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Posted on Sep 05 2012 by Greg
The first Disney animated feature produced after Walt Disney's passing was 1970's The Aristocats. While it has never been held in the same esteem as Snow White, Fantasia, or even latter-day classics like Beauty and the Beast, it's a thoroughly entertaining romp that places characters and set pieces over a very basic plot reminiscent of 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp.

It's also a bit puzzling because it combines disparate voice acting performances from, among others, Hungarian Eva Gabor as a French cat, Pat Buttram and George Lindsey as country cornpone dawgs in rural France and even an elegant performance by Hermione Baddeley as Madame Bonfamille -- a change of pace from her more familiar blustering Mary Poppins/Happiest Millionaire domestics or the bawdy Mrs. Naugatuck on TV's Maude.

What's loveliest about The Aristocats as a film, especially in the crisp light of Blu-ray on this new edition, is the masterful animation, captured in its spontaneous glory through the Xerox process, a method of copying pencil art directly onto animation cels in place of inking each line again.

As kids, we called this the "scritchy lines" type of animation -- not as clean and polished and at the time, not as preferable. But seeing it today in an age where even TV animation has a slickness and therefore a distancing perfection, this kind of animation is now precious and rare. On Blu-ray, you can really appreciate the lines as they vibrate in every motion. Not a nuance is lost.

Another fine aspect of The Aristocats is its score. Though not a musical in general, there are several fine songs by Terry Gilkyson, Floyd Huddleston, Al Rinker and especially the Sherman Brothers, who apparently created several songs left unused in the film. Richard Sherman is very much a presence on the bonus features (carried over from the previous DVD release and now primarily on the Blu-ray disc). Richard narrates an entire opening sequence that is very different from the one we know.

But from a Mouse Tracks perspective, the most fantastic thing about the bonus features is that they include mention of our beloved Robie Lester, who provided Eva Gabor's singing vocals for Duchess the cat. The appearance of these material on the DVD was the very first time her significant contribution was acknowledged and it's nice to know it's also here on the Blu-ray.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Aug 30 2012 by Greg
Even though it was produced by Walt Disney Television Animation, The Tigger Movie is one of a handful of direct-to-home-video Disney animated features that had a respectable run in theaters. It's also the last feature film with original songs by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman.

And find songs they are. My favorite is "Round My Family Tree," which is chock full of clever lines (and visual in-jokes, including a reference to the Rankin/Bass Saturday morning cartoon, Jackson 5ive). The end credits introduced "Your Heart Will Lead You Home," which has now become an easy listening standard, co-written and sung by Kenny Loggins.

It's also the first time the Sherman song, "The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers," is sung to completion onscreen. In the earlier films and TV shows, Paul Winchell (Disney's original Tigger voice) sang four lines of the song, but in The Tigger Movie, Jim Cummings (the current Tigger) sings the entire song. Historically,  Sam Edwards was the first actor to sing the whole song, but on Disneyland records instead of films.

The Tigger Movie makes a nice companion to all the original Walt Disney featurettes, or the compilation film, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, as well as the recent theatrical Winnie the Pooh. The storyline is simple in the Milne style and meanders on purpose -- the world of Pooh and friends is simple, direct and free of extraneous spectacle.

My only issue with The Tigger Movie is that its success, arguably thanks to the Shermans, did not result in their being involved with the follow-up, Piglet's Big Movie. Instead, Carly Simon handled the music without the brothers, which is fine, but somehow not the same.

The new "Bounce-a rrriffic" special edition is most notable for how great it looks in Blu-ray. It contains the same features as the 10th anniversary DVD (though some features are now exclusive to the Blu-Ray). For collectors, please note that the new edition does not include two episodes from The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh TV series.

Among the new bonus features is a collection of very short vignettes called "The Mini Adventures of Winnie the Pooh," basically edited scenes from the "Pooh" shorts and The Tigger Movie.

What's interesting is that these mini segments are narrated by John Cleese, who also added his unique narration to the recent Winnie the Pooh feature. The voices of Sterling Holloway (Disney's original Pooh voice) and Paul Winchell are replaced here by Jim Cummings, so it's interesting to consider the similarities and occasional differences between the performances.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Aug 17 2012 by Greg
A substantial number of Disney animated feature debut on Blu-ray this Tuesday. One release, perhaps more than any other, stands as a crossroads between "old school" and "next generation" Disney animation: The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under.

When The Rescuers premiered in 1977, it was very well received but the public and the press, though things behind the scenes were getting tumultuous.

Based on Margery Sharp's book, The Rescuers follow two mice who rescue humans on behalf of their Rescue Aid Society (a group that co-exists behind the walls of the United Nations building).  Eva Gabor voices the lovely Bianca and Bob Newhart plays Bernard.

There's wonderful casting all the way around, harkening back to an era when Disney did enlist celebrities for the lead characters (who promoted the film on The Merv Griffin Show) and allow character actors and voice actors to round out the casts. Disney was still the name above the title and the studio had neither the budget nor the inclination to cast the multi-million-dollar variety of superstar often heard today in theatrical animation.

Times were simpler then, perhaps, and so is the film, which follows a very linear storyline as the mice board an albatross (voiced by longtime radio star Jim Jordan of Fibber McGee and Molly) and head for the bayou to rescue a little girl from Madame Medusa (the flamboyant Geraldine Page in her second Disney film) and her flunky Snoops (a caricature of Disney historian John Culhane voiced by Disney comedy veteran Joe Flynn in his only animated Disney role).

Not a musical, the film does have atmospheric songs performed offscreen by Shelby Flint, who hit the pop charts with "Angel on My Shoulder" and had become a very busy vocalist for TV shows, commercials and animation (Snoopy Come Home, Rankin/Bass' Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July, NBC's The Borrowers). An Oscar nomination for Best Song went to "Someone's Waiting for You." (Robie Lester fans take note: she is the singing voice of Bianca.)

