Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A Matter of Character

“Until a character becomes a personality it cannot be believed. Without personality, the character may do funny or interesting things, but unless people are able to identify themselves with the character, its actions will seem unreal. And without personality, a story cannot ring true to the audience.” - - Walt Disney

Onscreen or at the parks, the Walt Disney hallmark has always been specificity of character.

The most popular animated icons have lasted in the popular imagination through the decades by virtue of their indelible personalities. They aren’t just drawn or generated images; they are as real, as complete (in a cartoonish, caricatured way) as you or I.

Donald and Goofy are two separate and distinct personality types - - the quick-tempered loser and the dimwitted fool, respectively - - their thinking, their reactions, their mannerisms unique and identifiable in any situation.

The Seven Dwarfs, while virtually all the same height and weight, were individuals, not a faceless collective, each with a specific personality represented in their names and a distinct way of behaving thanks to skillful story, design, character animation and voice characterization. For example, we all know Doc has an absent-minded stutter and Dopey is a mute clown.

TinkerBell is a naughty minx. Snow White is a twinkly, dreamy airhead. Mickey is a spunky hero. This is why we love them. We know them and their ticks instantly.

One senses immediately when one of the Disney characters is “out-of-character” - - behaving in a manner inconsistent with their established quirks and mannerisms. Immediately they cease to be believable… or funny.

With the development of Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Disney on Parade, Disney on Ice and other live theatrical presentations, the notion of character consistency and personality became as important to the flesh-and-fur versions of the Disney characters as their animated personas.

Disneyland became the place where these characters “lived” in the popular imagination. For years, all was well, with former animation talent guiding much of the design and storytelling of park attractions and shows. The characters were the old cartoon friends we all grew up with. They never changed.

But in recent years, attempts to “update” characterizations, to make shows more “relevant and compelling” - - to make the Disney characters reflect the times or the interpreter’s own social message, have led to huge changes and disconnects in characterization. And the entertainment factor has suffered as a result, with audiences failing to recognize the personality they know from the classic films.

Instead, reinterpreted storylines and mannerisms and intentions and tone have often left the characters floundering like merchandising mannequins with no relatable persona… or found them coming across as condescending mimes in a Disney themed character suit.

One of the worst examples of this trend could be seen in the “Snow White: An Enchanting Musical” show at Disneyland (now on hiatus).

Snow White “reinvented” the well-loved personalities and thematic subtext of the familiar Walt Disney version to accommodate a politically correct "children's theatre" vision.

Instead of a two-dimensional vain and jealous Queen fearing sexual competition and replacement by the budding adolescent beauty (an archetypal theme for the ages), she became a one-dimensional harpy trying to stop love from blooming in her kingdom.

This change is more resonant... how?

Not only had her motivations changed, but the Wicked Queen now acted like the Wicked Witch of the West, cackling and shrieking, waving her arms and hamming it up, running around the stage... totally out-of-character. Everyone knows the real Queen simmers and smolders with understated power, cunning and narcissistic self-absorption.

And the dwarfs? An announcement before the show said “Hello, this is Doc…” and went on to give the usual show spiel and audience instruction, but in plain dry formal English, no stuttering, no malapropisms… Hey, that wasn’t “Doc” at all - - it was just a fella. Where was the comedy? Why even say the announcer was “Doc”?

As a group, the dwarfs no longer expressed their exaggerated personalities much, but seem to be a faceless line-up of communal workers.

And Snow White? She was no longer the sparkly, corn-fed, overstated Shirley Templish caricature of Hollywood and Disney myth, but a preachy mommy with a normal voice and self-awareness of her childhood abuse and lack-of-trust-issues. She orders her animal helpers to take a “time out!”

Did the creators of this show even lower themselves to watch the movie? In the press, they certainly boasted that they had improved on the original and added depth and layering. Meaning: they made it more politically correct. One can detect more-than-a-whiff of contempt for both the root material and the intended audience. Charming.

But the proof is to be found in the audience’s pudding of reaction: Except for the very youngest of tots, the show sits there on the Videopolis stage like a poisoned apple pie. No laughing, no joy, no charm. This can't be “Walt Disney’s” Snow White at all.

