next level of artistry. There was a lot a of great critical response as well! The LA Times called it “An Earthquake in motion picture history, and the New York Times said “Terrific as anything that ever appeared on the screen,” and “Motion picture history was made …” One critic even compared it to the early works of the Ballet Russe under Diaghilev. (Remember the name Diaghilev – he’s going to be coming up again throughout the Fantasia podcast series.) Other critics went so far as to compare the advancement in conceptualism of the movie to being as great as the inclusion of sound in the movies. But despite all this positive response,  it just wasn’t a big hit. Some have said that the reason was that the critics took a purist attitude and trashed it, but others have said that the general populace couldn’t really think about art when they were more worried about a genocidal dictator that was slowly but surely conquering Europe. Others think that people just weren’t ready for what Fantasia was bringing to the screen.

In response to pressure stemming from the lack of immediate popularity of the movie, it was  cut by 50 minutes and put through general distributions, where it continued to not make much money. It was restored and released again in 1946, and still did not produce a positive return on it’s cost — but Disney never regretted making it.

The 1969 release poster makes is the biggest deviation from the classic Disney style of all the posters released.

The 1969 release poster makes is the biggest deviation from the classic Disney style of all the posters released.

It finally succeed upon it’s release in 1956 – 16 years after it’s original release. It was a hit, then, but nobody seems to know why it was a hit at this time specifically rather than before. Perhaps we were all just finally ready for music and moving pictures together. It was released for theatres again in 1963 and 1969, and began to gain a popularity with the psychedelic set. Animator Ollie Johnson said in a 1990 Herald Journal article of that release:  ”They thought we were on a trip when we made it … every time we’d go to talk to a school or something, they’d ask us what we were on.” The 1969 release was advertised with posters designed in the psychedelic style of the time, which either deliberately or coincidentally tapped into that market.

In 1981 (41 years after the original release), the original sound recordings of Fantasia had so deteriorated that Fantasia became ANOTHER first in film by giving it the first ever digitally recorded motion picture score. Conductor Irving Costal, who had supervised music on West Side Story and The Sound of Music was brought in to re-record the original music, but took great care to remain faithful to the Stochowski (who passed away in 1976) interpretations. Now if you have SOMEWHERE a recording of the Fantasia soundtrack – perhaps on record or on a laserdisc or betamax or something around your family home that predates that year, it might be the original Stochowski recording. If you do, PLEASE let us know, we would LOVE an opportunity to hear the original version.

This 1980 release poster is my favorite. The design and the colors are so clean, and so exciting to look at.

This 1980 release poster is my favorite. The design and the colors are so clean, and so exciting to look at.

Significance!

In retrospect, it became the turning point for the design of Mickey Mouse. It was the first movie to ever merge sound and music in such an artful and abstract way.

Breakdown!

The seven pieces in the movie are as follows:

1 – “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” by Bach, interpretively animated to create a scene that looks an awful lot like an impressionist painting brought to motion.

2 – “The Nutcracker Suite” by Tchaikovsky. Various sections of the ballet that we now think of as holiday music is reinterpreted to scenes of nature, filled with dancing plants, goldfish, fairies, and depictions of the changing of the seasons. Pieces from the ballet include Dance of the Flutes, Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy, Waltz of the Flowers, Chinese Dance, Arabian Dance, and Russian Dance.

3 – “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Dukas. Illustrates the story of an apprentice who takes on more than he can handle, with the role of the appretice played by Micky Mouse! Perhaps the most important of the pieces of Fantasia to the personal history of the Walt Disney Company, this was the first appearance of the Mickey Mouse that we know and love today.

The 1990, 50th anniversary release poster featured gradients and colors very much of the 80s - and there's even some airbrushing in there!

The 1990, 50th anniversary release poster featured gradients and colors very much of the 80s - and there's even some airbrushing in there!

4 – “The Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky. Disney set this already controversial ballet to scenes of dinosaurs and comets, interpreting ‘spring’ to be the early history of our planet, rather than the season of spring. This is the most controversial section of the mivie, probably because it is the only section in which the composer was alive at the time of filming.

