So, I’ve been thinking a lot about Disney this week.
I’m a sucker for the Disney Renaissance. For those not schooled in Disney lore, that’s the period between ’89 and ’99 when Disney’s conventional animation had its last twilight blooming before computer animation effectively eclipsed it forever. Aladdin is the first movie I can remember seeing at the cinema, and when the magic carpet flew overhead escaping the Cave of Wonders, I was basically hooked for life. It was years before I came to understand the mix of fairy tales, crisp animation and Broadway style song-story structure was put together from a variety of sources and very much a product of its time, but the Disney film, the classic Disney film, remains to me as unique, essential and indelible as any other part of the popular culture.
A few years ago, Disney released The Princess and the Frog, which against all odds, banked relatively well and suitably scored with critics despite using the up until recently thought deceased conventional animation – but more critically than that, the classic Disney story structure. That film was enough to spawn reworkings in the Disney Animation arm of the company, away from the juggernaut that is the (admittedly phenomenal) Pixar. Tangled, a hybrid of computerised and traditional techniques (with music by the common thread of the best Disney movies: Alan Menken!) was box office gold, and Disney is due to follow this year with an adaptation of The Snow Queen, entitled Frozen.
One of the things I’m interested in (if both you and I keep up with this blog, it’ll become apparent that when it comes to narrative I’m pretty much interested in everything) is fairy tales. Disney’s Renaissance model was pretty much about the adaptation, with poetic license, of a known through semi-known story into a Broadway format.
This is all preamble, though it should give you some background to understand the metric that I’m working with when I say: I had an idea today. One of those moments that stops you and makes you say “Y’know, I think this’d be a great X”. In this case, a great Disney film.
Powerless, of course, to make Disney films, I include a brief treatment here for the entertainment and edification of the public. Please reblog, etc, as you like:
“Godfather Death” is a classic German fairytale. It makes it into the Brothers Grimm and has an Aarne-Thompson type. Anyone who watched the seminal “Storyteller” by Jim Henson will recognise elements adapted into the Emmy-winning “Soldier and Death” (separately put one of my favourite moments in television of all time).
The essence of the story is this: a poor man with twelve children approaches Death to be the Godfather of one of them. Death agrees, and when the child comes of age, as godparents in fairy tales are wont to do, gives the child a gift, the ability to see death, and the essence of a magical herb that will cure the illness of people whose time is not yet up. The child becomes a famous physician, and is eventually called for by an aged king. Death appears at the head of the King’s bed, showing that he’s going to die, but the physician takes pity on him and tricks Death into appearing at the wrong end of the bed, so the King can be cured with the herbs. Death is angry, and warns his godchild, but doesn’t punish them.
Unfortunately for all concerned, the King has a daughter, and she gets sick too. She and the physician fall in love, he tries the trick again. Death is pretty pissed and hauls the godson into his chamber, where the candles of life are kept. Death shows the godson that his candle is about to run out.
The German version has two endings:
1) The physician pleads with his godfather to light a new candle for him, so that he may live a happy life as king and husband to the beautiful princess. Death reconsiders, and gathers a new candle to pass the flame of his godchild.
2) Everything in (1) but just as Death is going to light the new candle, Death takes his revenge on the physician by letting the flame of the first candle fall. As soon as the candle extinguishes, the physician falls to the ground, dead.
Pretty grim stuff (you see what I did there), but it has a message for der kinder about Death always getting its due in the end. Pretty par for the course for the classic Grimm fairy tales.
The fairy tale, however, is also popular in Mexico, and there’s a twist in their version of the tale. Godfather Death, there, is Godmother Death.
The story goes much the same way: Death is chosen to be the godparent of a child. Godmother Death, instead of being tricked by the plucky physician turned suitor, attempts to ward her ward away from his love interest without explaining why. When the physician demands an explanation, Godmother Death takes him and shows him that his lady love’s candle is about to burn out. At first, he insists that it will not matter to him, but then tries to use the magic Death taught him to extend her life. Death shows a cruel sort of mercy to her godchild: she extinguishes his candle at the same time as his love’s.
Still, I think, too dark for Disney, but contained within it is a story, aesthetic and message that fall pretty neatly within the Disney themes. It needs to retain its message about the need to accept Death, whilst still allowing a sufficiently upbeat ending to sell to the family market. What the story needs is a villain other than (though in addition to) hubris and hurt pride. I propose that it could easily be given one.
The pitch is this:
One dark and stormy night in turn of the century Mexico, a young couple alight on the doorstep of a wealthy man’s villa. They are poor, but he invites them in, and offers them the right to stay. They have a meal and retire to bed. During the night, the husband and wife hear a cry, and trace it through a series of secret passages in the villa. It’s Death, a comely looking woman trapped inside a magic circle. She begs them to free her from the glass case. Their host, she explains, is a magician, hoping to steal the secrets of Death.
The magician, Dr Esqueleto, comes upon them, enraged! They were to be his latest experiments in conquering Death. At the critical moment, the husband and wife tip over the glass case, and Death is freed! Unwilling to face death, even with his magic, Esqueleto escapes in a puff of necromantic smoke. Death is overjoyed and being freed, and offers a reward to the happy couple: she will be the child’s godmother.
