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03.12.09

puppet

THE NANNY IS SICK and the wife is away on business, so I'm solo parenting and way behind in doing anything that doesn't involve crafts, picking up dress-up clothes or serving endless little containers of yogurt. I'm also behind on my e-mail, but I'd like to thank the generous readers who've donated to my tip jar. Still no new job, and prospects of freelance gigs have been scarce, so any help - including purchases through my amazon.com links - would be greatly appreciated. In the meantime...

PARENTS TODAY HAVE A REPUTATION FOR CODDLING their children that's hard to dismiss. The streets of the west end working class neighbourhood where I grew up were full of kids playing when I was a kid, but whenever I've visited there in the last few years, they've been as empty as any other residential area of Toronto, including the one where I live today, which has a probably apocryphal reputation for having the highest birthrate in the country.

Things I never saw when I was a boy: car seats, playdates, sippy cups, school age children in strollers, childproof locks on toilet seats or refrigerators, sun shades reading "Child On Board" in car windows. While it's hard to blame a parent for wanting to safeguard their children from harm - my girls have been raised with at least half of this list - I think most of us have moments when we wonder whether we're turning their childhood into something between a gilded cage and a padded room.

It's hard to deny that the producers of children's entertainment have responded to our fears by making ever more anodyne programming for the commercial-free specialty cable channels we guiltily park our kids in front of when we need to take a break or sort the laundry. Barney the Dinosaur is the target of choice for parents trying to draw a line in the sand, but you'll dig your arms in shoulder deep through treacly tunes and candy-coloured computer visuals without finding any edge whatsoever in The Backyardigans, Miss Spider's Sunny Patch Kids, Dora The Explorer, Timothy Goes To School, Little Bear or (shudder) Fifi And The Flowertots. Only Thomas The Tank Engine suggests something more than terminal chirpiness thanks to the remannts of splenetic Britishness that have survived being dubbed for the U.S. market.

When the first five seasons of Sesame Street were recently collected in a DVD box set, they were marketed for the parents who grew up with them, not for their kids, and included an animated prologue where viewers were warned that the shows "may not meet the needs of today's pre-school child." When those needs became defined as barely-discernible conflict and dramatic pablum seems to be some indiscernible point between Ford's pardon of Nixon and the advent of grunge.

I'm reminded of this every time we get a new classic Disney feature on DVD, which inevitably means a conference between my wife and I, as we compare her fairly vivid memories of the film with my far spottier ones, and her concerns that some scene that remains intense in her mind (the witch in Sleeping Beauty, for instance) might be too much for the girls. Almost inevitably, I give in to the girls' eagerness to see the latest Disney title on the shelf, on some day when my wife is at work or away. While there might be some theatrical cowering behind the couch, there's no lasting trauma, and the film launches itself to the top of their Most Played list, and gets incorporated into their games.

Kids like to be scared, as far as I can tell - a fact that parents seem reluctant to acknowledge these days, as the likelihood of the odd nightmare seems to have joined being abducted, hit by a car, or ingesting peanuts among the top worst case scenarios. Disney might still be the most trusted brand in family entertainment, but its classic titles are very nearly turning into those early seasons of Sesame Street - meant more for the inner child than the real ones. Our ritual of caution and misgivings was rather perfunctory when the DVD set of Pinocchio came in the mail, but I pressed ahead, and put it at the top of the pile of discs next to the TV in the living room.

Sitting through Pinocchio with the girls, though, I couldn't help but be impressed with how truly scary some of the scenes are - Stromboli the puppeteer is a truly menacing character, and the whole of the sequence set on Pleasure Island is one of the great nightmare scenes in film, a vivid counterpart to anything by David Lynch or Dario Argento. Based on a serialized story published in 19th century Italy, it comes from the same tradition of cautionary European children's fables that Disney drew upon for most of its classic features from the late '30s to the '50s - explicitly moral tales from a time when childhood was shorter and less micromanaged.



The hour-long "making of" featurette included with the special features makes the point that, while Pinocchio was only the second feature film released by Disney, it was a watershed of sorts - the last moment when the studio's original animators were front and centre, before the emergence of the "Nine Old Men" who would shape Disney's features for the next three decades.

There's certainly a playfulness to the animation that's remarkable even by the high standards of classic Disney - some scenes go on longer than strictly necessary, mostly to showcase an effect or visual texture. Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket's descent to the ocean floor in search of Monstro the whale loses itself momentarily in scenes involving aquatic weightlessness and cascading bubbles, and the subsequent sequence of Monstro chasing Geppetto and Pinocchio on their raft is a textural masterpiece, focused largely on animating waves and water in the most expressionist manner possible.

Which isn't to say that Pinocchio is just some sort of technical experiment like Fantasia - the story is tight and compelling, though considering that it's basically about the abduction of a child by crooks and sociopaths, I can see why today's parents might experience a moment of reflexive aversion. With so many far more palliative options on offer, who wants to risk awkward questions, or those dread nightmares, when Barney or the Bearenstain Bears can kill the same hours of allotted screentime so much less stressfully?

