The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Charles: Full disclosure: I graduated with an English degree. Like a Bachelor’s in great literature and stuff. I had a high GPA, received great grades and glowing comments on most of my papers, and led many class discussions on many a book’s themes and characters.

And I rarely finished, sometimes didn’t even bother to start, the books I was assigned.

I recall being better in high school, a more honorable student. I recall genuinely putting in the effort on “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Lord of the Flies,” but then “Jane Eyre” came along and it broke me. Goodness did I not like that book, and when I realized I knew enough about what teachers wanted to hear in a discussion regarding themes and character development and the like, I put the book away for good.

And I insensitively ignored great syllabus after great syllabus for eight years after that. And got away with it!

I’m not saying this to brag. I’m more than a little bit ashamed of it. I’m happy I got through unscathed, for sure. I am not a fast reader at all and once I started to fall behind (which was always) it would become hard to catch up even when I wanted to very badly. So I’m glad I pulled off such dishonest behavior with flair and panache. But I do feel like I did all those books, from John dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer to Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, a great disservice. This – the Culture Conquistadors Book Club – is my way of apologizing to them. Books, I’m sorry.

James, I’ll let you explain your reasons for spinning off our culture podcast into a book club when you respond in turn, but, so we all know, this olive branch to books is why I’m here. I want them to know I care and, now that I’m outside the rigid structure of syllabi and papers, I can show them I do care by, like, reading them. Novel idea, I know. Now I can build my own syllabi, write my own papers with my favorite partner in crime.

James: I’ve always enjoyed reading but assigned anything has been the bane of my academic existence. While I’ve devoured epic tomes like Cryptonomicon, A Game of Thrones, and The Silmarillion, I’ve basically failed at reading any high school required books except the Shakespeare plays. Being older and wiser, I’ve realized I did a great disservice to myself by skipping all those books. So, we’re going back to read a bunch of books I should’ve read a decade ago. At least they’ll probably be easier this time around.

Charles: So, favorite partner in crime, to start with, we picked up a book neither of us had ever read before – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L.Frank Baum. We figured that since James Franco is in cinemas everywhere playing said wizard, it might be time to crack it open, see how the original compared to the vast cultural memory this book has accrued over the past century and change. Yeah, at just over 100 pages and with a narrative structure and vocabulary that are elementary school friendly at best, this was a bit of a soft pitch over the center of the plate. But I think starting off nice and easy before diving into the heavy stuff is good for us – it worked on the podcast, and it should work for this book club as well.

I’ll let you kick off discussion of the book and its relationship with its film adaptations in earnest, but I’ll leave you with a question I think might be very important to setting this book apart from its vast cultural legacy:
After the wizard has done his presentation of gifts (a scene that is a triumphant and elegiac climax to both the original movie and Oz the Great and Powerful, but that comes off as more than a little bit pathetic and anti-climactic in the novel, intentionally so since it comes only three-quarters of the way through) the three characters who have received gifts – Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Lion – walk around with puffed-up egos thinking they can conquer the world, when in fact they are no more competent then they were before. (Seriously, in the novel, before the gifts, these three are basically superheroes, slaying droves of animals… they just don’t know it.)

The difference is they have self-worth now, but they’re braggadocio isn’t necessarily endearing. Do you think we are we supposed to be laughing at them here? Pitying them? Or am I really misreading this, and Baum hopes we’ll be cheering them on in their newfound confidence, just like we do in the movie?

In essence, are we supposed to think the “wonderful” wizard’s gifts are empty gestures from an exposed liar, or are we supposed to be touched by them like we are when we see them doled out on the screen?

James: I re-watched the 1939 movie adaptation just before writing this post, and I have to say, like skipping all those books as a teenager, this movie does a great disservice to the book. The last time there was so much difference between a novel that I’ve read and its movie adaptation has to be Michael Crichton’s “The Lost World.” Characters and lots of the plot have been completely stripped out. Our main characters have been horribly reduced to shells of their written-word glory. So, before we continue, reader, pick up the book. It’s a quick, easy read and in my opinion, the book is so much better.

Now for discussing the actual book: I’m going to go a different direction and, regarding your question, I’m going to answer “neither.” Like most children’s books, there is a strong message presented throughout the book. All of the characters already have what they desire or need. They don’t quite realize it, but it’s all rather plain to the reader. And that’s why I say neither and why I’m so disappointed in the 1939 movie. As you said, the main characters are all heroes, filled with the virtues they think they lack. In the movie, they only have small flashes of those virtues.

In the book, Oz’s gestures are not completely empty because they are necessary for the individuals to believe. But it isn’t a particularly touching moment because of what we know – these characters already possess what they desire. In Baum’s novel, the Lion has courage to spare, the Tin Man has a heart of gold, the Scarecrow is a quick thinker, and Dorothy possesses the shoes that can take her home. I feel that they cut so much away from Dorothy’s companions in the movie that it makes the message of the story very difficult to see.

It’s like Glinda says in the movie; Dorothy had the power to go home all along, but even if Glinda had told Dorothy that, Dorothy wouldn’t have believed her until the conclusion of her journey. That is a major throughline in the book, for all the characters, and the movie just throws it all in there in one dues ex machina line from a character who can do anything she wants: but only when it’s narratively convenient.

The movie was obviously a technical marvel for its time period but, like any movie adaptation, they had to cut a lot. What did you miss most from the movie that was in the book?

Charles: Whoa! Whoa, whoa, whoa… Whoa.

Here we were having a fair-minded discussion on a century-old book and how it relates to a hallowed film I thought we were both approaching with this frame of mind: “Obvious classic. Duh.” And then, right off the bat, you had to go punching Judy Garland in the face with your criticism. It’s like you just kicked a puppy.

