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Blog, Movies, TV
Posted on Dec 21 2012 by Greg
By this time, Blu-rays have become so prevalent that pretty much every recent and classic movie has been released in the format. The real event releases are the ones that really show the brilliance and clarity of Blu-ray to its fullest.

That would be Walt Disney's Babes in Toyland. It's been over one hundred years since the Victor Herbert/Glen McDonough operetta premiered, yet there have only been two theatrical movies based on it. We'll get to the first one in a moment.

The second one came to theaters in 1961, when Walt Disney had just given the world Disneyland, three hit TV series and movies that were broadening from animation alone to live-action comedies and adventures as well. To understand and fully appreciate the significance of Babes in Toyland, it helps to put its release within that context and then see how it looks now.

Starting with the context: the Mickey Mouse Club had left ABC TV but was heading to syndication. Zorro was canceled, but still carried on in a few prime time episodes on the Disney Sunday night anthology show. They all overlapped, many of the performers appearing in numerous other productions for the studio.

For Toyland, we got Annette Funicello, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, all of whom had been stalwarts of the Mickey Mouse Club. From Zorro, we have the underappreciated Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon, both of whom turn in superb comic performances in Toyland -- not mere Laurel & Hardy knock-offs, but genuinely unique on their own. (It's worth mentioning that their characters, Rodrigo and Gonzorgo, both existed in the 1903 Toyland stage show, long before the Laurel & Hardy version).

The Disney studio had only been making sporadic attempts at live action films for a relatively short time by 1961. Most of the earliest movies were British productions, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea being the first all-live action feature made domestically. And that was only 1954. Making a full-scale musical was a little ambitious at this point -- and the one Walt Disney wanted to make was called "The Rainbow Road to Oz."

Rainbow Road was to star Annette, Tommy Kirk and many of the other Mickey Mouse Club performers in an original musical that would even tie into a Disneyland attraction. Neither happened (though you can get a glimpse at Rainbow Road on the DVD set, "Your Host, Walt Disney').

When Walt turned to Toyland, he used many of the same creatives intended for Rainbow Road. At the same time, his animators and other artists had worked on Disneyland projects, blending the Disney movies, TV and theme park productions into a house style of its day.

That's exactly what you see when you watch Babes in Toyland today, especially in the bright light of Blu-ray, in which even the fabric textures are astonishingly defined -- as if you're looking through a magic window.

What you're admittedly not really seeing, though, is a movie in the strictest sense. Few critics have good things to say about Toyland, and though they certainly make valid points, I don't think a movie is what this production ultimately is. It's more a big show on screen -- and a theme park ride if you will.

Looking at Mary Contrary's garden is like seeing a floral display at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. The settings would not be out of place in Fantasyland (the sets, in fact, were displayed at Disneyland in 1961 for holiday Guests to explore).

And the stylistic design, very much out of any Big Disney Golden Book, have influenced the Theme Park parades and shows ever since 1961, especially the Toy Soldiers, who have become such a Disney fixture that many do not realize they were created for this film by X Atencio and Bill Justice (and also appeared briefly in Mary Poppins).

In essence, Walt Disney's Babes in Toyland was no Poppins, but it's an E-ticket in other ways. And it paved the way. Musical fantasy and high camp are both notoriously difficult to capture in movies (The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins being the only two such films to be embraced by critics and audiences upon their very first releases).

Toyland doesn't flinch from being as broad as a barn, just like the stage show upon which it is based, which has its roots in vaudeville and British Pantomime. When you approach it like that, suspending disbelief as you would for a whimsical children's stage show, suddenly it's one of most bold and brash of its kind.

Ray Bolger isn't so much playing a villain as having a blast and letting us all in on it. Annette Funicello is the very soul of sincerity. Tommy Sands is remarkably believable considering the silliness going on around him -- no easy feat -- and he gets a chance to jump into the "camp camp" with his unbridled Floretta performance, so totally different from the Tom character that one wonders if it's the same person.

And then there's Ed Wynn, who always plays "Ed Wynn" even when he's in a serious role, and what a joy he is to watch. After all, you're listening to Alice's Mad Hatter and seeing Mary Poppins' Uncle Arthur at the same time And that toy making machine -- couldn't you just see it in Willy Wonka's inventing room or at a candy shop in Downtown Disney?

By the way, the original vinyl "original cast" album of Disney's Toyland (a studio recording of the score with Annette, Wynn, Bolger, Ann Jillian and others) is downloadable on iTunes.