After this section was an intermission where the audience gets to meet the soundtrack in a cute animated sequence.

5 – “Pastoral” (or 6th) Symphony, by Beethoven. Set in a scene of greek mythology, this was Suzannah’s favorite scene – the colors, the flowers, the ponies, it was tailor made of a  little girl. It also features some pretty racist imagery that has since been cut from the movie, and the only frontal nudity in a Disney film. OBVIOUSLY in a Dinsey film, lol.

6 – “Dance of the Hours” by Ponchielli. The blatant comedy scene of the piece, this features ballet being performed by the most unlikely of creatures – ostriches, elephants, hippos and crocodiles.

7 – “Night on Bald Mountain” by Mussorgsky & “Ave Maria” by Schubert. The movie is wrapped up by the only spiritual or religious section of the piece, showing the antics of the giant demon Chernabog (often perceived in the move as the devil) followed by a piece depicting the tranquility and rest offered by faith.

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Jul 022012
 

—-> Episode 09: Season 2 Intro <—-

Jon doesn’t have a computer yet, but he has two tin cans and a string, so we are back to recording – YAY!

Our themes for this season are going to include women in animation (professional women in animation, lady characters in cartoons, and what cartoons are the best for girls. We’re inspired by Brave & Brenda Chapman) and the relationship between animation and music!

What are we watching/looking forward to/ have been doing since we last podcasted?

It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown!

 

 

Feb 252012
 

Suzannah and Jon discuss the multiple award winning Nezha (pronounced Niyah), a chinese film from 1979.

Here is the podcast —-> Animated Things Club Episode 05: Nezha nao hai <—

Today, we’re talking about a movie with a few different names. It’s a Chinese movie, and unlike Blossom, I haven’t been brushing up on my conversational chinese, so please forgive me if I’m mangling anything with the translations.  We’re going to call it Nezha (pronounced NIyah), but the full title of the movie is Nezha nao hai which roughly translates to Nezha Conquers the Dragon King. Just for clarification, we are talking about a seventy minute movie made in 1979, not the 52 episode series from CCTV, nor Havoc in Heaven, a 1964 movie from a the same studio telling the story of Nezha’s battle with a Monkey King.)

Nezha Conquers the Dragon King was difficult to track down, and might be hard for you guys to find. It is absolutely worth it though – I would call it an ESSENTIAL addition to any modern animator or animation fan’s library. Before we go any further, here’s a few of the options available if you want to add it to your collection, which we highly recommend.

You can find the Chinese version of the movie with English subtitles as a region-free 25th anniversary DVD here on the Purple Culture website and here on Moviesville. The movie studio also put out a book featuring artwork from the movie which you can find here on Amazon. You can also find a book of the story that is phenomenally illustrated in watercolor here on Chinese Parent.

One of the reasons that it is hard to find here in the western hemisphere, is because it never made it here in the first place, and it’s had a few different names.  We’re going to break this down into a few parts. The talent that produced the movie, the context of the plot, and finally – the last is always the best – the beautiful, beautiful animation. The studio that produced it is really interesting on it’s own, so I’m going to do a minicast on it.

The studio & the creative team.

Nezha was a 1979 movie released by a company whose name translates to Shanghai Animation Film Studio that clocks in at about an hour. It was released in China with the title Nezha nao hai and screened in the Cannes Film Festival of 1980, (although not submitted into the competition) under the name of Le Prince Nezha Triomphe du Roi Dragon. The international/English title was Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against Dragon King, and there was a dubbed version from the BBC called Little Nezha Fights Great Dragon Kings that featured a slightly edited down version, and different music. I grew up with this version of the movie, but as an adult have to say that subtitled original is arguably better. I’d recommend both, but if you can only take one, I’d say go with the original for the sake of the missed footage, and soundtrack that makes sense. (The dubbed version has been debated in fan circles for the assumed accents and the westernized soundtrack.) It won a Huabiao Award for Outstanding Animation from 1979, which is the highest governmental award that a Chinese film can earn, and a Hundred Flowers Award for best animated film from the China Film Association in 1980, which I understand is somewhat equivalent to a Golden Globe on the other side of the globe. It was also the first Chinese animated film made in panoramic screen.

