WONDERLAND IS A FASCINATING AND FUN PLACE TO VISIT
Posted on Jun 04 2010 by Greg
For this journey down the rabbit hole, Tim Burton
is the driver and Johnny Depp
the tour guide. Several film versions of Lewis Carroll's
two "Alice" books have been released almost since the beginning of the 20th century. By and large, they have not been box office successes, though Walt Disney's
1951 animated feature has become perhaps the most iconic (I also like the 1933 Paramount film, the 1972 British musical film, the 1966 TV special of Through the Looking Glass
, all on DVD, and the Hanna-Barbera 1966 special, which I wish was on DVD.)
Disney's new big screen version of Tim Burton's vision of Alice in Wonderland
, or "Underland," gives us Johnny Depp once again creating an original persona to our sheer amazement, This film is the first mega-hit movie version of Alice ever, hitting the 1 billion dollar mark worldwide. It's a testament to Johnny Depp's astronomical star power within the right vehicle. It has also been accomplished not only through Burton's artistry, but Linda Woolverton's
screenwriting (she penned Disney's Beauty and the Beast,
But they also had to change the story to make it work as a movie. Every filmmaker has struggled with the Carroll texts because, like dreams, they are random experiences with no arc. Walt Disney was the most successful, in my view, at staying faithful to the story without adding an arc (and Walt's artists' vision of the rabbit hole is still the best of all time).
What was done with the 2010 Alice in Wonderland
was to make it a revisit, of sorts, with Alice at marrying age and at a crossroads in life. This is her second Wonderland visit, to bring her confidence and direction. It's probably the most re-defined and altered story arc of any Alice
adaptation to date (in the excellent Hallmark TV miniseries, Alice is afraid to recite a poem and the Wonderland characters give her moral support).
Alice, in this version, is a bit like the Pevensie children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
-- sent by a prophetic destiny to rid the kingdom of an oppressive, deadly leader. The characters are given names (which my son loves: "It's not the White Rabbit, Daddy, he's McTwisp!"). Elements of the Carroll narrative (the rabbit hole, "drink me," etc.) are still here, but eventually the new adventure takes hold and the film becomes an action fantasy.
By the time Alice, the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse reach the Queen's castle, they've become a team more in the style of L. Frank Baum
than Carroll -- in fact, I expected Alice to tell the Hatter "I'm going to miss you most of all." She even says a line similar to "and you were there, and you and you!" But I digress and perhaps spoil.
But you know what? It works. And it's more akin to Disney tradition that it may seem at first, since Walt himself considered changing the Carroll story as well, and also almost made a live-action/animated version with Ginger Rogers
. This film, with its blend of live actors, CG animation and motion capture, was virtually all performed in front of a green screen, a descendant of the live action/animated sequences in Mary Poppins
and Bedknobs and Broomsticks
The cast is marvelous, on screen and off. Mia Wasikowska
suggests Hayley Mills
, with a physical resemblance as well as a similar spunky yet sober attitude. Helena Bonham Carter
is having a ball with a juicy, outrageous villain to chew on Red Queen. Anne Hathaway
channels Snow White (watch those bent elbows) and Billie Burke as the White Queen. The voices of Stephen Fry
as the Cheshire Cat, Michael Sheen
as the White Ra-- oops, I mean McTwisp are among the letter-perfect voice casting. And of course, there's to Johnny Depp's masterful, mercurial "Bozo-Blows-His-Big-Top," yet somehow heartbreakingly sympathetic, Hatter.
One note to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
fans: the legendary Barbara Windsor,
voices the swashbuckling Dormouse, was the blonde girl friend of Arthur Millard
, the big goofball who got the ugly haircut from Dick Van Dyke's
machine in the Sherman Brothers
1968 musical classic. And that's just a small part of a very big stage and screen career. It's nice to hear her in this film.
The film is visually amazing and as good a reason as any to plunk down the cash for a Blu-Ray player. The DVD has a handful of the bonus features included on the Blu-Ray disc, but I sure would have loved to hear an audio commentary from someone about such an interesting film.
Can't wait for the sequel -- how can there NOT be? I've always loved Alice in Wonderland
and am glad to see it possibly become a franchise, as well as "cool" again. This is one instance where today's filmmakers have realized that total fantasy and escapism is what audiences want during depressed times.
