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Posted on Apr 02 2009 by Greg

Bolt is the story of a dog who, in a “Truman Show” way, is convinced from birth that he lives the life of a fictional TV show and proves his real-life worth to the world and himself. Bolt is a movie that was convinced by the U.S box office receipts that it was an underachiever when in reality it is one of the finest of Disney's recent animated features. Much speculation has surrounded the reasons for the grosses, two being the marketing angles and its competition on the same premiere weekend.

It's a smash in the United Kingdom and is sure to hit big on DVD, especially in this nicely-packaged edition. If you're fortunate enough to have a Blu-Ray player, the magnificent artistry described in the bonus features will be especially apparent. There is a fine series of mini-documentaries about the making of the film and a very funny new short, Super Rhino, starring the breakout character, though the pop culture reference at the film's conclusion will become as dated as a Monkees throwback. I suppose that's okay because it's a short and not the film itself.

And the film itself is very entertaining. While there is always comment about whether the voice work of John Travolta and Miley Cyrus was any better than that of an actor who specializes in voice work, they did not phone in their performances. Travolta enthusiastically treated this role as if it was his big break, when he could have done otherwise. And it's nice to hear the duo sing together.

The supporting characters, and their voices, steal the movie, which is nothing new in Disney films, including those from Walt's day. In addition to Disney artist-turned-voice artists Mark Walton (you have to love the guy when you see his reaction on the bonus material after getting the role) as Rhino the Hamster, Susie Essman is marvelous as Mittens (which was our cat's name too!). Even Diedrich Bader, whose voice work deserves more acclaim, makes the most of a very small role in the early portion of the film.

There are three versions of Bolt on DVD/Blu-Ray. The Blu-Ray version offers the movie in dazzling, wondrous glory on a Blu-Ray disc along with the extras, plus a standard DVD of the film plus a digital disc for free downloading. If you want the extras on standard DVD, you'll need the Deluxe DVD edition, which includes all of the above except Blu-Ray. There is also a standard single-disc DVD edition.

Posted on Mar 23 2009 by Greg
When Lilo & Stitch first premiered on DVD, there was quite a bit of bonus material already, but this new "Big Wave" 2-disc edition really does pay off the package claim that there are more than two hours' worth.

Much of that time is taken up by the feature-length documentary that literally follows the creative team, particularly writer/directors Chris Sanders and Dean Deblois, from initial concepts to a glamorous premiere at Cannes (where, by the way, we get to enjoy a continental breakfast with Chris Sanders as he brings his baked products to life on the tray).

It also contains the original climactic scene in which Stitch wildly pilots a 747 through the city. This seemed completely out of the realm of reality at the time to the filmmakers, but then 911 happened and it was totally changed. (I was working on the graphic novel version at the time and was sent a new script in order to change it, too.)

Making an animated film is not all sunshine and talking muffins, though. Sanders and Deblois are also seen in the midst of a disagreement, capturing a moment that does not appear to be staged. A lot of what the two explain on the audio commentary is also supplemented with the generous supply of deleted scenes on the discs.

One of the most interesting comments the filmmakers share is that they consulted with someone at Pixar who suggested a very pivotal plot point with the "Ugly Duckling" book. This was before the Disney•Pixar merger but clearly Pixar's influence was felt. In fact, Lilo & Stitch may be one of the most Pixar-like of the Eisner era Disney films because it has a very odd storyline. Perhaps this was because it was made in Florida, 3,000 miles away from day to day "input," just as Pixar remains six hours away.

The only thing that seems to have been shoehorned in the film was the teen pop song at the end, which Sanders and Deblois dart with comic sarcasm in their commentary. The music video of this song, by the A-Teens, are among the few items not repeated on this new edition. Most of them were, in part, added to the documentary feature.