Nezha was directed by three people: Yan Ding Xian, Wang Shu-Shen and A Da (Xu Jing Da). Yan Ding Xian had been working for the studio (when it existed – more on that in the minicast) from 1960, when he won an award on his directorial debut, a short film called “The Small Tadpole Looks for his Mother.” I couldn’t really find any information about that film on it’s own, but based on the name alone, I would guess that it has similar themes to Nezha. He co-directed the first color animation in China. His hovie credits up to 1987 have him still working with the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, but continuing to work of projects that were being distributed in other countries. Wang Shu-Shen and A Da (Xu Jing Da) were very difficult to find information on – I found nothing on the first, and only a brief mention of the second with a reference to the raw emotional effect of Nezha in a 1986 issue of a croatian magazine called Sineast. If anyone knows anything about them, let me know, or if there are any librarians with mad research skills out that that would like to help me learn how to improve my research skills, please email us at feedback@animatedthingsclub.com!

 

The story Nezha is based on.

The story of Nezha is the story of Taoist deity. He is supposed to have lived during the Shang Dynasty, which is 1600-1000 BC, so that’s the era that

A Nezha statue

A Nezha statue

this movie is placed in. The premiere source of the story is the Fengshen Bang (also known as Fengshen Yanyi.) The title of the book translates as The Investiture of the Gods or The Creation of the Gods and was first published in China in the 16th century. His parents, Li Jing and Lady Yin (rulers of the area) are childless until Lady Yin become pregnant late in life – and stays pregnant for over three years. When she does give birth, it is to a fleshy ball (it looks more like a seed or a pearl in the movie.) Li Jing strikes the ball with his sword, afraid that it is a demon. The seed opens into a lotus, and Nizha breaks out of the ball, a fully formed, tiny boy who can walk and talk. He clothes himself in a lotus petal from the flower he came from.

Deity Taiyi Zhenren (who seems in the movie to be both immortal and human at the same time) takes him on as a student. In the myth, Nezha jumps out of the seed with the ribbon of chaos and the ring of the cosmos in his hands. In the movie it seems as though Taiyi gives these items to him – or at least explains what they are, calling them the silk of steel and the ring which nearly fits the universe. The ribbon looks like a long, transparent scarf, and the ring is about the size of a dinner plate in comparison to Nezha. They are animated to look like he’s almost dancing with them.

I’m going to go over the rest of the story first before breaking down the difference between it and the movie version. In the original story, Nezha washes the ribbon of chaos in a river when he is seven, which causes an underwater earthquake. The son of the Dragon Emperor comes to the surface to fight Nezha, and is instead killed by him. Not pleased, the Dragon Emperor (Ao Guang) rallies his armies, and surrounds Li Jing’s palace, demanding a son’s life for a son’s life. Horrified that his son is a killer, Li Jing is about to turn Nezha over, when Nezha, furious at his father kills himself to save him the trouble. Sounds a bit emo. In different versions of the story, Nezha either disembowels himself so that his flesh and bones can stay with his parents, with his organs are to be given to Ao Guang, or simply slits his own throat. Moved by the disemboweling gesture of family loyalty in the first version, or satisfied that his son’s murderer is dead in the second, Ao Guang retreats. Either Nezha’s soul flies to Taiyi, or Taiyi plucks it out of the twisting nether, but Taiyi resurects Nezha into a body he creates from lotus roots. He then gifts him with two additional weapons – wind fire wheels and a fire-tipped spear. The fire wheels he travels on (think roller skates) and the spear is a new weapon to go with the ring and the ribbon. And that’s where the movie splits from the book version. In the story, Nezha and his father continue to clash after his death in a manner that ultimately leads to war, but in the movie you never see his parents again, so that’s not really relevant to the purpose of this discussion.

