Buzzed Books #95 by John King
The Art of Soul,
The Art of Raya and the Last Dragon,
and The Art of Luca
As a lifelong fan of Disney films, there’s not much nostalgia in my obsession. I have never found ways to make Condorman, The Fox and the Hound, or Herbie Does a Thing important or fun or profound. The only connection I feel between my childhood and films I saw then is how the great films still loom in my imagination. In the 1970s, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Star Wars, and The Rescuers would repeat in my mind for months after seeing them in the theater. One movie ticket provided me with rich experiences that endure.
Sometimes, though, the art and music of Disney films transcend the actual overall film itself, such as Alice in Wonderland (1951). Oliver Wallace’s score, sometimes combined with Lewis Carrol’s poetry as lyrics, is a wonderful soundscape; the 1997 compact disk release interpolated dialogue and sound effects, in essence creating a sonic film for the mind that is a better experience than the film. The film itself quivers with the miraculous design work of Mary Blair. Alice in Wonderland has some colorful, very daft scenes. But the parts surpass the whole. Listen to the soundtrack in the dark instead.
Such have been my musings while considering the extraordinary Disney titles recently released by Chronicle books. Chronicle publishes Didier Ghez’s exceptional series, They Drew as They Pleased, which unveils never-before-seen artwork from the developmental stages of classic Disney films.
Separate from Didier Ghez’s series, Chronicle also publishes volumes devoted to the creation of recent offerings by Pixar and Disney, such as Soul, Raya and the Last Dragon, and Luca.
The Art of Soul is one of my favorite books in my Disney library for how well the volume allows me to appreciate the mind-bending, yet somehow familiar visual grammar of the film.
The running time of Pixar’s Soul might be too short, which is to say, the visual experience is too sublime to appreciate in real time, with the film’s half-abstract, celestial sense of realms for the creation and dissolution of souls and, in contrast, the film’s densely realistic New York City.
As an animation nerd, I am also gratified to learn more about how the designs of Soul were worked out, with digital sketches that look rather like hand-drawn sketches—with enough practice, digital work was certain to catch up to hand-drawn illustration.
And The Art of Soul also focuses on the designs within the designs, such as jazz signage. In this deeply original film’s design art, I can see elements of Modern art, along with jazzy resonances with Disney’s 101 Dalmatians and the “Rhapsody in Blue” portion of Fantasia 2000. This book is both frozen in time—allowing the reader to experience the art as slowly as the reader wants—and also bursting with the intelligence and inspiration of the film’s creation.
I liked Raya and the Last Dragon. The Chronicle book may persuade me that the film is better than I thought. On my first viewing, the narration seemed a touch glib, the setting seemed too allegorically on-the-nose, and the water dragon seemed too goofily comic. I suspect that the filmmakers aimed for a YA audience, a demographic that clearly isn’t me.
The mythic setting of Kumandra seemed like a generalization of lots of Asian tropes and imagery, and this seemed indiscriminate to me when I watched the film. The Art of Raya and the Last Dragon points out that the inspiration for the film was Southeastern Asian countries: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. So I was partly right, but in a wrong way.
In the Chronicle book, the different regions of the Dragon Lands—Heart, Spine, Talon, Fang, and Tail—are explained in terms of philosophy, architecture, and costuming. The art is transcendent, reminding me of how beautiful the film is, all while encouraging me to look deeper into its world-building.
The Art of Luca focuses on Italy, tales of merfolk, and friendship. The film is a charming meditation on childhood conflicts and life in a seaside Italian village in the 1950s. The art style is vibrant and iconic, yet original. For example, the merfolk’s design do not look like mermaids from Peter Pan or The Little Mermaid, but more humanoid, like transitioning-tadpoles, with cartoony, detailed faces.
The settings of the seaside village and the ocean are stunning (reminding me of the contrasting settings of Soul). The claustrophobic clustering of colorful dwellings in the hilly town of Portorosso makes me want to live there, in a modest, beautiful, shabby place in a time when a Vespa was the most beautiful thing in a beautiful world. The dark aquamarine of the underwater world somehow feels spooky, yet comforting, a dreamscape that makes the merfolk seem like a realistic possibility.
The character designs, even the human ones, are memorable.
I cannot assert this enough: I tend to take for granted how sublimely beautiful Disney and Pixar films are. Seeing the storyboards, character design, and concept sketches in so many styles is a gift that Chronicle brings to animation fanatics.
Enrico Casarosa, the film’s director, makes this unusual plea at the end of his introduction to this book: “I have a favor to ask … Reach out to that friend you once had from those formative days of awkward adolescence and self-discovery. It’ll give you the opportunity to tell them how important they’ve been in your life. I bet they might even remember some hilarious moments you’ve long forgotten.” This is true of friends, but also true of the great films I and my friends love, Disney and Pixar films among them.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.