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Posted on Aug 10 2010 by Greg
(I used "plum" because "peach" would have been too obvious.)

There is a handful of Disney productions that I feel are underrated and James and the Giant Peach falls into that category. Not as edgy as The Nightmare Before Christmas, not as flashy as action/fantasies of its era, yet not conventional to be easily categorized, James is a gem with a gentle sweetness (ooh, another peach pun) and unabashed stylization that makes it stand on it own as a unrecognized classic.

An early Roald Dahl work with less of the bitter taste (sorry!) that characterized his adult fiction and crept into his children's books too (don't get me wrong, I love Dahl's work, but it's pretty tough stuff), James and the Giant Peach is about a tortured youth (a Dahl trademark) who embarks on a magical journey with an unlikely team of garden creatures who have anthropomorphosized into talking friends).

The film, done with the cooperation of Dahl family members, is probably the most faithful visualization of his books, created with the artistry of Lane Smith, whose books are also distinctive. Smith illustrated a special tie-in edition of James when the film was released, and along with a "making of" book by Lucy Dahl, were among the sparse merchandise offerings connected with the film.

It's a musical of sorts, with some fine work by Randy Newman, particularly the touching "My Name is James" and the showpiece "A Family," in which we hear Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon and Jane Leeves, all giving spirited performances.

The live action segments are deliberately designed to be cartoonlike with no attempt at the gritty realism that took the enchantment out, in my opinion, movies like Hook and Return to Oz. It's a throwback to early fantasy cinema, and perhaps why it was not enthusiastically promoted nor received in its day.

James and the Giant Peach was released on DVD once before, sadly without a commentary. There's still none on this new edition, but a new game has been added to the Blu-Ray disc. Most of the other features remain, but the gallery feature has been moved exclusively to the Blu-Ray.

This is a highly recommended, old-fashioned family fantasy with all the classic elements and some astonishingly detailed stop motion. Director Henry Selick moved on to the impressive Coraline from here, and is now reportedly back at Disney. It will be nice to see if he creates a sparkling treasure along the lines of James and the Giant Peach again.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Jul 24 2010 by Greg

They were on sale at Big Lots, so we got DVDs of two remakes.

One was the newer version of Yours, Mine and Ours that recast Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda with Rene Russo and Dennis Quaid. Ironically, even though the 1968 version starred two iconic legends, the remake seemed more farfetched and broad.

Dennis Quaid played a higher ranking officer who still had plenty of time for his kids and Rene Russo appeared as a quintessential successful businesswoman who also balanced a lot of time bonding with her kids and a talking stick -- and looked fantabulous.

In the original, Henry Fonda played a career military man who had little time for his family until his wife's death forced him to get to know his somewhat resentful children and Lucille Ball played a military nurse. So much for the "phoney, fakey Hollywood" of yesterday as opposed to the "more relatable, honest Hollywood" of today.

That said, even though it did not compare favorably overall to the original, the new Yours Mine and Ours was entertaining.

The 1997 remake of Leave it to Beaver, now largely forgotten while the original series lives on, was just okay. Clearly produced under conflicting circumstances, there was a lot of valiant effort to reproduce the wit of the series. Everyone tried hard, but it felt that, behind the scenes  of the film, there was a "classic" camp and a "contemporary' camp at work, very much at odds with each other.

The film went for a retro look, right down to the title in cement, Wally and Beaver walking home over the end credits, vintage cars and June Cleaver's dresses (which were kind of a caricature here), while there was lots of language that you just wouldn't hear in the Cleaver household. It's as if it was forced in, and maybe it was. There was a talented cast, but just not making the magic -- and how can you -- of the marvelous original.

It sure is hard to capture lightning in a bottle -- again and again.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Jun 04 2010 by Greg

For this journey down the rabbit hole, Tim Burton is the driver and Johnny Depp the tour guide. Several film versions of Lewis Carroll's two "Alice" books have been released almost since the beginning of the 20th century. By and large, they have not been box office successes, though Walt Disney's 1951 animated feature has become perhaps the most iconic (I also like the 1933 Paramount film, the 1972 British musical film, the 1966 TV special of Through the Looking Glass, all on DVD, and the Hanna-Barbera 1966 special, which I wish was on DVD.)

