The Inter-Cultural Legacy of Michael Eisner

Michael Eisner was CEO of the Walt Disney Company from 1984 to 2005.  In that time, he was able to put his fingerprint on dozens of projects, and single-handedly changed the company’s destiny.  Eisner’s tenure saw a massive expansion of the Disney theme parks, a revival of the animation studio, and a transformation into a media powerhouse.

But something occurred to me the other day.  Did Eisner’s influence alter the very goals of Disney Animation Studios?

I’m going to list all Disney films, starting from 1950, to exclude non-story films like Fantasia and Make Mine Music, going on to 1981, the last film before Eisner’s ascent, and generally, possibly inaccurately, describe their cultural sources.

Cinderella – French
Alice in Wonderland – British
Peter Pan – British
Lady and the Tramp – American
Sleeping Beauty – French
101 Dalmatians – British with American influence
The Sword in the Stone – British
The Jungle Book – British novel, Indian subject
The Aristocats – British with American influence
Robin Hood – British
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh – Canadian
The Rescuers – British with American influence
The Fox and the Hound – American

Now look back at that list.  Aside from The Jungle Book, every film is completely based in what’s generally referred to as “Western culture.”  Specifically they’re almost completely limited to American, British and French sources.  And even the exception, The Jungle Book, is based on a Kipling novel, not any indigenous work.  It’s pretty clear where I’m going to go with this, but let’s compare going forward:

The Black Cauldron – American with British influence
The Great Mouse Detective – American with British influlence
Oliver and Company – British with American influence and Billy Joel
The Little Mermaid – Danish
The Rescuers Down Under – British with Australian influence
Beauty and the Beast – French
Aladdin – Arabian
The Lion King – British with African influence
Pocahontas – American Indian
Hunchback of Notre Dame – French
Hercules – Greek
Mulan – Chinese
Tarzan – American writing, African setting
Fantasia 2000 – N/A
Dinosaur – N/A
The Emperor’s New Groove – Incan
Atlantis: The Lost Empire – American
Lilo and Stitch – Hawaiian
Treasure Planet – Scottish (In Space!)
Brother Bear – Aleutian Native
Home on the Range – American

First of all, I don’t think I quite realized how much the pace had increased in the production of these films until compiling this list: the first one represents 13 films over 30 years, while the second represents 21 films over 20 years.

But more importantly, look at the variety of sources.  It doesn’t really kick in until Aladdin, the first 100% non-Western story that Disney ever put to film, but you get hints with The Rescuers Down Under and The Little Mermaid, both European but starting to push at the “French, British, American” dynamic.  Often where they did use American or British sources, they drew in other cultural influences, most notably in Hamlet with Lions.

But here’s my biggest take-away: within a ten-year period, Disney Animation Studios produced three films (Pocahontas, Emperor’s New Groove, Brother Bear) that focused on Native American cultures.  Three completely different cultures, at that.  Four if you want to stretch definitions and include Lilo and Stitch.  I think it’s easy to take that for granted, but it’s actually a pretty big deal that a studio as big as Disney would choose to tell those stories when they could easily rely on more generic or traditionally European fare.

For example, and I don’t mean this disparagingly as Tangled and Wreck-it-Ralph have become two of my favorite films in the Disney catalog, check out what happened after Eisner left:

Chicken Little – Undetermined/American
Meet the Robinsons – American
Bolt – American
The Princess and the Frog – German with American influence
Tangled – German
Winnie the Pooh – Canadian
Wreck-it-Ralph – American
Frozen – Danish

And to be fair, upcoming films look to include Japanese and Polynesian influences, but here we have 10 years without a single non-Western movie.  And you know what?  Despite the fact that he invented the direct-to-video sequel, and despite the fact that he antagonized Pixar, and despite the fact that towards the end he was kind of running the studio into the ground, I think Eisner deserves a lot of praise for expanding the creative pool from which Disney drew, and for bringing us stories from cultures we’re not necessarily used to seeing.

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Philosophy and Sesame Street

So I’ve had this old classic stuck in my head for the last few days.  It’s a nice little earworm.  Fun melody, ironically easy-to-remember lyrics.  But with me, earworms often develop into stranger creatures.  I start playing with them, reading into them, modifying them.