And it still compliments the Walt Disney version without replacing it. There's always room for another Wonderland, and the Walt Disney version will always be landmark, especially because of its Mary Blair
look, classic voice cast and unforgettable songs.
GREAT MOVIE, NOT-SO-GREAT EXTRAS
Posted on Apr 22 2010 by Greg
The Great Mouse Detective
came along -- and was somewhat lost -- during a highly transitional period as Walt Disney Productions became The Walt Disney Company (see the fine new documentary, Waking Sleeping Beauty
, for details). It's definitely worth more attention that it seems to get, perhaps because it gets left between the "troubled" post-Walt era and the "second golden age" that began essentially with The Little Mermaid
Detective, which was supposed to be called "Basil of Baker Street" after the book upon which it is based but was renamed by a nervous Marketing department (hmmm...Tangled?) is a Sherlock Holmes-style adventure with some memorable moments and a nice score by multi-Oscar, Gold Record and Grammy winner Henry Mancini
(his only score for a Disney animated feature).
Disney features have always had trouble with their lead characters being engaging enough and leaving the audience empathy on the shoulders of the sidekicks. In the case of Basil, he is true to the Holmes persona in that he is a bit prickly and distant, but he becomes more likable as you get to know him in the story.
Of course, Vincent Price
chews the animation cels like so many Chee-tos as the villain Rattigan. He delivers as you might expect and again, should not be as forgotten a Disney villain as he seems to be today. I did take exception when, in the film's original theatrical release, that Price's performance was being touted as his first in animation -- that was actually as Irontail in the Rankin/Bass
special, Here Comes Peter Cottontail
Price was the only "big name" voice in the film with the exception of Melissa Manchester
, who sings in the saloon scene. The use of stars was not as common a practice then as it is now. Manchester was actually added to the soundtrack in order to generate publicity to "today's" audience, yet Disney did not release a soundtrack album or a single version of her song (Varese Sarabande released a CD years after).
Manchester replaced Shani Wallis
, who was going to sing the song before being removed for the "name." Wallis was one of my childhood crushes as the doomed Nancy in the Oscar winning Best Picture, Oliver!
At least she was given a small speaking role at the end of the The Great Mouse Detective
Anyway, the film's highlights include a Rube Goldberg
-like "mouse trap" set by Rattigan to destroy Basil and his friends and the historic Big Ben sequence, one of the first to use CG as an effect device. It is still a compelling sequence.
But you'll have to hang on to your 2002 DVD edition of The Great Mouse Detective
to keep the image gallery "scrapbook," and if you don't already have the cartoons "Clock Cleaners" and "Donald's Crime" on other DVDs. The new "Mystery in the Mist" Edition adds a "game" that is more of a short video called "So You Think You Can Sleuth" and the "making of" documentary from the previous edition.
If you never got a copy of this film before, it really is worth having -- unless you want to wait for a possible Blu-Ray, But who knows?
"WITCHIEPOO MEETS POPEYE"?
Posted on Apr 09 2010 by Greg
"I have never gone along with mainstream entertainment," says Oscar-winning animation legend Hayao Miyazaki
on the bonus features for the new DVD edition of Castle in the Sky
, his epic children's action/adventure/sci-fi feature. I know, as a result of that, I could have been out of work. But I feel I was rescued by my audience every time."
Like the now-iconic My Neighbor Totoro
, Castle in the Sky
gained successful momentum over the years and was even nominated for an Oscar (which was captured by Wallace and Gromit & the Curse of the Were-Rabbit
.)Castle in the Sky
-- the title of which I confuse with Howl's Moving Castle
-- was inspired by the mining culture of Wales, its people and the impact of industry on the environment (ecology is an ongoing Miyazaki theme). In this English version, Anna Paquin
and James Van Der Beek
voice the young protagonists, Sheeta and Pazu and Mark Hamill
plays an urbane and ultimately villainous megalomaniac.
