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Blog, Movies
Posted on Mar 28 2011 by Greg
Rumors of the end of the Disney Princess movies, to paraphrase Mark Twain, "have been highly exaggerated." Tangled proved it by being a huge theatrical hit. Part fairy tale, part musical, part romantic comedy, somehow it all came together despite a long, difficult history of behind-the-scenes changes and rearranges, including giving the film a "hip" title instead of Rapunzel (or as it was known in an earlier incarnation, Rapunzel Unbraided).

When the Tangled trailers originally aired, I was apprehensive because of the title change and the skewed trailers with their blaring pop music tracks. Would it be a spoofy, Shrek-y send up? Would Rapunzel herself be the tough-talking "today" lady so common in recent animation? Would it end with a boogie dancing '80s top-40 chestnut?

I needn't have been concerned. Tangled turns out to be a Disney fairy tale in the classic sense that straddles the difficult line between "straight" storytelling, screwball comedy, romance and yes, even a little suspense -- because, like Cinderella, we know it's all going to be fine but we want to see how it works out.

And speaking of Cinderella, there has never been a Disney animated film with a more complicated villain than Mother Gothel since the Stepmother in Walt Disney's Cinderella (Cruella and Madame Medusa are close contenders). The evil is all about psychological abuse, the manipulation of a person into submission that is so effective that the victim is compelled to sustain it, even though they yearn for more.

How many of us have experienced, or know someone who has experienced, a situation in which we are led to believe that we're "lucky to be here" or "better off than the alternative" by a person or a group who knows your true worth but conceals it by convincing you you're not capable otherwise? Who hasn't had the boss/parent/partner/friend who criticized you so much you started to believe you really were worthless? I was astounded to see this complex dynamic dealt with in a Disney animated film.

Both Rapunzel and Flynn have self-doubt but they trod on anyway. They didn't start out contemptuously loathing each other the way couples do in way too many films nowadays, either. Their character arcs were the most plausible we'd seen since Beauty and the Beast.

The Alan Menken/Glenn Slater songs were not tossed in at random just to fill up an album or make a great theme park number (though they probably would), but because they had a crucial book requirement. They all served the story -- and I've Got a Dream" was the funniest number since "Gaston."

Often when the story was just about to approach a cliché, there was a gag or twist that punctured it. And the horse -- Maximus -- stole every scene.

Animation-wise, there was a hand-drawn quality to the expressions that I don't recall in most CG films, especially in the more human-styled characters. In his commentary on Toy Story 3, Lee Unkrich said there had been huge strides in CG humans and clearly both films were able to benefit.

Tangled didn't make me get all misty eyed the way that Toy Story 3 did, but it was, in tone, more of a grand epic romp overall. I liked it much more than I thought I would. My wife and kids loved it, too.

The Tangled Blu-ray is truly dazzling, making full use of meticulous detail, design and color. The DVD does not contain as many bonus features as the Blu-ray, but there aren't all that many overall anyway. One highlight is a segment in which lead voice actors Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi breeze through a lighthearted trivia trek which includes a quick rundown of all 50 Disney animated features (a list that has, historically, changed a little bit over the years). Sure wish there was an audio commentary, though.

There seemed to be no doubt that Mandy Moore was a perfect fit for the singing and acting duties of playing a Disney princess. The surprise is Levi, who has far more range than he often is allowed to display on TV. Clearly he has more stage experience than the unpretentious persona evidenced in various appearances. He even has a decent singing voice.

Like Mickey Mouse, who started it all, the fairy tale is the heart of Disney storytelling. They can and should stretch and go outside the box but they should never totally abandon the core form. Nobody does it better. Makes me feel sad for the rest...(somebody stop me!)

Blog, Records
Posted on Mar 26 2011 by Greg
It was widely reported this month that our beloved Annette Funicello suffered but recovered from smoke inhalation when her house caught fire. I don't know the extent of the home damage, but it's yet another thing she and her husband Glen has weathered in addition to her ongoing MS condition.