I’ve heard it said, “with words and music
A fella can’t go wrong”
But la-dee-da-dee-dum
What’s the name of that song?

I’m sure this is a bit deeper than what the writers intended, but look at those lyrics in the context of the song: if all you need are words and music, and you have words and music, why are you focused on the name of the song?  It would be nice to know, but if all it’s doing is dragging you down, focus on what you have and be satisfied.  You have words, you have music.  You can’t go wrong.

But that’s not how humans operate.  If we never let little things get to us, we would just be emotionless shells.  If we think we can solve a problem, we try to solve it.  Even if it’s a little problem, even if there are bigger problems out there, and even if there is so much more good to focus on instead.  And it’s important that we sacrifice our happiness to these kinds of things.

But while all of that’s true, and we do need to give time to all of the things that hold us back, it’s also true that we can’t give them too much time.  At some point we need to ignore the parts of the song we can’t remember, and enjoy the parts we do.

Because, in the end, we can’t help singing “la-dee-da-dee-dum” loud and clear and strong.  And that’s a big part of what makes us human, too.

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I Love Jews Just the Way You Are

I was in a weird mood yesterday.  This is to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.”  Don’t look at me like that, I don’t know how it happened.  It just did.

Don’t feel shameful when you’re with me
I will support you through and through
Even if I sometimes can’t see
Why you do the things you do

If you’re fleishig when lunch is cheesy
I’ll cook you something else or starve
No one said that this would be easy
I love Jews just the way you are

Keep on tying your mitpachat
I know you wear it with such care
And I’m not one to stand and balk at
How you choose to cloak your hair

I know your wardrobe is concealing
Your modesty goes on so far
So while I hope I’m not too revealing
I love Jews just the way you are

Although I know that you will always keep
The halachot you always have
Is it okay that I’m still chiloni
If I’m respectful of your path?

(clarinet solo)

You perform Tashlich, ’cause that’s your minhag
I’ll watch you while I’m in my car
But I’ll wait right there like your loyal sheep dog
I love Jews just the way you are


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Puff the Magic Dragon

PUFFOkay, I know I’ve got some friends who know how to art. Anybody want to art this for me?

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About a year ago or so, it occurred to me that I could, not unreasonably, chart my emotional state by looking at the frequency with which I updated this blog.  More updates meant I felt good, less updates meant I felt bad.  I didn’t tell anyone because I’d discovered this at a point in time when I wasn’t updating it so much, and I didn’t want people to worry.  I did, however, think that this was a pretty clever tool for my own uses.

In a mistaken assumption of causality, I put in extra effort into posting here, though I still didn’t quite get to a pace I’d call “regular.”  Then, in late January, I left the army and a series of events unfolded that made my “how often do I post” metric irrelevant.  Something far stranger had happened: for a period of time, I stopped reading webcomics.

Now, webcomics are about the most consistent thing in my life.  I found my first one when I was 15, and since then I’ve always had a weekly schedule of at least a dozen (usually around two dozen) webcomics that I check on an update-to-update basis.  When I was an undergrad I never had my class schedule fully memorized, which was about ten weekly timeslots at most.  On the other hand, I not only knew my webcomics’ listed update schedules by rote, I also knew which ones updated in which time zones, and I knew which ones were likely to update late, or even to skip updates.  At one point I was up to thirty or so  regularly updating comics, some having seven-day weekly schedules, some having five-day weekly schedules, some having three-day weekly schedules, and some even having two-day weekly schedules, some updating at midnight EST and others updating at midnight PST, and some just updating at some point or another during the day.  And I could keep all of that straight in my head.

Webcomics have helped me through difficult times.  They’ve moderated my lows and elevated my highs.  Archive binges are therapeutic, regular updates keep me grounded, and I certainly wouldn’t be the writer I am today if webcomics weren’t such a consistent part of my reading regimen.

So my not reading webcomics, even for a short period of time, is both an indication that something has gone wrong, and a forewarning that things will get worse.  I’m still not quite ready to talk about the events of this past Spring on this particular forum, but going back to using this blog as an indicator: I only made six posts here between mid-April and mid-June, and three of them were really depressing.