While there is always room for artistic interpretation in style and presentation, the characters themselves need no help from the analysts. We already know who they are and what they do. We come to Disneyland to visit these old cartoon friends in person, not to become reacquainted with progressive doppelgangers who stayed too long in therapy.

While this unfortunate trend has also been seen in the animated sequels and videos (Goofy depressed and self-reflective?), the parks have really dropped the ball. Poor Donald hardly ever loses his temper anymore. Can that be gloomy ol' Eyore doing a sprightly jig? (Well, this IS the age of Prozac).

And what's up with Mickey and Minnie? They express an almost drug-addled nervous-giggling-and-energy-projection habit. They appear all-keyed-up, jangly, jittery and neurotic. It's a long, long way from the farmhouse or the band concert.

Everyone seems to be talking-oh-so-carefully (or contrarywise, shrieking) down at us… spelling out the gags… patronizing the public.

By and large, the walkaround characters do a much better job of staying in-character than those in the scripted shows, where higher powers with a disregard for characterization hold sway. The low-paid walkaround actors seem to have better personal instincts for who the characters are than the Theatrical Entertainment department honchos.

Where, oh where, are our cool and funny old friends, so confident, corny and casual in their quirks?

We loved them. We miss them.


Anonymous said...

My wife and I are annual passholders. She dollects Snow White. We saw the show once (and that was too often). Worse than described. Not only did Snow White tell one of the animals to take a "time out," her first comment when she went into the Dwarves's cottage was "What a Dump!"

Anonymous said...

Gawd, I love this blog! Every post has been spot-on, and they all leave me wondering why Disney management hasn't made any of these same realizations (or can't see the forest through the analysts).


pariartspaul said...

"Mickey and Minnie have developed an almost drug-addled nervous giggling and energy projection habit."

Very funny comment! It's true. You know they still can be charming when they don't shake around so much.

I guess it's hard to get much subtle personality across in a walkaround character, but maybe it's okay. You kind of have to take them for what they are.

But you're right about how manic they are these days - maybe they just can't figure out what else to do. It's no wonder little kids freak out when they get close...

Anonymous said...

Is this Merlin Jones the scrambled egghead? Remember Annette?

Anonymous said...

Be careful about asking them to go back and revisit the originals. In these days of PC they might find that a better way to keep the characters of the Disney universe consistent is to redub the original films with more “sensitive” dialog and storylines.

They might rename the movie, "Snow Caucasian and the Seven Little Persons"

And the mute one is not Dopey, he's "Special."

I'm all for awareness and sensitivity, (if you saw my family, friends, and myself you’d know why), but it's very easy to cross the line into absurdity.

And from a practical perspective: If the Disney pantheon of characters have been formulated by creative alchemists, headed by Walt Disney, himself, into the GOLD STANDARD of characterization, (and hence, merchandising), why would you take a chance by changing the secret formula?

Will Robison said...

You can have both, but you have to be very careful about how you do it. A Goofy Movie, for instance, was one of the best Disney movies I've seen in the last 20 years. The Extreme Goofy Movie was one of the worst.

I liked the idea of updating Tiki as well with the new trio of birds - since many people don't remember the old trio of birds. But it helps that they kept these characters in check. Look at where they went wrong with Stitch - in trying to make him Lilo's buddy, and an evil experiment gone horribly wrong, and scary and cuddly and... Stitch is schizophrenic. And, as a result, nobody knows exactly how to embrace his character - but then, in this era of ADD and Ritalin, perhaps Stitch is the perfect spokesman for the kids of this era.

Anonymous said...

I think it really depends on the character and the setting. When we visited WDW a few years ago, we stumbled across Captain Hook and Mr. Smee, and both played to the characters very well. Same with the Evil Queen when my daughter got her picture taken with her. The Queen insisted that they pose as evil, heads back, sneers on their faces, arms crossed...very well done. I think there's just a general lack of direction and vision being provided for these classic characters, and they're really being given over to the actors and directors to do as they will.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. Who knew Disney could find something WORSE to do with the Videopolis stage. I mean, other than the fact that it was built in the FIRST place!

TW said...

This also reminds me of what Disney did when they re-made Annie as a TV movie -- changing the character of Miss Hannigan from a crazy alcoholic to just a little nasty. That, and cleaning up some of the... um...racial profiling of the original.