Obviously, to dismiss your claims about the movie’s inferiority outright, I had to make like you and pop in the old girl again, see how she holds up. And you know what? You’re kind of right about The Wizard of Oz… But only a little.

Upon further review, I have to admit that, to a surprising degree, the 1939 adaptation of Baum’s novel has many of the same problems that this most recent Oz film has, though it is critical to note, these problems are nowhere near as detrimental to my enjoyment of the former. Judy Garland’s Oz is still way better than James Franco’s Oz – the 1939 film’s merit as compared to the book may be in question here, but its merit as compared to this most recent Oz shouldn’t even be broached in polite company.

Yes, like Sam Raimi’s Oz, The Wizard of Oz starts both ploddingly slow and hysterically (not an easy combination), thanks in large part to Garland’s giant, wet eyes and ear-splitting hysterics (I am sympathetic to the hysterics, there are just so many of them…); it way overplays its hand on the whole double-casting gimmick (where actors play characters in both Kansas and Oz, get it, get it!); and all of its characters go only a few flakes of skin beyond skin-deep – reduce them to that thing which they lack and sing a song about it. Rinse, repeat.

But you can never underestimate the power of charm – you just know when a movie is charming your socks off and when it is making your skin crawl. James Franco and Zach Braff set my teeth on edge, while the hams in the Wizard of Oz cast stepping in sync down the Yellow Brick Road will always put me in a happy place. Lollipop Guild for life!

Which brings us to the book: your points on the book have merit, no question. I actually miss a lot of things from the book, things that I wish the movie had explored in more detail – or at all! Like the entire back third, especially the town made of china. (Side note: the china girl in Raimi’s Oz is a better-drawn, better-acted character than any of Dorothy’s companions in the 1939 film. Fact.)

Most glaring absence: I can see why the triumphant stand of Dorothy’s compatriots against hordes of wolves and birds and Winkies was never put on film – it would have been impossible to coordinate and film with 1939 technology, and, even with unlimited money and time, it would have been far too gruesome on the silver screen – but it’s the book’s best passage by far. It’s triumphant, almost god-like violence adds so many interesting layers to the story! But, come on… imagine Ray Bolger’s goofball Scarecrow twisting the neck of crow after crow while Judy Garland’s Dorothy beams proudly… Absurd.

Which brings us to what I suspect is actually your biggest problem with the movie – the movie’s campy tone neuters the characters Dorothy meets along the way to such a drastic extent that they barely feel like the same characters. Dorothy’s companions are transformed from uber-competant immortals with interesting and relatable confidence issues into bumbling comic relief – the Three Stooges in cosplay.

The Scarecrow actually comes through the adaptation ringer best. He is still Dorothy’s closest confidant (first friend is best) and those notes of complexity we noted, where the character who lacks something actually expresses it more than anyone else because they have to try so darn hard, are still present here. The Scarecrow laments his lack of a brain, which makes him a clumsy oaf for sure, but, from the get-go, he is the cleverest one in the bunch, using problem-solving tactics to get out of tight jams.

The Cowardly Lion could not be more different; the movie blows up the book’s “noble and fearsome Aslan-predescesor with a relatable desire to quash even the pangs of fear a mighty lion feels,” and, from those ashes, it gives us the toothless ancestor of Snagglepuss. For shame? No. I like the Lion. He’s my favorite thing about the movie. What can I say? He’s so supercamp, his performance is so over-the-top bluster and song-and-dance and affectation, and, hey man, that’s what this movie wants to be, and I love it for that.

I won’t argue if you say that it is the Tin Man who suffers the most here. I cannot lie; that the movie forgoes Baum’s backstory for this character is indeed a crime. It takes the book’s most tragic and fascinating character – a mighty ax god who can only be stopped by his own tears, a man who did everything for love and will never feel it again thanks to the cruelty of the witch, a warrior who tries so hard to make up for his lack of heart by caring about every little thing extra hard and is accordingly the most compassionate character by leaps and bounds – and gives us a weepie softy, an also-ran. Notice how Tin Man’s Kansas counterpart gets basically no lines, how Tin Man gets the shortest good-bye. They gut this character and it’s a shame, no doubt.

So I’m with you, there are some shortcomings in the adaptation, but before you step up to the plate, I challenge you on two points:

1) Why does it matter that the adaptation is different? This movie gets to be its own thing, not beholden to every whim Baum had in 1900, every tonal and thematic notion he contemplated; all this per the rules of art (which I just made up). It’s the beauty of adaptation.

The film didn’t burn the book when it became a big success. The book is still there for people like us to discover anew. If anything it’s made sure thousands more people have gone back and read Baum. The movie even salutes the book’s story with its opening epigraph essentially calling it timeless. (Which it is.) How many movies do you know that give that many props to their source material?

If the movie wants to be the campy, song-and-dance version of Baum’s story, why you got to hate on that? If the book is good, and the movie is good in a different way, but still good, then that isn’t bad adaptation. It’s great adaptation. It takes something that was great, and, instead of imitating, it makes a different great something out of it. Brilliant. That is, if you think both are great…

2) You say the book is much better. Do you really believe that? Ultimately, why I can’t just cede my point and reward you the win here, even though I do have to admit the movie isn’t as perfect I thought it was, follows: the book is good I guess, but I didn’t like it very much. It is richer thematically than the movie by leaps and bounds, for sure, but I felt no emotional investment in it. Why?

Two reasons: Baum throws us into Oz way too soon, before we’ve had any time to invest in Dorothy as a character. If I overlay Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” Dorothy over Baum’s blank slate Dorothy, I feel more involved, but that’s cheating. It takes all the good feelings and investment Garland brings out in me (and she brings out a lot of my feels) and it puts them somewhere Baum never intended them to go. He didn’t write Dorothy that way, all melodrama and plaintively-sung desires and tearful farewells; he wrote her as determined, unemotional, and sensible. Very Kansan. Very pragmatic. Like every other character in his book.

