Archive | Visual Arts RSS feed for this section

Is Marvel Comics Deal the End of Walt’s Disney?

Disney Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Robert Iger, briefly profiled in Newsweek in this gushing piece, announced yesterday that the Walt Disney Studios is acquiring the lucrative new Hollywood mini-studio Marvel Comics (Spider-Man, Iron Man, X-Men) for $ 4 billion. Marvel’s a solid player with potential and Disney is one of the best studios and both have their own relatively consistent brands.

What does one add to the other in creative terms? Disney’s driving philosophy had been, until recently, an American, which is to say benign, sense of life expressed with positive characters in story-driven material, whether in a theme park (Disneyland or Disney’s California Adventure) or in a movie. Marvel’s brand of comic book characters is rooted in marginally heroic, or at least not completely anti-heroic, cartoon figures (The Incredible Hulk) with broad appeal. Both derive success from plots that seem to attract general audiences.

Unlike Pixar Animation Studios, which Disney also acquired under Mr. Iger, Marvel’s catalog does not possess a quality that can easily or identifiably be assimilated into Disney’s wholesome, family entertainment. Sure, the Marvel pictures are noticeably less cynical than the competition, but that’s not saying much. This move further dilutes the Disney brand and may make the studio more relevant in the short term at the expense of being markedly less original in the long term. It has been 15 years since The Lion King, 20 years since The Little Mermaid, and 65 years since Disney released the classic Dumbo in movie theaters. I doubt that the un-Disneylike Enchanted, Pixar’s middling Up, or anything with Hannah Montana will be remembered with as much affection. While Marvel makes good popcorn movies, their stories hardly express childlike wonder, adventure, and innocence, something Disney used to imagine and reimagine in timeless tales. Besides, with politically correct Disney’s ban on smoking in movies, it’s hard to imagine Iron Man’s alter ego, Tony Stark, lighting up the occasional cigar, which raises the question of whether this hyped deal may end up as a lose-lose proposition that signals the end of the legendary Walt’s creative influence in an age of dying Americanism.

Screen Shots: Wolverine, Ghosts of Girlfriends, Disney Shorts

The thoroughly confusing, cheesy and contradictory tentpole picture, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, has some entertaining moments and its less-than-spectacular execution is the fault of neither of its leading men, Academy Awards host Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber (The Painted Veil). Blending story aspects of The Incredible Hulk, The Bourne Identity, Rambo—even Shooter—the contradictions mount as Jackman’s superwolf comics character is explained from 1845 to present day: his blades spring to attention without the requisite trigger of his anger and he ages despite being immortal—then he inexplicably stops aging sometime around the U.S. Civil War. Wolverine, battling evil, doesn’t have much of a personality, let alone a sense of purpose, despite having over a hundred years to acquire one. The origins of his wolf-like powers are not exactly demystified, either. Since we already know where his story leads, this poorly scripted, fraternally themed soap opera—complete with a bout of amnesia—lacks tension and excitement.

On the other hand, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is a nicely rendered romantic comedy with a clever, if decidedly inadequate, screenplay. With a semi-serious plot based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Matthew McConaughey is cast as the cad with a lesson to learn, with aid from scene-stealing Michael Douglas as his dearly departed uncle. The well-paced story moves to an impending wedding, where the fashion photographer player must face the consequences of his callous, one-night stands. Of course, it isn’t pretty—and, thankfully, it isn’t toilet-joked to death—and some of it’s funny and thoughtful. Unfortunately, they forgot to develop the female lead character (Jennifer Garner). Because she has no life—she comes off as a spinster with nothing better to do than rescue weddings—their relationship has zero emotional impact and there is no convincing evidence that the playboy chooses to change. Still, it beats watching Wolverine.

I dropped in on the 10th annual Newport Beach Film Festival, where event chief Gregg Schwenk introduced a showcase of rare Walt Disney Studios shorts. The evening was hosted by Disney’s Don Hahn and David Bossert, who provided brief (and, sometimes, cutting) remarks before each animated short. The films were screened at the coastal city’s beautiful Art Deco Lido Theater.

I strongly prefer early Disney shorts, such as the 1942 war propaganda film, “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Firing Line,” featuring Pluto and Minnie Mouse, a delightfully entertaining depiction of how to store fat to fight the Nazis (lard contains glycerin, which was used for explosives) which extols then-President Franklin Roosevelt’s so-called Four Freedoms. The Burbank studio’s influential 1932 film, “Flowers and Trees,” the first color animated picture ever produced, is also excellent. Fast forward 50 years to Tim Burton’s nihilistic 1982 picture, “Vincent,” more than a bit dark for a family event, and the brilliantly computer animated 2008 short, “Glago’s Guest,” which portrays a Communist soldier as a kind, friendly fellow.

Depicting a brute for history’s bloodiest dictatorship as a harmless chap is offensive, but the worst film was a frantic 1982 nightmare called “Fun with Mr. Future,” a snide slice of environmentalism that deliberately desecrates the Sherman brothers’ classic tune for Disneyland’s defunct Carousel of Progress—”There’s a Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow,” a wonderful song composed for that General Electric-sponsored Tomorrowland attraction, which celebrated Thomas Edison’s invention, electricity. The joyless “Fun with Mr. Future” attacks electricity, and watching that travesty is enough to make you want to turn on all the lights. The program ended on an ‘up’ note, with a sneak preview of Disney/Pixar’s soon-to-be-released Up, a colorful, adventure-themed movie that reminds everyone that Walt’s creative successor in animation is, except for the post-apocalyptic WALL-E, more Pixar than Disney. Up looks like a cinematic refreshment for family and friends—perfect for America’s first summer of Obama … and economic discontent.