(Mostly) Failed Animated Adaptations of Musicals

For about twenty years, animated films have done very well when converted to stage, and yet the reverse is hardly ever true.

In 1953, one of the greatest animated films that never was got scrapped because of politics and paranoia. The story of John Hubley's aborted animated adaptation of the Broadway musical Finian's Rainbow is seemingly all but forgotten except by those who have special interest in the fields of theatre and animation. Luckily, Finian's Rainbow received a revival on Broadway in 2009, which I hope will renew some interest in this project. In the meantime, check out the article I linked above. It has some great storyboard art, and the complete story of this movie that never was.

For those who are not familiar with Finian's Rainbow (and who can blame you), the plot briefly concerns a leprechaun who comes to a small village and combats bigotry. Which is awesome, and you know it. It has a lush score with words by the guy who wrote the lyrics to The Wizard of Oz. In a word, brilliant.

The film would have been the first animated film created with an adult audience in mind, and would have featured the talents of such giants as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson. Here's a song from the show sung by Sinatra in an unrelated album:

The failed Finian's Rainbow affected a great deal of the animated musical sub-genre, I believe. More after the jump.

After Hubley's failed project, I don't think there was a single musical that was ever converted to an animated film. Until that faithful year of 1999, when the neon-coloured bowdlerized version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I from Warner Brothers came out.

Yeah, this was shit. Apart from the animation, which has horrid colouring and clumsy CG, this movie completely watered down the source material. While I know that The King and I is pretty heavy stuff, what with all the colonialism and the concubines and the execution and dying... on second thought, why would someone even make The King and I into a kids' movie?

I'm not saying that kids' films can't tackle ambiguous or uncomfortable issues, but this piece of crap just completely sidestepped them. It inserted a villain into the piece, took out all the bad stuff about both Anna and the King, and simplified all the issues that come with having a foreigner trying to impose her values on a land that she does not care to fully understand. Furthermore, it cuts out the Small House of Uncle Tom Ballet, which is horribly inexcusable. Without these really important parts of the characterization or plot, The King and I became a condescending piece of trash that holds none of the relevance that the stage play has.

But all this is not as repelling as the addition of magic and monsters to this movie.


And this is why the Rodgers and Hammerstein estates, in the wise words of Wikipedia, 'have refused to allow any of their other musicals to be made into animated features forever.' Emphasis mine.

The only musical that I can think of which was successfully animated and not completely awful was the charming You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown special. Maybe it's because these characters are just so wonderful in animation and comics, and maybe it's the infectious heart of the score that transcends any medium, but garsh this is cute...

That said, You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown is hardly groundbreaking and innovative material. It's sweet, and it has a good heart, but the film clearly did not have the ambitions or goals of Hubley's Finian's Rainbow.  I don't care either way -- Charlie Brown is still great entertainment -- but it saddens me that animators can't think bigger when they undergo these projects.

Why couldn't have Warner Brothers' The King and I have tackled the complex characters of Anna and the King in a faithful manner? Why not try to present such a musical with the innovation and artistic integrity that Hubley was going for? If it's because of children and their sensitivities (and kids really aren't as stupid as studios want us to believe), then why not just make an animated musical for mature viewers?

I believe that when Finian's Rainbow had to be scrapped because of the cultural scourge that was McCarthyism, animation's maturity in the West was set back by an incalculable amount of time. Now animated musicals follow a strict and anodyne formula, and rarely ever try to challenge viewers with hard questions. Though the technology might have caught up, and some sensibilities appear more modern, this subgenre of animation is in the same level of development as it was in the days of The Little Mermaid.

And that's a damn shame.

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