I thought I’d put some of my animation talents on display for you. This is an unfinished animation test I made of Ursula from The Little Mermaid reciting the opening spiel to The Haunted Mansion. This is the first part of it which I got done in time for Halloween. The rest will be coming soon, possibly in the next week or so. The whole dialogue is about a minute and 20 seconds. Here this version is about 20 seconds. Enjoy, and Happy Halloween!
Today I had the privilege of meeting a couple of master animators. The first was the great Tony Bancroft, director of Mulan, and supervising animator of Pumbaa, Kronk, among others. It was a pleasure meeting him, and he has a great book I bought about Directing for Animation. Tony is currently directing an animated feature with an idea involving Paul McCartney. It’ll be interesting to see where that goes. The other was animation master Dale Baer, who has been with Disney since the 1970’s. One of my favorite Baer characters is Yzma from Emperor’s New Groove. I tried to see if I could get a drawing of Yzma Kitty from him, but unfortunately he couldn’t remember how to draw her as a cat! Oh well. But the Yzma drawing I got was pretty cool.
The biggest pleasure I had though was meeting one of Disney’s great supervising animators, Ruben Aquino.
Ruben is most well known for supervising the animation of Ursula in The Little Mermaid, and was also responsible for Adult Simba in The Lion King. It was great to sit down and talk with him about Ursula, who as a child was one of my most feared Disney Villains. During my talk with him, I said that for myself as a kid, Ursula was probably second to Stromboli in Pinocchio for being the scariest Disney Villain, to which he replied, “Thank you! That’s quite a compliment for scariest villain!” During production of The Little Mermaid, Ruben was the third supervising animator asked to tackle the character, which had been in development by two animators, Glen Keane and Rob Minkoff. One of the inspirations for Ursula was the drag queen Divine, and the animators watched the featured John Waters film for inspiration of the character. As for making her fat, Jeffrey Katzenberg originally wanted to make her skinny like Joan Collins, but it was the voices of some of the animators and the backing of Howard Ashman that making her fat also made her a bit funnier. One of the interesting things about the character is that she’s quite inconsistent when it comes to staying on model. I told Ruben it was one of the things I loved was getting to see which animators worked on Ursula based on the different styles, but Ruben mentioned that the inconsistency was one of the things that bothered him about the character, and his animation was probably the most on model. But regardless of that he also mentioned it being the most fun character he ever worked on.
Below you can see some of the inconsistencies in the model based on the different animators that worked on her. Sometimes she’s on model, sometimes her hair or teeth are too big. Some animators are more broad and over the top, such as Kathy Zelinski, who animated Ursula casting her spells, as well as the great scene where she’s transformed from Vanessa back to herself and crawls towards the camera on the boat deck. Great creepy stuff.
Although Ursula was my childhood terror, I couldn’t help but ask for a sketch of her from him, which he obliged in the drawing below.
It was a great pleasure getting to talk with these guys. Hopefully I’ll have more of these events coming up soon, and if I ever get the opportunity, I’d love to do an interview and sit down with one of these guys and talk about their careers. That would be fun.
This is something I’ve struggled to say for awhile, and I’m sure there are plenty of you die hard Disney lovers who will give me hell for saying it. But I’m going to try and explain in the best way I can why I think The Little Mermaid is a terrible film. It is. I have hated this film since I was a little kid. I have been angry for awhile now how The Walt Disney Company started off back in the day as something so great only to fall apart and take the dark path because of the success of single film. The Little Mermaid, to me, is the movie that destroyed Disney Animation. When I was a kid I not only hated the film, I was too emarassed to tell anyone how much the movie upset me. It was my worry that people would make me out as some kind of self centered egotist for not understanding why a movie that was so successful and loved by so many people, as Ariel would say “…could be bad”? I am worried about what kids will take away with them when they watch a movie like this. Ariel, in my opinion, is a selfish spoiled brat who doesn’t know who she is. She then falls for an innocent guy who also doesn’t know who he is. Ariel doesn’t listen to her father, who tells her to stay away from humans for her own personal safety. But if Ariel doesn’t listen to anything her father tells her, what makes us think she’s going to listen to Eric when he has something to say?
I actually think in the movie’s story, Ariel’s father is innocent in this whole mess. It’s not his fault with what happens to her. The film tries to blame him as being too stubborn and pig headed, and wants us to believe he should just let his daughter go because she’s “following her dreams” and wants to “be herself”. But the fact is, Ariel knows nothing about how the world works. She has absolutely no discipline for herself, and quite frankly her friends aren’t any help either. Who do we see her hanging around with all the time? A 12 year old kid ?(Flounder) Why doesn’t a girl her age have any girlfriends? She seems like she’d be pretty and popular enough. If you want to try and make sense of it, imagine of this were a live action movie about a teenager. Why would she spend all her time with a 12 year old when she’s trying to figure out how to get laid? It’s like spending all your time with your little brother. So what about Sebastian, then? He tries to help her more than anyone, to the point of even singing a catchy Oscar winning song about why this thing with Eric is not going to work out and that she should stay Under the Sea. He’s right. He’s right the whole time. She abandons her father who only loves her and wants what’s best for her. She runs off to the most untrustworthy drug dealer in town (Ursula) trading her “voice” for ecstasy…I mean legs…that will make her “human” so she can meet and fall in love with Eric. But then she gets into trouble when she blows the whole thing, dragging first her friends into her problems, then her father, who has to turn over his entire kingdom and get himself turned into a kelp pol-lop so his daughter can be saved, and then finally getting Eric involved to fight and kill a gigantic Ursula for her. At the end of the film her father forgets everything his daughter just put him through and decides to reward her for being selfish and spoiled by giving her ecstasy (I mean legs) so she can go on and live happily ever after with her new chump husband Eric, who apparently never got the memo that every time he hangs around this girl, the threat of getting himself killed increases. If you need more convincing, just look at the people she associates with! Power hungry drug dealer witches? A clueless father? An angry crab she never listens too? A 12 year old boy? Who is this girl??