Which brings me to my even bigger problem: Baum’s writing style lends none of his characters any distinct voice. Take away the narration (“said the Scarecrow…”), just give me the dialogue and I’d have no idea who’s saying what. The Scarecrow, Glinda, Dorothy, the Lion, the mice, the monkeys. They all have the same voice. It’s a bit of a monotonous reading experience if you ask me. Did you not find a similar lack of voice and character in Baum’s writing?

James: Let’s get down to what is sure to be a defining difference in taste going forward. I love movies but I prefer books. You like books but prefer movies. And I expect that these conflicting tastes will be a great source of debate now that we’ve added a book club to our cultural exploration.

So with that in mind, I veto your law of art and substitute my own: “If your derivative work isn’t at least equal to (though it should be strictly better) than the original, find a way to make it better, or start over (burn the previous attempt).”

I’ve already conceded the technical achievements of The Wizard of Oz. I’m ever so slightly disappointed that they changed the color of the slippers, but I understand it in context of the new medium. The movie is a testament to Technicolor.

Dorothy in the movie is a more defined character. I’m not sure that she’s better, but we at least get to know more about her and that is completely necessary as we change the medium of the story.

But that doesn’t mean you have to turn the rest of the characters in the movie into single-shtick suckers! “The Wizard of Oz” has its technical achievements, one beautiful song that was almost cut from the movie, and one better-defined character. But this comes at the cost of the message and the supporting cast and I’m just not sure I can condone that kind of butchery.

As far as the book, I don’t find any problems with the time it takes us to get to Oz. In Baum’s novel, there’s no need to setup much more than that we’re in boring old Kansas where everything is gray. The whole story is really about Dorothy and her companions going on an adventure and learning about themselves. We don’t need to know that Dorothy is a well-mannered, sheltered and naive little girl. We’ll find out all of that as we adventure through Oz.

I agree to an extent that Baum’s characters can at times sound the same when they talk. However, it’s often the case that you only need a few keywords to actually differentiate them. And yes, Dorothy is a relatively blank slate, but that’s expected. If a book is basically trying to impart a lesson upon a child, which this one is, it’s probably best for the child to be able to imagine themselves in place of the protagonist. So the less defined that protagonist is, the better.

I’m not sure we can really resolve our differences about the movie and the book. I found the book a good read and would probably share it with my children if I had any. As for the movie, it has its place in film history as a technical marvel. But I don’t really see many more areas of worthy of praise.

Charles: Alright, alright, I’m ready to get out of the cyclone of your discontent and land on firm ground. There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.

As I said, I am ready to concede that the film is not perfect. It 100% passes my “Show-It-To-The-Kids Test,” of course – I’ve already slotted it in for my imaginary child as essential viewing somewhere around the sixth or seventh birthday. But your skepticism forced me to evaluate the movie anew and I’m glad I did – I have a much better understanding of the film now, and you’re right… the seams show, the characters ache to be explored more deeply than what we get in this musical revue, and, ultimately, the high-pitched munchkin reverie can only hide so much of that shallowness.

But Garland, James. Judy Freakin’ Garland.

What I struggle with is your amendment to my hastily created rule of art. I do not second it. I can’t tell if your new rule is willfully ignorant or particularly mean-spirited or both and it irks me (and I know my rule is overly democratic, and that irks you just as much), but I also know that it is quintessentially “James” and that it is an honest reflection of your philosophy: “Makers of art, don’t waste my time.”

And I respect that philosophy. That is a perfectly valid way to measure the success of a piece of art. Was it worth the time you put into it? But if you answer no, you have to consider that the same might not be true for everybody.

Where you see a shallow muchkin hoe-down that ruins the themes of a great children’s classic, I see one of the greatest cinematic expressions of all time, a film that endures long after the wonder of Technicolor can draw in a new audience; and I see a book that, when read, added to the depth of my understanding of that movie and introduced me to some themes I had been previously unaware of. I like them both in different ways (the film isn’t perfect but it’s perfect for me and the book scratches some really interesting thematic itches but falls short of fully engaging me), and I’m happy to let them both be.

I’m sure we will discuss our differences re: adaptation many more times in this space, so I will begin to trail off here since I think I’ve said everything I want to say about the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (and the film that, love it or hate it, we had to spend a considerable amount of time discussing because it simply looms so large). I am going to sign out by leaving you (and me) with something to think about:

We are both very familiar with the world of comics. And the world of comics-to-movie adaptations.

I recognize that you have problems with the adaptation of a dark American fairy tale into a bright, munchkin hoe-down, but I rarely, if ever, see you take issue with comics’ adaptations. Even the really questionable ones.

I’m not going to go for a low blow here, I’ll go highbrow: consider Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins intentionally ignores huge swaths of what made Batman who he was, and very intentionally has its own characters, settings, tone and concerns. Heck a third of the movie takes place on a snowy Asian ninja mountain where Qui Gon Jin plays Mr. Miyagi. Not exactly faithful to what Bob Kane envisioned in 1940. However it is faithful to what Nolan envisioned when he decided the character was his. And we adore that vision. Thank goodness Nolan had a vision. And likewise, the 1939 “Wizard of Oz” is its own vision of Baum’s Oz – not just any vision, but the most enduring vision of all.

And I know, Batman Begins passes your qualifier that dictates the adaptation had best be an improvement or else, because, yes, Nolan does a great Batman… But someone might disagree with you and me. For them, Nolan’s adaptations may not pass your test. They might prize, above all other Batman adaptations, the 1966 television series starring Adam West, and think Nolan misses the point. And I am utterly serious. That show is a camp classic, and people take it very seriously.