And blanding it out so badly that it made the John Huston version look brilliant by comparison.

Anonymous said...

I am glad that this blog is moderated by people that have a handle on how these stories are supposed to be told.
Today packaging seems to be the goal of managment through out the world. Nice neat controllable cost managable non offending packages.
I don't want to hear and see entertainment from Disney that are print outs of Xs and Os.
I go to Disney for rich fullfilling storytelling at all their venues.
Please continue with your efforts in preserving all these aspects of what we love about Disney.

Anonymous said...

Author! Author!

Merlin is on point here. It only goes to show you that Disney's problems are not skin deep. It's a cultural problem. It's a problem that a couple cans of paint and a few extra bucks won't solve. I don't think you can blame everything on the accountants.

Anonymous said...

The Matter of Character has been partially taken away by meet and greet areas.
Toontown works great for Meet and Greets since the stage has been set with the characters homes, etc...
I would like to see a little more spontanity in meeting Characters in other areas of the park and meet them in areas relevent to their character.
I can remember years ago the characters were even at the DL Hotel at the bottom of the monarail station around the cafe and shop area and they were a great welcoming to Disneyland committee!

Anonymous said...

Just out of curiousity - do new employees still have to go through Disney Way One?

I thought the issues of how these characters were supposed to be presented to the public were clearly addressed in this training program.

In fact, the best analysis of Mickey Mouse's character I've ever read came from a 1980 edition.

If the call is to go back to basics - then maybe this is one basic step everyone should have to take - again - to remind themselves of who these characters truly are and why they worked (and work.

Anonymous said...

When I think of a great Disney Stage show, i think of the Beauty and the Beast show at MGM-Studios in Flordia, that seemed like a show that retold the story beautifuly in 30 minutes. My family still talks about how great that show was, and that was 6 years ago!

Anonymous said...

Merlin, you are dead on the money with this one! I think it's all about the money - one must be PC or some group or other will boycott! ugh.

John said...

anon - then you obviously never saw the Disneyland version of the B&TB show. The Orlando version is a horrible facimile that takes the movie out of order, leaves out some of the best songs, and has no 'magic' except for those sheets they use to transport characters off stage.

Tragically, the costumes and sets for the B&TB show at Disneyland were destroyed in a warehouse fire, otherwise I'm pretty sure the show would have been brought back instead of or after Animazement.


Unknown said...

All the observations in this post are true and we adults see it, but the kids have no clue and they still seem to enjoy it, but then again, children respect George Bush too...hmmmmmm:P

Bay Views said...

I totally agree. Nothing humorous can exist anymore, due to pc. Since you can't make fun of anyone, or their mannerisms, the only thing that is left is self-depreciation, and even that is not p/c if in depreciating oneself, it might offend someone else, like you...

Josh Book said...

Excellent post Merlin. Right on. Love the part where you asked if the Snow White live action people even watched the original. There's a serious problem in Hollywood where people think they can ignore everything that the audience loved about the original. It's the "I can surely do better" mentality. It's all over the business.

Jim Pemberton said...

Good analysis. The art of good character acting is all but lost these days. There are ostensibly character actors these days, but they generally have no character. Add PC to it and a once-bubbly well-emoted stage goes as flat as day-old soda. (I think this is a personal record for hyphens.)

Rich Koster said...

Merlin Jones, I applaud you! I knew I'd love your article from the moment I read what you quoted Walt Disney saying: “Until a character becomes a personality it cannot be believed. Without personality, the character may do funny or interesting things, but unless people are able to identify themselves with the character, its actions will seem unreal. And without personality, a story cannot ring true to the audience.”

In fact, I posted that very same Walt quote on the Disney Echo in January 2005! Words to live by.

On the subject of misusing Disney characters, another example is the giant Mickey hand over Epcot's SpaceShip Earth. In the comments about this blog's "Audio-Anachronistics" topic, Anonymous wrote "To Mr. Lassetter I plead, 'Tear down that Mickey arm!'"

I humbly suggest a slight re-write, tying it more to Pres. Ronald Reagan's comment to Mikhail Gorbachev...

"Mr. Lasseter, take down that pall!"

(If you don't know what a pall is, look here: )

Nick Zegarac said...