The plot of the movie.

The movie stays faithful to the original story until Nezha is a very wild six year old  with a pet deer that he rides anywhere he wants to go. The area at this time is terrorized by four dragon kings (not one emperor), who rule rivers and the oceans, and control the weather. The Dragon Kings have two forms each – a human with a dragon’s head, and a dragon form. In the movie, you see the villagers making sacrifices to them by dropping food into the rivers which is taken to the dragons kingdoms at the bottom of the seas. The Dragon Emperor role is taken by the blue-colored Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean, who controls rain, and is currently withholding it until he can have a child to eat. They are more tender than chicken apparently.

On a outing where he lets a local boy and girl ride his deer in the ocean, where the girl is promptly kidnapped and eaten by Blue Dragon’s son. Using his cosmic ring, Nezha defeats the Dragon’s Guardian, turning him into frog. The frog runs back to the Blue Dragon’s palace, and tattles. Nezha, grossed out by the frog slime, is washing his ring and silk in the ocean, causing an earthquake in the dragon king’s palace. Off goes the Blue Dragon’s third son (a lilac and red dragon), on a seahorse mount with a lot of soldiers to kill Nezha for being such a big jerk. Turns out that this guy personally ate Nezha’s friend. Nezha gives him a few warnings to back off, then kills him, pulls out his backbone, and throws his body back to his troops, who take it back to his dad. Blue Dragon king threatens death to the world if he can’t destroy Nezha.

Blue Dragon visits Li Jing (interrupting a beautiful sequence of the lord playing an instrument that I don’t recognize), and tells him that he wants blood. Nezha is summoned, bringing his new toy – the dragon spine. Nezha is presented at this point as a little kid that doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions – the way kids don’t really know why some things are wrong when they are to their perspective righteous.  His father tries to explain that Dragons are sacred and what he did was huge problem, and Nezha’s response is “Um … YOU ATE SOMEONE!” The Blue Dragon dissapears, threateneing to tell the King of Heaven what happened, and Li Jing is mortified with the shame of it all. Unsure of what to do, since his father gives him no support, Nezha then goes to Taiyi for advice.

Taiyi has an almost motherly forgiveness of Nezha, but warns him that the Blue Dragon is going to bring war down upon his whole country for what he’s done. Nezha responds that since he did wrong, not his father or anyone else, that this isn’t fair. Taiyi sets up a prank of Nezha intercepting the Blue Dragon at the gates of heaven, briefly pretending to be the ruler of heaven (the balls on this guy), beating the Dragon up, and making him promise to cancel the drought and never eat children again.

Nezha tells his father what he’s done, and his father, correctly thinking that everyone is doomed, takes away his ring and silk, has him tied to a pillar, and disowns him. Blue dragon King summons the dragon kings of the Northern, Western, and Southern Oceans to attack Li Jing’s kingdom. The other three dragons are White (with the power of snow and ice) Black (with the power of hurricanes and tornados), and Red (the power of fire). They give Li Jing and ultimatum, your son’s blood, or everyone dies. Li Jing resists, but gives in … but can’t bring himself to kill his own son. Looking around and seeing the devastation, Nezha snatches up his father’s dropped blade and slits his own throat. Don’t worry, his back is to the camera.

Nezha and Li Jing’s relationship is played out very well here. When the dragons show up, Li Jing begs for negotiation. Nezha is freed from imprisonment by a servant who want him to hide, but instead he begs his father for the return of his ring and silk, with which he can defeat the dragons. His father ignores him, but his pet deer runs to fetch them, and there is forlorn sequence of him arriving a few minutes too late to deliver them to his master. Nezha is not dead yet, and sees her, but can’t reach the ring and the silk. I remember being just fascinated with the sequence as a child, but as an adult, I can only say that it is a triumph of emotional impact in animation.

We cut to the Blue Dragon’s palace, where he’s throwing a big party for all of the dragons to celebrate the freedom to do whatever they want as the only person powerful enough to stop them is now dead. The party scene is great – there’s  an octopus, frog, crab and shark band, gladiator snails, lady shellfish performing some sort of traditional looking dance, and a giant turtle juggler. It’s a nice humorous break after the death scene.