Yes it reduces deep, dark characters to, as you say, “single-shtick suckers.” It may care more about cliffhangers, and POW!, and “Same bat-time, same bat-channel…” then the emotional heft Bob Kane might have envisioned for the dark avenger.

But it exists. It has merit. It deserves to be hailed as an enduring vision of a lasting character.

In my opinion, a different vision is not a waste of time because it is different; it is a waste of time if its difference is not interesting, engaging, or worthwhile. My opinion could be wrong, but for now, I will stand by it.

(And if you say comics aren’t the same because they are not literature, I will cry. That is all.)

Any last thoughts from you, you humbug? If not, you want to tell them what’s coming up next in the Culture Conquistadors Book Club?

Lollipop Guild: out.

James: I figured you’d lead us to comic books eventually, but I didn’t expect it to be in our first book club post. Yes, I generally have fewer problems with comic book adaptations. A big reason for that: we now know superheroes were made for the big screen. Yes, they started off bound in paper, and they’ve been beamed into our homes on television. But they belong on giant screens, in huge dark theaters with surround sound and stadium seating. Fact.

And, even outside of superheroes, I agree, different doesn’t default to bad. I don’t mind different. But I do worry about being different just to be different. I was worried when JJ Abrams, who had directed MI:3 (Tom Cruise?) and Cloverfield (shaky cam makes me want to vomit), was tabbed as the director of the rebooted Star Trek.

But he came in, brought Star Trek into the present and made it beautiful and exciting. If you’re going to use someone else’s creation, handle it with care, build atop it, improve it.

I’ve seen all the Transformers movies: the third movie was only okay and we won’t even mention the second movie (whoops). I was genuinely upset with Michael Bay when he ruined the character of Jazz.

Point being: Don’t be a Michael Bay. Don’t run around and kick over all the sand castles.

And that is what “difference” often feels like. Kicking over all the sand castles.

When we return for our April Book Club, we’re reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré, which came out 50 years ago. Let’s see how it holds up.

AniMadness Snow White Region

In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, Charles and James were only sure of one thing in this AniMadness set and that was Disney’s original five movies. Everything else was an unknown going in but there were plenty of surprises in store.

AniMadness Nausicaä Region

In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, Charles and James adventure in foreign lands, or at least foreign languages as two of Japan’s foremost studios take on three different sets from the grand daddy of them all, Disney, in AniMadness.

AniMadness Simba Region

In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, Charles and James kick off the month of March with their own bracketology, AniMadness. This episode they tackle the “Simba Region” as 80s childhoods collide.

Who’s In AniMadness?

Over the course of the next few weeks, MiNext will ruthlessly pit animation studio against animation studio (sometimes we’ll even make them fall on their sword and take down one of their own: Disney vs. Disney, brother against brother) to determine the studio with the greatest consecutive five movie run. We’re watching over 100 animated films, from the likes of Disney and Pixar, Dreamworks, Sullivan Bluth, Studio Ghibli… Long list. Today, I’m sharing with you how exactly we plan to accomplish this monumental task in a way where you’ll be able to keep track.

We’ve revealed the full bracket of 11 different studios broken into 4 regions and 20 groups or “teams.” (Some studios have multiple teams. Disney, it should not surprise you, has enough great animated films to sustain many more teams than any other studio could even fathom.) We’ll be going region by region, watching the 25 movies in that region and eliminating studios until we have a regional winner. We’ll kick off with our first region, headlined by the “Disney Renaissance” period that probably consumed most of your childhood. When we reach our final four movie groups we’ll do something special and select our finalists for the championship and then, with the fanfare it deserves, the overall winner.

Now let’s answer the big question: Who’s in?

Below for your perusing pleasure, I give you the 20 “teams” that will be competing for the crown. Click the image to enlarge!

2013-03-03 - Bracket

I’ll list out the teams by their first matchup. If you’re a big animation buff (or a solid mathematician who can count to five), you may notice some things look a bit fishy. I’ll do my best to explain those instances in the footnotes. So the teams are:

The Simba Region

Battle 1: #4 Sullivan Bluth Studios vs. #5 Walt Disney Animation (1982-1988)

Sullivan Bluth Studios: All Dogs Go to Heaven, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, Rock-A-Doodle, The Secreth of NIMH

Disney 80s: The Black Cauldron, The Fox and the Hound, The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver and Company, Who Framed Roger Rabbit 1

Battle 2: #1 Walt Disney Animation (1989-1994) vs. Play-In Winner

Disney Rennaissance: Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under

Battle 3: #2 Pixar Studios (1995-2003) vs. #3 Dreamworks Studios (1997-2001)

Early Pixar: A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., Toy Story, Toy Story 2

DreamWorks: Antz, Chicken Run, The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado, Shrek 2

Naussica Region

Battle 4: #4 Mad House Animation vs. #5 Walt Disney Animation (2000-2004)

Mad House: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Godfathers, Metropolis, Millennium Actress, Nasu: Summer in Andalusia, Paprika, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust 3

Disney Sci-Fi: Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Brother Bear, The Emperor’s New Groove, Lilo and Stitch, Treasure Planet

Battle 5: #1 Studio Ghibli (1984-1989) vs. Play-In Winner

Early Ghibli: Castle in the Sky, Grave of the Fireflies, Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Battle 6: #2 Walt Disney Animation (1950-1959) vs. #3 Walt Disney Animation (2007-2012)

Disney Post-War: Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty

Disney Late Aughts: Bolt, Enchanted, Meet the Robinsons, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled. Winnie the Pooh, Wreck-It-Ralph 4

