Sunday, December 9, 2012

Mary Norton, Miyazaki, and Arrietty

The Questions I have about Animated Versions

It is no longer so simple: First there were Silent animations originating (not just their storyboards) with paper.  Then, second, there were gels used for the animated parts (in the case of Pinocchio, especially in the toyshop, the quantity was very labor-intensive), and in Disney’s Snow White, the stylistic difference between her or her prince and the dwarves’ world was very obvious, even to a six-year-old child (who later saw that the woods also were in another style).  As I grew older, I noticed that Pinocchio and Fantasia and Bambi were much more unified.  The world of Pinocchio was pretty purely in an illustrator’s style, meaning that a unity of the settings and the figures was kept in mind, and in Bambi the woods and the animals both alike were humanized, as illustrators usually did.  In Fantasia (for example, in the Pastorale Symphony, since each of its episodes has its own manner) both the Grecian mythological characters and their landscape were in much the same sort of classicizing moderne as was used for Balanchine’s Apollo Musagetes of Stravinsky.  In other words, to sum up briefly, Snow White stands alone as somewhat primitive but triumphant (Pinocchio proclaims the presence of Europeans who had signed on with Disney after Nazism drove them from their homes).  And so, throughout the pre-digital age.  It is quite obvious that all of these (I don’t remember Dumbo very well: I saw it once more than 65 years ago) bear witness to the tight control of Disney over the products.  Even after his death, and (in my opinion) especially in The Lion King, the unified vision prevails, a sort of Hollywood Pan-African.  The African elements of design and expression are greatly modified, but they have been carefully researched. 
Now, I am not an authority on this history of animation, but the foregoing comes from the children of one of my former students having shared with me the Miyazaki feature-length films of the Ghibli Studios.   I just adored Kiki’s Delivery Service, and I still do.  It seems to me Miyazaki’s own Pinocchio, technically and artistically.  I accepted less articulated body joints, since I wouldn’t have seen them in Japanese scroll illustrations, either.  But Kiki’s head has many angles and aspects, her mouth many positions and expressions, her dress many ways of billowing, according to the action and the weather, etc., and so have the other characters.  Besides, the way that the action moves is unique and appropriate for each, even in the story.  I am certain that Miyazaki himself was responsible for and cared about all such properties.
I have seen a couple of other Miyazaki films but only once apiece.  But I got the dvd of Arrietty, because I had been inspired to buy and to read Mary Norton (1903–1992).  Her stories are set in Bedfordshire, just north of London, where in fact she spent her childhood (you can check Wikipedia for the data).  These books of hers, from the Bed Knob through the six Borrowers, are perfectly delightful; no wonder they have remained in print and repeatedly been made into films both for cinema and for TV, both in the USA and in the UK.  How had I missed them, when, both child and adult, I had read and loved, for example, E. Nesbit’s Railway Children?  I mean, children’s books are NOT wasted on children, but it is a dull adult (IMO) that does not go back to them and relish the writing as well as the characterizations.  The answer is plain: Mary Norton wrote The Magic Bed Knob only during the War and started the Borrowers thereafter, publishing the first in 1952.  By then I was at the university, consuming Greek and Latin, reading Woolf and Joyce and Proust, too, and learning to be, if possible, an adult.  Add that I had no money beyond rent and food (buying fabric remnants to make clothes) and neither I nor anyone I knew had a television—and there was no PBS yet, anyway.  This wasn’t being a hippie.  This was working one’s way through the university.  One was young and healthy, one borrowed nothing, one had too little to owe anything (and there were no credit cards, either).  Yes, of course, by the time when I had passed the exams to proceed to the doctorate, I had an assistantship.  But then I went to Greece, to the American School of Classical Studies, for two years.  Then wrote my dissertation.  Then went to the University of Oregon, my first position.
It seems obvious that Mary Norton was raising her four children before she wrote these books.  That she used not only her childhood in Bedfordshire but her own mother’s (and aunts’ and her grandmother’s) childhood stories and so transmitted all of it to her children and to all of ours.  That is why the House is no later than Edwardian, the country life of Bedfordshire, likewise, still is late Victorian to Edwardian.  That is why stories of Little People can still be commonplace.  I’m afraid that also is why, in the Bed Knob, her Pacific islanders are not only cannibals (I have read Anglican missionary families’ accounts of some real cannibals, but NOT with big stew pots as in old movies), but, since she relates children’s notions of the south seas, her cannibal chieftain is, to be blunt, a Golliwog, and very black: they got Africans and Asians all mixed up.  Disney made a movie of the Bed Knob, and I wonder what was done about the cannibals…  Well, you could get Golliwog dolls even when I was little (I was not allowed to have one, though I found them very appealing).  It is the same world as The Secret Garden, a universe of Empire, in which children are shipped around the world as necessary.
Now, what happens when a modern Japanese studio takes on such stories?  In my opinion, they just don’t make sense.  Arrietty, unlike Kiki, just doesn’t make sense.  I think that anyone who reads the Borrowers first will have the same opinion.
But there’s something more: as one reviewer said, the backgrounds are perfectly lovely.  Yes, but even more than in Snow White, they are jarringly at odds, stylistically, with the figures and the action.  And the Miyazaki protagonists have his brand of faces and anatomy but far less expressive and individualized than in Kiki.  Less so than any of those post-War princesses of Disney studios.  In YouTube I found some pencil-drawn storyboards by Miyazaki himself for Arrietty. These are quite wonderful.  They have all the life and spirit that the figures in the film lack; they are as delightful as Kiki.  Someone says in a Wiki article than Miyazaki has been intending to retire.  Well, he may be tired, though he’s only 70.  But notice the list of dozens who worked on the film!
Notice that I have not talked about Toy Story kind of animation, let alone that used for Peter and the Wolf and for Hansel and Gretel.  I like those very much indeed, but they are something else again, just as Lotte Reiniger, which was conceived as Fine Arts anyway, and is most elegant, is not really comparable, either.