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DVD Review: PRINCE CASPIAN
Movies
Posted on Dec 06 2008 by Greg

This second in the Chronicles of Narnia series was not the box office bonanza that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was, but that may have been more due to its competition from Indiana Jones. A bit darker and more of a war epic than its predecessor, Prince Caspian benefits from sweeping visuals (more actual locations than before) and a fine international cast.

Among the excellent, network-quality bonus features is a comparison between the book text and the settings realized on the screen, hosted by C.S. Lewis' stepson Douglas Gresham (who also hosts the radio drama version available here). Caspian is a shorter, less detailed novel in the Narnia series, so much so that the BBC TV adaptation found it necessary to combine it with Voyage of the Dawn Treader (which should be especially great as a Disney/Walden movie).

The current epic film develops the characters of the four Pevensie children to a degree but focuses primarily on Caspian, played by Ben Barnes, a very capable actor and far more personable on the commentary than he is in the film. One wonders if he was cast by the studio for his Tiger Beat possibilities as well as his acting.

The first portion of the book, in which we meet Caspian's professor and nanny, who illegally discuss the Miraz-taboo subject of Narnia, is given short shrift to get to the action at the expense of deepening the audience's empathy for the young prince. Thanks to the Lucas/Spielberg school of film storytelling, set ups such as this are becoming rare in film blockbusters. When the device works, it's fine, but often it's too much too soon, sort of like starting MGM's The Wizard of Oz during the cyclone.

The film is actually very encjoyable on the home screen, where the attention is able to focus and the characters are able to move into the foreground. The extras are also well worth the price of the DVD, with a particularly beautiful mini-documentary about the river on which the climactic battle takes place, with townspeople offering their opinions of the region and the event that the moviemakers brought upon their sleepy village.

And yes! There is an audio commentary, as mentioned before, featuring director Andrew Adamson and all the lead cast members. It's a sheer delight, chock full of facts and fun, especially the gentle kidding the young cast tosses at one another, like the constant reference to the hyperdramatic "blue steel" poses (a reference to the steely pout of the male models in the comedy Zoolander). Ironically, Barnes image on the DVD cover is total blue steel.



The 3-disc collectors edition includes a disc that connects with iTunes so you can download the entire film at no extra fee (unlike the Journey to the Center of the Earth DVD package, which requires a small charge). It's a nice extra and also interesting because it signals a transition point from one media provider to another -- and certainly Disney is carefully monitoring how many people enjoy the downloads. Of course, an epic like this gets kind of puny on a iPod, but it's sure convenient!










Disney Treasure DVD Review: THE CHRONOLOGICAL DONALD VOL. 4
Movies
Posted on Nov 15 2008 by Greg

The fourth and final entry in this series allows us to live in a wondrous era in which we can own a comprehensive Donald Duck short cartoon collection. Ain't life grand? Especially when you can share the glory of these classics with new generations. My son watched every cartoon and is now watching the earlier volumes. We must instill the love of fine things in our youth.

These cartoons might be the most familiar of all, since they are the ones most often shown on Disney TV shows, but you didn't always get to see the titles. I discovered that many great Disney music masters composed for these shorts when I assumed most of them came from Oliver Wallace.



The Chronological Donald Volume 4 includes Walt Disney's first animation for CinemaScope, Grand Canyonscope, which predates Lady and the Tramp. You have to see this just to marvel at the Eyvind Earle art direction that would later grace Sleeping Beauty. Also, there is the final -- and perhaps funniest -- Daisy and Donald theatrical cartoon, Donald Diary, in which the Duck dreams he marries his fair love and sees what she looks like first thing in the morning ("What'sa maddah?").

When the cartoon shorts run out, the educational shorts and two-reelers kick in, beginning with the landmark Donald in Mathemagic Land, narrated by the great Paul Frees and boasting a credits list that easily matches that of a Disney feature-length film.

