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Disney's Greatest Hits

LACMA's 100th birthday retrospective of Walt Disney's animation includes classics such as 'Bambi' as well as lesser-known works.

January 30, 2002|MICHAEL MALLORY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The legacy of Walt Disney can be seen practically everywhere, from fast-food restaurants to copyright law.

His actual work as a creative producer, however, is harder to find these days, particularly in the original theatrical format for which it was designed.

A "greatest hits" collection of that work will be on display the next three weekends, however, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in a retrospective titled "Disney at 100: The Animated Classics."

Staged in conjunction with Disney's 100th birthday (Dec. 5, 2001), the LACMA tribute, which begins Friday, includes such celebrated animated features as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Bambi," "Lady and the Tramp" and the restored 1940 road-show version of "Fantasia" containing long-excised footage. It also features short cartoons, documentaries and presentations by Disney historians John Canemaker, Russell Merritt and Scott MacQueen.

"We're basically doing the films that Walt himself was involved in," says Ian Birnie, director of the film department for LACMA. "We're opening with 'Snow White' and 'The Jungle Book,' which bookend [Disney's career]."

"The Jungle Book," released in 1967, 30 years after the groundbreaking "Snow White," was the last film Disney had a hand in creating. The only non-Walt Disney feature on the schedule is "The Little Mermaid" from 1989, which will screen as part of a children's matinee series.

Two recent documentaries, "Frank and Ollie," chronicling animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, and "The Hand Behind the Mouse," about Disney's artistic and technological right hand, Ub Iwerks, will also be screened.

Walt Disney's dominance in the cartoon realm started in the late 1920s, and he produced hundreds of cartoons and 22 animated features, some of them animation and live-action mixes, contributing to every aspect of production from story to music to cutting. Selecting films for "Disney at 100" was not a big challenge, according to Birnie.

"I knew that we wanted to put in some of the more obscure things from the 1940s, the mixtures of live action and animation, and ones that didn't screen [in theaters] very often, like 'Peter Pan' and 'Bambi,'" Birnie says. "And I knew I wanted to put in the documentaries because I really think they give an insight into how the studio worked. Once you added the really famous features, it was filled up."

Birnie jokes that the two "head" movies, "Fantasia" and 1951's "Alice in Wonderland," both of which feature mushrooms with magical properties and other pre-psychedelic images, will be presented as a double feature.

Another evening will pair 1959's "Sleeping Beauty" with 1961's "101 Dalmatians," showing the shift in graphic style that occurred within that span, from the lavish "European," semi-realistic look of the fairy tales to the far more stylized, contemporary and sketchier "Dalmatians" look that characterized the films through the 1970s.

Traditionally relegated to the ranks of kiddie fodder, American animation has endured a long, hard road to recognition as mainstream art by a major museum. But according to MacQueen, senior manager of library restoration for the Walt Disney Co., the selected films from the period show not only animation as art but also animation as cinema.

"Credit is never given to a picture like 'Pinocchio' for being a groundbreaking motion picture, but when you look at it objectively, it is a cinematically advanced as 'Citizen Kane,'" contends MacQueen, who will present at LACMA an evening of rediscovered "lost" and cut sequences and behind-the-scenes studio footage.

"Think of that moving shot where we descend past the tolling steeple and the doves fly by, and the camera descends from a loft down into the village and goes down the streets as the city awakens, and we wind up two blocks away at Gepetto's doorstep where Pinocchio appears. That is as much of a leap as the [camera] pan up to Xanadu in the opening of 'Kane.'"

Animation Mixes Story, Artistry, Music, Character

MacQueen says the hallmark of Disney's classic animation is its complete marriage of artistry and story, character, music and even some subliminal psychological manipulations of form, color, design and cutting that might have startled Alfred Hitchcock.

He cites as examples of this the famous sequence from "Bambi" in which the title character's mother is killed and the Witch's transformation scene from "Snow White," both of which, he said, when viewed frame by frame, reveal a wealth of "invisible" but emotionally powerful imagery.

Not all such artistic and technical achievements were reserved for the studio's feature films, however. Many, if not most, were introduced through Disney's "Silly Symphonies" series, initially launched as a blanket title for non-Mickey Mouse cartoons. Far from being merely silly, the series quickly became a laboratory in which Disney could experiment and innovate.

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