Carlotta, the daughter, is growing up. Godmother Death visits regularly, and has promised to take charge of her education. She will be trained to be Death’s Assistant. Death shows her the secret entry to her house (a glittering cavern filled with candles representing the lives of everyone in the world), how to locate it, and teaches Carlotta that everything has a time to be born and a time to die – a more poignant but detailed echo of the Circle of Life.
Carlotta spends some time learning to be Death’s assistant, but ultimately decides she doesn’t want the job. She doesn’t like ushering things into death, and decides instead she wants to work in the “grey places” and become a Doctor. She and Death have an awkward parting, but the skills Death has taught her make her an amazing physician, thanks to her special knowledge of how and when people are going to die.
As Carlotta becomes a more and more successful doctor, she attracts further public attention. Close to being overwhelmed, she seizes on a new mentor, the kindly Doctor Mortiz! But who is Doctor Mortiz really? Why, it’s Doctor Esqueleto, determined to uncover the secret of how this girl understands the secrets of Death.
When the visiting son of the King of Spain falls ill, Carlotta and Mortiz are requested to attend him. Nursing him, Carlotta falls in love with the young prince, but it becomes apparent to both her and Mortiz there is nothing she can do. Desperate, she calls on Godmother Death to help. Godmother Death appears, but tells Carlotta that she cannot give the Prince any more life. Carlotta offers to share her life with the Prince. Even though Death is upset a this, and tells Carlotta she will die much faster, she agrees to the exchange. Death does not tell Carlotta how long her candle will now burn for. Doctor Esqueleto, hidden, sees Godmother Death appears and realises this is his opportunity!
The prince recovers, and he and Carlotta are to be married, but Carlotta realises that neither she nor the Prince will have long. She resolves to be happy that they have the time they have together. Doctor “Mortiz” however, comes to her in the role of the guide and loving mentor. He says that he figured out that Carlotta has traded some of her life-force for the Prince, though he claims not to know how. Mortiz says he is old, and offers to give up his life in exchange for more life for Carlotta and her Prince. He would rather they be happy than have remaining years in an old enfeebled body. Carlotta is reluctant, but Mortiz is able to convince her to at least talk to Death, and see what can be done about the situation.
Carlotta takes Mortiz to Death’s cave, but as she’s not expecting them, Esqueleto springs his trap. Suprising Death, he imprisons her again, and claims with access to the candles, he can keep his own burning forever. He immediately extends it by another hundred years, which he claims will be “long enough for now” and that he has ample time to claim Death’s secrets. The Prince is alerted by Carlotta’s loyal animal companion (a Disney mainstay, which will be linked with Carlotta throughout the film – I’m thinking a donkey which the Prince initially disdains to ride) and rides blindfold to Death’s cave in order to find Carlotta.
The Prince arrives and attempts to fight Esqueleto, but with the immortality he now wields and his magic, the fiendish Doctor looks set to finish the prince almost instantly. Carlotta, at the last moment, threatens to knock down all the candles on Death’s personal altar, which now include Esqueleto’s, but also the Prince and Carlotta’s. Better that they die than Esqueleto be allowed to misuse the power of Death. Esqueleto leaps to save his candle, but in doing so he disrupts the magic circle in which he has trapped death.
Death, having escaped, again defeats Esqueleto, but he cackles and demonstrates that his time is not up! His candle is long and still burning, and Death won’t kill out of time. Death agrees, but reminds Mortiz that time can be bargained away, and that she’ll hold him to his promise. She gives half his life to the Prince and half to Carlotta, and Dr Esqueleto falls to the ground/fades away/rapidly ages to dust. Carlotta and Death reconcile, a valuable lesson having been learned, and Carlotta goes to attend her wedding. Her Godmother secretly observes from the audience, satisfied.
This is all a VERY rough outline, but I think that the bare bones of something cool are in there.
Imagine the (admittedly skeletal plot) bolstered by up tempo Latin musical numbers and a soulful Spanish guitar score! Imagine Godmother Death with an aesthetic after a La Calavera Catrina, and a Dia De Muertos style theme for her realm and works! We’d have the first properly Latina Disney Princess, and be able to do this with an all-Latin cast. America Ferrera as Carlotta! Maria Canals Barrera as Godmother Death! Hector Elizondo as Mortiz/Esqueleto! Diego Boneta as the Prince!
A Disney movie that returns to the tradition of a simple set of thoughts, wrapped in an adventure, wrapped in a Broadway musical. Though there are some themes in there that are a little weighty, there’s nothing more intrinsically confronting about death than “The Circle of Life” or as necessarily worrying for small kids as The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s “Hellfire” number (the best thing in the movie). It’s all a thought experiment, of course, I’m not a screenwriter, have no power to influence Disney, and I imagine could be outclassed by the professionals at every turn. Still, I liked the idea enough that I wanted to share it – and that, after all, is what this blog is for.