Less triumphant but nonetheless fascinating is Donald and the Wheel, which labors under a wincingly silly set of "spirits" and a dated attempt at hipness, but benefits from vocal work from the MelloMen and a delightfully kitschy sequence featuring Donald and a live action dancing girl on a whirling phonograph record (did this inspire Woody and Jesse's similar moment in Toy Story 2?) Fans of the TV series Mad Men with surely be pleased to see that this comely young dancer, who like that show's Joan Holloway, captures the far more healthy standard of female plentitude of the early 60's than in today's pipe-cleaner pop culture icons.

The Litterbug rounds out this trio and is especially notable for the uncredited narration of John Dehner, one of those character actors who appeared in almost everything in the 60's and 70's but is perhaps best remembered as Doris Day's TV boss ("Yee-ello?") and the radio Paladin. He also started his career as a Disney animator! Another narrator heard in some of the shorts in this set is radio and Capitol children's record announcer Art Gilmore.

Leonard Maltin is on hand, as on all the Walt Disney Treasures sets, to instruct, enthuse and enlighten, as well as provide a buffer to the shorts which have, for one reason or another, been considered inappropriate for the mainstream. They are in a separate category called "From the Vault."

One of the most notable of these is No Hunting, likely relegated to the vault for gunplay and violence -- but such a searing satire of recreational hunting, it makes its point as clearly anti-gun and anti-hunting. It also is one of the few, if any, Disney cartoons from Walt's era that nod slyly to a revered animated feature: as loads of garbage flow down a stream and the sound of guns are heard, Bambi's mother says to her fawn, "Man in in the forest...let's dig out." Take that, Stitch-meets-Beauty and the Beast commercials!










DVD Review: Walt Disney's SLEEPING BEAUTY 50th Anniversary Platinum Edition
Movies
Posted on Oct 06 2008 by Greg



Sleeping Beauty is a landmark film in Disney history. Beyond its bold, distinctive look, which has already received due praise and discussion, it came along when Walt Disney Productions had fully transformed from primarily a movie-making studio to a multi-faceted company with its own theme park, publishing, record labels and other interests that interwove each other in a process Roy Disney called "cross-pollination" but today we call synergy.

It's synergistical!

During its six-year production period leading to its much-heralded release in 1959, Sleeping Beauty inspired the castle in Disneyland (and the walk-through attraction which is now being reopened and featured on this new DVD), fourteen different recording releases (one featuring Broadway star Mary Martin and another with Mouseketeer Darlene Gillespie), countless comics, coloring books, toys and other merchandise, and perhaps most significantly, promoted on television from Walt's very first Disneyland show in 1954 to the Mickey Mouse Club.

While these elements existed for Disney in one form or another before Sleeping Beauty, never before had they been so homegrown.

Lots of beautiful bonus features

You can see many of these elements on the not-to-be-missed new 50th anniversary "Platinum Edition" DVD, overflowing with bonus features including a new audio commentary with Leonard Maltin, John Lasseter and Andreas Deja, several new mini-documentaries (with some Pixar artists as well as Disney personalities in attendance) and, as mentioned above, a Disneyland Sleeping Beauty Walk-Through Attraction With Walt Disney Imagineering that you can customize and experience before it opens to the public.
 
Disney historian Russell Schroeder had a hand in making possible the "lost" sequences new to the DVD, including an alternate opening with a song called "Holiday" and three other song demos with storyboards to convey what might have been.



Russell's research for his Disney's Lost Chords books led to music and art discoveries that assisted greatly in assembling these features.

Keep the earlier one?

You may want to hang onto your 2003 Special Edition DVD of Sleeping Beauty if you want to have a different audio commentary (a very elaborate production by Jeff Kurtti), an earlier documentary and a few games that did not carry over to this new release.

That said, the main attraction is of course, the film itself, which is stunning in its newly expanded glory. The Technirama image has been fully realized for the first time, exposing the full frame and every bit of the rich artwork.

I watched the opening on both DVDs to compare them and I really could see more detail on either side of the image (on the earlier version, for example, you won't see the man holding the stick to the right of the screen as the fairies approach the thrones). The overall picture looks better than I could imagine.

The new DVD (which is also on Blu-Ray with a bonus regular-format DVD) is a fine and fitting tribute to a film that Walt envisioned as a masterpiece of animation and ultimately ended up being a box office success and a highly revered artistic achievement.








