UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Magic Kingdom Studios, Inc.
The studio was in a loft in lower Manhattan. The building was owned by Magic Kingdom, and most of the
“How are those Daniel Duck drawings coming along, Lenny?” asked Glenn.
Leonard stopped and wiped sweat from his brow. “I think I might finish on time. The backgrounds are all done, I just need to fill in the action scenes.” He held up one of the drawings. It was the climactic scene in the latest Magic Kingdom picture called Mortimer Mouse Goes to the Circus. Here Daniel Duck was clumsily trying to perform brain surgery on Doofus Dog in an operating theater. Daniel was getting his instruments mixed up and making mistakes, leading to numerous gags and slapstick acts.
This latest film was a return to form. It was a typical Magic Kingdom picture: a short, lighthearted comedy featuring their main bankable characters. It was a financial necessity, however. Their last feature film had been, to quote the vernacular of the times, a flopperoo. Phantasmagoria was one of the biggest box-office failures in movie history. It was a four-hour epic chronicling human history from the creation of the universe to the German Reformation. There was no dialogue, everything was told through cutting-edge animation and atonal Classical music. It had cost $2 million to make (the most expensive animated film to date) and barely produced any revenue in ticket sales. Critics panned it as a pretentious, self-indulgent mess, showcasing Walter Tisney’s obvious obsession with the absolute perfection of animation, to the detriment of his shareholders and audience.
But none of that mattered at the moment. What mattered now was getting the new film done on time. If they were late they were sure to get a visit from The Boss, and that was the worst thing that could possibly happen to an animator.
Glenn walked over to another man working in the row of desks. John was busy painting in backgrounds. Normally the backgrounds were all done beforehand and the characters and action were drawn on a transparent cell placed over it. John was currently painting a forest scene.
“How’re the backgrounds coming along, John?” asked Glenn.
“I’m just about finished up here. No sweat,” said John.
“What a surprise,” mumbled Lenny from his end.
“I told you to shut the hell up over there!” yelled John.
“Don’t start, you two,” said Glenn. The last thing they needed was another argument. That would only get them further behind schedule. Where the hell was Phil?
Just then, Glenn heard the elevator in the hallway coming up. A few moments later Phil came in, looking tired and worn out. His black vest was unbuttoned and the white shirt that lay underneath was loose at the collar. He was unshaven and listlessly carried his box of paint supplies in one hand. He sat down, opened up his box, and placed the supplies on the desk. He then opened a drawer and took out a bottle of gin. He took a deep swig.
“Little early in the morning, isn’t it, Phil?” said Glenn.
Phil slammed the bottle on his desk like an angry giant. “God dammit, Glenn! I don’t need this from you right now. I got my wife giving me hell all week, and I don’t need any more from some goldbrick like you!”
“Calm down,” said Glenn.
“No I won’t calm down, ya jerk! Do you know how hard I’ve been working lately? This picture’s been driving me bonkers! I haven’t seen my kids in days, I got money problems out the wazoo, and now I’ve got you riding me about ‘little early in the morning‘! Won’t even give me a minute’s peace, you won’t.”
“Okay, okay. Forget I said anything“ It was important not to interfere with the artists‘ methods. Whatever they needed to do to get the job done.
“Anyway, we’ve all been working hard,” said John. “Times are tough.”
“Well, all of us but you, at least,” said Lenny.
John pushed his chair back so hard it scraped against the floor. He charged over to Lenny‘s desk in a threatening manner. “That’s it! Put up yer dukes! I‘m gonna clean yer clock fer good, ya damned sonofabitch!”
Glenn had to throw himself in front of John to keep him from slugging Lenny.
“Well, well,” said Lenny, apparently unafraid. “Looks like the big lazy schlepper finally shakes some action. Whatsa’ matter, you get tired of boondoggling over the backgrounds all the time?”
This caused a renewed surge of anger from John, and Glenn had to push hard to keep him back.
Glenn turned to Lenny. “Put a sock in it, will ya, Lenny! You’re the one who’s supposed to be working right now. Now step to it!” Lenny grumbled and went back to work. “Look, we all provide important functions in this studio. We all contribute our small part in order to make the picture a beautiful work of art. You may not like it when I say this, but you are all artists. You work with complete dedication to your craft, for not much money, all for the joy it gives people when they see the magic of animation on the silver screen. “Maybe it takes less time to do the backgrounds, Lenny. But where would the ch
aracters be without them? Who would provide the setting and atmosphere if all of our animators were using pencil? Backgrounds are done in watercolor, a very difficult medium, and always have to be real and intricate if The Boss is going to approve them. So if they take less time to make, well, then they have to be that much better.