Mickey Mouse Region

Battle 7: #4 Warner Brothers (1994-1998) vs. #5 ImageMovers

Warner Brothers: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Cats Don’t Dance, The Iron Giant, Quest for Camelot, Space Jam 5

ImageMovers: Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, Mars Needs Moms, Monster House, The Polar Express

Battle 8: #1 Walt Disney Animation (1937-1941) vs. Play-In Winner

Disney Classic: Bambi, Dumbo, Fantasia, Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Battle 9: #2 Walt Disney Animation (1967-1977) vs. #3 Bakshi Productions

Disney Post-Walt: The Aristocats, The Jungle Book, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The Rescuers, Robin Hood

Bakshi Productions: Coonskin, Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, The Lord of the Rings, Wizards

Wall-E Region

Battle 10: #4 Burton/Selick vs. #5 Aardman Animation

Burton/Selick: Coraline, Corpse Bride, James and the Giant Peach, The Nightmare Before Christmas 6

Aardman: Arthur Christmas, Chicken Run, Flushed Away, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Battle 11: #1 Pixar Studios (2004-2009) vs. Play-In Winner
Late Pixar: Cars, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up, WALL-E

Battle 12: #2 Studio Ghibli (1997-2003) vs. #3 Walt Disney Animation (1995-2000)

Late Ghibli: The Cat Returns, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbors the Yamadas, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away

Disney Post-Renaissance: Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, Pocahontas, Tarzan


Got questions? Okay, I’ll try and answer as many as I can.

Each team, with one or two exceptions, has five feature films. (We limited the field to feature animation because shorts would have been to difficult to consider. If we’d included them, this would’ve probably been Warner Brothers’ competition to lose.) These films had to come out consecutively – no skipping around in the studio distribution order to try and put together a better group of films. So, if I’m not a Cars fan, no skipping past it to include some other film I like more. The point here is to let the studio tell its own story – sometimes that story isn’t the greatest story. But failures can be just as interesting as successes. We decided to just let it happen. (For the record, I like Cars. James doesn’t. Haven’t seen Cars 2 and I’ll probably leave it that way.)

We looked at many more studios than the ones that made the cut – some even sat in our bracket as placeholders for a while – but we limited the field to twenty to keep the teams to a relatively high standard (and to keep us from having to watch too many bad movies and losing our minds). Many great films just didn’t have the support around them to sustain a respectable team, and much of the feedback we’ve heard since passing this bracket amongst our friends has been, “But where’s (blank)?” We imagine you’ll have similar feelings. We hear ya. As we get ramped up we’ll post about some of the movies and studios we were most upset to leave out. We’ll call this “The Animation Bubble.”

Unfortunately, though, not every film could make it to the studio bracket – getting in required a solid foundation of other films around you. A star needs a team. Our teams are many and they are large. Even without the films we were sad to leave out, we have plenty to consider. More than plenty. In total, we are left with more than 100 films sorted into various studio teams. As James discussed yesterday, we are going to, in fairness to the studios participating, watch each of these films and only do the judging once we’ve reappraised them all with eyes that aren’t seven-years-old and on a sugar high. (Okay, we can’t promise there won’t be sugar highs.)

The tournament works like the NCAA tourney if it were quartered. There will be four play-in games – one in each region – where our lowest seeded teams fight to earn their way into the Big Dance. The play-in winners will be rewarded for their victory by facing off against one of the tournament #1 seeds. Yikes!

Those big fish are: Disney’s first five films (from Snow White to Bambi); Studio Ghibli’s first five films (Nausicca Valley of the Wind – which Hiyao Miyazaki technically directed before he started the Studio, but which we lumped in because it works with the story we want to tell and Ghibli considers it one of its own – to Kiki’s Delivery Service); the films of the “Disney Renaissance” (Little Mermaid to The Lion King, like I needed to tell you that); and the Pixar films released between The Incredibles and Up. That matchup will probably not go well for the play-in winners, just saying.

The winner of the #1 vs. #4 matchup will then go on to face the proud victor of the #2/#3 contest. Whoever takes the crown in the Elite Eight will then move on to the Final Four, where we’ll slow things down and bask in the glory of the individual films we have left before we crown an ultimate champion.

If you think the seeding seems completely arbitrary, it’s not. How’d we arrive at the top seeds we have? I took every film on the list and gave it a score out of 10. Since I haven’t seen these movies in many years in most cases, it wasn’t my opinion that mattered when doling out 10s or 4s – I tried to go with the consensus on each film and give what I think people would expect it would deserve. When I gave out way to many 9s and 10s in my first pass (I’m too kind), I knocked everything back a notch so I had a nice bell curve. Out of the 100 films, only 6 recieved 10s – I reserved that number for consensus masterpeices and worked my way down from there. 9s were beloved classics. 8s were ambitious successes and so on and so on until I reached my disgraces and embarrasments.

Once that was done, it was just a matter of totaling up and ranking. Let’s look at our overall #1 real quick to see how we arrived at these seedings:

Our overall #1 seed consists of these five films: Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi. That’s a murderer’s row right there. Of those five films, only one got the full-out ten – Pinocchio, which many consider the greatest animated film of all time. Few tens didn’t affect the team much though. This group is consistant: Snow White and Fantasia both more than earn their 9s in consensus view, and, with 8s, Dumbo and Bambi barely deserve the idiom bringing up the rear, considering the fact that, combined, they outpace most team’s best THREE films. This Disney team comes in with a scary total of 44 out of 50, enough to outpace every other top seed by at least 3 points. Yikes!

