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Posted on Feb 11 2009 by Greg

Actually, this has nothing to do with MAD's Alfred E. Newman. It's just that the song. "Why Should I Worry?" from Oliver & Company reminds me of the famous line. The song is sung by Billy Joel in his voice role as Dodger, a tough-talking-but-with-a-heart-of-gold dog who befriends "Oliver" the kitten, in this updated, uptown, upbeat animated feature that takes Dickens' Oliver Twist to the streets of New York.

It's fascinating to watch this film with all the hindsight of what came after it. At the time, both Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, as freshly minted Disney executives, had been wondering if animation was even an option for where they felt Disney was going. Fortunately Oliver & Company was a substantial enough success in its initial release to generate a reissue -- which is referenced in two bonus features that must have originally been promos (and have not been revised on this 20th Anniversary Edition or the earlier DVD release).

Oliver & Company was the first Disney animated feature with a pop radio-ready musical score that is almost entirely of its time period (unless we go back to the package features of the '40's like Make Mine Music), and was featured on the very last vinyl LP record ever in wide release on the Disney label. 

The exceptions in style are the lovely "Good Compnay" and the campy "Perfect Isn't Easy," a Broadway style number co-authored by Barry Manilow. It is performed by his old friend Bette Midler as the "Sharpay/Veronica Lodge/Snoopy's girlfriend"-like poodle, Georgette (though I somehow felt that character could have been even broader considering the comic talent behind it).

With talents like Midler, Joel, Ruth Pointer, Cheech Marin and Huey Lewis, it was clear that this was the "new" Disney, with a cast largely from the Touchstone stable (including a young Joey Lawrence as Oliver, who would "whoa" his way to hunkdom on the Blossom TV series). In a way, Oliver & Company was almost a Disney/DreamWorks hybrid before there was a DreamWorks.

You can also spot differences in the animation, as if some of the masters and the best apprentices did some, and some of the newer artists were just getting their feet wet. There is some truly outstanding character animation in this film, yet it is not widely recognized for it, nor for its role in bridging and sustaining Disney feature animation before The Little Mermaid initiated the second "Golden Age."

The new DVD is virtually identical to the earlier release, except for a new game feature. The film print could have used some new attention, since it appears kind of grainy considering its relatively young age. There are of course, new menus to the film and features. Oh, and you can get two cute plush puppies by mail if you purchase this and Space Buddies for a limited time.

Posted on Feb 04 2009 by Greg

Over the last year or so, we've seen chimps, houseflies and robots in space, so why not the Buddies? Another in a series of modestly produced family comedies starring cute adorable puppies, Space Buddies pretty much delivers on its title.

First we meet all the cute puppies and their owners (the puppies' voices are furnished by skilled young actors, including Liliana Mumy, daughter of Lost in Space legend Bill Mumy. How do they find themselves near rockets? They stowaway on a school field trip. How do they get those precious little doggie space suits? A special spacesuit-making device that just happens to require no dexterity for its operation. And how do they manage to blast off? That would be telling.

The human story angles rest upon the shoulders of Bill Fagerbakke, playing with as much conviction as he can muster a aeronautic scientist -- a switch from his roles on Coach or Spongebob Squarepants. For plot reasons, he keeps a pet ferret in his shirt pocket (I don't want to spoil the ending, but it has something to do with Amy Sedaris).

Diedrich Bader, who specializes in spaced-out eccentrics and, like Fagerbakke, has a fine career in voice acting (he even narrates Disney CD read-alongs) plays a deluded Russian cosmonaut who just happens to be accompanied by yet another cute puppy (you can never have too many) with a Russian accent voiced by Jason Earles, whose fearless physical comedy buoys many a Hannah Montana episode.

According to a recent Bonnie Hunt Show, there's a pet shelter in Los Angeles that makes prospective owners agree never to dress their dogs if they adopt them. Maybe they can manage to resist the urge by watching the little Space Buddies' tails wag in the space costumes in this film. And stay tuned, Santa Buddies is coming soon! Arf!

Posted on Jan 27 2009 by Greg

When my dad was a kid, he and his pals invented a nonsense language. It was something to the effect of "Get the vitchim in the gourd with the ooh-bawe-deh-de and the gupsnare in the go-zack-ee." Throughout his life, when he was feeling whimsical or couldn't think of better words, he would occasionally pepper his sentences with things like," You kids better get that vitchim in the gourd..." or "That's gonna need a vitchimized gourd over there..."

You can just imagine, then, how I would love to know what he would do with a movie named The Secret of The Magic Gourd. Chances are he'd take the gupsnare out of the ooh-bawe-deh-de and play it on the vitchim.

