Sunday, August 30, 2015
Best Animated Short Make-Up Review: Lorenzo (2004)
No, I'm not talking about Song of the South. Instead it's another film that had been shoved deeper into animation purgatory. I'm talking about none other than the mysterious and legendary animated short form, Lorenzo.
The path that Lorenzo took from inception of idea to its release was as long and drawn out as the path it took for its release. And it all started with the mind of Joe Grant.
Joe Grant was a legendary figure in the history of Disney animation. Born in 1908, the same year that the Chicago Cubs won their last World Series, he started as an animator character designer in the 1930s. He helped animated the Oscar nominated Who Killed Cock Robin? and helped to create the character of the Evil Queen in the 1937 masterpiece Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He also served as a writer in the 1940s, contributing to Pinocchio and Fantasia and being credited as a co-writer in Dumbo and the Oscar winning Der Fuehrer's Face. He left the studio in 1949 to pursue other matters, but not before coming up with one more story idea for a Disney short film.
As the story goes, Grant was watching his cat getting in the middle of a fight between his two dogs. The way Grant had told it, he thought what would happen if the cat had lost its tail in the middle of the scrum. The thought germinated in his head until it became an idea for a short film about a cat whose tail comes to life and he wants to get rid of it. He made some sketches of the idea, but ended up shelving the idea when he left the studio.
Grant was away from Disney Studios for 40 years, running his own ceramics business and designing greeting cards before getting the urge to go back into the moviemaker business. By then Grant was over 80 but he was still very capable, and went back to working for Disney. He served as a visual development artist for Beauty and the Beast and played an active role to the Disney Renaissance in the 1990s. Sometime in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was interest in bringing Joe Grant's idea of the cat with the living tail to the big screen, which may have been related to the discovery of the Disney/Dali cooperative film that later became Destino. By then Grant was in his 90s so the direction of the film went to veteran animator Mike Gabriel, who had previously served as co-director for The Rescuers Down Under and Pocahontas.
Production of the film, now known as Lorenzo, began in 2001, and continued into 2004. It was originally slated to be part of another Fantasia production alongside Destino and The Little Matchgirl, but that idea fizzled out and never got off the ground. It debuted in 2004 and played before the Kate Hudson film Raising Helen. Raising Helen was blasted by the critics and performed poorly at the box office, which sadly meant that Lorenzo went unnoticed by much of the general American public. When Raising Helen came out on DVD Lorenzo was not included. Lorenzo did manage to pick up an Oscar nomination, but wound up losing the Oscar to NFB's Ryan, extending Disney's streak of years without a win in the category they used to dominate to 35.
Disney executives were incensed. They blamed Lorenzo for the dismal box office performance of Raising Helen, a film that struggled to make back its budget. To them Lorenzo was too dark for a family film like Raising Helen and audiences stayed away as a result. The fact that it lost the Oscar was the final straw and a sign that the film was a disgrace to the Disney name. To exact revenge on the film they locked the film up in the Disney vaults while trying to come up with the decision as to leave it there to rot or actively destroy all copies to make it a lost film. Joe Grant was so heartbroken over these sequence of events that he died of a heart attack at the age of 97 a little more than two months after the Oscars.*
*The above is probably not true, but it sure is fun to exaggerate how much Disney hates Lorenzo. The real story probably has stuff to do with complicated legal matters that is well beyond my scope of study.
It was there in the catacombs of Disney vaults that Lorenzo stayed for well over ten years. They brought it out to film festivals once or twice in those years to tease eager animation lovers, but for the most part the short remained under lock and key. The only available media was a teaser trailer. Finally, after over 10 years of deliberations, Disney executives finally came to their senses and granted Lorenzo a reprieve. Not only would they save all copies of the film from permanent destruction, but they would actually make it available to the public. The Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection was announced in May, and to the surprise of animation lovers everywhere, Lorenzo was seen on the proposed cover, indicating that it would be part of the collection. They eagerly waited for the films to be released, which it was on digital media on August 11, and then on blu-ray a week later. For the first time in 11 years, Lorenzo would be seen by lovers of animation everywhere.
