"PAWS" TAKES A FEW NIBBLES FROM OTHER HOLIDAY KIBBLES
Posted on Dec 02 2010 by Greg
It's been said that there are only seven basic storylines for westerns. The same might be said for Christmas movies and The Search for Santa Paws
is no exception. This one leans a bit toward Miracle on 34th Street
, but as Santa's magic bag of story ideas started to run low, it clearly was time to "pay tribute" to Mister Magorium's Wonder Emporium
and about eight gallons of Annie
The interesting thing is that, of the many entries in the "Buddies" series, including last year's Santa Buddies
, this film is less about the cute talking puppies and more about an amnesiac Santa, several adorable orphans and warm hearted yuppies.
No kidding, the little orphan girls sing a song in their room just like "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" and the youngest orphan sings her version of "Maybe." Actually the whole film is largely a musical with on-camera singing with both the orphans in New York and the elves at the North Pole. The songs and the lavish musical score are nice, though, and I'm looking for a soundtrack CD (last year, you had to buy Santa Buddies
at Target to get a soundtrack) but can't seem to find one this time around.
There's even a Miss Hannigan type who burns toys, bans singing and "is a strict home schooler." Okay, why did that line have to be there? Especially when countless home schooling parents might be part of the buying public. I know she's really lying and making the girls work for her, but the line's not necessary nor nice.
What's most interesting for holiday movie buffs is that the special effects, particularly Santa's sleigh flying over New York, must be more rudimentary and certainly less cumbersome to create for this modestly budgeted direct-to-DVD movie than it was back when 1985's Santa Claus the Movie
used quite a bit of its multi million dollar budget on doing pretty much the same thing without the benefit of today's technology.
Disney Channel watchers will recognize a lot of actors from various shows, including Madison Pettis
(who's grown up a bit since Cory in the House
), John Ducey
(the JONAS dad) and G. Hannelius
(of Sonny with a Chance
). Voicing the lead puppy is Mitchel Musso
of Hannah Montana
and Pair of Kings
It's pleasant going but isn't likely to replace Dickens. But then, it isn't intended to. It's kind of like one of those store bought holiday cookie making kits. The cookies are kinda tasty, very colorful, the kids enjoy them. But they're not the same as those cookies you waited all year for to arrive from Aunt Marge.
"WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY" SURPRISE CAMEO...SORT OF
Posted on Nov 28 2010 by Greg
Three must-have Disney documentaries make their DVD debut on Tuesday, Nov. 30: The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story
(watch this blog for an upcoming interview with the Sherman cousins), Walt and el Grupo
(more about that on my Nov. 21 blog) and Waking Sleeping Beauty
, the story of the tumultuous though successful second golden age of Disney animation.Waking Sleeping Beauty
, of the three films, has received the most notice in the press because it involves the most current high-profile films and some of the highest rollers in entertainment. It is a major work, not only because it reveals more about the goings-on behind the Disney scenes, good and bad, than any Disney-released film before it, but also because it shows what it was like to have those "dream jobs" of being a Disney animator during it most explosive period since Walt's days.
The DVD adds a detailed audio commentary by filmmakers Don Hahn and Peter Schneider and a generous supply of bonus features like deleted scenes and informative segments that build on the film itself. I wish the film could have continued the story beyond the resignation of Jeffrey Katzenburg, but as one animator in a deleted scene does comment, things were never the same when Katzenburg left. The same is said for Howard Ashman,
Frank Wells, Joe Ranft and most recently, Roy E. Disney. History has proved it true in the ensuing years though things are certainly looking up since the end of the contentious period described in the book "Disney Wars".
Take a look at the Waking Sleeping Beauty
Bonus Features, and in a section called Studio Tours, you'll enjoy three informal romps through the animation halls with animator/director Randy Cartwright
(filmed by none other than John Lasseter
, just before he started doing that "computer stuff.") A young Tim Burton
appears in the 1980 segment, but that's not the surprise.