To many fans, Hal Roach's 1934 Babes in Toyland (retitled March of the Wooden Soldiers) is the superior film. But I love both versions for any number of reasons.

This Laurel & Hardy vehicle is one of the most quotable movies, at least in three generations of my family ("You're not scared now!" "I don't love him!" "Good night, Ollie!" "Why, that's neither pig nor pork! It's beef"" "Ollie, here's your watch!' "He and I are just-like-that." Tut-tut-tut-turrut!" "We shall seeeee." I could go on and on...)

This Toyland is closer in musical tone to the 1903 show, complete with a tenor (Felix Knight) and other trappings of the musical form of theater before Rodgers and Hammerstein. It also bears a musical resemblance to Disney's own Snow White, released only three years later. What is amazing is how The Wizard of Oz, which came only five years later, avoids the operetta sound and still sounds amazingly mainstream. But then, Snow White was less than ten years after Steamboat Willie -- how fast the advancements came!

Laurel & Hardy starred in several similar operetta-style films -- Swiss Miss, Fra Diavolo and The Bohemian Girl -- that had the elements of a young singing couple, evil villains and comic set pieces with Stan and Ollie. Several of the Marx Brothers films did this as well.

High-pitched operetta-style though it is, Roach's Toyland is more cinematic than Disney's version. They both begin with a Mother Goose introduction and a glorious reveal of the village, but Disney deliberately shows the polished wood stage while Roach's village seems more grounded.

Walt Disney and Hal Roach apparently also had a friendly relationship; according to Leonard Maltin's The Disney Films, Disney warmly agreed to Roach's use of the Three Little Pigs (with different names) and a monkey appears to be playing Mickey Mouse (riding in a blimp that gets a visual nod in the 1961 film's toy battle scene).

Another Laurel & Hardy historian, John McCabe, wrote that Stan Laurel was very fond of Toyland, but regretted it not being filmed in color. The film is very accessible on home video in both colorized and black-and-white editions (Warner released a very nice print on DVD in recent years).

Colorization is a pariah to many film buffs, but since Laurel himself wished Babes in Toyland was made that way, it's kind of fun to watch the colorized version (keeping a black and white copy on hand as well). Toyland is so unreal, the lack of true tones and tints in colorization actually works, even clarifying some of the darker, less defined scenes in the last reel. It's a question of taste, but in this case, it's worth seeing in color at least once.

So which is better? I'm not the person to ask, being like Archie having to chose between Betty and Veronica (or Charlotte Henry and Annette). Roach's is more of a "movie," Disney's is more of a very, very expensive TV special or Theme Park extravaganza. Why worry about it? They're both delectable holiday confections. Enjoy.

Blog, TV
Posted on Dec 21 2012 by Greg
Actually, the DVD is called Mickey & Donald Have a Farm (as in ee -yi-ee-yi-yo). It's a collection from the Disney Junior CG-animated preschooler series, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

The signature episode, Mickey & Donald Have a Farm is presented along with other garden and home-related episodes, including:
Goofy's Petting Zoo
Clarabelle's Clubhouse Moo-sical
Goofy the Homemaker
(Right on, Goofy! Shatter those stereotypes!!)
Donald Hatches the Egg

I love that Goofy refers to eggs as "eggies" in this episode, since that is what I do with my kids. We even bought one of those as-seen-on-TV gadgets called "Eggies" just because of the name (even though it really didn't work very well.

One of the nicest things about Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, is that it brings Mickey and company to TV for young viewers as as warm, Dora-like friends, rather than only as park icons, corporate symbols, geometric shapes or an "old" characters. For many years, some kids grew up not knowing who Mickey was, or at least having a context into which they could have memories of him, so that's nice.

The other thing that's great about the series is that we also see characters like Professor Ludwig Von Drake (voiced by the great Corey Burton), Clarabelle Cow (the multi-talented April Winchell) and others. It's important to keep these dear friends from becoming obscure friends.

The package also includes a little garden kit with a package of seeds (I got lettuce), some fun facts and a set of character garden markers. Nice touch for a little more fun beyond the show watching itself.

There's also a paperback companion book of Mickey & Donald Have a Farm, sold separately.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Dec 19 2012 by Greg
"Dick Tracy" and "Heavyweights" seem to have little in common except that they were both just reissued on Blu-ray disc. But their very differences are fascinating, especially in view of how the movies and mainstream entertainment in general have changed.