Does this mean the Snow White team can’t lose? Heck no it doesn’t! All of those films have legacies out the wazoo, sure, and that’ll buy them the respect they deserve, which is a plum top seed spot, but will they hold up? We’ll only know if we watch. Maybe a big upset awaits. That’s why we play the game.


  1. The first of three examples of a half live-action, half animation movie making the cut. (And no none of them are Mary Poppins… Bad timing for that film, sad trombone…) We tried to avoid these at first, but each time one came up, the implications of the studio deciding to do one of these was just to juicy. In each of the three cases, the hybrid film adds so much to the narrative of what was going on at the studio at that time, so we left them in. And yes, this means that, once or twice we did bite our thumb at the official “Disney Canon.” We’ll live. 
  2. Chicken Run is, by a bit of a loophole in our rules, the only film we’ll watch twice in the competition. We didn’t strictly prohibit purely distribution-type deals, like the one Aardman Animation had with DreamWorks in the early Aughts. In the end, though Chicken Run feels more like an Aardman film than a DreamWorks film, we gave DreamWorks credit for having the guts to bet on the little British shorts studio and recognize that, stateside at least, Aardman did play a pretty big role in giving DreamWorks the cred it needed when it was young. So Chicken Run is on both teams. It’s pulling double-duty. I think it can handle it. 
  3. This is one where you mathmeticians out there are probably saying “What?” Yeah, there’s seven films here. The fact is, we knew we wanted Mad House in the bracket – it has too good a reputation to ignore it – but we know so little about these films that we’re not sure what the best five-film stretch even is. Metropolis and Paprika are six films apart, making the decision rather difficult. So we’re going to watch the seven film-stretch we decided would probably be best, and we’ll draw a line in the sand once we’ve seen the films and can better judge their quality. 
  4. Enchanted sneaks in here because the fact that it came out when it did and how it did is a nessecary part of the story when it comes to Disney in the late Aughts. Is it in the “canon”, per se? No. But it’s in the canon in our hearts… Yeah… Also, Wreck-It-Ralph is so great it threw a wrench in our carefully laid plans. To make sure the team wouldn’t be better served by including it, we’re watching two more films here. 
  5. And I mean we couldn’t do this without Space Jam could we? It would have been a crime against animation to do any of this without the greatest animated… Yeah, okay, I’m not going to continue with that line of reasoning. We all know Space Jam isn’t very good, even if it was our favorite movie as a kid and we’re secretly afraid to watch it again because we don’t want to feel like we had horrible judgment and hate ourselves. (This is purely hypothetical… No, it’s not. That’s me. I so don’t want to watch it. Don’t make me!) So why’d we pick Space Jam over Osmosis Jones? Because it wouldn’t have felt right to talk about animation at Warner Brothers without having at least one movie with Bugs Bunny in it. Is it a great movie with Bugs Bunny in it? Probably not. But that’s sort of the point. By the mid-90s, when it got into feature animation, Warner Brothers could do something great like Iron Giant, but they could not do two things for their life: they could not figure how to make money off animation, even during an animation boom, and they could not figure out how to use their greatest assets: The Looney Tunes. More on that when we get to the Warner-ImageMovers battle. 
  6. We’re breaking our biggest rule here. What can we say, we’re rebels. Burton/Selick is not technically a studio. It’s more like an identity, or an aesthetic. Burton and Selick worked together on The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, as the producer and director, respectively. After they went their seperate ways, they each directed films (Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie for Burton, Coraline for Selick) that called back to their collaborations so clearly that it was hard not to see those those films as being of the same piece, even though no one studio had technically distributed them all. (As a sidenote, you will never see me call this team “Burton’s team,” even though most people associate all these films, even the one Tim Burton had no hand in, to be Tim Burton films. Selick played a larger role in most of these productions and while much of the vision may be the more famous director’s, much of the vision is also Selick’s.) 

What is AniMadness?

The question at the center of all this hubbub and foofaraw I’m about to lay on you – a March Madness-style tournament, a bracket, a podcast, a commitment to watch over 100 animated movies – is, at its heart, a simple one: “Which animation studio has had the greatest five-film run in cinema history.”

That’s five consecutive feature-length animated films released in an order that makes you say, simply, “Wow.”

That question came to me one day – planted in me, I think, by my first experience watching a Miyazaki film (Spirited Away, at the age of 22, a crime, I know!) – and I ran with it. I turned it into a Facebook poll, got some interesting responses, and the idea just flowered.

Essentially, when that question struck me, I was trying to process some cognitive dissonance: that this is the man people call the Japanese Disney, a title that’s either horrifically reductive or startlingly true. Probably both.

From that dissonant chord came a simple little kernel of a question – “What’s Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli really got on Disney? Or vice versa? And does it even matter with the geniuses at Pixar out there?” And among my close friends that little question grew into something a bit bigger.

With watering and sunshine the seed has grown into a tree, and that tree looks suspiciously like a March Madness tournament bracket. That tournament bracket is festooned with curious amalgamations of movies such as: “Disney 1967-1977: The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The Rescuers.” And from this, we hope to draw out a month’s worth of quality discussion which we hope to bring to you in our Culture Conquistadors podcast; and which we hope will thrill you and anger you in equal measure. (Because let’s face it, somewhere along the line, we’re going to slight some of your favorite animated films, and you’ll hate our guts. We’re actually cool with this.)

And so, we hope, in turn, that you’ll play along and join us.

Which may lead you to ask a few questions of your own:

1) Why on earth does the studio matter? And why five films from that studio? Why not just pick the greatest animated movie of all time and be done with it?

2) Why just animation? If you’re really married to this “five films from a studio” thing, why limit yourself to a tiny fraction of movie studios?