In the 1990 segment, Randy visits director John Musker
's office as he is reading the latest Animation Magazine
. John holds up the magazine and there is the great big name of renowned animation historian JIM KORKIS
right in our astonished faces!
Jim was a regular columnist for Animation
and his exquisite anecdotes, little-known and never-known facts helped him amass his legion of fans worldwide.
You probably know that Jim's latest book, The Vault of Walt
, is the talk of every animation enthusiast, Disney fan and noted expert this season. It's probably on your amazon wish list. Jim took his columns and blogs and updated them with even more information. It's a treasure trove. No one could possibly read this and say, "Oh I already knew everything in there!" Even Diane Disney Miller
herself, who wrote the forward.
And with all that Jim has done for Disney executives, cast members, enthusiasts and friends on both coasts, surely no one person
will be able to forever keep him from continuing to inspire and help others in his neverending quest to unearth more knowledge and share it with a wider audience than ever before.
Hey if it's good enough for John Musker, right? After all, he co-wrote and co-directed The Little Mermaid, Aladdin
, The Princess and the Frog
and lots more. You ain't never had an expert like Jim, nor a book like The Vault of Walt
EL SCOOPO ON "EL GRUPO"
Posted on Nov 21 2010 by Greg
[Award winning documentarist Ted Thomas (and son of one of Walt's legendary "nine old men," Frank Thomas) talked to me about the extraordinary, evocative, lyrical feature length film, Walt and el Grupo, coming to DVD on Nov. 30.]GREG: Let's start with the chicken-or-the-egg thing. Was this project ignited by J.B. Kaufman's book,
South of the Border with Disney, or did it originate with Diane Disney Miller and The Walt Disney Family Museum?TED: Kind of all of the above. Diane was interested in having stories told about her father that would bring his life story back to center stage. J. B. had been working on the idea for a book on the entire "Good Neighbor" film project, which was at least a decade. In the course of that, I came across what I call it "the magical shoe box" of photographs that Norm Ferguson’s daughter had given to J.B.--travel snapshots that were taken throughout the trip. When I was introduced to J.B. and Diane, she said, "You ought to take a look at JB’s shoe box," which I did. Immediately I began to look at each photo and think, "Where was this taken? When was this? Who are they with? What’s the story here?" Those, to me, are all things that I turn over in my head when beginning a project and deciding whether or not there is a film to be told.GREG: Diane surely was pleased that so many of the clips and photos showed Walt having fun and being a "regular guy."TED: Yes. I am very happy we were able to do that. I think that, outside of the Disney family films, there is more footage of him in this project than any film I know of.GREG: Would you say that, percentage-wise, that a lot of what we see in Walt and el Grupo has never been seen by the general public before?TED: Oh yes, oh yes. I would definitely say that is the case. Both for the photographs and the sixteen millimeter Kodachrome footage.GREG: In the DVD audio commentary with you and J.B., it is mentioned that the group actually traveled in two parts for insurance reasons. It is edited to give the impression they are all going on the same flight? TED: Yes. One of our bonus features covers this. The footage of them boarding the plane in Burbank it is not "verite" documentary footage. It was reconstructed several months later once they realized that they needed shots like that in Saludos Amigos. There are a few other documentaries that have used this basic idea, but I would like to think that we finessed it a lot more than has ever been done before. GREG: Walt and el Grupo is particularly entertaining because of a special three dimensional process in which the vintage photos are manipulated to create the illusion of depth. Can you explain how this was done?TED: You start out by finding a photograph that is composed so it has a natural foreground, middle ground and background. If everybody is lined up in the background it doesn’t work. But if it is something that already has an inherent depth to it, then you can use Photoshop to splice those three planes apart to create a foreground, middle ground and background. Then, using a program called "after effect," you can create your own version of a multiplane camera.
