Bean’s Screening Room

Bean’s Screening Room: Sleeping Beauty (Walt Disney, 1959)

Vintage Sleeping Beauty poster art, property of Buena Vista Distribution

Sleeping Beauty shouldn’t be called Sleeping Beauty. It should be called Fairy Ganglands or Wandfellas or Maleficent’s Sweet Badass Song or something like that. Because, you know, it’s not actually about Sleeping Beauty. She doesn’t really do anything.  She has about as much agency in this film as Oliver Twist does in the book about him. Which is to say, none.

No, the story’s really about a wicked fairy who gets snubbed by a local dignitary, exacts revenge through a curse, and is ultimately thwarted by the interference of what can only be described as a magical sewing circle of ditsy great-aunt types. Like all fairy tales, it has the potential to be a really dark, gruesome story. In the fifty-odd years that have elapsed since the original release of Sleeping Beauty, Disney seems to have worked this out, so on May 30th they will be releasing a film called Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie:

Which looks all right, I guess. I would still prefer to see the original set of fairies hashing out the details of their assault on the Forbidden Mountain like mooks in a Scorsese movie. But you can’t have everything in life.

The original film itself is worth watching, though. Bean likes it for for the scary dragon at the end, and for its “danciness”– having borrowed heavily from Tchaikovsky’s ballet for the score, Disney decided that his animators should put a lot of balletic bounce into the characters, using live-action models who were also dancers in many cases.

And it really shows. I always marvel at how much better the quality of movement and character design is in the older Disneys than it is in the newer ones. Here’s Aurora and Phillip dancing to the “Once upon a Dream” ballad:

It’s just a joy to watch them all move: the animals, the prince and his horse, Aurora. Even though her feet are too small for her body, and her waist circumference is smaller than that of her head, she really has weight and balance like a dancer– she even spots her turns when she spins!

Additionally, her physical proportions are always constant and her looks consistent throughout. This consistency came at a cost– it took seven years to finish Sleeping Beauty, and its insistence on a kind of flat, modernist interpretation of medieval art turned some people off at the time. However, I think it stands up.

Compare that clip to Beauty and the Beast (1991), which was nominated for Best Picture:

Watch Belle in the scenes when they’re outside. Sure, she’s pretty, but her face and eyes don’t always look exactly the same from shot to shot, and the Beast sometimes seems bigger or smaller compared to her in proportion. The black lines outlining their figures seem sketchier– and not in the way that the characters in The Jungle Book were, either. There’s less discipline in the art.

Nowadays, computer animation makes it possible to keep characters looking like themselves no matter what, because you can build yourself a virtual model. And in the right hands, it can make for great fun:

(The dude with the potholders on his hands at 3:01 in that video will never fail to make me laugh.)

However, it lacks a certain charm, don’t you think?



Doctor Lau-Lau or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Tolerate Waybuloo

[Ed. note: OK, so it’s been a month. I fail at blogging, what can I say?]

Eve has become enamored of a television program. I didn’t want this to happen quite so soon; I’ve read the research about young kids and too much screen time. But sometimes a kid just falls in love.

I guess we were at Simon and Stephanie’s when it happened. CBeebies— that’s BBC for kids under six– would have been put on, and I would already have been cringing in anticipation of seeing In The Night Garden.

In The Night Garden is a gently hallucinatory fantasia set in a forest populated by creatures who can only speak their own names. They ride around in a blimp (the Pinky-Ponk) or a train (the Ninky-Nonk) made of tea pots that have a colorful, if sub-Seussian, quality, and… I just… words fail, okay?

Look, here’s a character called Makka Pakka:

Recognize the voice of the narrator? That is Derek Jacobi– pardon me, Sir Derek Jacobi, CBE, one of the titans of British theatre.

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Bean’s Screening Room: Singin’ In The Rain (1952)

About 48 weeks ago I was on board an airliner headed east across the north Atlantic. Greenland was slipping by in the dark about 35,000 feet below us. Trev was gently snoozing in the window seat. Behind us, around us, and across the aisle were pre-teen choir kids in matching polo shirts and hats, quietly playing cards, or sleeping, or watching movies on their seat-back screens.

Bean was restless: the endless parade of flight attendants bringing drinks or food or duty-free perfume made it impossible for her to drift off. I tried to get her to watch a movie. She didn’t pay attention to Wall-E. There were 856 Harry Potter sequels available, but I thought they were too scary for someone just 16 months old. In the “classics” section was the Wizard of Oz, but it wouldn’t play for some reason.

So I queued up Singin’ In The Rain, and popped the headphones onto Bean’s head. For a while she was more interested in taking the headphones on and off: now I hear things, now I don’t. Then the dancing started:

She was mesmerized. Obviously, for a toddler, the plot of Singin’ is immaterial: in the 1920s, successful silent movie actor Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) makes the difficult transition to talkie pictures with the help of his zany pal Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) and Princess Leia’s mom (Debbie Reynolds).  This is probably Hollywood’s favorite subject– itself– but rarely is it carried off with so much charm and fun. Jean Hagen’s turn as Don’s scheming, screechy leading lady is pretty terrific, too (she was nominated for an Oscar):

I also like the relationships in the film. Sure, Debbie Reynolds’s character Kathy is a little dull, but she’s actually friends with Don, not merely a trophy to be sought and won. After losing track of her following a chance meeting (he jumps into her car to escape a mob of fans) Don goes looking for Kathy not just because she’s cute, but because she made him think critically about his job. It ain’t Shaw or whatever, but if half the films that came out today portrayed even this level of nuance in the relationships between men and women, we’d be better served.

Of course, for the Bean, both on that airplane and now at home, it’s about the musical numbers.  Here’s the amazing slapstick of “Make ‘Em Laugh”:

Some explosive hoofin’ (Gene Kelly, BTW, did all the choreography for these numbers, to the point where he has a co-credit as the film’s director) in “Moses Supposes”:

And the HOLY COW hotness of Cyd Charisse and her legs in the “Broadway Melody” section:

Finally, there’s the big one. Imagine having a 103-degree fever while doing this:

This is a film that came out the year Bean’s maternal grandparents were born, but I’m glad that she is so enthralled by it, to the point where she puts it in the DVD player and tries to dance along.

Gene Kelly was an admirable guy, and not just for his ability to put a smile on your face as an entertainer. He had a relentless work ethic, a perfectionist’s drive to learn, and a deep respect for people who bother enough in life to master anything, whether it was tap-dancing or carpentry. Taunted in his early years by people who thought a man who danced must be a “sissy”, he deliberately built himself up to an athletic standard and avoided the top-hat-and-tails style of dancing in favor of t-shirts and street clothes: he wanted the average guy in the street to know that dancing and singing are an important part of enjoying life.

In an age when most celebrities only have a talent for self-promotion, I think it’s worthwhile to expose your kid to people who struggled to make something beautiful or lasting or useful during their lifetimes, whether they were artists or scientists or social reformers or writers. Gene Kelly, in my opinion, qualifies.