The debacle that is Snow White's Magical Forest attraction is yet another concrete example of how far strayed in their dismantling of the Disney legacy the current team of imagineers have come.

It's as though none are considering the old adage that used to sustain their imaginations around the backlot - "Would Walt have approved?" Instead, the current trend seems to be "who cares if Walt would have...this is a new era and the old stuff just doesn't cut the muster any more!"

Ah, but what the imagineers have so readily forgotton is that they are not the 'inventors' of the concept that was and is Disneyland - they are merely its custodians.

In re-stylizing Walt's time honored creations they do the master no favors and in fact bastardize the fond recollections of an audience expecting their ingrained yet fragile cultural mindset reimagined for the three dimensional world.

Sadly, while the technical wizardry that has gone into improving the life-like motions of these characters has improved since Walt's time, the overall content in their movement has NOT!

Even the reorganization of speeches in the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln or The Hall of Presidents (at WDW)has been a terrible misstep in achieving the overall impact of patriot sentiment best exemplified by the original planners.

While we are on the subject of animatronics - I seem to recall a time when Disney films inspired these attractions; not the other way around. Here, I am thinking of Disney's lackluster and hopelessly tacky Country Bear Jamboree and Pirates of the Carribean movies that came long after their audio animatronic incarnations.

But in totem and retrospect, what is occuring with Disneyland's audio animatronic shows today is a restructuring of our collective mindset. True, you and I will not care for the revisions. However, those who know nothing of the original inspiration will probably be satisfied with what they see. Sadly, they are the ones who do not realize how much has been lost in translation from screen classic to modest modern dumb show. I weep for the raw uninhibited inspiration that went into reconceptualizing two dimensional art for the real world. The unholy tragedy of my lament is that I suspect Walt is probably shedding a few tears from heaven these days too.

Anonymous said...

okay, I disagree with alot of things you've said, such as the new TIki Room being a "Bastardization" but I can feel you here. I havn't seen this show, but it sounds like another attempt to mindlessly appeal to the masses and not even think about the story. It also drives me nuts how people kill characters such as Doc for the sake of "political correctness" The same thing happened to Piglit

Lou said...

I'm glad that you mentioned political correctness in this post. I strongly feel that P.C. is one of the major contributors to a general "dumbing-down" of America and a loss of sense of humor on a national scale.

Don't get me wrong, I think P.C. has its place and time, but for the most part, it seems that American culture only accepts stereotypical references, behavior or humor from minorities. I guess the rest of us are supposed to feel guilty for things that happened in the past that have absolutely nothing to do with us.

Yesterday we watched "Peter Pan" as neither my wife or I had seen it in years. We talked about how the Indian scenes wouldn't have made it into a movie these days, and how GLAD we were that as the Disney DVD versions are updated and restored, that they're not edited to reflect the paranoid oversensitivity of this day and age.

And THAT in turn reminded me of the absolutely ridiculous decision on the part of Steven Spielberg to edit the line in the E.T. re-release where the kids' mom says "You can't go out looking like a terrorst!", changing "terrorist" to "hippie".

What was the goal there? To not offend terrorists?

As you say, interpretation and room for improvement are a vital, and sometimes necessary, aspect of a creative process, especially one that's collaborative. But the problem you describe with the "Snow White" show is one that I've noticed with a lot of kid-oriented TV shows and cartoons these days: They're simply not funny or entertaining.

If you compare the very realistic character of the three Darling kids from Peter Pan, with the cast of characters from, let's say, Jimmy Neutron, well, there simply is no comparison.

I cannot identify at all with the kid "characters" from many modern cartoons. They're not realistic and often not even likable.

The reason so many Disney films are timeless is because they deal in classic concepts and archetypes that need no explanation. Even Mr. Darling's closing line about recognizing "that ship" speaks volumes without hitting the audience over the head with what he meant.

Why is it that more than 50 years later, in an age when kids are able to process a/v stimulation much more quickly than in previous generations, that people making TV shows, movies and, in this case, theater feel they need to over-explain everything and talk down to the audience?

Sadly, this is a problem that plagues much of the entertainment industry. Hopefully, as you say, the people responsible for such things will remember that Disney is supposed to raise the bar, not operate a little below it.