GREG: Also impressive were the shots of the studio that Walt and the artists set up in a hotel penthouse that were blended with current images of the same room today.That is one of my favorite shots in the picture actually is when they "vanish." Everybody has left town and is going off different points of the compass. We faded away the studio and then we are left with the room today.GREG: And then there's that rooftop dance scene, which you recreated for the film with people who had been there in the '40s. For those of us who watched
Saludos Amigos and
The Three Caballeros countless times, and seeing the people doing the traditional dances, it was fascinating to discover who some of the people actually were.TED: Yeah. And to me, on some level, that makes a difference because now they no longer seem anonymous. They are people with lives, families and histories and a connection.GREG: On a larger scale, I've always felt that, the South America Walt Disney films accomplished a lot in an era long before diversity was a corporate initiative or a big buzz word.People generally didn't know much about other cultures in those days. Walt Disney, probably more than any other filmmaker, was most instrumental in bringing the artwork and especially the music to America and to this day, we're benefiting from it.TED: Absolutely! I couldn’t have said it better. I agree completely and I think it was indicative of the kind of homework that was done on every single film. That what they observed and what they put through their own prism and made into their films is much more sympathetic to the cultures they came from than any other films that were being made at the time.GREG: And "Aquarela de Brasil" and "Tico Tico" were not known at all in the U.S. and became standards.TED: They became international standards, along with "Magic is the Moonlight". And "You Belong to My Heart" ["Solamente una vez"] became big hit. It is an incredible song.GREG: I loved James Stemple's new musical score. Is there going to be a soundtrack album?TED: We are still working on that. With the different parties involved there is a lot of sorting out that has to be done. Number one just get approval for that idea and number two convince people that in today’s climate people would want it.
GREG: The new score captured the mood of the period yet was very contemporary. TED: Plus I wanted the music to give audio signposts about where we were geographical. It was a real tough assignment on an independent film to say "Okay, I want to be geographic specific. I want it to feel like we are in Brazil or feel like we are in Chile," but you can’t hire a separate musical ensemble for each place.GREG: You also mentioned in the commentary that there were a lot of, to quote the Sherman Brothers, "happy happenstances" in making the film. Certain things just fell into place -- like finding the handmade dolls that Walt had brought back from South America as gifts for Diane and Sharon. TED: The dolls were found on the day of shooting! That really is serendipity. Diane had talked about them but hadn’t been able to locate them. When we showed up on that day, she arrived and said, "I am so sorry. It would have been really nice if I had found them but I just don’t know where they are." Then Michael Labre, the curator, said, "Diane, we have been cataloging this stuff, do you have any idea what these are?" And it was the dolls. It was literally like that.GREG: And they've held up very well over the years.TED: Considering. They are in very good condition.
GREG: There was another image that was very striking to me, and I'm sure to those who love these "Good Neighbor" Disney films. At the end of Saludos Amigos, we see the lighted URCA sign flashing and never really knew much about it, just figured it was some famous place and that's it. But in Walt and el Grupo, it becomes part of one of the most touching sequences because of how you combines images of then and now. It's very haunting.TED: Yeah, I'm glad it touched you because it did me also. When we went on the scouting trip and saw the exterior, from that moment on I wanted to go inside. We worked very hard and very long and got turned down many times before we got permission to go in there. The neat thing about it is that in addition to being able to film inside this "temple of pleasure," as it was called, was the fact that the city government had taken an interest in renovating part of it which since we made the movie has been done. Part of it has been renovated as a design school. That is the seaside, the side that faces the water. The side with the grill room and that stage is still a ruin.GREG: That must have been gigantic underneath too, because that stage moved and closed and opened.TED: And dropped. It was. When the stage went down it must have been pretty low overhead, pretty low ceiling, but you could see pullies and different mechanisms left and you could also go back and see where some of the dressing rooms were. Nothing palatial, believe me, but what shows they put on there!A lot of these encounters took a couple of hours and, with some people, even longer periods of time. But the impression that was left [by the Walt Disney visit] and the stories that were told lasted for generations. It's been sixty years yet people would talk about it as though it happened last week. I found that quite remarkable.
