Sunday, October 22, 2006

A Disney Version

As usual I'm making a late start on tonight's entry, so as usual I'll make a (probably doomed) attempt to be quick and concise.

Back in 1969, Life Magazine film critic Richard Schickel published a book called The Disney Version. I've never read it, and probably never will, because I don't like getting angry and upset. From what I've gathered, reading about the book and glancing over the book itself several years ago, it's largely a hatchet job. It appears to be about how Disney - the man, the studio, and the company - exploited and helped to define lowbrow pop culture, while espousing conservative values and ruining good source material with its vapid screenplays. It was the first serious critical study of Disney, which makes it important, as unpalatable as it may be to Disney fans. In the 1997 third edition, if I recall correctly, Schickel admits that he may have been a bit harsh in his earlier assessments.

You may have notied by now that I mention Disney a lot around here, usually in some form of "rah-rah" mode. Despite the most recent visit being less than wonderful, I love Disneyland. I love Walt Disney World, Mary Poppins, the Mello Men, Mulan, Lady and the Tramp, and on and on. I love So Weird, the Disney Channel series from nearly a decade ago. I love the music of the Sherman Brothers, and the art of Marc Davis and Mary Blair. Don't worry uf you've never heard of some of tese. Trust me. They're all great.

But even I know that Disney isn't perfect and never has been - not the company, not the man, and not the studio. As innovative as he was (and he was, in many ways), Walt Disney was a product of his time. At the studioin his time, the men were animators; the women (with very few exceptions) were "Ink & Paint girls" who colored in the cels. A strike was handled badly, resulting in emnities that never really healed. Yet after Walt died, the studio floundered, making shallow and derivative work that deserved the poor reception it mostly got. Two men helped to save it: Frank Wells and Michael Eisner. Wells died in an accident, and Eisner ultimately became part of the problem. Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew, feuded with Eisner foryears, and ultimatel won.

But that's mostly behind the scenes stuff. I want to talk about the movies and tv shows themselves. For every masterpiece, Disney has had maybe a dozen movies or tv episodes that were mediocre at best. Oh, they're mostly pleasant and watchable, but too many of them have certain conventions that I learned to recognize decades ago. The kids in the story are nearly always the protagonists, smart and brave. If they're not kids, they're princesses, good and virtuous, resourceful but still ultimately in need of rescue. Adults are either nefarious villains or well-meaning, foolish and slightly stupid. Parents are usually absent, sometimes dead.

And yes, the books and stories adapted for the films and tv shows are greatly changed in the process. That's almost inevitable, given the different mechanics and dramatic requirements of the two media, but it's especially true of Disney compare to other studios. Sometimes, as with Poppins, the Disney version is better than the book, or at least as good but in other ways. Other times it's not.

Tonight I finished re-watching A Ring of Endless Light, a Disney Channel adaptation of a multi-award-winning book by Madeleine L'Engle. It wasn't exactly terrible, but it suffered from many of the problems I associate with Disney at its worst. Most of what made the book special is gone, replaced by watered down versions and an extraneous plot about dolphins being threatened by illegal fishing nets.

Sure, there are dolphins in the book. But
they're just part of the story - and no drift nets.

In the book, Vicky Austin, her parents and three siblings come to Seven Bay Island with their parents to help take care of Vicky's grandfather, Reverend Eaton, who is dying of leukemia. The book opens at a funeral for Commander Rodney, a Coast Guard officer who died trying to save a reckless, possibly suicidal rich kid on a boat. The rich kid turns out to be Vicky's sometime boyfriend, Zachary Gray. Over the summer Vicky sees a lot of three different boys - Commander Rodney's son Leo, Zach, and Adam Eddington. Of the three, it's Adam who doesn't want to pursue the relationship, having gotten burned the previous summer trusting a girl, which resulted in a friend's death. Vicky also seems to find death and impending death at every turn, including the stillbirth of a dolphin, and culminating when a child dies in Vicky's arms in a hospital waiting room. It's a powerful, sometimes almost overwhelming book. The most joyful elements of the story are Vicky's ability to communicate with dolphins and the development of Vicky's writing as her grandfather encourages her.

Vicky talks with dolphins as Adam looks on

Compare that to the plot of the Disney version. Vicky and her two siblings come to visit their grandfaher for no particular reason. Vicky is under pressure from her parent to study science so she can get into an elite school, but her grandfather encourages her to continue to write poetry. Adam introduces Vicky to the dolphins, and she discovers her ability to communicate with them. Adam is interested in Vicky, and spars a bit with Zach, whose father owns a cannery and a fleet of fishing boats. One of these boats is using drift nets, which are illegal because they're not dolphin safe. Zach teams up with Adam and Vicky to prove the ship is using the nets, just in time to save on of Vicky's dolphin friends. Grandfather Eaton, who only a day or so before finally admitted to Vicky that he has leukemia, dies that night, and Vicky's parents arrive shortly thereafter to take the kids home. Vicky tells Adam that she's not going to that schience-heavy school after all, but will pursue her writing itself.

Blah. How predictable. We have the absent parents, who functuon mostly as obstacles by wanting Vicky to study science. We have cute dolphins threatened by villainous adults, but the kids save the day. No Commander Rodney or Leo. No John Austin, Vicky's elder brother. No Binnie, dying in Vicky's arms. It's safe. It's shallow. It's action and adventure, with a by-the-numbers conflict about pursuing your own dreams, and only a tiny echo of the much tougher one about continuing to survive and appreciate life when you're surrounded by death.

Phooey. It isn't even cast terribly well. Ryan Merriman is a little young for Adam, and Mischa Barton is too old and too confident in manner to play Vicky. James Whitmore Sr. is great as the grandfather, though.


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1 comment:

DesLily said...

I know you talk about Disney often.. for some reason today made me think of a friend who worked for Disney long ago... so I wrote about him for my post. Thanks, Karen.. I needed help getting my brain in gear!