But the question that most people have is, is it worth the wait?
One of the most striking things about Lorenzo is how dark it is. Part of it is with the film's design, where virtually the entire film is set against a black background, but the film itself is quite dark, so much so it led My Little Pony and Disney artist Amy Mebberson to comment "Wow, Lorenzo is DARK." The premise of the film can be boiled down to "Cat's tail comes to life. Cat tries to kill it." It definitely doesn't fit in with the typical idea of a Disney film. And yet the film doesn't let its darkness consume it. Lorenzo was designed to be like a tango, and moves along at a quick pace that fits with the dance theme, and as a result of the pacing it has good amount of energy and comedy, which is helped along by Lorenzo's increasingly absurd ways to silence his tail. It's dark, but as Mebberson says, the film is "dark in a funny way."
The film's dark comedy is greatly aided by the film's design and animation. As I mentioned the film is largely set against a black background with different colors used to reflect Lorenzo's mental status. It's an effective design choice and gives the film a unique feel, especially with its brilliant use of color that is reminiscent of film noir. Beyond that the character design and character animation are also quite strong. Lorenzo's fluid movement and facial expressions give a good glimpse into his slowly unraveling mental state, where he is aided by the black cat's menacing movements. In one particularly memorable but somewhat creepy scene the black cat appears with a knife and moves closer to the camera by just stretching its neck while its body stays static. Even Lorenzo's tail comes equipped with what appears to be mouth. The choreography is also well animated and lively, and many of the transitions are also very well done.
Lorenzo wasn't just a film that looked good, but it was also groundbreaking for its time. Much had been made about the Oscar winning Paperman and its debut of the animation software Meander, which takes lines drawn by hand and overlies them on top of CG-I models (or something along that line.) It was a highly successful technique that was used again to help bring Disney Animation Studios another Oscar for Feast. And yet eight years before Paperman, Lorenzo had also looked to connect the boundaries between 2D and 3D animation. Director Gabriel wanted to maintain the look of the tempera paint that he used for the reference drawings. In order to do so Disney technicians created an application called Sable that can use pre-scanned brushstrokes and combine them with key animation (or something along that line.) The end results are nothing but dazzling. There are several scenes with snappy camera work that would have been difficult to realize with traditional animation. It was clear Sable was a success with Lorenzo, although it is unclear what happened to it after the film.
Being a musical film set to the tango, the music for the film is very important, and Lorenzo hit the nail on the head with its use of "Bordoneo y 900" by Osvaldo Pugliese (also known as Osvaldo Ruggiero as he is credited in the film) as performed by Juan Jose Mosalini and his Big Tango Orchestra. Director Gabriel reportedly bought hundred of dollars of tango music CDs to research the project and "Bordoneo y 900" was the first that came up. The combination of dramatic and buoyant themes fit in well with Lorenzo's combination of darkness and comedy.
Overall Lorenzo is a terrific mixture of art and entertainment. It stands as one of the best short films Disney's done in recent years and definitely worth the money to spend on the Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection. (Although I suspect most people would be buying the series for Frozen Fever and Feast anyways.) For the overall 2002-2011 rankings, I'd be ranking it 5th, behind Wild Life but ahead of fellow 2004-nominee Guard Dog.
Where Can I Watch It?
Buy the Walt Disney Studios Animation Short Films Collection, either on digital HD or on Blu-Ray. Links are on the site.
Anyways, with Lorenzo out of the way, we can officially say that Rippling Romance will be the last Oscar nominated animated short film I have to see. Here are the Final Ten (Not including all of the newly nominated films.)
10. The Further Adventures of Uncle Sam (1970)
9. Trees and Jamaica Daddy (1957)
8. Redux Riding Hood (1997)
7. How War Came (1941)
6. O Misto na Slunci... (1960)
5. The Shepherd (1970)
4. Hypothese Beta (1967)
3. Dedalo (1976)
2. Lorenzo (2004)
1. Rippling Romance (1945)
Would I ever get to see Rippling Romance? It's doubtful, but it's always good to dream, right?