Round about this time last year I vowed here to blog my regular readings of Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers in diligent instalments. Can you guess what happened to that good new season's resolution? Instead, here are some more prattlings on the latest of the canonical Disney animated films that I now watch ad nauseam with my little daughter.
When you watch an old movie - if you’re old enough to have lived through, say, about half-a-dozen changes of government - then there’s a certain code or aura the movie holds or exudes that will telegraph to you more or less precisely what point in the twentieth century the movie was made – and this even before you reach up to get the Old Movies reference book off your shelf. Paul Schrader was the first person I heard making this shrewd point, and though he is quite the connoisseur I do believe that pretty well anyone of a certain vintage can play this game. It’s mainly a study in changing fashions.
Per Disney, the game is often elementary. Snow White is clearly a product of the late 1930s just on the basis of the Wicked Queen’s vampish curling-lip looks. The Jungle Book is similarly simple – mid-1960s – because it features a group of vultures with mop-top hair and Scouse accents.
Sleeping Beauty, my daughter’s latest crush, puzzled me for a while, though. In a way, the picture has hardly dated. The artwork (largely imagined by Eyvind Earle, one of whose production paintings appears above) has a certain imprssively dedicated medieval/Flemish feel to it. Some of the musical stings are lifted from Tchaikovsky. But let’s not make it sound too complicated. It had to have been made between 1950-1970. The Princess Aurora at times resembles the animated Elizabeth Montgomery in TV’s Bewitched, which aired in the mid-1960s. But who ripped off who?
I finally made my decision thanks to a spooky scene where Aurora is hypnotised by the evil Maleficent in the form of an unearthly light that bathes the room in a greenish glow and seems to turn Aurora’s skin blue. Jimmy Stewart! Kim Novak! Vertigo! At that point Earle’s way of drawing flowers even started to remind me of the blooms in Stewart’s ‘Carlotta’ nightmare in the Hitchcock picture. Vertigo was 1958, a good year at the movies. So down comes my Old Movies reference book and there it is: Sleeping Beauty, 1959.
With her horned raiment, yellow eyes and pointed chin, Maleficent is a fairly sinister villainess, albeit played for more comedy than Snow White’s Wicked Queen. But both are perfectly unproblematic viewing for my little girl. I’m not sure I’d take her anywhere near Henry Selick’s Coraline, now in cinemas, and being pitched as an unmissable entertainment for kids even though it contains a strong undercurrent of frightening, nightmarish, sadistic villainy. It’s also highly in debt to Hitchcock, specifically the ‘Gingerbread Gothic’ of Psycho. But a wonderful picture, nonetheless.
In the land of the vivid imagination it's hard to say what’s best for kids, and what’s best for adults. I’m fairly sure that people over 18 years of age shouldn’t be reading 'Harry Potter and the Tower of Nothing' (as I heard Stewart Lee call in on telly recently.) But per my recent musings on Angela Carter, I do think fantasy material that is created first and foremost for the tender of years and innocent of heart is more truly compelling for an adult to eavesdrop upon than more self-conscious mature-reader reworkings of fairytale and myth.
To wit: the aforementioned Paul Schrader once remade the old RKO horror picture Cat People with a script rich in Jungian archetypes, decors by the genius Italian designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and Nastassja Kinski – the It Girl of 1981 – dangerously exposed in the lead role. The poster described the movie as ‘An Erotic Fantasy’. Pauline Kael was mean-spirited but not far wrong when she said that every shot looked like the cover of an album you’d never want to buy.