I don’t quite remember how the process went, but at some point I started reading comics again.  I dropped a few, and there were some that I came back to faster than others, but the fact that I was reading comics on a daily basis again was progress.  Eventually, some time in mid-Summer, I got myself back up to 17 comics, an anemic but acceptable schedule, but there was still one very noticeable exception.  Or two, depending on how you count.

For whatever reason, for several months, I couldn’t get myself to read the work of John Troutman.  I’ve explained in fairly significant detail why webcomics in and of themselves are a big deal, so I’ll be more brief in explaining why this particular author is a big deal: John Troutman’s “Lit Brick” was key, more than any other comic, in keeping me sane during my time in the army.  

Somehow, like the dog that won’t go near his favorite toy, I’d developed a mental block.  Though I wasn’t reading it, I hadn’t dropped “Lit Brick,” or Troutman’s other comic, “Mary Elizabeth’s Sock.”  A comic that I drop just leaves my mental sphere entirely, but with “Lit Brick,” there was always a hole in my update schedule, always a moment where I’d read the comic that should come just before it in my schedule and consciously think “Lit Brick should go here” before I navigate to a different comic instead.  There are plenty of psychological conclusions to draw from this, and I’ve certainly done my share of self-analysis, but in the end I decided that whatever the reasons were, they were a symptom of the problems in the rest of my life, and that I wouldn’t solve this one until I’d sufficiently solved the rest.

One Summer of slow mental rehabilitation later, and I’m back.  Yesterday I had to restart Chrome, and so all my tabs loaded up again (sans flash player, for some reason), and as I sorted through them I found that I’d never closed my “Classic Sporkman” tab (that’s another comic of Troutman’s).  So I started there, read all the remastered comics from the beginning, along with the new ones once I ran out of remastereds, and moved on to the first comic of Mary Elizabeth’s Sock.  I feel like once I get to the most recent comic there, then binge through the Lit Brick archives, I’ll have reached some sort of end-point.  A place where I can say “alright, I’m no longer recovering, I’m now officially doing okay.”

The fact that I’m now studying writing is definitely going to cut into my ability to maintain this blog, so the “posts to this space” metric is no longer relevant by any measure, but aside from that, it means that I’ve got some interesting things planned for the future.  It’s good to know I’ve gotten past this particular hurdle in time to execute them.

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Why I Write

Yesterday was my first class of the first seminar for the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University.

I’ve been meaning to make it “public” that I was accepted into the program a while ago, I just somehow never got around to it.  So I guess that’s done now.

As it was the first day of the program, there were some basic introductory exercises, the main focus of the first half of the session being “why do you write?”  When asked orally, I answered something along the lines of “because I have weird ideas that I don’t think anyone else has, and I want to get those out.”  When we were told to write an answer to that question continuously without stopping to think or plan, I said, more or less, that I write for selfish reasons.

Everyone who volunteered their answers gave interesting ones, but they were fairly on the spot.  I don’t think any of us really delved too deeply into our prime motivators.  Or maybe other people did, and I’m just projecting my own feeling of having given a shallow answer on to my classmates.

But after that class, I saw the tail end of a news report about the recent escalation in talk about an Israeli strike on Iran that left me with the feeling of “what if there really was a war between Israel and Iran?  What would I do?”

The immediate answer, clearly, is that I’d stay in the country.  I wouldn’t try to leave or evacuate.  I don’t know what help I would be in such a theoretical confrontation, but whatever my role is I’m determined to fill it.

But, with the knowledge that I would stay in a situation that may lead to my death, what would I then do?  Once I figured out what my contribution would be, I would find time to go through my whole hard drive, and any memory device I think may contain something I’ve written, and upload them as attachments to emails I send myself, and organize those emails into a specific folder.  Then I’d prepare an email draft with my gmail and wordpress passwords and instructions to post everything from that specific folder, absolutely everything, to this blog.  Things I finished, things I didn’t.  Things that may already be up here in some form, things I don’t ever intend to actually show anybody.  Things I’m proud of, things I’m embarrassed about.  Everything I’ve written that I still have, from poems to academic papers, would be public and out there where bombs can’t reach them.  And if the time came where my death seemed imminent, I would send that email to someone I trust overseas.

