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Posted on Nov 07 2010 by Greg

Pixar already has Hollywood dumbfounded by its unbroken track record of solid box office hits. Now Toy Story 3 has surged ahead of its sister films and become the leader. It has also done what even Coppola couldn't do: make a third sequel that arguably tops the first two films.

Much has already been said and written about Toy Story 3. While the majority of opinions have been positive, it has also been called the "darkest" of the Toy Story movies. Some have also expressed displeasure at the cruelty of the Lotso character. [Spoiler alert] One might wonder if there were some behind the scenes debates; there had to been some concern that the fluffy pink bear's misbehavior might have affected merchandising and such (though to our family's thinking, we've reconciled the plush and theme park versions of Lotso as "other Lotsos" and not the discarded, bitter bear we saw in the movie.

Toy Story 3, like all of Pixar's features and shorts, seem to have a creative vision funneled through a singular director. Even though TS3's director, Lee Unkrich, has been with the franchise since the beginning, this particular film really has Unkrich's humor and intensity.

This theory is based on the extensive and detailed audio commentary he does with producer Darla K (for Kay) Anderson, in which explains the stories behind the story decisions and even the little jokes (for instance, Michael Keaton mispronounced "library" as Ken and Unkrich left it in and overruled requests to the contrary -- and it does get a laugh in theaters). But on a larger scale, if one were to take the caricature of him literally (which you can see in a bonus feature about the crew shaving their heads), he seems to be perceived as a pretty intense fellow.

I saw the movie three times in theaters and my family saw it twice. It made me misty eyed every time, both at the beginning and especially at the end. Like Walt Disney's classic animation, these CG-generated creatures have the ability to elicit real emotion from viewers. When Andy explains each toy to little Bonnie, it's truly touching, not contrived for effect. And yet the film is laugh out loud funny in other places, such as Mr. Potato Head's makeshift "base bodies." Much of these ideas are explained in the commentary too.

Nearly every animated feature today uses celebrity voices, but to the new and carryover casts of Toy Story 3, this isn't just a pick-up-the-check-and-mention-it-to-Leno deal to any of the stars involved here. They know they are part of something special and don't take it lightly, I'm certain. My favorite performances have to be Jodi Benson as Barbie and the aforementioned Keaton as Ken. The apparently did their lines together and the timing pays off (many voice actors, especially stars, do their lines separately). It's even funny when Ken is reading the roll and, angry at his lady doll, call her name out with middle-school disdain ("BAR-bie.") Things like this make repeated viewings fun.

Most of the extras are on the 2 Blu-ray discs, though the commentary and a few of the "animatic"-style behind the scenes features are also on the single DVD. I was particularly pleased that there is also a narrative audio option for the entire film, so those with sight challenges can enjoy the film as a narrator explains the action. This is actually quite nice as a bonus feature too, because you don't have to stare at the screen and you can get a "Disneyland Storyteller" LP-type experience. Perhaps this service, produced by WGBH in Boston, will be included on future Disney and Pixar releases.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Oct 22 2010 by Greg
Walt Disney's True-Life Adventure series began with Seal Island, one of many ideas he had that seemed crazy at the time -- a genre of film in which massive amounts of nature footage was edited to tell a story. The series was a long running success, leading to an endless parade of shorts, features and, more than anything else, TV shows featuring animals.

There were also some controversies. Some animal specialists and other critics were not pleased with how these films created an "anthropomorphosis" for the animals, attributing to them thoughts and motivations created through the editing and narration rather than real life events. You know, like reality TV (so does that make Snooki the new Perri?)

However, that was part of the entertainment value of the films, and what made them so memorable. It's to the credit of those who create films either produced or released by Disneynature to acheive a similar quality with a keener eye for nonfiction.

They also have an advantage early nature documentarists never dreamed of -- high-definition photography and fascinating gadgets like remote helicopter-like cameras and deep-sea devices.

These developments and more are put to extremely effective use on both new Disneynature Blu-ray and DVD releases, Disneynature: Oceans and Crimson Wing-The Mystery of the Flamingo. These two features each offer spectacular footage never before put on film.

In place of the paternal Winston Hibler or the folksy Rex Allen, who did so much of the early Disney nature film narrations, Oceans is told with a combination of awe and matter-of-fact assertion by Pierce Brosnan. Listening to him narrate, I couldn't help wondering how many other commercials and films I had heard with his voice, but not realizing it.

Oceans is a dynamic, but fairly straightforward tour through the seas, showcasing the familiar, the strange and of course, the endangered (Disney Channel pop stars Demi Lovato and Joe Jonas add their "Friends for Change" note with a song over the end credits that is also a music video).

The bonus features examine the filmmaking techniques and also promote the Disney Corporate environmental initiatives, which might seem a bit self-serving to some but is a largely sincere and highly accomplished effort by those involved who are seriously dedicated to these issues. Disney's a big company and it's a business, but it also brings these issues into the mainstream and allows costly research to take place. And it gets films like this into the mainstream, too.

Of the two films, Crimson Wing is the most unique. Told in a lyrical style, it's more of an epic poem on film than a documentary. The images are often surprisingly abstract -- like visual puzzles that disorient the eye before revealing what they are. In one sequence, for example, the flamingos glide over a lake surface so calm you can't tell where the birds are until the ripples appear.

The narrator of Crimson Wing is Mariella Frostrup, well-known to BBC watchers and listeners. To me, her narrator conjured up memories of the original Living Seas film at Epcot ("And it rained, and rained and rained...the deluge"). The whole film has that quality. So if you're a vintage Epcot fan, you'll get a kick out of Crimson Wing in a way that the filmmakers never intended, I'm sure.