I saw this movie the first time when I was 8 years old. Admittedly at that age you’re not going to understand all the things that are wrong with a movie, except that if it’s entertaining and you’re having a good time that’s all that really matters to you. Well, it wasn’t enough for a person like me later on when I started watching the films I liked at the time (or thought I liked) and then realizing these movies were not good for me at all! The Little Mermaid in particular made me crazy and upset because when the end of the film came, I was so terrified and embarrassed of the giant Ursula scaring me that I had to keep it all inside. I kept it inside out of fear of being ridiculed by my then classmates in 2nd grade who all loved the film, because lets face it, admitting you were terrified from a Disney film at that age isn’t exactly cool. I had to hide it from my friends, and this terrifying nightmare of a film always stuck with me. I feared as well the mean-spiritedness from others who would laugh me off to the side if I admitted the film scared me. I had no idea how to handle a movie like this at all, and nobody to help me during that time. So I had to figure it all out on my own.
It’s not that I’m mad at these people, its just perpetuated ignorance from all parties involved, including the filmmakers. I’m certain they had no real intention of frightening or upsetting young kids. But at the same time it’s the filmmakers themselves who could not see that the story might be going in a bad direction. This is not a good movie. It’s not a good movie because it teaches children all the wrong things to expect out of life. You have to look at the original Anderson tale to understand what the story was really trying to say. In the actual story of The Little Mermaid, the mermaid dies. She dies because her own ignorance and self righteousness catches up with her, and it happens when the prince decides he’s not in love with her and runs off to marry somebody else. She fails, and she’s turned into salt water. The message of that story is what happens when we gamble our lives, when we are willing to risk giving up our existence over a petty infatuation. The original story shows us how dangerous that can be. It’s dangerous to give into our emotional impulses without consulting with someone or ourselves to know if this is the right choice. The movie flops the message completely saying now that you will get what you want if you gamble your life on something that might not turn out the way you expect. In the movie Ariel never learns anything from her experience. Somehow we’re supposed to believe the lesson is that she had to learn to get along with her father. But her father isn’t on her mind at all during the whole time she’s human. During the scenes where Ariel is human on land, we cut away at one point where Triton discovers Ariel had run away and he’s afraid and upset, feeling guilt for shouting at her. We cut back to Ariel, and she’s having the time of her life not giving her father a second thought that she might be worrying him or feeling guilty that she’s upsetting him. She just wants to snag her prince. At the end her father has to sacrifice his life and his power and kingdom to save her, and what happens after the witch dies and everything is back to normal? He lets her go. Which if you think about it was probably the smartest move on his part, because now the problems of his daughter are dumped on somebody else, and since Triton lives in the ocean and Ariel’s been changed into the human, she won’t be making any visits to daddy anytime soon, at least until somebody invents diving equipment to she can go to the kingdom and visit her father. So unless he really wants to show up to the surface and change her back into a mermaid, he could do it but why would he want to anyway if he really feels he failed his daugther? If anything, call it a happy ending for Triton and a sad depressing ending for Eric who now gets to find out on his own what a selfish washout Ariel really is. Triton at least can now move on with his life, knowing that he at least did something right with his 6 other daughters, who would never selfishly run out on him. So in that sense, we gotta give Triton credit that he actually probably is a good honest guy (and a good father) just trying to make the best of his situation. It’s not really that Triton’s a control freak, and it’s not like his rules about merfolk staying in the ocean are part of a dictatorship. The guy does it to keep his people safe, so nobody else will get hurt. So of course when Ariel botches things up, and Triton is forced to turn his power over to Ursula, making her dictator/ ruler of the ocean, fucking over an entire kingdom because of one selfish girl who wanted to get laid by a boy…I think we can start to see now how crazy this movie really is. And we can start asking ourselves how movies like The Little Mermaid are influencing our children. How will a movie like this influence your children as teenagers when they get angry and decide to turn against you for their own selfish needs?