And, more than anything else I said or wrote yesterday, that is really why I write.  Because I want people to know who I am, know that I was here, have some idea of what I’ve done even after I’m gone.  I think that someone in the future will ask themselves “what was it like to live in Israel around the turn of the millennium,” and I hope that my words can provide some insight into that question, whether that insight be from my opinions, my general musings, or my dumb little stories.

And on the off-chance there isn’t a war and I don’t die, that someone from the future will most certainly be me.

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WEDAF #1: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

I mentioned on this blog that I don’t really know as much about historical Disney films as a person who enjoys children’s animation as much as I do should.  So I figured I should watch, and write my thoughts about, every Disney animated feature, starting with Snow White and ending with, well, whatever’s in theaters when I finish this series.  Then I figured I’d call it “Watching Every Disney Animated Feature.”  Now, I’m not enough of an expert to review or write any meaningful historical context for these movies, so this series is really just going to be my first-gloss thoughts after watching the respective film.  Any research done is basic, and at my whim.  Things I write in these posts can be incorrect.  Don’t take anything written here as fact (unless explicitly stated), just as observations.

Watching Every Disney Animated Feature #1: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Let’s start with the mildly sacrilegious: I didn’t particularly like this movie as a kid.  I think I only saw it once in full, at a matinee at the dollar theater, with the babysitter that stole stuff from my mom.

There are good reasons for my not really liking the film as a kid.  Even as an adult, I kind of have to remind myself every so often, “this movie was historic, it deserves your goddamn respect.”

And it does.  It changed the art of animation in its entirety.  Which is why the beginning feels a bit odd.  It starts with… live-action.  A physical storybook was filmed, with the words of the introduction calligraphied onto the pages.  Cell animation appears shortly enough, but I think it’s interesting that the world of animated films begins with a bit of live-action.  After that, there’s the famous “mirror-mirror” scene, and then we have the title character singing a very forgettable song.  This is where this post stops being a recap of the film, because I really just wanted to note said song and the scene that contains it for their dichotomies.

Like the song itself, so forgettable that I’ve already forgotten it, it struck me that Snow White’s voice actress sounded pretty much like any standard 1930′s-1940′s chorus girl.  It makes sense: nobody could have a career in movie voice acting before movies need voice actors.  There’s no art for it, no industry for it.  Obviously the first voice actress lead would have a background doing something else.  Some wiki-ing afterwards showed me that, yes, Adriana Caselotti (Snow White’s voice), had been a chorus girl before being hired by Disney, and basically didn’t do anything after Snow White.

But, on the other hand, the visual effects of that scene are incredible.  Many had me thinking “nobody today would put in the effort needed to get that much detail,” and one even had me thinking “that shouldn’t be possible with 1930′s technology.”

So on the one hand you’ve got something that doesn’t quite know what it is, but on the other hand you’ve got something that is clearly very good.  I can relate, in a way.  As an aspiring writer I have to learn by experimentation, and sometimes that means simply ignoring one artistic goal in order to ensure that I achieve a different one.

I think this next bit is going to be a recurring theme for the first decade or so of films, a sort of slow development as animators and directors discovered what this new animal they had created was actually capable of.  My main impression of Snow White, from an adult’s perspective, from an artist’s perspective, was that it wasn’t a complete film.  Again, no disrespect intended: for the time it was an incredible achievement.  But instead of being a full story from beginning to end, it felt more like a primary story arc that was intermittently interrupted by scenes that could have easily been theatrical shorts on the same level as the Mickey Mouse or Felix the Cat shorts that preceded it, if taken out of the context of the film. Primarily, these would be almost any scenes focusing on the titular Dwarfs.

It makes sense.  Even today, a full animated feature is a tremendous undertaking done my multiple teams.  Back at the dawn of the art form, they had to figure out how to get different animators’ works to look good together without clashing thematically.  And so you had clearly defined scenes that were tentatively related to one another through the main plot, but didn’t require the rest of the film to be understandable.

My guess (which I’ll comment on more in later posts) is that all the films until Cinderella will fall either into the category of trying to blend these individual scenes together so that they didn’t *feel* like individual scenes (your Pinocchios and your Bambis), or the category of embracing a fractured structure for a film (your Fantasias and your Saludos Amigoses).  All of these movies acting as experiments, the animators trying to perfect the craft that they had only just invented.

And it starts with Snow White, an perfect example of imperfection.

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