Oceans and Crimson Wing both take the viewer out of the everyday and to a larger plane of existence, a bigger picture, as it were, of our existence and that of the creatures around us. It can't hurt to be reminded that there's a lot more to the world.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Oct 05 2010 by Greg
Disney's Beauty and the Beast has become the quintessential animated musical, chock full of moments that have become iconic -- even to the point of parody -- since its smash debut in 1991. It was the ultimate connection of consummate talents, some who were already legendary and many of which who have become industry giants.

This is the first time in seven years that Beauty and the Beast has been issued on home video, this time in a DVD/Blu-Ray combo that kindly for DVD owners, still offers the superb audio commentary by producer Don Hahn, composer Alan Menken and directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale and three versions of the film, as they appeared on the Platinum Edition.

Once again, this Diamond Edition offers yet another reason to get a Blu-Ray Player if you want to see how great the digital restoration is in all its glory. (As far as I can tell, you can't buy the DVD without getting the Blu-ray discs as well.) If you want to see some new features such as an Alternate Opening, a Deleted Scene, new games, new documentary features and a new music video. You might want to hang onto your Platinum DVD because there are a few features, including some games, that do not appear on the new edition.

Beauty and the Beast is one of those Disney classics that transcends its release date, the age of its audience and the tinge of its lesser imitators. Somehow it all works, and as the artists say themselves, even they didn't know whether it would all work but somehow it did. That's the fascinating, elusive nature of great artistry.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Sep 22 2010 by Greg
if you're a Disney and Peter Pan fan and you ever had any doubts about whether making Tinker Bell the central character of a Disney film series would work, they should all disappear when you see Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue. I really believe this would be a very successful film if released theatrically, especially this time of year when pickings are lean at the theaters.

The first film, titled Tinker Bell, was largely an origin story, and the second, Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, helped develop the supporting characters (especially Terrence) and Tinker Bell's anger issues. This film offers a good balance between our lead fairy and her friends along with a really solid story that never seems padded, a hazard in some direct-to-video films.

Like a Victorian E.T., this new film gives us a chance to see what happens when a young, imaginative child gets the dream of a lifetime -- to meet a fairy. Woven beautifully into the narrative are the young girl's need for her father's attention (who is present for her in body only), the dynamics between the fairy characters (focusing mostly on Vidia, who is nicer in this film but still having the prickly attitude of Veronica Lodge) and the wonderful activity of creating fairy houses (which is showcased in a bonus feature taking place at the Epcot Flower & Garden Festival).

The film has a nice, lyrical pace but never lags for a moment, much in the style now identified with Pixar movies (some character designs even have a Pixar look). What are most delightful for fans are the references to the 1953 Disney classic. In the opening moments, Terence brings Tinker Bell to Fairy Camp and says, "There it is, Tinker Bell -- Fairy Camp!" much as Peter Pan said, "There it is Wendy -- second star to the right and straight on 'til morning!" At one point, there is a glimpse of the Darling home from the sky, as well as the iconic Big Ben landing.

This is the least musical of the Disney Fairies films, but the score by Joel McNeely is magnificent -- yet there does not seem to be a soundtrack album! Maybe it will show up as a download.

Visually, Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue is a feast and a good excuse to finally get that Blu-Ray player. With a big screen TV you can simulate the look of the film in a movie theater.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Sep 21 2010 by Greg
Jake Gyllenhaal (and his sister Maggie) are the children of Naomi, as in "What About Naomi?"

If you watched the classic original Electric Company back in the '70s (or when it was briefly revived, or on DVD), you know that this was the signature phrase from the brilliant "Love of Chair," a satire of soap operas that was conceived by head writer Paul Dooley. Every installment of this sketch ended with the narrator saying, as the organ music dramatically paused, "And...what about Naomi?"

It was an inside joke. The real Naomi was Children's Television Workshop staffer Naomi Foner, who years later gave birth to the two young stars. What does this have to do with The Prince of Persia? Well, it gives Jake Gyllenhaal a few extra points with me even though this movie somehow falls short of what it could be. He seems like a sincerely good fellow, and even took the time to appear in promos and on talk shows to promote this film, something that some stars who cash huge Disney's paychecks don't bother to do.

As a workout video, The Prince of Persia is better than any of those Jane Fonda VHS tapes. Jake earns his abs in scene after scene. It's a shame that the script did not offer him as much of a challenge. We never really get to know, or really care much about, the lead characters. The first 30 minutes is almost solid exposition, overloaded with political business and intrigue, before the fantasy of the magic dagger and the romance of the lovely and independent Princess and Dastan get underway.

The two leads seem to have some chemistry but an awful lot of epic furniture gets in their way. I have to wonder how the script must have been before it was meddled with by all the chefs, concerned about the obviously huge budget paying off and making sure the kitchen sink wasn't left out.

It's a fine cast with always great performances by Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina, spectacular production values on a level with DeMille and a fine score by Harry Gregson-Williams.

Maybe the summer was too hot here in Florida for me to find the film's setting very appealing. The short documentary included with the DVD (the Blu-Ray also includes a deleted scene and an interactive feature) tells us that the temperatures were over 100 degrees and this discomfort comes across in the film -- though apparently producer Jerry Bruckheimer stayed nice and cool in the studio where he taped his comments with a superimposed background behind him!

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