Saturday, September 21, 2013

Mouse Under Glass by David Koenig

David Koenig has a steady day-job in the boring world of business publishing -- I'm not knocking it; so do I -- and a thriving hobby/second job writing books about various aspects of the multifarious companies of Disney. He started out with Mouse Tales, a very entertaining look at the behind-the-scenes stories of Disneyland, followed that up with More Mouse Tales (which I still haven't read), and then took on the Orlando outpost of the mouse in Realityland. In between, he wrote Mouse Under Glass, which takes a similar approach to the classic Disney animated movies.

Glass was published in 1997, which informs the arc of its story: Disney started strong, foundered after Walt's death (and meandered more than bit even before that) and found renewed energy and life starting with Little Mermaid and peaking with Lion King. There's not a whisper of Pixar, or of the rise of CGI animation, since that was just starting to happen as Koenig wrote this. Disney's relationship with Studio Ghibli also began just after this book was published, though it probably would have been out of Koenig's scope anyway: Disney just acted as a translator and distributor for those movies (as wonderful as they are).

Glass devotes a chapter to each of the main Disney animated films from Snow White to Hunchback, omitting the jukebox movies of the war years and just after (Saludos Amigos, Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time) and the assemblages (Ichabod & Mr. Toad, Winnie the Pooh) but including a clutch of partially animated movies (Song of the South, Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Pete's Dragon, Roger Rabbit). Koenig also drops Black Cauldron almost entirely, mentioning it in an introductory section but not giving it a chapter. Also omitted are odder early-'90s things like DuckTales: The Movie, A Goofy Movie, The Brave Little Toaster, A Nightmare Before Christmas, and James and the Giant Peach, possibly because they were odd, they came out of different Disney divisions, or they'd mess up the story Koenig wanted to tell.

What's left is pretty much the conventional wisdom on Disney as of 1997 -- Koenig has a lot of strengths, particularly as a reporter and researcher, but challenging conventional wisdom has never been one of them -- and Koenig lays out the case for it well in his introductions. Luckily, the chapters have more depth to them, running through the source material for each movie, an account of how Disney changed that into the final movie story (including details of dropped scenes and ideas), and then trivia around bloopers, other problems, hidden images, public reactions, and how those movies turned into theme-park rides.

Glass is out of date now, but it's a solid look at the movies it does cover, with a lot of interesting details for Hollywood-history buffs or Disney fans. But I'd recommend Koenig's theme-park books first or more highly; there are plenty of books about movies, but Koenig is one of the few who applied serious journalistic skills to the behind-the-scenes world of the Disney parks.

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