Disney's new big screen version of Tim Burton's vision of Alice in Wonderland, or "Underland," gives us Johnny Depp once again creating an original persona to our sheer amazement, This film is the first mega-hit movie version of Alice ever, hitting the 1 billion dollar mark worldwide. It's a testament to Johnny Depp's astronomical star power within the right vehicle. It has also been accomplished not only through Burton's artistry, but Linda Woolverton's screenwriting (she penned Disney's Beauty and the Beast, after all).

But they also had to change the story to make it work as a movie. Every filmmaker has struggled with the Carroll texts because, like dreams, they are random experiences with no arc. Walt Disney was the most successful, in my view, at staying faithful to the story without adding an arc (and Walt's artists' vision of the rabbit hole is still the best of all time).

What was done with the 2010 Alice in Wonderland was to make it a revisit, of sorts, with Alice at marrying age and at a crossroads in life. This is her second Wonderland visit, to bring her confidence and direction. It's probably the most re-defined and altered story arc of any Alice adaptation to date (in the excellent Hallmark TV miniseries, Alice is afraid to recite a poem and the Wonderland characters give her moral support).

Alice, in this version, is a bit like the Pevensie children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe -- sent by a prophetic destiny to rid the kingdom of an oppressive, deadly leader. The characters are given names (which my son loves: "It's not the White Rabbit, Daddy, he's McTwisp!"). Elements of the Carroll narrative (the rabbit hole, "drink me," etc.) are still here, but eventually the new adventure takes hold and the film becomes an action fantasy.

By the time Alice, the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse reach the Queen's castle, they've become a team more in the style of L. Frank Baum than Carroll -- in fact, I expected Alice to tell the Hatter "I'm going to miss you most of all." She even says a line similar to "and you were there, and you and you!" But I digress and perhaps spoil.

But you know what? It works. And it's more akin to Disney tradition that it may seem at first, since Walt himself considered changing the Carroll story as well, and also almost made a live-action/animated version with Ginger Rogers. This film, with its blend of live actors, CG animation and motion capture, was virtually all performed in front of a green screen, a descendant of the live action/animated sequences in Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

The cast is marvelous, on screen and off. Mia Wasikowska suggests Hayley Mills, with a physical resemblance as well as a similar spunky yet sober attitude. Helena Bonham Carter is having a ball with a juicy, outrageous villain to chew on Red Queen. Anne Hathaway channels Snow White (watch those bent elbows) and Billie Burke as the White Queen. The voices of Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Michael Sheen as the White Ra-- oops, I mean McTwisp are among the letter-perfect voice casting. And of course, there's to Johnny Depp's masterful, mercurial "Bozo-Blows-His-Big-Top," yet somehow heartbreakingly sympathetic, Hatter.

One note to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang fans: the legendary Barbara Windsor, who voices the swashbuckling Dormouse, was the blonde girl friend of Arthur Millard, the big goofball who got the ugly haircut from Dick Van Dyke's machine in the Sherman Brothers 1968 musical classic. And that's just a small part of a very big stage and screen career. It's nice to hear her in this film.

The film is visually amazing and as good a reason as any to plunk down the cash for a Blu-Ray player. The DVD has a handful of the bonus features included on the Blu-Ray disc, but I sure would have loved to hear an audio commentary from someone about such an interesting film.

Can't wait for the sequel -- how can there NOT be? I've always loved Alice in Wonderland and am glad to see it possibly become a franchise, as well as "cool" again. This is one instance where today's filmmakers have realized that total fantasy and escapism is what audiences want during depressed times.

And it still compliments the Walt Disney version without replacing it. There's always room for another Wonderland, and the Walt Disney version will always be landmark, especially because of its Mary Blair look, classic voice cast and unforgettable songs.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Apr 22 2010 by Greg
The Great Mouse Detective came along -- and was somewhat lost -- during a highly transitional period as Walt Disney Productions became The Walt Disney Company (see the fine new documentary, Waking Sleeping Beauty, for details). It's definitely worth more attention that it seems to get, perhaps because it gets left between the "troubled" post-Walt era and the "second golden age" that began essentially with The Little Mermaid.