But at the Disney studio, animators were becoming divided about artistic direction and Don Bluth was not pleased with what he saw as shortcuts on The Rescuers. Within a few years of this film, he would lead an artist walk out that impacted the next feature, The Fox and the Hound, the last feature to combine the talents of new and veteran animators.

You can also see this blend in The Rescuers -- masterful work by artists who worked with Walt and those that they mentored. Of course, the animation of Medusa is astounding, its roughness and energy captured in the sketchy, "scritchy" look of the xerox cel process. This a look didn't always suit the films in which it was used, but it works well here.

The Disney studio had never produced a sequel to any of its animated features before The Rescuers Down Under, but much had changed by 1990, including a new management team and transformations in corporate philosophies. But unlike some of the direct-to-video features that would emerge, this film boasts superior production values that actually exceed that of its predecessor.

Some of that sheen is due to rapid advances in computer technology, making specific settings, effects and animated objects more accessible. The CAPS system was perhaps the biggest develop to debut in The Rescuers Down Under. This eliminated the need for inked and painted animation cels -- the artwork went directly into the system for outline and color. Because of this, there is no breakdown in image quality (which could happen with layer upon layer of cels).

Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart are back as Bernard and Bianca, this time flown by a different albatross. Jim Jordan had passed away, so John Candy's voice added not only contemporary celebrity, but also a broader comedy potential and therefore appears in much more of the film as comic relief.

The biggest difference is that the villain is, this time around, not played at all for laughs, but completely evil and disturbingly unbalanced, brilliantly voiced by George C. Scott.

There are no songs at all in this sequel, though "Rescue Aid Society" is part of the underscore. Bruce Brougton's score is excellent -- and the recurring theme heard in his music is also used for the dancing fountain at the Epcot theme park.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Jul 16 2012 by Greg
Hopefully someday, when they make a sequel to the excellent documentary to Waking Sleeping Beauty (Waking Pocahontas maybe?), we'll see how Treasure Planet figured into the behind-the-scenes nachinations of the post-Katzenberg Disney animation division. One can't help but wonder whether Treasure Planet fell victim to some of these politics, or, as perhsps it was with John Carter, the public just didn't want a scifi/space version of Treasure Island.

The film itself is jaw-droppingly impressive. Few films from any studio have blended cel animation with CG as perfectly, created such vivid, vulnerable characters and such breathtaking, detailed panoramas. Seeing it on the new Blu-ray is almost like seeing it for the first time, unless perhaps you saw it in IMAX. Every line and every miniscule object or person in the distance can be seen in razor sharp clarity.

Maybe the visual scope and tech detail overwhelms the characters and the narrative, as some suggested was the case with Sleeping Beauty. However, there's some superb acting here, including the now-A lister Joseph-Gordon Levitt as Jim Hawkins, Brian Murray as Silver, Martin Short as BEN, Emma Thompson as Captain Amelia and the always dependable David Hyde-Pierce as Doppler (a character that suggests those Duckburg "dog people" from vintage Disney comics).

The generous bonus features, pretty much the same ones from the earlier DVD release, are very copious. Instead of an audio commentary, there is a vast "Visual Commentary" that starts and stops the film with supplemental information, stretching the experience out well over two hours. A feast for animation fans.

My son loved this movie when he was seven and he loves it today. It was an attempt to grab the non-Princess audience for Disney features, and while it would never attract the "Hot Tub Time Machine" older males, it's great stuff for younger kids.

Be sure to show your kids Walt Disney's original Treasure Island to compare and contrast the storyline. The relationship between Silver and Hawkins is more from Walt and less from Stevenson. And hey, reading the classic book is nice, too!

Blog, Movies
Posted on Jul 13 2012 by Greg
When Home on the Range was first released, for some reason the fate of 2-D or "traditional" animation was resting on it, as Disney was still in a tempestuous internal swirl and did not yet own, nor at the time have hope to stay attached to, the formidable Pixar -- who to this day, have had an unbroken string of films with strong, and usually gigantically successful openings.

It seems odd now to pin such hopes on such an unpretentious film, one that revels in its non-CG-ness and harkens back to the sunny Disney vistas of Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan and the lesser-known Saga of Windwagon Smith.

The performance of Home on the Range at the box office is less a refection of its quality than simply that there wasn't much of an audience for cartoon westerns starring cows in 2004. When you strip away its history and look at the film on its own (and many will today when they watch the new Blu-ray/DVD), you have a highly entertaining romp with fun characters, a loose story, some magnificent artwork and top animation.

Most of all, there some really fine songs, especially "Little Patch of Heaven" and the haunting "Will the Sun Ever Shine Again" (the latter been inspired in part, according to composer Alan Menken, by the despair following 911).

While the leading cast received much attention, one of the nicest things about Home on the Range is that it also employed such talented actors as SCTV's Joe Flaherty as Jeb, the goat, and, in particular, Carole Cook as Pearl. Cook was a close friend and protegé of Lucille Ball and played Bessie in the beloved film, The Incredible Mr. Limpet.

Watching and listening to the generous bonus features, it is evident that a great deal of skill and creativity goes into a film like this, so it cannot be dismissed as mere fluff, though it certainly does not leave you with the same glow as Beauty and the Beast. Nor it is intended to do so.

The most comical thing in retrospect turns out to be that a lighthearted animated movie about cows could be held up as the deciding factor in the future of cel animation. Of course, it didn't happen that way, and there have been other traditional features since, including last year's well-received and exquisite Winnie the Pooh.

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