The best way to show support for her would logically be to contribute to The Annette Funicello Fund For Neurological Disorders, which she founded to help fund research. Every fan I meet feels the same way -- why should Annette, of all people, have to have had this happen? This is a celebrity who has always been the benchmark of kindness and unpretentiousness.

And say what you want about those frothy beach movies, they always seen over and over again, maybe because they're such a total respite from daily cares. And so is her peppy, pop music, which has once again seen a resurgence thanks to a new Collectors Choice CD called First Name Initial: All Her Chart Hits & More. We wish her nothing less than the best.

Blog, TV
Posted on Mar 18 2011 by Greg
There's no denying that even the people who helped launch the Hannah Montana series could not have dreamed how it would have exploded into an international phenomenon, with top-charting albums, sold-out concerts and infinite merchandise all revolving around a 'tween sitcom which basically takes the basic Cinderella story and allows its lead character to have fame and a "normal" life at the same time. It's the pretend game that millions of girls play with their Barbie (and now Hannah) dolls.

The series ran four seasons, but the DVD releases have been limited to themed collections, the complete first season and now this, the fourth and final. I couldn't tell you if, by picking up all the collections that you'd have all the shows combined, but it might be nice if seasons two and three are issued intact someday.

Because Hannah Montana The Final Season draws a curtain over the entire series run, it's notable for many reasons. We see Hannah grapple with "growing up" her music perhaps perhaps at the expense of her loyal young fans ("Hannah's Gonna Get This"), a storyline that parallels Miley Cyrus' leaps into more mature escapades (the episode tones down the leap, but her decision to move ahead is the same as in real life).

And when it comes to real life, it's got to be difficult to know where Hannah Montana ends and Miley Cyrus begins, and where she's going to go next. When The Monkees left the network, their albums stopped climbing the charts. However, Disney Channel may run the series for years, much like Nickelodeon runs the "Steve" episodes of Blues Clues even though he left the show years ago. Can Steve ever really leave it behind?

Time will tell. The strange thing about the DVD set is that, in the three short bonus features, there are moments that make those of us who have been keeping track of the Cyrus family issues in the media. On one, the cast says goodbye, Billy Ray even thanking the Disney Channel. Prophetically, in a short clip from a very early casting session, or something of that nature, he comments about how, if this show takes off, his little girl is never going to be the same, calling it a "double-edged sword." Interesting.

The most unusual thing is an "alternate ending" to the last show of the series. Without spoiling anything, suffice to say that one ends with Miley going to college (which we might hope she does in real life, as many specialists in child stardom will attest) and the other ending does not, though it implies that the whole thing might have been a... well, you'll see.

The package includes a glossy, hardcover scrapbook that houses the two discs, quite a nice package for the price.

Now if they could only fill in the gap with the other two dozen or so episodes in the middle...

Blog, Movies
Posted on Mar 16 2011 by Greg
For those of us who cherish the films of Studio Ghibli and especially the master animator Hayao Miyazaki, it's always something of an event when a new film comes out. Tales from Earthsea is such an event, though it's actually the first film directed by his son, Goro, but according to the brief special feature doc, the Ursula LeGuin fantasy book and short story series was long envisioned by the senior Miyazaki as an animation project -- with Ms. LeGuin very much in favor of the full Ghibli treatment for her creation.

And that it does. Tales from Earthsea is a grand epic fantasy with astonishing design and scope. Though cel animated, CG is also used to enhanced the movement over ground surfaces, for depth and other imagery that would be more cumbersome (if possible) to be done by hand. It must be made clear that the CG serves the 2D animation rather than overwhelm it, much as it did in Beauty and the Beast and The Great Mouse Detective, only on a much bigger scale.

I'm no expert on the Earthsea stories, but from what I can estimate from various synopses, this film takes several characters and situations and crafts its own cohesive storyline, avoiding the intense intermingling of characters and arcs that weave throughout the LeGuin works. Overall, the film stands on its own, though we are left with a few loose ends here and there.

Few movies have the layered intelligence of Tales from Earthsea, with its musings on life, death and human existence within a very engrossing story about a youth who starts out on the run because of a murder he can't explain. He's mentored by an elder wizard and do some farming as well engage in as swashbuckling action...well you have to see it.

