Friday, January 7, 2011
Disney's 'Dreams Come True' Exhibition
Yesterday I visited Disney's 'Dreams Come True' exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. It was a different experience to the recent Tim Burton exhibition in that it was not packed to the point of queueing to view display cases. In fact, I was surprised by how few people were wandering about the exhibition on the Thursday late-night opening given Disney's domination of children's entertainment in the 20th century.
I know all that is wrong with Disney, from the sweatshop clothing to the dubiousness of the race, class and gender politics of many films. And then there's the pinkified Princess commercial juggernaut. I know that traditional tales have been plundered from a range of cultural traditions and have had the complexity and challenging elements vacuumed right out of them. I know that The Little Mermaid really ends sadly with her turning to foam on the sea. I know that fairy tales are not always about dreams coming true. But in Disney animated features dreams do come true and gruesome story elements are neatly traded for anthropomorphosised animal helpers.
The exhibition focuses on the fairy tale features from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to the most recent adaptation of Rapunzel, Tangled (whose heroine seems to take more visually from a Bratz doll than the traditional Disney princess). Despite all of the critical lenses I could wear, I was still a helpless victim of nostalgia from the first section of cels from Snow White. (I always preferred her because she was dark-haired, unlike the usual parade of fair-haired virtuous maidens.)
There were some surprising snippets of information revealed throughout the exhibit, including unused sketches of Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty with an ominous pet panther and footage of a deleted scene from Snow White in which she instructs the seven dwarfs in the most polite way to eat soup, like an animated June Dally-Watkins.
Apart from a few sections of video (such as the soup sequence and an intriguing look at the multi-plane camera used to add depth to painted backgrounds presented by Walt himself) and some maquettes, it was a largely "wall-based" exhibition. Well, apart from the welcome presence of fairy tale books sourced by Disney in Europe that were used as visual references by his animators. A broader exhibition encompassing other animated films and shorts and the Disney theme parks would no doubt have appealed to a larger audience, but perhaps it could never be contained within any viable exhibition space.
With physical progress through the exhibit, which was ordered chronologically, came a sense of declining magic in the animation process. Cels were no longer hand-inked by the 1990s and the laborious and fascinating techniques of old are gradually being superseded by computer animation. It seems telling that this change in production coincides with the decline in popularity of the Disney-fied earnest fairy tale musical. Disney has signalled its intent to leave fairy tales aside in future animated features, but perhaps rather than a turn away from these stories, Disney might be wise to return to more authentic versions of them, complete with enough shock and awe to compete with contemporary children's entertainment that does not promote the Disneyfied idea of childhood innocence, dreams always coming true, and the homogeneity of 'dreams' as simply a desire for a girl to be married.