Chris Sanders' presence on the bonus materials is well worth noting. He was let go from Disney after a publicly-known creative stalemate with John Lasseter about American Dog, which was reassigned and renamed Bolt and ironically released at the same time as this edition. But it speaks highly of Lasseter's integrity and character as a human being, as well as a person who cares about Disney, that Sanders' important role in Disney history was not obscured or removed because of ego or corporate complication.

It would it be terribly wrong to eliminate the contributions and commentary of anyone who has made a contribution to the Disney organization and history and even more heinous if they were attributed to someone else.

Committing such an act would be a disservice to Disney and the people who are part of its heritage, be it past or present. It would be like saying Ward Kimball animated Steamboat Willie because Ub Iwerks left the Company. This would reflect poorly on  professionalism, ethics and respect for the contributions of Disney people, past and present (remember Walt's quote about people?).

To the immense credit of everyone connected with this edition of Lilo and Stitch, such a tremendous, unconscionable act did not occur in this particular instance. It's a fine new DVD release, which truly delivers a lot of new material and lives up to its claim of "much, much more."

Posted on Mar 19 2009 by Greg

Pinocchio is largely hailed as one of Walt Disney's most masterly creations, and one of the all time great movies, period.

The animation is astonishingly fluid, evocative and filled with true character. The music has set standards that are still used today, including the use of an electronic instrument for a magical effect. The story is unforgettable -- and pretty scary in spots.

As the generous 70th Anniversary Platinum Edition bonus material explains, the film was not a huge success in its initial release and several reasons are speculated upon. I would venture that Disney has always had better luck with the more romantic animated features, even as recently as Treasure Planet. But who knows? It's certainly earned its keep by now, many times over, and comes to DVD and Blu-Ray disc in a new multi-disc edition.

A friend of mine with a Blu-Ray player highly recommends this version. ("You mean YOU don't have a Blu-Ray Player??" he says.) The image is spectacular in his opinion, as it was in the Sleeping Beauty Blu-Ray, so much so that you can even make out the painter's brush strokes! If you get the Blu-Ray version, you still get a standard DVD with the Audio Commentary by Leonard Maltin and master animator Eric Goldberg. It's as knowledgable and interesting as you might expect, though I do wonder whehter the claim that Mel Blanc's only Disney work was the omitted voice of Gideon -- isn't he Cousin Orville in the Carousel of Progress, or is that J. Pat O'Malley?

Anyway, you do not get the second disc in standard DVD format unless you buy the standard DVD package, so the choice is up to you depending on your need for extras and if you are looking to transition to Blu-Ray.

One little piece of trivia not found anywhere on the discs: you can hear a few notes of the deleted song, "Three Cheers for Anything" in the scene in which the boys sail for Pleasure Island. My way of saying thanks for reading this blog!

Posted on Mar 10 2009 by Greg

Dogs are crowd pleasers. That's one of the reasons Beverly Hills Chihuahua was a surprise hit at the movies last year. And rather than a lot of head scratching about why other, more "lofty" films didn't fare as well, perhaps it's because high concept films -- ones that have a premise so simple and fun-sounding that usually the title tells it and the trailer is loaded with signature gags.

The good news is that Beverly Hills Chihuahua is on a par with Disney light comedies of days past, the kind that weren't classics but were as pleasurable as popsicles and left happy childhood memories, though somewhat more elaborate and technically lush.

Director Raja Gosnell has no illusions that he's filming Brecht or Proust -- he literally begins his commentary (thanks for having one!) with a self-deprecating anecdote. But what emerges from his detailed explanations of the intricacies of filmmaking with dogs and special effects, as well as the talents involved, are skill, professionalism and enthusiasm.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film technique, making the dogs seem to have conversations and interact together, is similar to combining live action and animation. The dogs are usually filmed individually, then composited in the film lab to appear together. In editing, specific poses and movements are pinpointed and then the mouths and brows are animated.

Although most dialogue is pre-recorded, the voice actors' improvisations are added and the characters developed. George Lopez's comedy inventiveness was such that Papi's character was expanded from a minor role. In fact, the whole film evolved from a more straightforward, serious story to a comedy (a fact proven by deleted scenes on the DVD).

