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Posted on Nov 26 2008 by Greg
Within weeks of the release of the wondrous Walt Disney Treasure DVD set, The Mickey Mouse Club Presents Annette, here we have her far more opulent descendant of teen stardom, Hannah Montana in its first full-season collection.

It's not like you can't turn on Disney Channel and see a multitude of Hannah shows at will, but they tend to be clustered without sequence, so it's a different experience to see each show one after the other without promos and other network clutter that even clogs the occasional series marathon.

Like The Monkees, when the furor fades and the songs fall from the charts, the show itself is left to stand on its own. While no one pretends this is The Dick Van Dyke Show or Frasier, the Hannah series is a capable effort, with Miley Cyrus carrying virtually every scene with timing and confidence that develops somewhat over the episodes. What also becomes clear is the comic frenzy of Jason Earles as her brother, Jackson. Earles is actually older than he looks and his skill really comes through in the polished slapstick.

Each episode's title is a wordplay of some musical reference (Miley Get Your Gun, Good Golly, Miss Dolly, etc.). The first few shows, which set up the premise, don't get as much airplay and are interesting to watch because, as in many early series episodes, the characters are not developed and the cast is getting used to the material and each other.  It would have been nice to have some audio commentary by this highly accessible cast. Instead there are episodes with a few inserted comments from Miley culled from other interviews called "Hannah's Highlights."

The Disney Channel Games kickoff episode and a vignette with Miley and Billy Ray Cyrus on their home turf round out the extras. The "Games" segment would be almost sure to be a fun thing for kids to watch a decade from now to see which stars they can remember and what a big deal it all seemed to be at the time.

It would be nice to see more of the Disney Channel shows get this kind of treatment, especially the very entertaining Corey in the House, which is now out of production.

Posted on Nov 17 2008 by Greg

I am quoting the theme song from this Mickey Mouse Club Serial, which was also a "Fun With Music Day" song by Jimmie Dodd, and cheering too, because if you read Mouse Tracks, you know Annette is very special to us. This DVD set is somewhat of an event. It's also an interesting coincidence that is has been released within weeks of the Hannah Montana Season One DVD. Again if you read Mouse Tracks, there is a definite connection between today's Disney pop star and Walt's first and most beloved.

Leonard Maltin's commentary and two special bonus mini-documentaries give you a brief overview of Annette's career as America's first female teen pop idol, from her selection by Walt to her beach party movie days, and gently touching on her more recent bout with Multiple Sclerosis (which resulted in her and her husband, Glen Holt, creating a foundation to help others with the affliction -- how can you not love her even more?)

It's the subject of many a Disney fan's roundtable discussion as to how Annette became such a phenomenon while the Mickey Mouse Club odds-on favorite for breakout stardom at the beginning was the gifted Darlene Gillespie (and if you have not heard her version of Alice in Wonderland with the great Tutti Camarata, I highly recommend you download it from iTunes -- it's my favorite record album.)

Maltin's comments add fuel to the discussion by mentioning that one reason Walt may have selected her was because her ethnicity, in a very white bread period for television, made her stand out. It's fascinating to consider his instincts and strategies as well as his knack for knowing what would appeal to the public.

The serial, which covers 20 12-minute episodes taking up about three hours total, was originally presented as a daily segment on the last season that the Mickey Mouse Club would feature new material (the following season consisted of edited earlier shows). From February 10 (the "Introduction" episode) to March 7 ("The Mystery is Solved") you would see either a cartoon, musical number, special guest, circus act or young talent.

The serial was often followed by a Jimmie Dodd message segment in which he would tell an Aesop story, convey a Mousekethought or introduce another Mouseketeer with an inspiring message. The Mickey Mouse Club Presents Annette DVD contains two 1958 Mickey Mouse Club shows (the first and last to present Annette) to give you the context if you're not familiar with the original series.

The Annette serial, based on a teen novel by Poky Little Puppy author Jeannette Sebring Lowrey, was the a showcase for Annette Funicello and many other young performers including her soon-to-be-real-life best friend Shelley Fabares (The Donna Reed Show, "Johnny Angel"), Roberta (Jymme) Shore (The Shaggy Dog, The Virginian), Tim Considine (The Shaggy Dog, My Three Sons) and Judy Nugent (who likely was a replacement for Darlene Gillespie who was to co-star when the serial was called Annette and Darlene but was assigned to the ill-fated Rainbow Road to Oz).