Perhaps in part because this Earthsea is Goro's first feature as director, it's been released at the same time as a new Blu-Ray version of Miyazaki's first feature directed for Studio Ghibli, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (I would  assume an Earthsea Blu-ray is forthcoming).

Completely by coincidence, Nausicaa takes on a staggeringly prophetic tone in the shadow of recent natural and man-made disasters in Japan, making it all the more hard-hitting as allegory.

Virtually all of Miyazaki's film convey this theme with varied intensity. In Nausicaa, pollution and industrial waste is the major element as this fantasy world is plagued by a deadly poisoned jungle and the relation between people and animals, in this case bug-like creatures that young Princess Nausicaa understands and champions.

The film is lentgthy for an animated feature, yet does not flag or sag. It's an overall dark story without much humor, but the subject matter holds little room for flippancy. The voice cast, showcased on one of the bonus features, matches that of a major Hollywood live action movie, the case including Patrick Stewart, Uma Thurman and Edward James Olmos.

For DVD owners, you will find that a few of the bonus features have been moved to the new disc. But again, Blu-ray especially accentuates that remarkable, meticulous detail of the world of Nausicaa and the imagination of Miyazaki.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Mar 09 2011 by Greg
Sorry for the Police Squad-style gag.

The great thing about a great film is its ability to elicit a nostalgic response in addition to taking on a new meaning with each new viewing.

Seeing Bambi again after a few years, this time with my own family on the new Diamond Edition, brought back the memories of each time I saw it in the past (this goes back to the 1960s) and how it resonated then and still does now. This is perhaps the closest an animated film comes to being a moving painting, a work of art in motion. Yet, Bambi is even more than that because the effect is more than visual.

Bambi has one of the most powerful and imitated musical scores in the film industry. Let's face it, when "man in in the forest," it might as well be Jaws. And while its last two songs are more a part of the 1940s period in which it was first released, the first two, "Love is a Song" and "Little April Shower," are masterworks, in their composition and execution.

The main observation I took away from seeing Bambi this time around was how much it reminded me of a Hayao Miyazaki film in tone and design. There are many held cels, pausing for emotional effect much like anime, and the environmental theme has had decade-long ramifications. I wonder if the great Japanese animator was inspired by this film in particular.

The one aspect of Bambi that was played down over the years has been the voice cast. No voice cast received less credit in a Disney animated feature, as was Walt Disney's plan at the time, because it was felt that knowing the voices detracted from the animated characters (which is arguably true, especially in this age of star voices). But it's nice that the cast has been revealed more recently and can be researched elsewhere, though not so much in the DVD, except for some comments on a bonus feature.

The person I would like to bring into the spotlight here is Paula Winslowe, who embodied the warmth and strength of Bambi's mother flawlessly with impeccable diction and remarkable depth in so few lines. It may surprise fans of the golden age radio classic, The Life of Riley, that Ms. Winslowe played the long-suffering yet loving wife, Peg, to William Bendix's Chester A. Riley -- a fine example of her versatility.

The new Blu-ray is stunning, as the film itself is, and features a new interactive feature that allows you to access additional material on your laptop while the film plays (in addition to a few new bonus features). Most but not all of the older bonus material presented on the previous two-disc DVD, but I'm keeping my old one to keep all the features.

Props to the people at Walt Disney Home Entertainment for not being completely Blu-ray-centric for those who still cling to standard DVD by including the newly-enhanced "Inside Walt's Story Meetings" feature, which replaces Patrick Stewart from the earlier version (another reason to keep the old DVD set) and adds about 26 additional minutes of expert, on camera commentary and a constant stream of supporting visuals that fly by on the screen as the entire film plays. This sort of feature appeared on the recent Blu-ray of Alice in Wonderland and it is a terrific experience. Kudos to the people who worked so hard on it. Maybe this kind of feature, which is like an audio commentary only very visual, needs a catchy name like "ArchiveVision." I hope more Disney titles include this fine feature.

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