We cut to Taiyi’s cave in the mountains and some lovely strobe effects. He grows a lotus bloom, out of which Nezha materializes, now clad in lotus petals  and lotus leaves.  Shocked to find himself alive, he hugs his master, sobbing.  Nezha’s first thought is to stop the four dragons, so he is gifted with his wheels and spear. He a we have a lovely sequence of Nezha getting to know the new tools. You never see his ring and silk being returned to him in the BBC version, but you do see him from here on in wearing a silk that looks very similar to the one from his first childhood.

Here’s an interesting thing. Obviously, the original story of Nezha focuses strongly on the conflict between father and son. In the BBC translation, Li Jing calls Nezha a changeling, and when he talks about Nezha not being his son, he means is for real, not just in a disowning sense. In the original story, there’s lines about Lady Yi conceiving after being touched (in a non-sexual way) by some sort of monk or sage, and Taiyi makes it clear at Nezha’s birth that he is not a regular human. As an aside I think it’s interesting that this religious story focuses on the fallout between father and son when the father finds a godly cuckoo in his nest, especially when that sort of thing is completely side stepped in other religious texts.

Either way, the reason I’m bringing it up is because there’s a very quick scene here that has Nezha breaking a plaque with his spear before heading into the ocean to confront the dragons. I couldn’t really figure out if it was a plaque on a shrine for offerings to the dragons, or if it was the name plaque on Li Jing’s palace, but I like the idea of it being the latter. That way, Nezha sneaks one quick jab in at the father who never stood up for him, and sacrificed family for politics.

Nezha goes super-saian!

Nezha goes super-saian!

The Blue Dragon determines that Nezha is human enough to die even though he has the appearance of a god.  We have some beautiful fight sequences and Nezha fights various sea cratures, somehow sets fires to others, and then uses his ring and silk to shatter the palace (clearly he did pick them up somewhere. The final boss fight has him against the four dragons, so he pauses a moment to go super-saian, growing two extra heads and and two extra pair of arms for the occasion – bringing him closer to the way he’s sometimes depicted in sculpture and art throughout through out history.

So, boss fight. The Dragons shift in and out of their two forms a lot here, and Nezha gets hit with their various powers. He summons a red bird that looks like a phoenix swallow the Red Dragon’s fire, who is later able to melt him when he’s frozen by the White and Black Dragons. He defeats the Red, Black and White dragons first, then goes after the Blue Dragon, pinning him to the ground with his firey spear, after which the Dragon turns to stone. The story ends with the narrator sayin “The children swam and the ships sailed. The seas belong to everyone. Even dragons must serve life and not feed upon it.” We get a cut to the children from his village, the servant from Li Jing’s house who freed him prior to his suicide, and his pet deer, all awaiting his return to the mainland. There’s a happy reunion, and Nezha jumps back onto his deer and goes for a majestic run over the end credits.

Emotional impact.

We finally get to the best part – the animation! Let’s kick this off with a google chrome assisted translation of a passage from that 1986 article I found in Sineast Magazine. (The words that didn’t translate have been removed from the quote.) “Not only perfection of performance and traditional way of painting, but also carry a wonderful tenderness and warmth, the emotion that leaves no one indifferent.” It’s a great quote to apply to Nezha, because even thought he background art is beautiful, even though the storyboarding and plot are so delicately handled, and the animation is so incredibly fluid, the most incredible part of the movie is the emotional impact that it carries. Both as a child and as an adult, I can’t be unmoved by watching it. As a child, I remember specifically being able to relate to Nezha’s character and his perspective when contrasted with his father’s, and his idealistic desire to do what is right. As an adult, I understand his Li Jing’s frustration with his Nezha’s wildness and how important is to do what it takes to look out for everyone who you are responsible for – not just your children, but in this case your servants and subjects as well. When Nezha kills himself and his deer weeps, you cry too. When Nezha throws himself into Taiyi’s arms, weeping, you really feel the sense of security and safety that a child feel int he arms of a trusted parent. The emotional impact is amazing.

