Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Disney's Opening Books

For several years I have been fascinated by the classic image of the book opening at the beginning of many classic Disney films. Wanting to learn more, I watched the opening few minutes of every animated Disney film ever made! If you’d like to see my notes on the films, you can find them here, but the exciting bits pertaining to opening books you can read all about below.  

The first full length animated Disney film was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937. In that film, the first shots are of an old and beautiful book which opens to show the beginning of the story. This book establishes the film in the tradition of storytelling, with all the authority of such a beautiful and historic volume. Furthermore, the volume appears not only historic and created with meticulous care, but magical, opening itself without the need of an assisting hand.  Though the book does not need our help to open it, the youngest members of its original audience may have needed help to read it, because the text beautifully displayed on the pages of the book was not narrated outloud. Given the age Disney’s current target audience, it is not surprising that this fact has changed, and even their next film, Pinocchio, the lines are read outloud by Jimminy Cricket, after he sings “When you wish upon a star.” In the Pinocchio book,  there are both words and pictures, and by zooming into the picture, the image becomes the animation of the story itself. This opening book motif was used again in Disney’s third animated film, Cinderella in 1950, again, with the illustrations becoming the animation of the film. The book houses the story of the film, as a rich symbol of history and the tradition of written stories. 

From 1950 to 1970 about half the films opened with the image of a book. In addition to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, and The Jungle Book all featured the book, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp and The 101 Dalmations did not, even though all but Lady and The Tramp are based on stories from books. By this time, Disney movies were doing well enough that it was not necessary to establish their film’s legitimacy with an appeal to another medium. Merely having the “Disney” name on the film was enough to warrant attention. 

Start at 2:12 to see the bit in question
After 1970 the book opening died out almost entirely, with two notable exceptions. In 1973, the Robin Hood film opens with a book filled with text which, like Snow White, is not read outloud. “Long ago, good King Richard departed for the Holy Land on a great crusade. During his absence, Prince John his greedy and treacherous brother, usurped the throne.” Besides the text, on these pages are images of King Richard and his men going off on crusade, and of Robin Hood pulling a bow, (all portrayed as human) and then at the top of the page there’s a rooster with a lute. The image zooms in on the rooster, away from the text (saying something about Robin Hood being the people’s only hope) and the rooster turns to the reader and starts talking. The rooster says, “There’s a heap of legends and tall tales about Robin Hood. All different, too. Well, we folks in the animal kingdom have our own version. It’s the story of what really happened in Sherwood forest.” With that the film directs us away from the human story of Robin Hood, and shows us the cast of animals who will be telling the story of Robin Hood. The most interesting thing here, is that the authority of the book is dismantled. The rooster assures us, we’ll see “what really happened” but he also admits that there are different versions, and that this version will not be the same as other versions. For one thing, it will be told by animals. This film makes explicit what other films do implicitly; it says that tradition does not need to be followed. A tradition can be evoked and rejected.

The other instance of an opening book in the 1970s was the original Winnie the Pooh film in 1977, which opened with a live action portrayal of the bedroom of Christopher Robin. After panning around the room, the camera focuses on a book which becomes animated and opens to reveal the spread of Hundred Acre Woods, and all the animals living there. The Pooh Bear movies have their own little arc. In The Tigger Movie in 2000, the narrator is telling how Pooh is the favorite animal, when an animated Tigger, bounces into the still life action screen, objects to the constant preference for Pooh, pulls the letters off of the book, and writes, “The Tigger Movie” on the title page. It’s a fun invocation of the original movie’s opening sequence, and says, like the Robin Hood opening, that the story can be changed, even something as stable seeming as the book can be altered. 

Disney’s films in the 90s did a lot of opening sequences which seem similar to book openings, but did not contain books. Beauty and the Beast has a storytelling narration giving exposition in a similar manner to many of the book openings, but the story is told in the stained glass of the Beast’s castle instead of on the pages of a book. Pocahontas opens with a framed historical print of a sailing ship headed for the new world to give a bit of a historic flavor to the opening of its story. Hercules opens in a museum panning past vases and urns with a narrator telling about classical mythology, until the frame zooms in on a particular urn where the characters come to life and tell the narrator to not make it sound so boring. In Mulan, instead of an already written book, we see Chinese calligraphy being written in the first opening frames. These creative reimaginings extend the reach of the storybook to areas where the book is not the most natural medium for carrying the story, but all of them use an image of storytelling to begin. 

After 2000 the openings of Disney films which referenced books did so in self-referential ways. Once Dreamworks had opened Shrek with a fairytale book used as toilet paper, Disney embraced that sarcastic style in Chicken Little. The movie attempts to open several times each time the narrator stops and says, “no, no, no…” too boring, too cliche for this movie, so they begin in the story itself with a big action scene after rejecting “once upon a time,” an opening book, and The Lion King music. In The Princess and the Frog, the movie opens with Tiana’s mother reading the story of The Frog Prince from a big book to the two young girls. The book is not magical, it’s just reminding the audience of the loose plot connections of the movie with a fairytale story. Enchanted has an entirely new storyline, without any connection a particular fairytale, but in Enchanted they pull out all the stops and show the book in a tower of the Disney castle, with extremely traditional choral music in the background, explicitly referencing the fairytale books from Disney’s early days. While Snow White was establishing its legitimacy by pointing to the tradition of beautiful historic storytelling tradition housed in books, Enchanted establishes its legitimacy by pointing to Disney. The one twist they make to the original motif is to make Enchanted a pop-up book. This appears not only at the opening of the story but also in the final scene sequence as a means of transitioning back and forth between the animated Andalasia world and the live action world of New York City. While some of the most recent films have a stylized opening sequence of storytelling (Wreck-it Ralph, Zootopia, and Moana to name a few) this motif seems so thoroughly used that it has become worn out. Turning it (as Enchanted does) to look back at itself brings the story full circle, and reminds the viewer that whether we notice them or not, books and movies follow scripts, and recycle motifs, all in one giant cycle of storytelling. 

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