It also features many of Hollywood's best character actors, like Sylvia Field (Mrs. Wilson on Dennis the Menace), Doris Packer (Principal Mrs. Rayburn on Leave it to Beaver) and Richard Deacon -- who was playing pompous Fred Rutherford, Lumpy's father, during this period on Leave it to Beaver, and would soon become Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show. All of these performers make the most of sometimes stodgy dialogue and often add character subtexts that are not in the lines themselves.

The lady who ties the whole show together is the inimitable Mary Wickes, who was pretty much universally loved by everyone in show business and plays the kind straight-talking, earthy confidant that she reportedly really was in Hollywood circles, being a close pal of Lucille Ball and others. As Katie, Wickes not only opens the series by previewing virtually the entire storyline (an ingenious Mickey Mouse Club serial device that gave young viewers lots to look forward to plus the final cliffhanger to anticipate), she's the only one who seems to know what's going on -- a popular movie and role for a servile supporting character in Hollywood's early days.

One of the most fascinating things about watching Annette is seeing it as a TV time capsule of what appealed to teens at the time and comparing it to the Disney Channel shows today. The dialogue itself is interesting because it's not like screenwriter Lillie Hayward was unaware of basic teenspeak of the 50's, since some characters, like Steady, Laura and Jet, use more casual colloquialisms than Annette, Steve or Mike. But the big difference is that Laura is the villain and Steady and Jet are the less refined of their peers. TV of the that day, always eager to please viewers and sponsors with the ideal example of "nice young ladies and gentlemen," do not allow the heroic characters to talk in slang beyond words like "golly" and "keen." Today's TV kid characters have no such lines of demarcation -- slang and sarcasm is up for grabs for all. The prime exception of the 50's era is Leave it to Beaver, which was more perceptive in some ways than its fellow family shows and featured more casual language among its lead characters.

I also noticed that, perhaps coincidentally, that the central plot about the lead being accused by the "mean girl" of stealing a necklace is also a subplot of a recent Disney Channel TV movie, Camp Rock (only it's a bracelet). Perhaps it's because the more we change, the more we stay the same. The seemingly insurmountable problems and joys of teenage life are fairly constant. That's why Archie comics have stood the test of time.

The Annette serial is filled with original songs, including "How Will I Know My Love?" the hit that launched her singing success. (Two classic Disney songs, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," and "Whistle While You Work," are also sung incidentally.) Disneyland Records released an album of most of the Annette serials songs and more on this album available on iTunes. Whether it's Annette, Hillary Duff, Miley Cyrus or Jonas Brothers, it all has its roots in this now-quaint but pivotal series of mini teen dramas.

Posted on Nov 14 2008 by Greg

Of the three newest Walt Disney Treasures DVD packages, this is perhaps the lesser known, but it is by no means the least important. It's what used to be known as "rip-roaring" great adventure, produced on a rich, grand scale unheard-of during the period in which it first appeared.

"Dr. Syn," which was based on British novels and legends explained on a fascinating documentary also included on disc one, is a Robin Hood or Zorro of sorts. But the difference is that Dr. Syn is a highly respected minister who completely fools the pompous bad guys. Yet, in this three-part series, the villains are fleshed out and not caricatured. The dignity and seriousness of the drama holds up beautifully today without the slightest sense of cliché.

In this 2-disc set, you get all three WONDERFUL WORLD OF COLOR hours with introductions by Walt himself, plus the edited feature-length version released theatrically in Europe in the 60's and then in the U.S. in the 1970's. But the aspect ratio of the original print has been restored for this release so you'll even see the television versions in more depth than before, with gorgeous restored prints and sound that especially brings out the lush musical score (I wish it was on a separate track!)

And speaking of music, you'll get to see who sings the haunting "Scarecrow" theme--Terry Gilkyson, who also wrote "The Bare Necessities," along with George Patterson and The Wellingtons. The only detail left out is that The Wellingtons are best known for singing the Gilligan's Island theme in its first season (there's more about them in Mouse Tracks).

The other mini-documentary traces Walt Disney's long and fruitful live-action movie enterprises in the United Kingdom with comments by several of those involved including director Ken Annakin. It's great that the live-action part of Walt Disney's art is getting recognized and appreciated.

Most of all, if you are a fan of the TV classics The Prisoner or Secret Agent, you have to have this because Patrick McGoohan is in top form in this film, even to his remarkably varied speaking voice which transforms his character as much as his mask.