“And Lenny, your character animations take longer to make, but they’re the ones who always get noticed by the audience. While everyone’s focused on watching your characters, they forget all about the background and just take it in subliminally. They never talk about how great the backgrounds were, they just woof about what a dilly the Mouse and Duck were. You get a lot more credit than John does, so he’s something of an unsung hero in our business. And that’s what our trade is all about. We’re the unsung heroes of the craft, the ones who do all the hard work even though The Boss gets all the credit and moolah. But we’re the ones who make it happen. And we do it because we’re artists.”
The speech had caught everyone’s attention and calmed things down a bit. Everyone went back to work and there was a brief moment of serenity. The scraping of pens and pencils continued.
What Glenn didn’t have to mention was that they were all fortunate to live in a country where grown men could make a living drawing pictures of talking animals during the greatest economic crisis in recent history.
Al walked in from downstairs. He wore a green visor and a pencil behind his ear. He looked troubled. “Hey Glenn,” he said, “I was going over the storyboard and I noticed something.”
“What is it?”
“Well, you know the scene where Mortimer Mouse is the ringmaster in the circus, and he trains the seal to honk the horns, and then the seal makes him honk the horns?”
“Of course.” Everybody knew that scene backwards and forwards.
“Well, I was just wondering what exactly it was supposed to mean. I mean, what makes it funny.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Well, why would the seal make Mortimer honk the horns anyway? He’s the ringmaster.”
“That’s what makes the situation so absurd. Mortimer thinks he has control of the situation but the tables are turned and the seal makes him honk the horns.”
“Yeah, but I still don’t understand how a dumb seal would be able to do it. I mean, he‘s not a real mouse, right?”
They had had this conversation many times. John leaned over to supply the necessary explanation. “Mortimer Mouse, Daniel Duck, and Doofus Dog are anthropomorphic animals, meaning they exhibit human behaviors and characteristics. They respond to situations just like we do, and the humor is derived from our identification with their exaggerated reactions. The other animals are just animals, meant only to provide gags relating to whatever animal they are.”
“Oh, okay,” said Al, “so what you’re saying is that Mortimer isn’t really a mouse?”
Everyone groaned in frustration, as if saying he had completely missed the point.
“It is a damned mouse, Al,” said Phil. “It just acts like a human. All right?”
“Okay, but what makes it funny?”
“It’s funny,” explained Glenn, ”because it examines the notion that it is never good to force someone to do something that you yourself aren’t prepared to do. It’s kind of a lesson on karmic responsibility.”
“It’s also funny because the seal makes Mortimer honk the horns with his mouth, like a seal,” said Lenny. “So then he’s not really a mouse, he’s really more of a seal.”
There was another groan of world-weary frustration.
“Yes, Alan. That’s it exactly. Now will you let us get back to work?”
“Just one more thing. This scene bears a very strong resemblance to a scene in Daniel Duck Goes to the Zoo. There’s a scene where a seal makes him do the exact same thing with horns.”
Pencils and pens all stopped at once. Al was right. The scene had to be scrapped. They’d be delayed even further. The animators all began to seriously consider the possibility that there was no God.
Just then, there was again the sound of the elevator rising to the hallway. Someone was coming? They weren’t expecting anybody.
The door opened and a man wearing an all-white suit and black cape came in. He had a pencil mustache and a Royale devil’s beard. He wore a top hat and carried a cane with a golden tip shaped like Mortimer Mouse‘s head. It was Walter Tisney, founder of Magic Kingdom Studios, Inc.
There was complete silence as every eye in the studio focused on the The Boss. It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Time stood still while Tisney’s shoes slowly made their way over to Lenny’s desk, accompanied by the clacking of the cane against the floorboards.
He looked past Lenny’s shoulder and pulled out one of the drawings. He inspected it for a second and then cleared his throat. He pointed at the drawing and looked at Lenny. “Excuse me,” he said, “what’s this?”
Lenny struggled for breath and said, “It’s, ah, it’s Daniel Duck, sir. He’s performing brain surgery-” “I know,” Tisney interrupted, speaking as if Lenny were a child, “who it is. I want to know what he’s doing with his hand.”
“He’s-he’s holding a scalpel.”
“And why is he holding it in his right hand? Everybody knows that Daniel Duck is left-handed.”
“Ah…ah.” Lenny was sweating bullets now. “It’s…kind of ironic, you know. It’s a joke because he’s making a lot of mistakes with the different tools, and so he picks up the scalpel with his right hand. It’s kind of a….twist on expectations.”
“That’s funny,” said Tisney, “I thought it was garbage.”