Drew Barrymore, who deserves more recognition for her capabilities as a voice actor, manages to convey sympathy for a fairly whiny little pooch. Her expressive, just-slightly-but-not-too-overwrought vocal range would have made her a fine radio actress in the 1940s.

Disney has also reissued the original Air Bud in a special edition DVD with a "Buddy" dog tag an audio commentary in which the voices of the Air Buddies and their parents provide kid-friendly comments.

Air Bud spawned several sequels as well as the Air Buddies series, again proving how dogs deliver the goods to audiences and corporate accountants. This first film does not seem to anticipate the others, so it is somewhat less light, emphasizing the boy's back story and the emergence of Buddy as a basketball star, which is based on fact. What is probably not quite as factual are the Ugly Dachshund-style scenes of comical destruction -- you know, paint and wall paper and like that -- that gave Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette so much wacky trouble.

It would have been nice if the script had refrained from so many of the words that many parents wish were not so prevalent in family films. Interestingly, the more current films are not so rich in such language. Perhaps, back in 1997, Air Bud was still scripted in response to the success of The Bad News Bears and similar films. This isn't that kind of film, though. Lots of people really talk that way, including many kids, but not all of them do, and it would be nice to raise the bar in a film like this.

My son sure liked Air Bud, so it looks like we'll probably be looking at the sequels soon.

The ultimate Disney fantasy film?
Posted on Feb 26 2009 by Greg

How different is High School Musical 3 from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes?

Not much when you think about it. They all depict what has been referred in the past as Disney's "idealization of life." The High School Musical films let you live for a while in a school without the harshness of real-life student politics, teacher issues and especially the dark, cynical vision so often seen on television, films and books inexplicably accepted as "kid-friendly."

Therein lies its charm. Whatever your opinion of the High School Musical series, you can't help but marvel at how young people have taken to it -- despite its omission of language, sex and bitterness that some in the industry insist are requirements to "get the kids." If only prime time TV would get the message perhaps it would not be at an all time low in viewership.

Since this, the third film, was given a more generous budget, much of the money shows up on the screen, especially in the lavish production numbers like "I Want it All," and particularly "Scream,' in which director Kenny Ortega pays tribute to Fred Astaire by flipping over the school hallway (and Zac Efron). The cast are as charming as ever. I was particularly happy to see the character of Mrs. Darbus (Alyson Reed) get a brief but nice opportunity to explore more warmth and depth than afforded in the previous chapters.

And since this is the farewell film for the main "students" (though some of the others may emerge from the background in the 4th film planned for TV), there are at least three finales. These kids sing their goodbyes a lot before a curtain literally falls over the whole thing, never to be quite the same again until, perhaps, the High School Musical reunion movie we can certainly look forward to in about 8 to 10 years (wonder who'll be "available" to reprise their roles?)

In the tradition of frothy musical fun, the story is secondary to watching the characters cavort. Sharpay, who despite learning her lesson in each film and "turning nice," goes back to square one repeatedly -- like Wile E. Coyote. This time, she gets a British assistant to facilitate villainous monologuing because her brother is leaning on the "nice kids" side this time.

The whole thing is a lot of fun. My daughter and her friends are starting to get too cool for HSM but still enjoy this movie, much as they're not into Miley so much but they like her sitcom just fine (Monkee career warning, Miley.)

The DVD offers bloopers and short documentaries about the production and the farewell nature of the project, plus an extra reprise of "Right Here, Right Now" not seen in the theatrical version. A 2-disc edition also includes a digital download.

Though it's always debatable whether any group of ambitious young performers in a film or TV series are as chummy as they are publcized to be, I can't help but believe their mixed feelings about leaving HSM behind. It's what they knew, it's what "made" them, and the future is exciting but pretty scary.

Just like graduation. Or corporate re-orgs.

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