GREG: Since the film has been in limited theatrical release and more people have learned about this moment in cultural history, have you learned about any contemporary Hispanic performers? Have some artists come to realize or were they impacted by the fact that so much music came to this U.S. as a result of these efforts and that it has sort of grown from that?TED: Well, like many things between the Americas, there is more awareness of that in Latin American than there is here. Like the huge popularity of songs like "Brazil," "Tico Tico" and "Solamente una vez." They're huge worldwide hits, but what might not be known is the fact that it was a Disney film that made it popular around the world.Maybe you already know this from J.B.’s book, but the fascinating thing was that they did recording sessions in Rio during this trip but the miking of it wasn’t satisfactory. So the only one of the tracks recorded in Rio that was usable was a flute improvisation that ends up over the little train that goes to Baia in The Three Caballeros.And when Walt's musical director, Charles Wolcott, heard the pan pipes in Lima he then composed a melody for the Donald Duck "Lake Titicaca" section. Of course, he couldn’t get the authentic instruments when they recorded it, so he got two soprano recorders, had them tuned slightly differently and had them played in unison so that they had just the right degree of dissonance. GREG: You also mention in your commentary that you feel your films are as much about politics as they are about art, because the two intertwine. On November 30, Disney will release
Walt and el Grupo on DVD at the same time as two other major films about two other pivotal times in Disney history -- and it seems that while
Walt and el Grupo is about art and the politics of government, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story is about art and family politics and Waking Sleeping Beauty is about art and corporate politics. TED: That's a great observation. It is a fascinating that politics and art are about the same thing. It is all about interpreting life. Politics is about setting up guidelines and rules that bring order and art is about democracy or starting a conversation or exploration. They both have a really interesting dynamic tension.GREG: What would you most like viewers to take away with them when they see Walt and el Grupo, especially young people?TED: I would love it if they would be inspired to see Walt Disney as a man -- as a human being. The mythology that has grown since his death is all well, but I think that it is very exciting to see him as a creative individual, as an artist, because it reminds us about the role of art in the world and how each of us can to contribute to it.
THREE'S THE CHARM, THE TEARJERKER AND PERHAPS THE BEST
Posted on Nov 07 2010 by Greg
Pixar already has Hollywood dumbfounded by its unbroken track record of solid box office hits. Now Toy Story 3
has surged ahead of its sister films and become the leader. It has also done what even Coppola
couldn't do: make a third sequel that arguably tops the first two films.
Much has already been said and written about Toy Story 3
. While the majority of opinions have been positive, it has also been called the "darkest" of the Toy Story movies. Some have also expressed displeasure at the cruelty of the Lotso character. [Spoiler alert] One might wonder if there were some behind the scenes debates; there had to been some concern that the fluffy pink bear's misbehavior might have affected merchandising and such (though to our family's thinking, we've reconciled the plush and theme park versions of Lotso as "other Lotsos" and not the discarded, bitter bear we saw in the movie.Toy Story 3
, like all of Pixar's features and shorts, seem to have a creative vision funneled through a singular director. Even though TS3's director, Lee Unkrich
, has been with the franchise since the beginning, this particular film really has Unkrich's humor and intensity.
This theory is based on the extensive and detailed audio commentary he does with producer Darla K
(for Kay) Anderson
, in which explains the stories behind the story decisions and even the little jokes (for instance, Michael Keaton
mispronounced "library" as Ken and Unkrich left it in and overruled requests to the contrary -- and it does get a laugh in theaters). But on a larger scale, if one were to take the caricature of him literally (which you can see in a bonus feature about the crew shaving their heads), he seems to be perceived as a pretty intense fellow.
I saw the movie three times in theaters and my family saw it twice. It made me misty eyed every time, both at the beginning and especially at the end. Like Walt Disney
's classic animation, these CG-generated creatures have the ability to elicit real emotion from viewers. When Andy explains each toy to little Bonnie, it's truly touching, not contrived for effect. And yet the film is laugh out loud funny in other places, such as Mr. Potato Head's makeshift "base bodies." Much of these ideas are explained in the commentary too.