The visuals are stunning too. I would absolutely buy a book of the art that went into making this movie. As a child I watched it over, and over, just mesmerized by the colors and patterns. They’re hypnotic and refreshing, but not hypnotic to the point of trippiness the way The Thief and the Cobbler is. The patterns of the lotus are all the way through the story – specifically in major growth scenes for Nezha. Poses straight out of buddhist and taoist art are worked through the storyboarding. So the design is great, but the animation is really the crown jewel of this movie.

The animation.

  • Nezha animation: he’s animated to seem almost like a circus performer before his rebirth, especially when playing with his silk and ring. It definately had reminiscences to both circus performers and that gymnastics performance section of the Olympics when the gymnast works with objects. After his transformation, his motions become more aggressive, as he works through what looks suspisciously like a tai chi sequence with the spear, but it’s lightened up with his rollerskating approach to the rings. Gestures of other characters are often also extremely fluid, and each character walks with very distinct mannerisms and gestures.
  • Hands: the hands in this piece get a special section because they are so darn beautifully done.
  • Dragon animation: they move a like a cross between snakes and creeping cats. Nothing could have been a better pick for evil dragons.
  • Crane animation: Taiyi’s pet crane has several beautiful sequences. When Jon saw one, he said it was the smoothest animation he had ever seen!
  • There’s also the deer. Dainty is the only word that really works in context of the deer.

    Hokkusai's 'Wave'

    Hokkusai's 'Wave'

  • Oceans. Most of you listening & reading probably know what Hokkusai’s ‘Great Wave’ print is, even if you only know it by name. Here’s a BBC podcast that will fill you in on the significance of that piece of artwork. All of the oceans look like, and move, like this print looks like it should.

 

Six degrees of Brad Bird:

Nezha director Yan Ding Xian directed a 1989 animated adaptation of Peter Spier’s book Noah’s Ark, which was narrated by James Earl Jones, who was once the voice of the narrator on the 1990 Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror episode where he read the  Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven – an episode on which Brad Bird was an Executive Consultant!

 

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Feb 092012
 
California
  • Dreamworks is having an Art of Puss in Boots exhibition at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Fransisco. I thought that movie was just beautiful, and I love production art, so I would say go – it’s only there until April 22.
  • **UPDATED FOR NEW EVENT** Bellarmine College in LA is having a BIG event on February 23. It’s an all-day event discussing race in comics and animation, and LeSean Thomas (the Boondocks cartoon, Black Dynamite, Ben 10, Batman:The Brave and the Bold, and Green Lantern: First Flight) and Brandon M. Easton (new Thundercats writer) will be there.
Connecticut
  • The Connecticut Science Center is having a really nice exhibit about animation – explaining the basics of it to those who don’t know much about the mechanincs. Great for kids or for adults fans who are interested in the technical aspects of animation. Cartoon Network has a very heavy presence in it. Hurry – it only runs until March 11!

Michigan

New York
Texas

China: Hangzhou

Feb 012012
 
  • Monty Python are going to be making a new cartoon movie! WITH ROBIN WILLIAMS!
  • Stephen Colbert interviewed Maurice Sendak in a wonderfully funny way on The Colbert Report (interview has two parts). Terry Gross got him in a wonderfully touching way on Fresh Air. One will make you laugh, one will make you cry.
  • If you’re in Las Vegas, you can catch the Chuck Jones experience! If you have a chance to go, let me know, I would LOVE to go there myself! Here’s a limited photo tour of the place!
  • Qiu Anxiong has an exhibit up in Dallas right now at the Crowe Collection.  There’s a lot stop-motion animation in it, and based on this example of past animated works, I can only imagine how moving the show is going to be. Go if you can.
  • Don Herzfeldt (best known for Rejected!) is having a tour!

Hey, ATC is on iTunes! Maybe you drop by and review us sometime, huh?

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