Come on, Disney, give your sources their credit


March 30, 1997|By MIKE BURNS

IT WAS A sanguine tragedy of the utmost horror: infanticide, fratricide, kidnapping, abduction, beheading and burning at the stake.

Plus, it had great music.

So why was I suppressing an impulse to laugh during the Baltimore Opera Company's creditable performance of "Il Trovatore" last week?

Because scenes from the Marx Brothers comedy "A Night at the Opera" kept flashing into my mind. An old film that spoofs grand opera, including Verdi's "Trovatore," in the unique style of those madcap comics.

They had, at least in part, appropriated the work by their distinctive treatment of the 19th century operatic classic.

Not that grand opera does not make its own powerful impression. The musical art form stands alone without any apologies.

Yet, opera's memorable music and outrageously melodramatic plots have been borrowed time and again by others, becoming an embedded part of Western culture for multitudes who have never seen or heard an opera performance. The Anvil Chorus in "Trovatore" is another tune that's been pounded into our heads by commercials and parodies.

Last fall, I experienced a similar transposition of mental scenery during the opera company's "La Gioconda." Visions of dancing hippos and alligators popped into my head during the familiar dance interlude, bringing an involuntary smile.

They would not go away, so indelible were the cartoon animal characters that danced to that very music in Walt Disney's film "Fantasia." The borrowed version defined the music for me in a way that the original opera could not.

(Some opera listeners may have been similarly reminded of a popular song about summer camp upon hearing that same tune.)

Disney's "Fantasia" paid scrupulous attention to the original sources for its own imaginative creativity in the 1940 film, presented as an illustrated concert of musical selections.

But that crediting of material, or inspiration, has been sadly lacking in other Disney productions. Works acquired for film rights give scant credit, if any, to the original. Everything is "Walt Disney's" whatever, not only in films but in the TV spinoffs and books and videos that flow from the cartoon films.

Victor Who?

The descendants of Victor Hugo recently complained about Disney's lack of credit to the great French novelist as the author of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," the latest Disney-ized animated feature.

The 19th century novel was in public domain, free for use and adaptation -- as was his "Les Miserables," for the Broadway musical -- but the Hugo family was miffed that "Walt Disney" claimed supreme credit for the story. At least a gesture of recognition of the original author would have been appreciated -- and helped to keep his name alive, the family said.

When it's old fairy tales and fables recast by the Disney wizards, no one pays much mind. Old story tellers typically borrowed their ideas and collected their tales from others, and probably expected the same treatment.

But when the films are adapted from well-known books written by individuals, the question of propriety arises. Not a question of legality and contracts and fine print -- the Disney camp is well fortified with lawyers protecting its manifold interests.

But pick up a book of "Winnie the Pooh" put out by Disney and you find no reference to A. A. Milne, who created the character and wrote the original stories seven decades ago. It is Walt Disney's Pooh -- the corporate entertainment giant's pictures, certainly, and a rewriting of the quaint English-nanny style used by Milne. But the creator of the character and the story are strictly Milne.

A similar fate befell Felix Salten, the author of "Bambi." The Disney books declare the work to be Disney's own creation.

The Disney studio also did not create "Pinocchio" -- it was written by Carlo Collodi, albeit with different twists of plot.

I repeat, the Disney conglomerate is most probably on firm legal ground in its missing or minimal attribution. And there's no doubt that Walt Disney and his company have added great creativity, embellishment and popularization to the works they have brought to the screen as animated subjects.

They have had an enormous impact in spreading throughout the world the stories they have adapted. Their version is most often the dominant cultural version, especially for children.

My youngsters identify certain classical music pieces as "Fantasia," because they heard (and vividly visualized) the works in that Disney movie. They may even stimulate interest in reading the originals, assuming that one is aware that the books exist independently.

Still, it's a shame that the Disney organization does not give sufficient credit to the original sources of its animated screen treatments. No one's going to avoid their films and spinoff books because of such homage. But The truth would be served in a small way by the frank admission that all the world's classic tales didn't spring from the mind of that guy who drew the mouse.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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