DVD Review: TIM BURTON'S 'THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS"
Movies
Posted on Aug 26 2008 by Greg

The Nightmare Before Christmas has taken on a life of its own since it original was released in 1993. It has spawned a considerable of ancillary products and collectibles and even takes over The Haunted Mansion every holiday season at Disneyland (which is described in tremendous detail on this, the third reissue of the DVD).


The main attractions in this new package are the downloadable version that you can load to your computer for your iPod -- certainly a test for Disney, just to see how it works out. It will be interesting to see if future DVDs offer this bonus, which takes up a third disc.

For those who love audio commentaries (and that would include my own self), this release boasts a brand new one with Burton himself (who mentions Rankin/Bass by name!), composer Danny Elfman and director Henry Selick.

Selick did a kind of "techhy" commentary on the previous release and director of photography Pete Kozachik. This one, clearly done with interviews and edits that keep the information flowing, never slows down and really adds a lot to the lore of the film. I haven't followed Nightmare in the media enough to know how much of the comments were already stated elsewhere, but it's entertaining and informative all the same.

Most of the other materials were picked up from previous releases, including a "making-of" documentary where everyone looks much younger (it wasn't that long ago, was it?) and Burton's early Disney experimental films. the autobiographical Vincent and Frankenweenie, the latter also sporting a new Burton intro (according to the imdb, there's new version of Frank in production, so perhaps that is one reason for the new intro).

My kids asked why there was no 3-D version in the new package. They do have a point, though one reason might be the lackluster effect of the blue-and-red glasses kind of thing Disney uses in the recent Hannah Montana concert DVD. Perhaps a perfectionist like Burton wouldn't settle for that being used in this, one of his most personal favorite projects.









DVD Review: CLASSIC CABALLEROS COLLECTION
Movies
Posted on Apr 28 2008 by Greg
A few days ago, I was listening to a 1944 episode of the grand old radio spectacular, Lux Radio Theater, a dramatization of the movie Springtime in the Rockies in which Betty Grable and Dick Powell croon through a formula backstage musical. Cutting through the musical mayonnaise like spicy salsa was Carmen Miranda. Seemingly out of nowhere, rhythmic guitars broke through as if someone had changed radio stations.

Imagine how amazing that must have seemed to wartime Americans who were bringing more of the outside world into their homes with the relatively new radio medium. Diversity was in its infancy. People were discovering the richness of other cultures.



Viewed from this standpoint, both Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros deserve far more landmark status than is generally afforded them. Walt Disney, because of a U.S. Government arrangement, flew to South America with a group of great artists and really brought back a feast of music, imagery and culture.

Saluting Saludos

Saludos Amigos is often superseded by its follow-up film, The Three Caballeros, a more dazzling bonanza of special effects and live-action and animation wizardry. Saludos has the extra punch of footage of Disney artists flying with Walt into various locations. And it was the succcess that lead to Caballeros. Through the first film Walt was instrumental in bringing hit latin music to the states, like "Tico Tico," which became a standard -- and even is performed in the aforementioned Springtime in the Rockies!

Both films are loaded to the brim with great music that influenced much of the contemporary music of today. Thankfully, the new DVD boasts much better sound than the predecessors. The new disc is recommended if only for the meticulous improved soundtrack. The picture looks better too, but the sound is dramatically improved. Even the "South of the Border" short film, which uses Bambi score music in the background, has better sound (click here to see Mary Blair and other great artists playing a matchbox game).

Some features but not all

If you have the laserdisc and hopefully can still play it, hold on to it because there are some features not included on this new disc or the previous ones. These differ from the earlier DVDs in minor ways, but I can't part with mine because I really like the packaging, featuring each film separately -- they seem more important that way.

One other recommendation: the Saludos Amigos audio album recorded in South America and released on the Disneyland label in the 1950s. It was a rare find but now you can get it on iTunes. It's not the soundtrack, but a very excellent studio version of the songs and background themes from both movies.

Click here to order Classic Caballeros Collection on amazon.com

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