Wednesday, February 16, 2005

What happened to Disney?

You might think the broader question would be “what’s happened to Hollywood?” After all, during the war effort in the 40’s, some of our finest directors were in the war theaters shooting film, big stars had enlisted and the studios were churning out propaganda to mobilize the home front. The nearest Hollywood can muster now is Sean Penn and some second unit directors bringing back footage for Michael Moore, and they’re against the U.S. But after getting caught up in the frenzy of 02’ and 03’ where rightwing pundits and heartlanders were paying attention to which star said what and where, I resigned myself to the fact that an actor is an actor, his primary function is to entertain. Regardless of what I might think of the political views of Sean Penn or Danny Glover, Streisand or Susan Surandon, I still enjoy their acting. Okay, maybe nothing they’ve done lately, but I do appreciate their collective bodies of work. Why ask more from them?

The question of what happened to Disney came upon me while I was watching Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines, Animation from 1941-45. Like the rest of the vault Disney collections, this was a goldmine of animation. Some of the cartoons were made for the general public and stared one of the Disney regulars like Goofy or Pluto. Others were training films, like the timeless short, Four Methods of Flush Riveting, a riveting tale about riveting tails. Still others covered the history of certain topics, like corn in The Grain That Built a Hemisphere.

The entertainment value of Disney hardly needs to be mentioned. Likewise, the educational virtues of Disney don’t need to be explained to those of us who remember Walt Disney Presents, regardless of whether we still believe lemmings plunge to their death en masse or not. But the Disney animators were also quite deft with technical training, as the flush riveting short demonstrates. The methods were explained in the simplest and most effective possible way. In an age before Power Point, the Disney animators created the ultimate Power Point presentation. Another short, Stop That Tank, is a brilliant introduction to the M-1 tank rifle – how it worked, how to maintain it and how to use is against German armor.

What a gift to the military to have the film medium taken care of by a professional studio.

And this cooperation from Disney, as well as other studios, was not the result of any effort to nationalize the industry or forcing cooperation via government edicts, though a level of censorship existed. Walt Disney believed in the war effort enough to devote his animation team to making an ambitious animated feature called Victory Through Air Power (1943), which argued for the need of a long range bombing capability.

Victory Through Air Power is a magnificent history of aviation. It has Disney’s humor and uncanny way of explaining things in a poignant shortened way. But it achieves something rare in that it delves into military theory in a way that few other cartoons do. Apparently Churchill had watched it and, while visiting the White House, discovered that FDR had not yet seen it. He sang the praises of the film to the President and had his copy of the film sent to Washington for FDR to watch. I would dare call the film a masterpiece.

Other notable shorts include Der Fuhrer’s Face, remembered now chiefly for the title song in it, (it’s hard to watch Donald playing a Nazi); Education For Death, which chronicles the development of a young lad into a hardened Nazi; and Food Will Win the War, a riotous and inventive look at our agricultural output.

The whole set is superb and definitely worth renting.

To answer the question of what happened to Disney, I must conclude that Walt died and along with him, his vision.

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