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Posted on Dec 23 2009 by Greg

When I was little I had a really scary nightmare about the washing machine and other home appliances coming to life and threatening the well being of my loved ones and me. Clearly I was watching too many weird Betty Boop cartoons in which everything is alive and sometimes creepy.

Anyway, I bring this dark secret to light because in G-Force, a coffee machine -- which normally is something I like and admire -- becomes a terrifying creature. Fortunately, the hamsters save the day. Whew!

We live in a wondrous age where computers can make it seem like cute hamsters can conquer evil and do it with some attitude. G-Force is clearly a franchise in the making, aimed squarely at popcorn-munching kids. My ten-year-old thought it was just fine.

While Nicolas Cage worked on his finances by providing the voice of a mole and other celebrities also voiced various critters, including Penelope Cruz, Jon Favreau, Sam Rockwell and Steve Buscemi, this was Tracy Morgan's show all the way. And speaking of shows, hearing his performance put me very much in the mind of Saturday Morning TV shows of the 1970's. Morgan would be right at home doing voices for Hanna-Barbera, Filmation or Sid & Marty Krofft. When Hong Kong Phooey is inevitably made into a big-budget theatrical movie, look no further for the lead role.

Okay, I'm done being snarky. G-Force is a solid kid's adventure that's perfect for weekend afternoons. And it's not slapped together thoughtlessly, either. There is an interesting audio commentary from director Hoyt H. Yeatman, Jr., a special effects veteran whose career includes Star Trek The Motion Picture, E.T. and Close Encounters. His comments can get pretty techie, too, when he mentions equipment by name and model number.

The Blu-Ray/DVD combo includes the commentary, deleted scenes, "bloopers," "Blaster's Boot Camp" and "G-Force Mastermind: The Inspiration Behind the Movie," there are three features that can only be accessed on the Blu-Ray, which is packaged with the DVD and a digital copy in the "Best Value" set.

Posted on Nov 28 2009 by Greg

We can all breathe a big sigh of relief now that yet another licensed character franchise has saved Christmas from being destroyed. This time, it was those cute little technically-enabled-to-talk puppies from Disney's video series.

Christmas is usually either under siege from a bad person or a lack of spirit in these stories. In Santa Buddies, it's the spirit that's under attack, with a general sense of lethargy and disillusion. Forgive me for spoiling the ending, saved by, as Scrappy Doo always says, "Puppy power!" (no, he does not appear in this film; that's another franchise).

I had no idea that Santa Claus had a canine business partner with the voice of Tom Bosley! But then, I also couldn't help thinking, when Santa entered the scene, the crowd would yell "Norm!" since Mr. George Wendt portrayed Kris Kringle with astonishing similarity to his Cheers TV character.

Sarcasm and snippiness aside, there are some pleasant aspects to Santa Buddies. Christopher Lloyd, who seems to tackles each role that comes along with equal intensity and intelligence, brings  his quality to the Scrooge-like dog catcher.  Danny Woodburn carries much of the film as the head elf and Ben Giroux embodies the "over it" aspect of the holiday as a retail elf.

The North Pole & Santa's workshop were also nicely realized, and would be especially vivid in Blu-Ray. For a film of this kind, there is certainly a limited budget and clearly most of it was budgeted for these scenes (the cost of which may have inspired the filmmakers to overextend the film's conclusion when it seemed to be already resolved). The musical score was nice, too, with some original songs and a full chorus. Such touches add richness to the overall experience.

The extras were not plentiful beyond some sing-alongs and a music video. I would, and the kids would have, enjoyed a making-of feature, considering the somewhat expanded nature of this particular Buddies entry. Another nice idea might have been to have a "video fireplace" type feature with the cute puppies being cute, to leave on when during the holiday festivities. You could turn it on during those family get togethers to avert the pitfalls -- not that there are any, are there?

Posted on Sep 22 2009 by Greg

Bedknobs and Broomsticks is one of my favorite Disney films. Yes, I know it's not Mary Poppins, but as Leonard Maltin wrote in The Disney Films, it's not fair to make comparisons -- though it's inevitable considering the creative people involved: songs by the Sherman brothers conducted by Irwin Kostal; screenplay by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi and direction by Robert Stevenson.

Walt Disney was somewhat involved with Bedknobs, as he had bought the rights to the books by Mary Norton (The Borrowers), upon which the film was based as a backup, in case the prickly P. L. Travers blew up negotiations for her Poppins books. The song, "The Beautiful Briny" was even written for a proposed Poppins sequence that never made it to final script.

This large-scale extravaganza certainly deserves more respect and attention than is usually afforded it. What Bedknobs has going for it is a sharper story direction than Poppins. Even though there are some detours along the way, such as the Portobello Street Dance, everything serves the central focus of Miss Price's use of magic to stave off Nazi invaders. Of course, that storyline itself, an invention of the screenwriters and not in the books, can be considered off-putting by some, including Angela Lansbury, who in the outstanding Sherman brothers documentary feature, The Boys, expresses embarrassment of sorts that the comedic battle at the end trivializes World War II, especially after discovering Robert Sherman's physical and mental suffering as a result of the horrors of Nazi atrocities.