I've also always had a theory that McGoohan may have gotten the idea for The Prisoner after becoming familiar with the Disney organization and the "smiling yet indomitable" way Disneyland has of controlling crowds and experiences. If you don't know what I mean, take a look at the original Prisoner series and its "Village" of colorful benevolence, where the flavor of the day is strawberry, doors open automatically and nothing is left to chance. Just a thought. (BTW, The Prisoner is being revived soon on the AMC Network starring Jim Caviezel.)

DVD Review: 101 DALMATIANS II: Patch's London Adventure SPECIAL EDITION
Posted on Sep 24 2008 by Greg

If you have this movie already, please be aware that "Special Edition" seems to denote a new game called "Patch's Twilight Adventure" newly added to the existing two games, two music videos and two mini-documentaries.

However, if you did not get this movie the first time around, I really do recommend it as one of the best of the made-for-video Disney sequels and prequels. First of all, the graphic look of the original animated 101 Dalmatians lends itself nicely to television animation, and the quality in this sequel is very fluid, consistent and, most importantly, as close to classic character animation as television-style budgets can allow.

The animated Cruella returns

It's also very faithful to its source material, perhaps more than the live-action features, which had to re-invent things a bit because of their inherent differences. It is not Glenn Close's campily psychotic Cruella we see here, but Betty Lou Gerson's Tallulah-ish terrorizer. The amazing Suzanne Blakeslee, who has cornered the Disney villainess market somewhat with her recreations of Maleficent and Lady Tremaine, truly pays tribute to a very difficult act to follow. By the way, you may be surprised to discover that Jodi Benson is the voice of Anita -- it's a rather small role, but pleasing nonetheless.

Martin Short wrings every drop of comedy from his lines as the Dieter-like designer Lars, Jason Alexander reincarnates George Constanza as a sneaky canine co-star and Barry Bostwick does a fine job as the not-so-heroic-in-real-life Thunderbolt, a role which must have been either inspired by or intended for William Shatner.

It's also nice to see the names of Bill Lee (singing the Cruella song from the earlier film) and Lucille Bliss (singing Kanine Krunchies) in the credits.

It seems I've heard this story before...

As far as the story line, it reminds me of a Little Golden Book called "Lucky Puppy," in which Lucky leaves home to find Thunderbolt at his TV studio, gets lost and returns home. This book was released as one of the first in the Disneyland Records Read-Along series read by Robie Lester. As a kid, it seemed odd that the movie story was replaced by this one, but the reason was surely that Western Publishing, which supplied the pages for the read-alongs, had only published "Lucky Puppy" and not the movie story.

Does anyone else wonder why the story of Patch's London Adventure seems to resemble that of the upcoming "Bolt?" Just wondering...

Posted on May 28 2008 by Greg
This set marks the third of five seasons that will hopefully all come to DVD soon. After watching the first three seasons, it only serves to remind me how great this show was and how today's families are fortunate for the opportunity to see this kind of quality and creativity today.

Genius is a word commonly attributed to Jim Henson, as well as some of his longtime collaborators, such as Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson, but the show itself is an ingenious concoction as well. Under the guise of constant self-deprecation, it is actually a meticulously crafted blend of vaudeville, TV variety and satire that constantly reflects within itself with a sharp irony much like that which is attributed to David Letterman and Conan O'Brien. It's a variety show that sends up variety shows.

In the first season DVD set, you could trace the development of the characters, particularly Miss Piggy. She went from being a chorus girl (often with differing voices) to a major international star. I'll never forget when Siskel and Ebert went into a lengthy debate about her performance in The Great Muppet Caper, before catching themselves in the absurdity of it all ("Can you believe we're talking about a piece of foam with more depth than many flesh and blood actors performing today?")

By season three, the show had found its identity and gained the kind of clout and chic that attracted the "in" celebrities of the day (Gilda Radner, for example). Ironically, some of these guest stars are the most dated aspects of the series. The bizarre, unpredictable style of a series at its peak is very much in evidence. The Loretta Lynn episode takes place in a railroad station, the Marisa Berenson show features the "wedding" of Kermit and Piggy, and the Lynn Redgrave show is an original musical version of "Robin Hood."

For fans of "Muppet*Vision 3-D" at the Disney parks, there are echoes in the Spike Milligan episode (which has a "Small World" finale) and the masterful show with Pearl Bailey that randomly combines Broadway show tunes with reckless abandon.

Not much in the way of extras, though the "Muppets on Puppets," a black and white documentary created for public TV in 1968, is a treat. A sweet new documentary short, "The Making of The Muppets," is just that, sweet but short. It would have been nice to have more of those pop-ups that added so much inside info to the Season One set -- not that I'm complaining, though, I'm just glad to have this show on DVD and love sharing it with the kids.

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