Like a child born of great privilege and pedigree, 1990's "Dick Tracy" was given every advantage and afforded some of the finest talents. It shows especially in the crisp definition of Blu-ray that this is an Art Director's dream come true. Every square inch of the film is meticulously crafted, each color chosen and tested for how it would appear on film and contrast with other tints.

Academy Awards were given to "Dick Tracy" for Art Direction, Make Up and Song (though with nothing but respect to Stephen Sondheim, would "Sooner or Later" have won if it was written by Fleetwood Schrum and sung by Shirley Woffenthaler?

There's little dated at all about "Dick Tracy;" pains were taken to keep it looking classic and authentic to its period. However, this may be lost on today's viewers as much as it was when the film premiered to box office that did not make it Disney/Touchstone's answer to "Batman."

Ironically, "Dick Tracy" may have been an attempt to capture the success of the dark "Batman" of the '90s, yet its look (including canted camera angles) harkens more to the 1966 camp "Batman." Yet "Dick Tracy" tries to be so many things at once, it doesn't quite find itself -- while the '66 "Batman" reveled in its own inanity.

Warren Beatty's best scenes seem to be the simple ones, like those with young Charlie Korsmo, the actor with whom he has the most chemistry. One wonders what the rest of the film might have been like if the mood of these brief scenes had the same blend of color and heart.

One theory might be that, with the stakes for a mega-hit being so high, too many people saw too much footage too many times and kept honing and tightening the film to the point to where the viewer cannot land on any one thing. "Dick Tracy" has all the ingredients of a great film, but either the ingredients needed to be restrained or there were too many chefs.

The "Dick Tracy" Blu-ray contains no bonus features whatsoever, which is odd because so much promotional coverage at the time of its release. However, permission to use this material may have proven too costly. Would have been nice to have at least a trailer or two.

"Heavyweights," a small, low-budget adolescent comedy about ugly ducklings, may have emerged over time as a little swan. Not a classic by any stretch, but a solid, entertaining romp with little fat (sorry!)

The creative team behind "Heavyweights" has gone from a small fraternity of struggling actors and filmmakers to some of today's movers and shakers, including Judd Apatow ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin") and Paul Feig ("Bridemaids").

Listening to the brand-new Audio Commentary is akin to visiting their school reunion, in which the once young, tireless and hungry rebels are now middle-aged, successful, but a little disillusioned. It's also interesting to hear how the pecking order of the past snaps back when they get back together, just from the way they all talk -- or don't talk as much -- on the commentary track.

Like Gene Wilder's "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and Walt Disney's "Alice in Wonderland," 'Heavyweights" was considered too dark and sardonic on its first release, but gained a loyal following over the years.

This was only Ben Stiller's second feature film. At the time, he had come off "The Ben Stiller Show" and accepted the role of psychotic Tony Perkis (a twist on "Perkins?"). He literally threw himself completely into the role, but according to the director, was disappointed when an audience of kids didn't find him funny, just mean. His image was not on tthe VHS or DVD release covers. Apparently he has reconciled his feeling about it -- he is prominently featured on this new Blu-ray package.

17 years later, with the tone of kid's cartoons like "Spongebob" and "Phineas and Ferb" presenting adversaries even nuttier than Perkis, the film seems to better fit the mood of today's times.

Often teetering beyond its PG rating, "Heavyweights" may still strike some as very strange indeed, being sort of a comical "Lord of the Flies" where all the boys are like "Piggy." It has deliberate nods to things like "Gone with the Wind," "Apocalypse Now" "Platoon" But so do "Spongebob" cartoons, just as Bugs Bunny classics contained references lost on kids but still funny to them. My son, who never saw it until now, finds it imminently quotable ("I am Lars!" "I come from far away!" "Repulse the monkey!")

Some parents may not be so enchanted, though. Foreshadowing their later, more raunchy movies, Apatow and company tread very close to the edge of bad taste and inappropriate material for young children, and Disney films in general (depending on your point of view, they fall off the edge at times, even in "Heavyweights" -- particularly in the alternate scenes).

But the filmmakers are not historically accurate in their comments that they were bringing an "edge" to Disney films. Lots of Walt's films had more "edge" than they sometimes get credit for. And even some basic humor. Pop in a "Fantasia" disc and you'll even spot one or two tushies.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Dec 19 2012 by Greg
One of the most prestigious films from Disney's Touchstone Pictures division, "The Joy Luck Club" is a generation-spanning, no-holds-barred drama about the interlocking lives and fates of Asian women who meet each week to play Mah-Jongg.