Lansbury has rarely expressed a distinct enthusiasm for Bedknobs and Broomsticks except on rare occasions such as when the film was restored as much as possible to its intended length (it was edited severely both in 1971 and 1979). Reportedly, she clashed with director Stevenson over the approach to Miss Price's character (apparently she did not find him to be an "actor's director"). Her house had burned down at the time and she was having family issues. Plus, her dream of achieving the same kind of musical comedy success in the movies as she did on Broadway as Mame did not happen with this film, especially since her song and dance number was cut so Radio City Music Hall would have more showings per day.

The Disney studio was also in a state of flux when Bedknobs was produced and Walt's leadership and creative decision making shows most in "big" movies like this and Pete's Dragon. But all things considered, Bedknobs and Broomsticks is still an excellent, entertaining family film with fine songs and a great cast (whom we get to see more of thanks to the restored footage).

For some reason, the new "Enchanted Musical Edition" DVD seems to have less special material than the 30th Anniversary Edition that preceded it. A new "making of" feature starring Wizards of Waverly Place's Jennifer Stone actually goes into less detail about the special effects than the one on the recent Pete's Dragon DVD release. There is no commentary and no new musical material on the Bedknobs DVD, even though it's called an "Enchanted Musical Edition." (There were alternate versions of songs and demos that might have been nice.) Plus, in the "Step in the Right Direction" feature, the prologue refers to the laserdisc version from which it came.

If you don't already have Bedknobs and Broomsticks, it's nice that this edition is available and reissues like this keep great films in the public eye. But if you have the earlier edition, hang onto it.

Posted on Sep 12 2009 by Greg

We are so used to computer generated special effects that when the real thing comes along, it's hard to believe that it's the genuine article, but when you see some of the images in the first Disneynature feature, Earth, you might find yourself thinking what we did -- "that's too amazing to be real."

Back when Walt Disney, along with filmmakers Alfred and Irma Milotte,  later Larry Lansburgh and of course, Roy E. Disney, produced the True-Life Adventure Series, they were shot on 16mm film with the best materials they had at the time. Now the benefits of digital motion picture equipment and other modern day advances have made possible images of such clarity and majesty, well, it's overwhelming at times.

Like the original True-Life Series, the film follows a basic storyline that makes characters out of several animals in order to thread a storyline into the film. It must have been a bit of a challenge to retain the humor and empathy of the Winston Hibler narration of the past without some of the folksy excesses.

It doesn't hurt that James Earl Jones handles both the drama and whimsy with deft skill -- and George Fenton's music, which like Paul Smith's classic scores-- has to support the picture, wall-to-wall, yet never intrusively and quite magnificently (where's the soundtrack album?)

Entertainment Weekly has already stated that Disney's Earth is a movie that begs to seen in Blu-Ray. In today's economy it's asking a lot of the public to adapt to another format, but Earth makes a very valid case for the conversion.

Posted on Aug 18 2009 by Greg

"...and I worked alongside someone who would become a close friend and a  great star. Her name was Frances Gumm. You know her as...Judy Garland."

Surely during the production of Pete's Dragon, the great Mickey Rooney shared these facts with young Sean Marshall, who -- as an offscreen adult -- narrates a new documentary about the 1977 Disney musical fantasy on the new "High-Flying Edition."

The new doc makes it easier to understand that sodium screen process so often used in Disney films of the period -- a kind of yellow light behind the subject that somehow vanishes and allows two images to be combined. Maybe that yellow sheen is the reason that you could always spot a seam along the two separate images -- a problem solved by today's digital technology.

When Pete's Dragon premiered in 1977, I was extremely excited that a Mary Poppins/Bedknobs and Broomsticks-type Disney movie was arriving. I listened to the various records over and over. I even was fortunate enough to see Wally Boag himself appearing at the Lakes Mall in Lauderdale Lakes, Florida, in which the "Every Little Piece" sequence was recreated with an Elliott puppet that popped out of the box.

I loved the movie, though probably not as much as MP or B&B. It's very much like the other frothy Disney comedies of the period, only an hour longer and with songs. I would have preferred something with just a tad more gravity, though not as dark as today's movie fantasies.

That said, it's still very entertaining and captures a period when the Disney studio had a backlot and you could smile at the sight of familiar faces like Jane Kean and Jim Backus. The score deserves better appreciation that it has received in recent years.

The idea of an animated Elliott cavorting with humans was not miraculous even in 1977, since Tony the Tiger and friends did the same thing frequently on TV. The technique, of course, reached the next level with Roger Rabbit. Thanks to outstanding animation, Elliott's character soars beyond a mere gimmick.

 A couple of trivia gems: the screenwriter, Malcolm Marmorstein, was one of the writers for TV's Dark Shadows and, if you're a fan of the TV classic The Prisoner, many of its episodes were directed by Pete's Dragon director Don Chaffey.

The new DVD, while not including an audio commentary, does improve on the previous edition in a major way -- at least to a Disney music buff like me. There are a selection of demo recordings and a handful of Kids of the Kingdom-style "pop versions" of the songs I had not heard before. "Brazzle Dazzle Day" had a different melody with mostly different lyrics. "Every Little Piece" had the same lyrics with an "If I Were a Rich Man"-like melody.  "it's Not Easy" had alternate lyrics that transformed it into a romantic love song. And there's even a deleted song called "The Greatest Star of All," clearly intended for Jim Dale's character, Terminus. These alone make the new DVD worth getting.

The extras from the previous edition are all still there except the 25-minute 1973 live-action/animated documentary Man, Monsters and Mysteries, narrated by Sebastian Cabot with Sterling Holloway voicing the Loch Ness Monster (aka "Nessie").

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