He pulled a gold lighter out of his pocket and flicked it on. He grabbed the entire sheaf of drawings from Lenny’s desk and held them above the lighter. They caught fire and he dumped the burning pile in a wastebasket before furiously stomping it with his foot.
Tisney sighed and stared into space. Then he said, “When I built this kingdom, I was dedicated to absolute perfection in my animation. I made sure every detail was correct, that every movement seemed fluid and life-like. I wanted to create a magical realm of wonder that would be indistinguishable from reality. A better world than the decaying cess pool we live in, a realm of dreams to which we could escape the drudgery of our meaningless lives. When I started, I had a loyal band of followers who I could trust to do the very best, and these random inspections weren’t necessary. But then you know what happened? The Polacks. They came and rotted my kingdom from the inside. They’re sneaky, you can never tell where they are, but they’re destroying everything I’ve worked my entire life to achieve. They’re dismantling my magic kingdom, brick by brick.”
No one dared speak. Tisney morosely walked away and shut the door. A few moments later they could hear the mechanical whine of the elevator descending.
No one spoke for a while after he was gone. Then Phil said, “You know, I’m beginning to believe the Happy Cruise story.”
The Happy Cruise story was an incident involving the eponymous ride at Tisney’s theme park “Tisney Universe.” The Happy Cruise was a ride where people get in little boats and travel through narrow waterways on a trip around the world, watching animatronic children of all nationalities singing the Happy Cruise theme song and teaching about their different customs and cultures. The children were made of the latest robotics, and looked so real that Tisney himself often insisted they were. Well, apparently one kid on the ride was skeptical and decided to take a closer look. He got off the boat and snuck behind the scenes, where he could see all the machinery that made the children move. He was about to squeal about what he saw when Tisney’s goons supposedly abducted the kid and took him to his mansion, “The Magic Castle,” as he calls it. There they subjected him to hours of intense mental psychotherapy by a team of expert hypnotists in order to erase any memories of what he saw. He was later found in the Future World section of Tisney Universe, disoriented and confused. Tisney denies that the story is true.
Before, they had all regarded it as nothing more than an urban legend. Now they weren’t so sure.
Glenn and Al were at the first screening of Mortimer Goes to the Circus. It was early in the morning, and there weren’t too many people at the theater. The area where the theater was had turned into a kind of Hooverville. A few unemployed men with cardboard signs around their necks stood on street corners. Bread lines wrapped around an entire city block.
They paid for their tickets and sat in the plush seats in the back row. Glenn really hoped that the picture would come out right. They had really busted their humps making it, and it would be a shame for it all to be for nothing. To get it done on time they had to call in all the favors they had in the business, and hire extra animators to work round-the-clock. But they were a team, and in a crisis they pulled everything together, made sacrifices, and got the picture done. If the movie did poorly in sales, then there would probably be a purge within the ranks of Magic Kingdom, and they’d all get sacked. But they had fought the good fight, and now it as just a waiting game.
“There aren’t too many people in the theater, never a good sign,” said Glenn.
“Yeah, but it’s just the first showing. They mostly come in the afternoon,” said Al.
Two new moviegoers walked into the theater. They slowly moved down the aisle and picked two seats near the front row. One was a young boy with a newsboy cap over his scraggly hair. The other was an old man with a long beard, probably his grandfather. He wore a brown tweed suit and looked sort of down on his luck. He probably still had to work for a living. They both looked a little lean and underfed.
The show started. Glenn was glad to see that the animation looked as real and vibrant as ever. But he got a little depressed as he watched the film. The gags were stale, the jokes were repetitive, and the plot was derivative of other Magic Kingdom films. They all started to blend together after a while, he thought. They had to mass-produce to stay in business, and occasionally they had to repeat themselves. They spent so much time on the painstaking animation that often they let the writing fall by the wayside. But that was the business.
He feared that Magic Kingdom had begun to slouch towards their rival studio “Terrytoons,” the ultimate in mass-produced quantity over quality cartoons. Their films were repetitive, completely devoid of imagination, and all tended to be pretty much the same. Terrytoons had no real artistic pretensions; they were strictly a business, focused solely on turning a profit. They perpetuated the stereotype that animation was not really art, but just low-brow kids' stuff made to fill up time before the real movies start. Sometimes Glenn wondered what the point of it all was. Then he noticed the old man and the boy.
They loved the film. They laughed and hollered at the antics, they were dazzled by the animation, and had completely lost themselves in it. Laughs were scarce in Depression times, but they seemed to have forgotten all of their troubles for these two hours. They were transported to another world through the illusion of animation, having fallen into the magical realism of a better place.
Maybe their job was worth it, after all.
© 2008 Underground Voices