But it's Cloris Leachman
who steals the film as Dola, the rip-roaring leader of air pirates (with Mandy Patinkin
as one of her oafish sons). In a bonus segment about the voice actors, she mentions that the character is not a far cry from her own personality. Dola is sort of Witchiepoo meets Popeye. And speaking of Popeye, it seems that there is a visual link between this film and early 20th century American comic strip art (same seems true for Miyazaki's Porco Rosso
The finale is among the most spectacular sequences in any movie, animation or not. You find yourself saying, "Did they really draw that by hand?" The scope, design and detail is astonishing.
The DVD set includes the complete storyboard, the film in English and Japanese and some fascinating behind-the-scenes extras, including the story of how Miyazaki's interviewer became his producer after the animator refused to be interviewed and the writer camped out next to his desk. For days.
"My movies may not be instant hits, but [the audience] loyalty, over time, has allowed me to make the kind of movies I want," Miyazaki contnues. "The fact that they keep coming back to see my movies is the reason I am where I am. I very much appreciate that."
PASS THE BEIGNETS AND ENJOY THE MOVIE
Posted on Apr 07 2010 by Greg
When my wife and I married almost 15 years ago, I became more acquainted with very unique world that is New Orleans -- particularly the food. I had not seen very many flattering portrayals of the city in movies and TV (Live and Let Die
springs to mind) but it is truly an amazing city with lots of rich history, wonderful people and did I mention food?
Food figures prominently in The Princess and the Frog
, since Tiana, the lead character, dreams of opening a great restaurant and fulfilling the wishes of her father. There are more than a few scenes devoted to cooking and cuisine. One scene in particular uses the proper dicing of vegetables for gumbo as a way to bond Tiana and Prince Naveen.
Music is also a core component to both the city and the film and Randy Newman
delivered a full "book" score that touches each musical style of the region and add much-needed songs to the recent Disney catalog. My particular favorite is "My Evangeline," a stunningly beautiful ballad sensitively sung by the amazing Jim Cummings
(also the voice of Pooh, Tigger, Darkwing Duck
and many others). By the way, every speaking actor also sings his or her songs.
There have been those who have expressed comments about what The Princess and the Frog
is not, rather that what it is. Perhaps the hopes for Disney's return to hand-drawn animation created overly high expectations, but it's wonderful to see this style executed in such exquisite, classic style. I think it will hold up to the test of time and become a Disney staple.
Don't miss the audio commentary by the directors because they are very generous in their background information as well as generous in giving credit to those involved in the film. It's interesting to note their story about how, when faced with creating an animated feature after the division was all but shuttered, were looking for animation desks and were led to a secret "stash" collected by Christopher
(son of Disney Legend Winston
-- somehow he knew they would be needed.
The Blu-Ray not only offers a more detailed and brilliant image and sound, but there almost a dozen features there that are not included on the regular DVD. Plus you get a download disc so you can watch it on your iPod. Who would have thought such things were possible only a few years ago?
A DIFFERENT KIND OF SABRINA, SAMANTHA OR HARRY POTTER
Posted on Mar 29 2010 by Greg
Released a year after My Neighbor Totoro
, Kiki's Delivery Service
is among the most cheerful and lighthearted of Hayao Miyazaki's Ghibli features. A tween-age witch leaves home for a journey on her own as part of her training, settling in a small fictional town that is somewhat Germanic in look. The storyline is not as intricate as, say, that of Spirited Away
, but the characters are no less charming or memorable.
In this Disney-produced English translation (you can watch it subtitled in Japanese at once), Kirsten Dunst
's earnest performance reminds me of Pamelyn Ferdin, the go-to young actress of late 60s/early 70s TV and animation. Debbie Reynolds
has a small role as a kindly old woman, partnered with Edie McClurg as her housekeeper.
But the scene-stealing role is that of the late Phil Hartman
as Jiji, the cat who accompanies Kiki on her journey, making acerbic comments along the way. It only serves to underscore the great loss of a gifted performer and the potential never realized.
One of the most interesting things about Kiki's Delivery Service
is the way the general populace reacts to her magical gifts. She belongs to a group of individuals that are not feared, hidden or scorned, but instead treated matter-of-factly. A prime example is a scene in which Kiki's takes off on her broom and a village lady looks on with a "well, what do you know, how interesting" reaction. She doesn't go all "Gladys Kravitz."
This Special Edition issue of the movie is accompanied with a series of short bonus documentaries and an interactive "world of Ghibli" feature.
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