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Published: Thursday, 5/20/2004

Disney goes to war: 'Front Lines' shows studio's WWII efforts

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

You might have heard that Michael Eisner and Disney recently rejected a new Michael Moore documentary critical of the Bush administration. With that in mind, something tells me they would sooner raze the Magic Kingdom and open an Orlando chapter of the Green Party than they would approve the following cartoon:

In the usual lush, velvety painting style of classic Disney animation, a storybook swings open on a picture of a huge castle in the sky. The warm narrator voice says: "Remember the story of Sleeping Beauty?"

So far so familiar.

The camera glides up and through a stained-glass window to reveal what we're expecting: a slumbering princess on her slab, a cackling green witch curling her fingers with glee, and a noble prince, head to toe in armor, at the door with his silver sword.

So far so innocuous.

Now here's where Eisner would need an immediate triple bypass - or he would if his animators presented him with what Walt's animators handed him at the height of World War II: The prince vanquishes the witch and kisses the sleeping beauty. The light in the room changes and she awakens. Not as a beautiful princess, but as a drunk, fat, beer garden waitress with a stein in her hand and Viking horns on her head. On her blanket is a Nazi insignia and a bird of prey.

Prince Charming removes his helmet and reveals himself to be, ta da, Adolf Hitler. The prince and his bride immediately get into a shouting match over who can "Heil Hitler!" the loudest.

Meanwhile, the narrator explains that German children, as part of their schooling, are told the witch represents democracy and that the sleeping beauty is the German people - waiting on a kiss from the right prince.

Oh, and the title of this Disney short, shown in theaters in the 1940s to mainstream moviegoers before the main feature:

"Education for Death."

Cheery, no?

That title wouldn't make it past Disney's marketing department these days, let alone a focus group. And so, considering all the corporate turmoil over at Disney, and the current military quagmire in Iraq, I can't decide whether it's brave or shocking that the studio released "Education for Death" this week on DVD. It's part of the fascinating Walt Disney on the Front Lines (Buena Vista, $32.99), the latest installment of its Treasures series of vintage cartoons, documentaries, and TV shows that had languished in its archives.

Spread across two discs, it collects a couple of dozen propaganda films and training shorts, created by Disney during WWII to boost morale, some to sell the government line ("Food Will Win the War"), and others to deliver practical information ("Four Methods of Flush Riveting"). Then there's the good old demonizing of enemies. The full title of that fractured fairy tale is "Education for Death: The Making of a Nazi," and the unnerving way it uses Disney faces is completely intentional. Maybe even more startling today: Not only are we not used to propaganda this blunt, we're not used to a studio so willing to disturb us.

Much lighter (but more unintentionally disturbing) is "Der Fuehrer's Face," starring Donald Duck quacking his way through a nightmare of involuntary servitude in the Nazi army. Strangely, Mickey is rarely seen in these films. Perhaps because he wasn't tied so closely to the studio's image, Donald was more likely to be called up for duty. In "Home Defense" he falls asleep listening for the sound of enemy fighters approaching the U.S. In another short, encouraging Americans to pay their wartime taxes ("Gladly and proudly!" the narrator cries), Donald fends off the temptation of luxury goods and creditors to contribute to the military pot.

The most ambitious, and remarkable, of the Disney war films was Victory Through Air Power, a feature-length position paper of sorts that Walt demanded the studio make after reading Maj. Alexander de Seversky's book (of the same name) about the history of aviation and aerial combat. Churchill was so impressed by the cartoon he prodded Roosevelt to give it a chance. And Roosevelt, Maltin says, was so impressed himself that he committed to a strategy of using long-range bombers. With its animated Pearl Harbors and Kitty Hawks, the film seems derived from an alternative universe where Disney isn't the domain of children. And indeed, Disney recognized that 60 years ago: deciding the film had too much of an agenda, the studio held on to the copyright but handed distribution of Victory Through Air Power over to United Artists.

Michael Moore, take note.

•

SERVING MIRACLES AND ICE CUBES AND AFFLECKS: Kurt Russell might skate away with Miracle (Buena Vista, $29.99), last winter's crowd-pleaser about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, but it's also a rare breed of sports film (until it gets on the ice, ironically): one that gets you wondering about the outcome even when you know the final score. A movie you should be wondering about more (but never do) is Ben Affleck's ordinary Paycheck (Paramount, $29.99), adapted from a Philip K. Dick novel about a man rediscovering his past. Speaking of ordinary: Torque (Warner, $27.95), starring Ice Cube and a lot of motorcycles, is a lot of visual razzle and furious dazzle signifying nothing. Razzle dazzle signifying even less, but looking great is what you get served in You Got Served (Columbia, $28.95), a dance-showdown picture that stumbles over its own feet when, you know, the plot arrives. If You Got Served were an American Idol contestant, it would have to sing with a bag over its head.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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