Yet, this is the movie that “saved” Disney from falling apart. It wasn’t because it was a good story. It wasn’t because the message was so important. It was because Disney knew exactly all the right buttons to push in its audience. They knew exactly what they could sell to an audience to make them believe the story was speaking to them in a way that sounded like it was important, when it wasn’t really at all. This film set up all the tactics used by filmmakers in animation from here on, when it came to manipulating audiences with wonderful songs, silly sidekick characters, and so on….all the elements that trick you into thinking this movie is an important event. It’s not that way at all. We allow ourselves to be taken in by it because of our backgrounds, because of our belief systems, because of everything we were told by our parents or what other people tell you you’re supposed to like about movies, animation, TV, film, etc. and never actually thinking for yourself that this kind of story might not be good for you or your kids who eat this stuff up on a daily basis. I don’t think people should be made angry by the fact that the entertainment industry is manipulating your children to seeing the world as if it’s just like the Disney Channel. But there comes a time when all kids need to learn to grow up, and wake up to their surroundings, their parents, their family, their friends, and even their own children when they have them. Your kids are made to think that protagonists like Ariel and every other Disney Princess is noble and dignified in their decisions to be free and be the person they want to be. But sadly, those princess thoughts about what it means to be free comes from a place of arrogance and selfish desire. It’s all the things that will blind kids from the real truth about themselves and their world. Many filmmakers making content for children in America are failing at their jobs are storytellers. Not everything they make is bad, there are still some movies and shows made that are spectacular stories. But it’s a problem because kids don’t know any better about what their watching. The filmmakers don’t know any better either about what they’re trying to say because their own belief systems about the world are blinding them when they tell their own stories to other people.
Ever notice now in a lot of children’s programming, it’s becoming more prevalent with adult themes, even if the themes are not appropriate for children or a children’s show? You can watch something like Adventure Time for instance, which is a a show that, quite frankly, has no idea what it’s audience is supposed to be. Kids laugh at the goofiness of it, but miss out on all the themes, which are not targeted at them at all and are trying to talk more to adults. That show would probably be better off as an Adult Swim kind of series. But you look at the majority of the shows that are doing this, and it’s frustrating. When I watch animated films, all the messages they want to communicate are adult messages, but they’re so convoluted in making the thing for kids the filmmakers don’t know who or what their aiming at when they think they’re trying to speak to adults and teenagers. You will notice however that when you look at Japanese Animation, they have a very clear definition as to what’s for adults and children. You just have to look at the films of Hayao Miyazaki, who has made movies for every age group, speaking DIRECTLY to that age group. All of his films are wonderful and beautifully told, and the messages of those films are understandable and clear to their audience age group. What happened in America was when a movie like The Little Mermaid came along, it may have been a whopping box office success, but it made things confusing for everyone about how we should tell stories for animation. When you look at animation that was produced before The Little Mermaid in the 80’s, it may not have been perfect, but those filmmakers at least knew who their audience was. The Secret of Nimh, The Last Unicorn, Rankin/Bass, Heavy Metal, The Adventures of Mark Twain, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I even like to give credit to movies like The Black Cauldron, a film that Disney like’s to consider a bad wart on their list of films, but the one thing we can admire about that movie is it it had balls. It tried to do something different, and it was Disney’s attempt to try and make something more adult. The same happened with Atlantis and Treasure Planet. It’s not that any of those films were a bad idea, but what happened is that Disney wasn’t willing to let go of their child audience, and as a result those movies failed because there were too many mixed messages to its audience members. So if you’re a filmmaker and you are watching these movies, it’s a good idea to ask yourself who the movie is for, and what is it supposed to be about? You can tell it’s a problem when you can’t answer those two questions by the end of the movie. It’s not a bad thing if you cant answer the second question if the movie has a lot of themes running through it. But if you are watching a film where the message should be obvious, you need t ask yourself again if you were actually receiving the intended message. In most cases, you may not be. Yet this is what plagues many animated films made in America. For many of us as audience members, we may come up with our own personal reasons for why these movies are supposed to be great. But when we don’t want to face what’s really there, we make up many reasons in our heads to justify to others why these movies are supposed to be good. But they might not be.
This is just my own personal feeling as to why animation today is bad for our children. We have an important job as storytellers, and it’s not about raising kids on our own personal bias’ or religious beliefs. What it is about, being a storyteller, is finding that center place that communicates directly with your audience. The power of every great story are the things we all carry with us through life. Every great movie you love that everyone can agree on (a movie like Star Wars for instance) has a message that resonates with everyone inside. It speaks to us all as people and the true life adventure experiences that every individual faces. It’s not simply about getting what you want all the time for selfish reasons, it’s about teaching others to get what they want out of life, so that other people can see the amazing person they are inside and inspire those people to find the things they want most in life on their own, and in turn share the same feeling with others. It’s the worlds most powerful butterfly effect. Story isn’t just about teaching you how to surviving in this world, it’s about teaching others to find their own path in life, and finding your place in the world as a human being. And it’s not all happy endings, sometimes we have to show the bad stuff too! Because showing a bad end teaches children and adults in a safe way not to take that path in life, and what happens when we stop listening to the universe and believe ourselves to be alone in this world. The truth is, you’re never alone at all, even if you happen to be by yourself at the time. That’s what great storytelling teaches you and the tremendous power it has to help people find their way. Pay attention to the stories you watch, especially the ones being told to your children.