Nearly every animated feature today uses celebrity voices, but to the new and carryover casts of Toy Story 3, this isn't just a pick-up-the-check-and-mention-it-to-Leno deal to any of the stars involved here. They know they are part of something special and don't take it lightly, I'm certain. My favorite performances have to be Jodi Benson
as Barbie and the aforementioned Keaton as Ken. The apparently did their lines together and the timing pays off (many voice actors, especially stars, do their lines separately). It's even funny when Ken is reading the roll and, angry at his lady doll, call her name out with middle-school disdain ("BAR-bie.") Things like this make repeated viewings fun.
Most of the extras are on the 2 Blu-ray discs, though the commentary and a few of the "animatic"-style behind the scenes features are also on the single DVD. I was particularly pleased that there is also a narrative audio option for the entire film, so those with sight challenges can enjoy the film as a narrator explains the action. This is actually quite nice as a bonus feature too, because you don't have to stare at the screen and you can get a "Disneyland Storyteller" LP-type experience. Perhaps this service, produced by WGBH in Boston, will be included on future Disney and Pixar releases.
GETTING BACK TO NATURE
Posted on Oct 22 2010 by Greg
Walt Disney's True-Life Adventure series began with Seal Island
, one of many ideas he had that seemed crazy at the time -- a genre of film in which massive amounts of nature footage was edited to tell a story. The series was a long running success, leading to an endless parade of shorts, features and, more than anything else, TV shows featuring animals.
There were also some controversies. Some animal specialists and other critics were not pleased with how these films created an "anthropomorphosis" for the animals, attributing to them thoughts and motivations created through the editing and narration rather than real life events. You know, like reality TV (so does that make Snooki the new Perri?)
However, that was part of the entertainment value of the films, and what made them so memorable. It's to the credit of those who create films either produced or released by Disneynature to acheive a similar quality with a keener eye for nonfiction.
They also have an advantage early nature documentarists never dreamed of -- high-definition photography and fascinating gadgets like remote helicopter-like cameras and deep-sea devices.
These developments and more are put to extremely effective use on both new Disneynature Blu-ray and DVD releases, Disneynature: Oceans
and Crimson Wing-The Mystery of the Flamingo
. These two features each offer spectacular footage never before put on film.
In place of the paternal Winston Hibler
or the folksy Rex Allen
, who did so much of the early Disney nature film narrations, Oceans
is told with a combination of awe and matter-of-fact assertion by Pierce Brosnan
. Listening to him narrate, I couldn't help wondering how many other commercials and films I had heard with his voice, but not realizing it.
Oceans is a dynamic, but fairly straightforward tour through the seas, showcasing the familiar, the strange and of course, the endangered (Disney Channel pop stars Demi Lovato
and Joe Jonas
add their "Friends for Change" note with a song over the end credits that is also a music video).
The bonus features examine the filmmaking techniques and also promote the Disney Corporate environmental initiatives, which might seem a bit self-serving to some but is a largely sincere and highly accomplished effort by those involved who are seriously dedicated to these issues. Disney's a big company and it's a business, but it also brings these issues into the mainstream and allows costly research to take place. And it gets films like this into the mainstream, too.
Of the two films, Crimson Wing
is the most unique. Told in a lyrical style, it's more of an epic poem on film than a documentary. The images are often surprisingly abstract -- like visual puzzles that disorient the eye before revealing what they are. In one sequence, for example, the flamingos glide over a lake surface so calm you can't tell where the birds are until the ripples appear.
The narrator of Crimson Wing
is Mariella Frostrup
, well-known to BBC watchers and listeners. To me, her narrator conjured up memories of the original Living Seas film at Epcot
("And it rained, and rained and rained...the deluge"). The whole film has that quality. So if you're a vintage Epcot fan, you'll get a kick out of Crimson Wing
in a way that the filmmakers never intended, I'm sure.Oceans
and Crimson Wing
both take the viewer out of the everyday and to a larger plane of existence, a bigger picture, as it were, of our existence and that of the creatures around us. It can't hurt to be reminded that there's a lot more to the world.
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