3) Why create a bracket? Everyone’s doing brackets! Just talk about this like grown-ups without the seeding and the “matchups” and the Final Four and the stupid fanfa…

Hey! That last bit wasn’t a question! Settle down. I’ll answer these each in turn.

Studio

What would we think of Hayao Miyazaki today if he’d stopped making films after My Neighbor Totoro, which you many argue is his greatest film, but probably would not be considered his peak by any means? That means no Kiki’s Delivery Service, no Princess Mononoke, no Spirited Away.

It is a pretty good hypothetical as far as hypotheticals go. This is a man who’s announced his retirement after like every film he’s released for over a decade! The threat that another Miyazaki film won’t be coming down the pipeline is constantly looming for fans of his work. And Miyazaki is, like so many other animation legends, so closely tied to the identity of the studio he co-founded – Studio Ghibli – that his early retirement would likely have spelled the end for his studio.

What does that threat do to a studio’s work, ultimately? What is truly being threatened? Not the piece of art itself, surely. If there are no great masterpieces surrounding a masterpiece, well, that doesn’t diminish the piece itself any, I don’t think. If Miyazaki had retired after Totoro, just put down his pencil and paintbrush and walked off into a beautifully animated sunset, Totoro would still be untouchable, considered a masterpiece by many, the masterpiece by some.

But Akira is regarded just as highly. And Waltz with Bashir. And I would venture that, while you may know those films and speak in hushed tones of their individual legacies on the artform, you would still be hard-pressed to name the studios or directors that gave them life and gifted them to the world. Put it this way: Miyazaki’s name is not on your lips because he made a great masterpiece – it’s there because he replicated that success enough times to burrow into your consciousness and stay there forever.

So Totoro, like it or not, is part of the Miyazaki legacy machine, forvermore. Unless you’re a really big animation buff, Akira and Bashir, on the other hand, stand alone and unclaimed, foisted into the canon of great films without much context, added like spice to “Greatest of” animation lists where the real meat is the hard-won legacies of long-standing studios who have built their reputations on long runs of quality. Every young turk film studio like Illumination Entertainment (the makers of Despicable Me and The Lorax) wants ultimately not to make just one great film that makes kids smile and parents laugh; they want a brand.

They want this: “Pixar has a perfect track record, 10 for 10, because they care so much about their characters.” “The pioneering genius of Walt Disney has been reborn at Studio Ghibli in Japan.” “In five years, Walt released Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Fantasia and Bambi! You’ll never see something like that again.” These are the truisms that build a studios reputation. And analyzing them – building them up, breaking them down – can be just as enlightening, if not more so, than looking at the films on their own, sans context.

So, no, you don’t just get to be called the Japanese Disney for recapturing Walt’s magic in one or two masterpieces, as enviable as that is. To earn that name you have to delight the masses over and over again. You have be consistent and build trust. You have to build a recognizable brand! That brand is your studio, and the way studios function in animation fascinates me to no end. I hope to explain why in further detail as the year progresses.

One more thing: Why five films? Because Walt’s first five films before World War II are the gold standard for perfect animation hitting streaks. And because it was five films from The Little Mermaid to The Lion King, which everyone recognizes as an animation epoch in its own right. And because, if this were a ten-film competition A) James and I would die of exhaustion and B) Pixar would win easy. I had to give them a challenge.

Animation

If you told me you don’t go see Universal Studios films because they don’t hold a candle to Paramount films… hell, I’d have no idea what you were talking about. What films does Paramount release again?

If you told me the same thing about DreamWorks films though, I’d totally get it. When How to Train Your Dragon came out, people who loved it said it was the most “Pixar” DreamWorks had ever looked. Considering it was released amidst a sea of sequels to Shrek and Madagascar movies, Pixar lovers were rightfully skeptical. It would have taken a lot for them to go see it, more for them to believe it.

Once upon a time, when the Hollywood studio system was enforced and an actor crossing the line from MGM to 20th Century Fox was treated as national news, studios had their own profile, their own personality, their own brand. Maybe you could do this type of exercise, a big ol’ tournament bracket, for those studios of old. (United Artists of 1947 vs. MGM of 1951, a real barnburner!) Today, though, I couldn’t even tell you which studio has the rights to which Marvel superhero, because they all distribute those darn superhero movies, and they all look pretty much the same regardless of studio imprint. (Disney has most of them now, but I think Sony and Fox still have dibs on important characters like Spider-Man and Wolverine.)

Animation is simply different. It plays by different rules. It takes longer (it used to take a lot longer) and so quality control is built-in. So is brand loyalty: get ‘em when they’re young, keep ‘em for life.

And so it is feasible that – while you are not a die-hard fan of 20th Century Fox (which has released films such as Star Wars, Home Alone and X-Men) – you are a fan of 20th Century Fox’s animation studio, Blue Sky Studios, which means you really love the Ice Age films. More likely, you are among the thousands waving a banner for Pixar, or Studio Ghibli, or the Disney classics you grew up with that you think every kid should be forced to watch. (They don’t have to watch it on video cassette like you did, even though secretly you know that’s more special, special features be damned.)

Animation studios cultivate this fandom like no regular studio can. How? They focus the time-intensive process of animating a film frame-by-frame on a singular pursuit: making damn sure we’ll see the one or two movies they release a year (if that even) in theaters; and by making sure that when they come out on home video, we buy them and add them to “the shelf.”

What’s the shelf? This is the shelf in your entertainment room that is usually occupied by the whole work of one studio. You don’t have to be an animation fan to have one of these shelves. You pretty much just to have been a kid once. Or had a kid once. If you fit this broad criteria, then there’s likely a shelf that looks something like this near you right now:

Shrek, Shrek 2, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon.
Wall-E, Toy Story, The Incredibles and Up.
Cinderella, The Aristocats, Sword in the Stone and Winnie the Pooh.
Or, let’s be honest here, the entire Disney canon carefully ordered to reflect either release date or personal preference.