Anyway, that's not why you clicked. The Secret of the Magic Gourd is a very lovely film and deserves more notice in the U.S. than it is getting. The first of Disney's Chinese co-productions, the film did respectable business in China, where it is titled "Bao hu lu de mi mi."

In the interest of lip synchronization, the young boy's name is changed from "Bao" to "Raymond" and the Gourd's name is "Bailey," from the Chinese "Hu lu" (could it be that the website hulu gets its name from here?

The story, from a classic Chinese children's book, is a dreamlike, present day tale in which a boy learns to be careful what he wishes for -- a theme explored with horror in "The Monkey's Paw" and The Twilight Zone and with humor on I Dream of Jeannie. Some of the wacky antics caused by little Bailey in his earnest attempts to please his "master" reminded me very much of "Jeannie."

U.S. film and TV makers might take a closer look at Gourd, with its traditional family, caring teacher and pleasant friends. No bumbling dysfunctional parents (or lack thereof), no caricatured authority figures or no snarky, hip-holding preteens here. The kids aren't always nice to Raymond but they do stick with in the end.

Speaking of hip-holding preteens, the presence of High School Musical star Corbin Bleu is very likely a device to allow youngsters the privilege of watching this movie without eye-rolls and loud sighs from older siblings. But don't underestimate him -- Bleu does a very creditable job. His natural likeability shines through his vocal performance. That's not easy when you've also got to act as well as focus on replacing dialogue recorded and animated for another language.

The film largely rises and falls on whether you like Raymond and especially Bailey, and it succeeds thanks to skillful work by the entire American cast, including Bleu and singer/actress Megan Hilty, under the guidance of Disney veteran Rick Dempsey, who also co-wrote the lyrics to the end title song, "Worlds of Wonder."

The English script also avoids an overabundance of pop culture references and slang. Bailey might say one or two Americanized things here and there, but he's not a boogie-ing gangsta gourd, as I'm sure the Chinese version of the Gourd is not either.

Speaking of music, the fine original score by Peter Kam is one of the things I enjoyed most about The Secret of the Magic Gourd, yet I've not seen it available either in an English or Chinese soundtrack album. I'd also like to see an English version of the book.

The bonus material is primarily Chinese promotional documentary footage with English subtitles. It would have been nice to see Bleu and the cast working on the dubbing, a very special kind of acting that takes special talent to carry off properly. All in all, though, the word "nice" is the best way to describe the film, and I look forward to the future co-productions.

Posted on Jan 08 2009 by Greg

We've been watching Disney's first two "Witch Mountain" movies in anticipation of the new Race to Witch Mountain coming to theaters in March. On the audio commentary for the Escape to Witch Mountain Special Edition DVD, director John Hough repeatedly references the cinematic techiques he brought to the film from his years on the British adventure/fantasy series The Avengers. He says he was on the series for five years; the iMdb lists him for the Tara King years.

Hough identifies numerous scene compositions he used for the classic TV show that also appear in Witch Mountain, like profiled actors against a fireplace, characters reflected in car mirrors and his technique of filming the heroic characters with standard angles and villains in odd and tilted angles. I never noticed it before, but it's true!

Escape to Witch Mountain may seem somewhat quaint over three decades after its release -- and is likely to pale technically with the new movie -- but it was groundbreaking in its day, especially for a Disney film, especially because 75% of it was filmed on location, avoiding matte shots whenever possible (but not completely) and because of Hough's direction.

The original stars, Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards, both of whom have roles in the new movie. They even have official websites, click their names above to see.

As for me, I especially loved how the beloved Eddie Albert vacillated between rustic crustiness ("I ain't no bus line!") and intense, brow-furrowed intellectualism ("I notice you two...are very smart for your yearrrrss") in the original movie. Must have had too many of Lisa's hots-cakes, I guess.

"Bedtime Stories:" Sandler & Bing?
Posted on Dec 28 2008 by Greg

Went to see the new Disney comedy epic Bedtime Stories and liked it very much -- more than I even expected to. Without giving away the denouement, it occurred to me that the romantic disagreement between Adam Sandler and Keri Russell's characters was remarkably similar to that of Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas.

Maybe it's me, or maybe I've seen this kind of "Oh! And I thought he was so thoughtful of others -- and you turned out to be as greedy as all the rest!" thing that is a movie plot staple.

Anyway, Bedtime Stories is a fun family movie (with some reservations about poopy and booger humor so tantamount to many family films of today). One other question once you've seen the movie: Are zoning issues usually easy enough to resolve so quickly? Of course, it is a fantasy film.

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