Monday, August 3, 2009

Wes Anderson and "Sleeping Beauty"

First, a tip of the cap to Jason Sperb, whose blog inspired me to watch "The Life Aquatic" on Sunday.

In the past 36 hours, I watched both "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" and "Sleeping Beauty," two films that appear to have nothing in common, aside from being Disney releases. But as I watched "Sleeping Beauty" this morning -- with commentary by critic Leonard Maltin, Disney/Pixar guru John Lasseter, and animator Andreas Deja -- I couldn't stop thinking about Wes Anderson's colorful confection.

"Sleeping Beauty," released in 1959, was quite a stylistic departure for Walt Disney's animated products. The story was familiar, of course -- it's nearly the same as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," minus the dwarfs -- but the visuals were not. Uncle Walt entrusted artist Eyvind Earle to dictate the film's look, and what he got was a motion picture that looked like a medieval tapestry coming to life. Extensive use of the multiplane camera technique that Disney himself invented lent the film a dimensionality that even masterpieces like "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia" lacked, and all of Earle's meticulously detailed background paintings were kept in focus at all times. The film was presented in a 2.55:1 aspect ratio -- wider than today's widescreen films -- and printed on 70mm film in a process that Walt dubbed "Super Technirama 70." The result was an incredibly gorgeous film that is finally available in its original format on Disney's latest DVD and Blu-ray releases.

"The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," released by Disney's Touchstone Pictures in 2004, was Texas auteur Wes Anderson's most ambitious film in scope, if not in subject matter. Like all of Anderson's films, "Zissou" gives us super-saturated colors and clear-focused widescreen frames packed with detail -- and that's why it kept creeping into my head when I was watching "Sleeping Beauty."

While we can argue over whether Anderson's dark, ironic films connect with us emotionally, there's no arguing that he consistently delivers flat-out beautiful films. (I consider it a great tragedy that I did not see "The Darjeeling Limited" in a theater.) There are frames of "Zissou" that almost demand to be paused, just so you can see everything that's happening. Steve Zissou's tour of his boat is such a sequence; Anderson gives us a cutaway set of the entire vessel, roaming from room to room in one unbroken shot. On the DVD commentary, he says the set was inspired by drawings in World Book encyclopedias and Time-Life books he pored over in his youth.

Techniques and details like that -- along with the eye-popping colors and Anderson's penchant for using titles -- lend Anderson's films a sort of magical quality that seems odd for his subject matter. Of course, that odd combination is a huge part of why Anderson's films work.

And then there's "Sleeping Beauty," which truly is magical. Two scenes in "Sleeping Beauty" deserve to be mentioned among the all-time greatest. One is a stunning forest panorama in which Princess Aurora serenades the animals with "Once Upon a Dream," and the other is Prince Philip's climactic confrontation with the evil fairy Maleficent, whose transformation into a dragon must have been simply astonishing to the moviegoers of 1959. (Man, do I wish I could see a pristine print of "Sleeping Beauty" on the big screen.)

I guess it's highly improbable that the guy who gave us "Rushmore" and "Bottle Rocket" could have been influenced by "Sleeping Beauty," but I find the visual parallels to be fascinating. Anderson's next film, "Fantastic Mr. Fox," employs stop-motion animation and looks like it hasn't abandoned any of the director's techniques. Maybe the parallels will continue to reveal themselves this November.

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These aren't the best quality, but you get the idea.

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