Hippo in a TutuHippo In A Tutu
Dancing In Disney Animation
176 pages ($30.00)
One of the great old cliches these days is calling animation “acting with pencils.” Of course, 12 years after Toy Story, that bromide has also been updated to acting with pixels, but that’s not even half the craft.
The true art in animation is when you not only make those picture move, but dance. From there, the standard every animated sequence is measured by is Disney’s Fantasia, the one where hippos spin, pirouette and do pas de deux’s with alligators to Ponchielli’s “Dance Of the Hours.”
The truth is Walt Disney had used dance in his animation long before he was having Mickey and Minnie stomping to “Turkey In The Straw” in the short “Steamboat Willie.” As choreographer and historian Mindy Aloff points out in her soon-to-be-published book Hippo In A Tutu, he had his lead characters waltzing away in his very first series of shorts Alice in Toonland. In fact, Disney was not even the first animator to feature dancing as a central theme. That honor belongs to the Fleischer Brothers and their Out of the Inkwell series.
That doesn’t mean this book doesn’t have a lot to offer though.
Aloff is not exactly a lightweight in the world of dance. Among her credits are teaching the discipline at Barnard College as well as a consultant for the Balanchine Institute. She has about a half-dozen other books in her bibliography, primarily on the subject.
Then again, she openly admits she’s a hardcore Disneyphile. Has been one all her life. She credits the film Peter Pan as her gateway to the Magic Kingdom. Part of this was Uncle Walt’s strange relation with dance.
“By all accounts,” Aloff writes, “Walt Disney was not a connoisseur of music or dancing. He liked both, but admitted that he sometimes fell asleep at concerts…However, what seems to have been most important to him throughout his career in animation was his perfectionism, and in that he shared a lot with serious dancers and choreographers of all enduring traditions.”
After reading this beautifully illustrated and remarkably researched book, one can see Aloff’s points regarding Disney, both good and bad.
It should be remembered how much Disney was a product of his time. At his roots he was a cornfed boy of the state of Kansas, proud beyond all reason that his family could trace their roots to the Norman invasion of England, and while a technical radical in pushing the art of animation, philosophically was incredibly conservative. Yes, Fantasia was an incredibly bold experiment in its own way, but composers such as Gershwin, even Prokofiev’s suite Peter and the Wolf were not included in the movie. They were too modern.
At the same time, what can’t be denied is Disney’s Nine Old Men knew how to use music for its maximum value. That’s clearly brought to the fore with one of the first of the Silly Symphony series, Ub Iwerks’ “Skeleton Dance” (1929). The short featured absolutely no dialogue, the soundtrack is primarily Saint-Saens “Danse Macabre” with some of Lampe’s “Mysterioso Pizicato” thrown in for some solid hyucks. Credit on this score should also be given to arranger Carl Stalling, who was part of the original Kansas City gang that followed Disney to California.
One important point the book apparently ignores is when that said same gang, which also included Iwerks, Freling and Harman-Ising, took with them when they left shortly thereafter. They brought a jazzy more modern feel to the original Symphonies. After they left to form their own studios, Disney’s work more and more started to resemble those gloriously camp posters of the Ziegfeld Follies.
As Aloff’s book readily displays, this is due much to the times. Disney preferred the more schmaltzy work of a MacDonald-Eddy musical to the darker, sexy undertones of Busby Berkeley. The book is crammed with stills of those pre-World War II works. The studio would only modernize after WWII, when Looney Tunes, Tex Avery’s MGM work and especially UPA took a lot of the MouseWorks’ thunder as the cutting edge studios of the 1950s.
One particular bone to pick is her almost complete dismissal of the work of Freleng. Yes, many consider the hippo segment of Fantasia to be the standard, but the real masterwork of dance syncopation to animation absolutely has to be the Looney Tunes short “Rhapsody In Rivets” (1941). It’s a non-stop source of humor and artistry that turns Lizst’s “Second Hungarian Rhapsody” on its head as a pack of construction workers build a skyscraper to the piece.
Still, even if Aloff is completely under the spell of Disney’s magic, one can’t deny she gives us plenty of reason for it. Disney gave her incredible access to their vaults, and she back up her research with many never-before-seen pencils, maquettes, photos and documentation. She’s also a seriously solid writer who isn’t afraid to insinuate her own impressions and declarations of each work analyzed with the goods to back it up. She also gives the animators and musical arrangers who toiled away at the Kingdom their props. Finally, she doesn’t just sit on the laurels of Disney’s first golden age. Films such as Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Little Mermaid (1988) are also properly represented as well as shorts such as the Symphony Series.
So, while Hippo may not be the absolute definitive work on dance and animation, it’s a solid foundation for further research. Coffee-table sized and gloriously illustrated, it’s a truly attractive package to have on one’s living room settee.
BRIT COMEDY COMING TO ADULT SWIM
Ever wondered what would happen if the early Monty Python crew made educational films? Yes, we know John Cleese does a number of them today, but they are much more straightforward things.
For a real answer, one should set their recorders to Adult Swim for 1:00 a.m. Sunday-Monday, when the mini-net launches the series Look Around You.
Adult Swim has picked up 14 episodes of the British comedy hit, set to beginning Jan. 18. Created, written and produced by Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz, Look Around You is a nostalgic comedy series offering parodies of educational programs of the ’50s through ’80 s. While each episode offers a unique, scientific dissection of the surrounding world, it teaches viewers absolutely nothing. Popper and Serafinowicz star in the show and wrote and performed the music for the series.
The first two episodes are:
“Maths” – In this module the basics of math and numerology are discussed. Learn about the largest number in the world and how maths can help in social situations.
“Water” – No one really knows what water is, but it is a giver of life, as well as, a refreshing drink. Observe water in its many forms: ice, vapor and water.
DREAMWORKS DOING PENGUINS DVD
It looks like the Double-DVD packs Dreamworks does are turning into huge hits. They now announced their upcoming Madagascar 2 release will also be accompanied by a second disk, this time featuring further misadventures of Skipper and his crew of Madagascar Penguins.
The bonus disk includes two new Penguins shorts (remember, they have their own series coming to Nick), as well as at least a half-dozen “penguin eggs.” Don’t know if they are going to dance to “Boogie Wonderland,” but the release is slated for February 6.
BANDAI BRINGING SWORD TO STATES
NCM Fathom and Bandai Entertainment presents Sword of the Stranger, an exhilarating samurai anime tale straight from Japan, on the big screen in a special one-night event on Thursday, February 5th.
This unique theatre event is dubbed and brings the story of a nameless samurai to movie theatres will feature an exclusive behind-the-scenes look its at studio BONES as well as never-before-seen interviews with the English voice actors, director Masahiro Ando, and legendary producer Mashiko Minami. Tickets for this special event are available at www.FathomEvents.com and presenting theatre box offices. For a complete list of theatre locations and prices, visit the website theatres are subject to change.
Acclaimed Japanese anime studio BONES (Cowboy Bebop, Full Metal Alchemist, Soul Eater) brings the film to life for this one-night exclusive event. Hunted by the Mings from China, a young boy named Kotaro and his loyal dog Tobimaru meet a nameless samurai who is haunted by his past – a memory so terrible he has vowed to never draw his sword again. Among the Mings is Luo-Lang, a ruthless Western swordsman with the Chinese name who has walked the earth in search of a worthy rival. When both groups clash with a feudal lord and monks torn between sword and faith.