Thursday, March 24, 2011

Villains - What's In A Name?

A good, compelling story requires an antagonist, to make the hero's journey all the more rewarding. In Disney*Pixar's UP, that role belongs to dapper yet eccentric explorer Charles H. Muntz. He serves as a foil to the protagonist Carl Fredricksen and his journey to Paradise Falls.

Disney historians' ears may perk up a bit at the mention of Charles Muntz. Why? Because it bears a striking resemblance to an earlier Disney antagonist. Walt Disney himself, in the infancy of his career, had created a wonderfully charming animated character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Lacking the deep pockets of a mature Studio, he was reliant upon business partners to distribute the Oswald animated cartoon shorts. Universal was the heavy in the business, and served in that capacity. The success of Oswald wasn't lost upon Universal and its designated producer. He sought to take control of Oswald directly, and schemed to hire away Disney's animators. That unscrupulous person? Charles H. Mintz.

In 1928, Walt traveled to New York to meet directly with Mintz. Walt and his animators had high production standards, and he wanted to change the original terms of the contract, essentially requesting a raise. Mintz refused and instead told Disney that he was going to cut the budget, and if Walt did not agree, Mintz would take over Oswald for himself. Disney refused, and most of Disney's employees left for Mintz. Only Disney legend Ub Iwerks remained, staying loyal to Walt. Lost in the deal was Oswald himself. It was on the train ride back to Los Angeles that a certain, plucky new character was born, giving rise to the familiar refrain "it was all started by a mouse."

All good things come to those who wait, and Oswald made his triumphant return to the Walt Disney Company in 2006. That story alone is intriguing. The Walt Disney Company also owns ABC and ESPN, and when the television broadcast rights for Sunday Night Football went from ESPN to NBC (ESPN opted not to enter into the SNF broadcast rights competition, instead opting to keep Monday Night Football "in house" by switching it from ABC to ESPN). SNF broadcaster Al Michaels, then under contract with ABC, wanted to continue working with SNF and its new partner NBC and its parent corporation Universal. With Universal and Disney each having properties the other sought, an Al Michaels for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit trade was arranged, returning one of Walt's original characters back into the fold.

It's not entirely clear if Pixar was inspired by this true-life Disney villain Charles Mintz when they created the character of Charles Muntz, but it's certainly a tantalizing idea.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Disney's Hollywood Studios and the Second World War

Disney’s Hollywood Studios offers a great variety of entertainment for the Disney Guest, ranging from thrills and chills (Tower of Terror) to musical shows (Beauty and the Beast: Live on Stage). As would be expected from the park’s title, there are plenty of attractions highlighting the elements of show business and movie making. In this context, we examine closely the opening sequence of the Backlot Tour, featuring a water tank set for controlled filming of scenes set on water. The fictional World War II movie is “Harbor Attack” and the set features a recreation of a PT boat as well as an interior of the ship’s engine room. Guests are chosen to recreate the roles of sailors, and of course get quite wet. A close inspection of the PT boat reveals an interesting emblem of a mosquito carrying a torpedo. This image is no accident; it’s a deliberate nod to the role that the Walt Disney Studios played during World War II.

The Walt Disney Company was entering the nascent era of feature animation when the war temporarily shuttered the studio operations. Many animators joined the armed forces, and the U.S. military briefly commandeered the studio itself. Before and during America’s involvement in the war, the Disney company was involved with the military with logo design, dating back to 1939. In 1940, the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, D.C, led by Lieutenant Earl S. Caldwell, requested from Walt Disney an insignia for America’s fleet of torpedo boats. Disney artist Hank Porter conceived of the emblem – an angry mosquito flying over rough water, carrying a torpedo seemingly to be dropped at will.

This wasn’t the first insignia that Disney created for the military, but given its role with PT boats, it’s only fitting that it be on prominent display at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

(images courtesy of Eric Steinmetz)