Detective, which was supposed to be called "Basil of Baker Street" after the book upon which it is based but was renamed by a nervous Marketing department (hmmm...Tangled?) is a Sherlock Holmes-style adventure with some memorable moments and a nice score by multi-Oscar, Gold Record and Grammy winner Henry Mancini (his only score for a Disney animated feature).

Disney features have always had trouble with their lead characters being engaging enough and leaving the audience empathy on the shoulders of the sidekicks. In the case of Basil, he is true to the Holmes persona in that he is a bit prickly and distant, but he becomes more likable as you get to know him in the story.

Of course, Vincent Price chews the animation cels like so many Chee-tos as the villain Rattigan. He delivers as you might expect and again, should not be as forgotten a Disney villain as he seems to be today. I did take exception when, in the film's original theatrical release, that Price's performance was being touted as his first in animation -- that was actually as Irontail in the Rankin/Bass special, Here Comes Peter Cottontail.

Price was the only "big name" voice in the film with the exception of Melissa Manchester, who sings in the saloon scene. The use of stars was not as common a practice then as it is now. Manchester was actually added to the soundtrack in order to generate publicity to "today's" audience, yet Disney did not release a soundtrack album or a single version of her song (Varese Sarabande released a CD years after).

Manchester replaced Shani Wallis, who was going to sing the song before being removed for the "name." Wallis was one of my childhood crushes as the doomed Nancy in the Oscar winning Best Picture, Oliver! At least she was given a small speaking role at the end of the The Great Mouse Detective.

Anyway, the film's highlights include a Rube Goldberg-like "mouse trap" set by Rattigan to destroy Basil and his friends and the historic Big Ben sequence, one of the first to use CG as an effect device. It is still a compelling sequence.

But you'll have to hang on to your 2002 DVD edition of The Great Mouse Detective to keep the image gallery "scrapbook," and if you don't already have the cartoons "Clock Cleaners" and "Donald's Crime" on other DVDs. The new "Mystery in the Mist" Edition adds a "game" that is more of a short video called "So You Think You Can Sleuth" and the "making of" documentary from the previous edition.

If you never got a copy of this film before, it really is worth having -- unless you want to wait for a possible Blu-Ray, But who knows?

Blog, Movies
Posted on Apr 09 2010 by Greg
"I have never gone along with mainstream entertainment," says Oscar-winning animation legend Hayao Miyazaki on the bonus features for the new DVD edition of Castle in the Sky, his epic children's action/adventure/sci-fi feature.  I know, as a result of that, I could have been out of work. But I feel I was rescued by my audience every time."

Like the now-iconic My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky gained successful momentum over the years and was even nominated for an Oscar (which was captured by Wallace and Gromit & the Curse of the Were-Rabbit.)

Castle in the Sky -- the title of which I confuse with Howl's Moving Castle -- was inspired by the mining culture of Wales, its people and the impact of industry on the environment (ecology is an ongoing Miyazaki theme). In this English version, Anna Paquin and James Van Der Beek voice the young protagonists, Sheeta and Pazu and Mark Hamill plays an urbane and ultimately villainous megalomaniac.

But it's Cloris Leachman who steals the film as Dola, the rip-roaring leader of air pirates (with Mandy Patinkin as one of her oafish sons). In a bonus segment about the voice actors, she mentions that the character is not a far cry from her own personality. Dola is sort of Witchiepoo meets Popeye. And speaking of Popeye, it seems that there is a visual link between this film and early 20th century American comic strip art (same seems true for Miyazaki's Porco Rosso).

The finale is among the most spectacular sequences in any movie, animation or not. You find yourself saying, "Did they really draw that by hand?" The scope, design and detail is astonishing.

The DVD set includes the complete storyboard, the film in English and Japanese and some fascinating behind-the-scenes extras, including the story of how Miyazaki's interviewer became his producer after the animator refused to be interviewed and the writer camped out next to his desk. For days.

"My movies may not be instant hits, but [the audience] loyalty, over time, has allowed me to make the kind of movies I want," Miyazaki contnues. "The fact that they keep coming back to see my movies is the reason I am where I am. I very much appreciate that."

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