Maybe, with live-action films, you do this by genre. Or, if you’re methodical, director. You definitely don’t arrange by studio. (“If I don’t put all my Miramax films on one shelf, it’ll drive me crazy!) But for animation… It’s okay to admit it, this is a safe zone: Everyone has an animation shelf.

Madness

When I was a kid, my favorite show to watch – and I watched this over and over and over – was Scooby-Doo’s Laff-A-Lympics.

Not because it was good. It wasn’t. The animation was dreadful, the bane of every great studio animator we’re going to honor here over the next few weeks. The stories were laughably simple. All the Hanna-Barbara characters were arranged in teams and they competed in Olympic events. When they’d go to Ireland they’d have to catch a leprechaun or something. Comic mishaps ensued. Snagglepuss was the announcer.

What fascinated me so much about this show? Well it wasn’t anything going on on the screen. At the age of eight, it wasn’t like I was trying meta-textual analysis or intertextual readings on for size or anything… at least I didn’t mean to… but I’d just sit there with a paper and I’d make more teams. Roster after roster of animated characters. As a kid I was a list-maker. My parents thought it was really weird and, truly, it was. When I collected basketball cards, I would arrange them into “Greatest of” collections by teams (My Bulls cards facing off against my Celtics cards) and make them play each other; there was reason for concern.

Laff-A-Lympics fed this fire; the characters on the show were divided into three teams. The team of villains was pretty much made up just for the show, so it didn’t matter. But, oh, the other two teams: one was made up of the Yogi Bear gang, and the other was comprised of more Scooby/Flintstones-like characters.

And all I could think was: damn this show would be so much cooler if a Disney team made up of Mickey and the gang could take on the Yogi team. Or a Warner Brothers team (pretty much lifted straight from Space Jam, they did the work for me on that one). I made a Nickelodeon team (led by Tommy Pickles and Doug Funnie, I think). Even a Cartoon Network team with Dexter from Dexter’s Lab and Johnny Bravo.

Even at that young age, I could tell the difference between “Hanna Barbara” and “Cartoon Network.” Though they aired on the same network, one right after the other, I knew that Huckleberry Hound was not to be considered in quite the same way that Daffy Duck, whose antics took up the late night Tex Avery block, was. They were on different “teams” and I wondered: “Which is best?”

Granted, because I was eight and I watched cartoons for a living, I wondered which would be best at, like, leprechaun catching or weightlifting, not which had the highest quality and would stand the test of time. But the spark was there.

That should pretty much explain how this all turned into a tournament bracket even though everyone does tournament brackets.

And so that describes, in three parts, how we arrived at Studio Animation Madness. Or Ani-Madness for short.

That leaves one thing unexplained: why am I here? Why not play this all out in my own crazy fantasies like I did when I was eight and I was pitting Nickelodeon and Warner Brothers against each other in Laff-A-Lympic events?

Because I believe you might care about this; might even want to vote on this; heck, might even want to write about this and discuss this with me! And I sure as hell believe I can write about it – about animation history, about what it means to me and what it might mean to you.

One more anecdote: Around the time I was building cartoon teams to wage cartoon war against each other (the first time; I consider this my second foray into the field), my mom came home with an Animation Encyclopedia. The magazine she worked at was cleaning out its library, and she came home with boxes and boxes of books, but that’s the one I latched onto. That one ended up in my room, on my bookcase. It became my animation shelf.

It opened up a whole new world to me. The book had been published about a year before I was born – it didn’t care about my Hey Arnold and my Mulan. No, in there stood old giants like Felix the Cat and Watership Down. The only problem: like basketball cards for old players I’d never seen play (like Tree Rollins and Bernard King), these names and directors, they were just a statistic to me. Something else to add to a silly cartoon team in a child’s cartoon war. I never asked my parents to get the VHS, and there were no clips on YouTube to look up. I was a stathead, but I never did the most valuable thing. I never watched the movie!

But now that I’m older and I’m pretty sure what I want to be – a film critic – I want to amend that. I go around constantly fighting myself on this. I know I can write about movies, but I feel an immense amount of shame and building pressure that I am getting older each day and I have not watched as many movies as an aspiring film critic should.

“How could I?” I ask myself. “Every film critic was a normal person who didn’t watch films for a living before they were a film critic! They each had to start somewhere.” But, as the film canon grows bigger each week, the overwhelming pressure builds, and the admission that I just don’t know where to start has given me a daunting case of writers’ block.

“How can I even think about recapping last night’s episode of Smash when I’ve never even seen The Godfather!” I yell at myself, knowing full well that watching The Godfather, while an enviable pursuit, will not make it any easier for me to become the film critic I want so badly to be. Why? Because, after The Godfather, there will be another film lined up to take its place. Haunting me.

And so the point here for me isn’t to watch all the films I’ve never seen. There are many. I’ll never do that, and it would kill me to try. The point is to write about movies the way I know only I can. And to do that, they need to be movies I love. Movies I know. And, for good measure, some I’ll be discovering for the very first time but can discuss in a context in which I feel at home.

Ultimately, if the question one faces at the age of twenty-three is “Where to begin?” the answer may well be, “At the beginning!” Start with the films you saw first. The films that taught you cinematic language, the movie business… life. And so, before I move on and conquer the film world, I seek shelter for one more month in the films I grew up on – and I aim to watch some important films for the very first time, films that would have made growing up a whole lot more enlightening.

And, hey, if that question “Where to begin?” seems a little too broad, then accept this other question I came up with in its stead: “Which animation studio has had the greatest five-film run in cinema history?”

What do you think?