Perhaps I'm biased; some of my fondest childhood memories involved Hammer horror films and PBS showings of silent films like Murnau's Nosferatu, and I still harbor a grudge against the child psychiatrist (don't ask) who decided that the best solution to my being bullied at school was to cut off my favorite TV show - Kolchak: The Night Stalker. (True story - now ask me what I think of the psychiatric profession.) It's probably not surprising that a society that seems unwilling to admit the existence of evil has developed an aversion to letting children cultivate a relationship with their fears.

BONUS FEATURE: THE BOB BAKER INTERVIEW

BOB BAKER WAS 12 YEARS OLD when he worked for Disney on the film what would be Pinocchio, and like so many people who fell into the studio’s orbit, he’s still doing work for Disney today, as an unofficial archivist and, on the day I meet him, as the press’ public face for its reissue of Pinocchio.

Baker says that his obsession with Disney was already in full bloom when he was 8, and met Walt Disney for the first time at an L.A. department store. He was moved to write a letter to the studio asking for a tour, and got “an answer saying that the cartoon animals were running around and singing songs all over the studio and they couldn't let an 8-year-old boy come through.” He wasn’t deterred – his family lived near Disney’s original studio on Hyperion Avenue in Silver Lake, and the young Baker used to rummage through the trash for discarded drawings.

Today, Baker is a world-famous puppeteer, and has been producing shows for Bob Baker Marionettes in downtown Los Angeles since 1961, when he isn’t taking his puppets on the road, performing everywhere from birthday parties to U.S. Navy submarines. Back at the end of the ‘30s, he was already known as a puppeteer around his hometown, which led to a call from Disney studios to come in and work his marionettes for the studio’s animators.

“They invited me to come over to the studio for the other animators and work the puppets,” Baker recalls. “At the time they wanted to see a young boy work them, as well as they had some other puppeteers working at the studio ... They had me come back two or three times for different animators, in case they didn't get something just right. They were very particular that they knew what they were doing, making it work, it was not just kind of a cartoon idea of a puppet person.”


As a student at Hollywood High, he’d started a business making and selling puppets that eventually led to a job offer from George Pal Studios after he graduated. “People said I'd be happier there, and I was.”

He worked on Hal’s Puppetoons, and began building a resume that includes everything from Edgar G. Ulmer’s Bluebeard to Monster From The Ocean Floor, Roger Corman’s first production, to an Elvis film, G.I Blues. He animated Beauregard, the plant in "The Man Trap," the first Star Trek episode aired on NBC, and did puppet segments on shows like Bewitched and The Wild, Wild West. Baker maintained his relationship with Disney throughout his career, however, working on features such as Bedknobs And Broomsticks, Escape To Witch Mountain and Geppetto, as well as the getting involved in the birth of Disney’s theme parks.

“I was out at the studio doing work at the time, and (Walt) took me into his office, and he had this great big thing with a castle and palm trees and all kinds of weird things. And I said 'What kind of a film are you going to do, Walt?' He says, 'Don't tell anybody - Disneyland.' When they started work out there I started doing windows and displays, some of the shops I did the decor in the shops, and we did a lot of stuff.”

Baker has been making puppets for Disney since the late ‘40s, and describes working on a project that would have been a major departure from the cel animation that made the studio’s name. “Walt said that he wanted to do a film with puppets and animation, and we had gotten as far as the storyboards when he came and said ‘Put it all on the shelf, boys - we're going to do Cinderella.’ He hated the short things that he had to do, but he had to do them because the bank was ready to close the studio tomorrow if he didn't get some film out there to make money. He wanted to tell stories - the features. He had lost interest in the short subjects. And then of course when Disneyland came along he was into Disneyland, and the features took a little secondary place.”

It’s Baker’s work on Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, however, that probably gave the puppeteer his broadest audience. He was given the job of designing the ghostly, cadaverous aliens that emerge from the blinding white light of the mothership at the end of the film, though this iconic and haunting work almost didn’t make the final cut.

We were to create 8 figures for that film, and we had to make a figure where the head was bigger, because everything was becoming mental, he was to lose his feet because you didn't do a lot of walking since you could transport yourself. The telephone company had left behind thousands of wires after doing my telephone system over, and they looked like little veins, and I used that, and I had a piece of sheer French material, and rolled that and made muscles and put these veins in it, and covered it with Saran wrap, and I even made his eyes light up, and his finger lit up - all of his fingers lit up, in fact. And Spielberg said 'Oh, that's much too science fiction, we can't use that.' Until the next film.”

"We had lights in the cavity to show his heart beating. Then Spielberg got very interested in some other things on the film, and we never got to do anything, but then Columbia called and said 'We hear that you have some prototypes there.' The film had got booed at the first preview. The little girl came out with the stick figures, but there was nothing that drew (Richard Dreyfuss’ character) back in, made him want to go out into space. And so they asked me if I could do the sequence, and we did."

I still like that film because they show creativity when they build that mountain. That's the greatest scene in the world that's ever been done.


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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved

WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

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