Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Mary Blair's Masterpiece

Mary Blair, unfortunately, is not well-known. Despite Google's best efforts to publicize her image

she is still, I think, rather obscure. Her most identifiable work would be the idiosyncratic design of Disneyland's It's a Small World.

Marred by the unfortunate musical accompaniment, nevertheless the ride may be the closest we can get to being inside Mary Blair's mind. Or it would be, if it weren't for the over-looked gem, and my personal favorite Disney film, The Three Caballeros.

Blair worked on other films, more popular and more conventional, such as Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan. For Three Caballeros Blair served as art director, and her distinct style permeates the peculiar piece. What's incredible is the sheer range of styles:

...and more, all in 70 minutes. (The last example, above, is typical Blair.)

Noteworthy too is the range of narrative styles. It begins as a frame story: Donald has received a series of films for his birthday. These short animated sequences have nothing to do with one another, beyond being loosely tied to South and Latin America. From here the frame story segment ends, and new characters and plot are introduced. This section has Donald, joined by cohorts, visiting Brazil's Bahia and Mexico's top tourist destinations. It's notable, too, that this section features some of the first mixed live action and animation for a feature length film. Overwhelmed by the beauty of Latin ladies Donald then enters a surreal reverie, with no dialogue for the last ten minutes or so of the movie.

No other film I've ever encountered is so unique, so visually stunning, daring in narrative, and able to push the  boundaries without falling into art house pretension. It is a high-water mark of Disney's most artistically daring time, starting with Dumbo and continuing to the end of the package films of the 1940s. Only Fantasia can be considered to be more experimental.

Still, Blair's design legacy lives on. Consider the following illustration for Cinderella

compared to the UPA animation style that followed a decade later:

Or Pixar's Sanjay Patel's recent 'Little Book of Hindu Deities', which seems like it could easily have been a Blair creation:

Compared to an actual Blair:

Not mentioning her many non-Disney contributions, helping to extend her influence even further:

Pall Mall – Mary Blair - (1958)

and many more. Her visual style and design sense have become part of the shared visual culture, albeit subtly, nearly forgotten. For those who wish to get to know her work better, I strongly recommend taking some time to immerse yourself in the dazzling, peculiar, eye-popping Three Caballeros. It certainly beats getting the tune from It's a Small World stuck in your head.

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