My mom used to do the Mah-Jongg nights in my youthful days, when we lived in Miami. We are neither Asian nor Jewish, but it would appear that the archetypical mother figure is very similar among cultures, including my mom's which is Italian. The gathering scene at the beginning of "Joy Luck Club," especially with its cacaphony of loud, multiple conversations, reminded me very much of when my mother's relatives used to get together.

My point is that there is much in "The Joy Luck Club" with which many of us can identify, regardless of gender or culture. People are people and life can be cruel as well as wonderful.

Be warned -- the goings get very tough in some of the flashback sequence. One scene in particular will never quite leave my mind, or my wife's. I won't spoil it but it involves France Nuyen's character as a young wife and mother, pushed to the edge. (Parent's note: this is a film about a family, but definitely NOT a family film and is rated "R.") My ignorance of the other actors' work is my shortcoming, because these artists are clearly outstanding in their blend of intensity, strength and dimension.

Ms. Nuyen is among the more familiar actors in the film, at least to my little world. She's been in countless films and TV shows, but I remember her best at the side of her husband, actor Robert Culp, on numerous talk shows. Ming Na Wen, the speaking voice of Mulan, plays the central young character. Christopher Rich ("Murphy Brown," "The Charmings," "Reba") appears as a well-meaning but occasionally -- and painfully -- oafish suitor. Among Rosalind Chao's many impressive credits is playing Klinger's wife on "M*A*S*H".

The photography is brilliant and looks marvelous in Blu-ray. The disc could have used some bonus features, though, especially an Audio Commentary. I'm sure budgetary issues are forcing bonus features to the sidelines, but lots of us out here love them, sometimes as much -- and sometimes better than -- the movies.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Dec 14 2012 by Greg
"Finding Nemo" is not only one of Pixar's biggest movie hits, it's also one of their best films. To quote Leonard Maltin describing "Peter Pan," "it's a film in which everything clicks." Visually, it is almost overwhelming -- on the big screen, recently in 3D, on DVD and now on Blu-ray, where every details sparkles.

Much is said about the pros and cons of using "name" celebrities for voices. "Finding Nemo" stands as a great arguement for using them, if they are well cast. Few animated films of any kind boast such an on-target cast, from the stars to the always great character actors and voice actors who fill out the company.

It's also one of those films that, once you get started watching it, you simply have to keep watching, no matter how many times you've seen it. The story is 99% fat free, every sequence moving logically from one to another. This is Pixar at its best, and also the master influence of Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki at work.

So if you want to behold its majesty in Blu-ray, this new release is highly recommended. Even though there is a DVD in some sets, which you can use in the car or the computer, if you love bonus features and want to keep them equally accessible, than hang on to your 2-Disc Collectors Edition. The Blu-ray seems to have a few new features, but most of it was imported from the last edition and does not reappear on the new DVD.

There was also a 168-minute "visual commentary" on the earlier edition that has been reconfigured on the Blu-ray into a "Cine-Explore" that now runs the 100-minute length of the film. I cannot itemize every element to assure that the edited material was placed elsewhere on the Blu-ray, so again I'm keeping my earlier edition.

New option on Blu-ray and DVD:
English Descriptive Audio Service

2012 Blu-ray Bonus Features

Cine-explore (shortened visual commentary)
Reinventing the Submarine Voyage
Deleted Scene: Alt Opening
A Lesson in Flashbacks
Knick Knack Theatrical Short
Finding Nemo - A Filmmakers' Roundtable
Selection of Virtual Aquariums
Art Review
Documentary: Making Nemo
Exploring the Reef
Studio Tour
Old School
Deleted Scenes
Publicity Pieces
Mr Ray's Encyclopedia

2012 DVD Bonus Features
Knick Knack Theatrical Short
Finding Nemo - A Filmmakers' Roundtable

2003 2-Disc DVD Collectors Edition
Widescreen movie
Documentary: Making Nemo
Visual Commentary (with Deleted Scenes, 168 minutes)
Design Galleries (Art Review; Characters; Environments, Color Script)
Selection of Virtual Aquariums
Introduction with filmmakers
Full Frame movie
Exploring the Reef
Knick Knack Theatrical Short
Mr Ray's Encyclopedia
Fishharades Game
Behind the Scenes (Character Interviews, Studio Tour, Publicity)

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