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Blog, TV
Posted on Nov 24 2011 by Greg
Even though it's not on DVD (though I hope for it year after year), the lesser-known Rankin/Bass ABC holiday special, The Mouse on the Mayflower, is a family tradition in our house.

Premiering in 1968 -- the same year as Frosty the Snowman on CBS and The Little Drummer Boy on NBC -- Mouse was an hour-long cel-animated musical presented by "Your Gas Company," which also sponsored Drummer Boy.

There are precious few Thanksgiving specials, so this one is worth looking at even for that reason. But what makes Mouse so special is its example of Rankin/Bass in its prime, featuring a star narrator, celebrity voices and a rich set of original songs by Maury Laws and Jules Bass. One of the songs, "Elbow Room," was also in the fabled stage musical, A Month of Sundays, which despite a Laws/Bass score and Romeo Muller book, disappeared as quickly as it came.

Tennessee Ernie Ford is in top narrator form as the Mouse himself, with strong support from Eddie Albert as Captain John Smith, Paul Frees as most of the male voices and June Foray as most of the female cast. Faring fine in the singing department, but not so much in the acting arena, are the popular recording stars Joanie Sommers ("You're in the Pepsi generation") and John Gary as Priscilla Mullins and John Alden (with Gary also voicing William Bradford with a Richard Burton-esque lilt). R/B may have wanted them to boost soundtrack album sales, but the score was never commercially released by RCA, Gary's label (a promotional album was released by the Gas company).

Trade ad announcing the special (indicating that Tennessee Ernie Ford was not originally slated to narrate) from Rick Goldschmidt's site.

The Mouse on the Mayflower fell into syndication in the late '70s/early '80s (with some of its songs edited) and was released on DVD (with the songs intact). It's not exactly Fantasia, with low-end animation by Mushi Studios of Japan (same as Frosty). Two of its characters are caricatures, of a sort -- one a Bear resembling Baloo and Priscilla looking a bit like Princess Aurora. The Native Americans are likely not the most PC of depictions (though R/B was prescient enough to clearly identify a villainous Native American as a reject from his tribe). However, it's still an engaging special and a nice slice of the Rankin/Bass canon.

Blog, TV
Posted on Nov 05 2011 by Greg
Even though studios other than Disney, who owns Marvel, have their names on the recent hit live action movies based on the characters (Captain America, Thor, etc.), Disney owns the licenses and is now releasing some of most recent animated TV episodes featuring Iron Man, X-Men, and The Avengers.

Volumes 1 and 2, released a few months back, contained episodes that traced the origins of several characters and their assemblage into the powerful, but (in the Marvel tradition) angst-filled, dysfunctional crime fighting Avengers family.

Since the two new DVDs  -- Volume 3: Iron Man Unleased and Volume 4: Thor's Last Stand -- offer 13 additional episodes, all interconnected in some way by story arcs and character relationships, it's tricky business for the uninitiated to start with them "cold," though each set includes one fact-filled "Avengers Unmasked" version of a key episode as a bonus feature.

This information comes in mighty handy, even as a refresher. Part of the fun of the Marvel Avengers is keeping track of who's got a beef with whom, which couples are an "item," and which villains are either bent on controlling the galaxy or just tortured souls who are lashing out.

Therein lies the Marvel charm: the good guys are not perfect, they bicker and even hurt each other, yet united they are the only hope against the total destruction of the entire universe, which is threatened roughly every four episodes.

I know that's a little snide. Actually, the stories are laced with humor, characters are always given opportunities for development between battles, and the animation is staged with the epic scope of a blockbuster Hollywood action movie. This is quality stuff.

But if you don't know the Wasp from the Enchantress, you'll enjoy following the proceedings in Vols. 2 and 3 by either watching 1 and 2 first or catching up with the "Unmasked" features.

Blog, TV
Posted on Sep 30 2011 by Greg

Jeff Bennett, voice of Smee and Bones on the series Jake and the Never Land Pirates, just released on DVD, talked with me about doing voices and acting with Corey Burton, who voices Captain Hook.

GREG: You have fan followings for quite a few of the things you do. Gargoyles has a fan following and you have also played a lot of Disney iconic roles for various projects, like Tramp, Mr. Toad and Prince Eric. Apparently you even sang for the Centipede in James and the Giant Peach.

JEFF: Yes, I happened to be at a gig one afternoon and somebody was looking for somebody to do that. They asked, “How are you at singing Richard Dreyfuss?” I said, “Well, I always thought of him as like the Daffy Duck for real, in real life.” So I sang a little bit.  He was doing a sort of Bowery Boys thing in that movie. They said, “Great, we’ll see you at Capitol Records tomorrow. So I walk in, and there’s a 60 piece orchestra the room with pictures on the walls of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Tony Bennett and Dean Martin. So I was a little nervous.

GREG: When you approach a character like Smee, whose is based on a very recognizable voice [originally Bill Thompson], how do you take it beyond imitation?

JEFF: For me, a lot of it has to do with remembering what the story is. A lot of times, we will be recording, and I say, “Wait, what is it that is actually going on here?” It is really important to be aware of what the actual story is and how Smee would be involved in it. 

GREG:  You and Corey record the roles together, so you can a kind of rhythm and bounce off each other. Right?

JEFF: Oh, yeah and Corey gives 180 percent to anything he does. We sometimes say that he doesn’t even chew the scenery, he eats the entire scene!

GREG: I know that Smee is supposed to be the first mate, but what does he actually do?

JEFF: Smee does have several jobs, but mostly he’s around to placate Captain Hook. He’s the ultimate “yes man,” but in an endearing way.

GREG:  Kind of the Never Land equivalent of a Hollywood personal assistant?

JEFF: Right! That is exactly it. Smee has that bumbling way about him. He’s always trying to keep up and wants to try to make everybody happy—like the Mom who wants everybody to stop fighting and be friends and make nice and for the world to be every color of the rainbow. But every once in a while, you’ll hear—and I try not to do it too often—that little edge of “Boy, this job is really hard and I am a little tired of it.”

GREG:  Smee is in the villain category but he really isn’t a bad person.  It is almost like he just got on the wrong line at the employment agency.

JEFF: Especially in this particular show.  He likes Jake and the “puny pirates,” as Captain Hook calls them.  He actually can give a wink and a nod to them, saying something like, “They really are athletic and  great and I don’t know how they make that bouncy thing go but you got to hand it to them. They are pretty amazing.  Oops! Did I say that out loud?“ That kind of thing, which further annoys Hook. So Smee just can’t win no matter what he says. If he says what he is really thinking, he gets in trouble with Captain Hook. If he agrees with Captain Hook, then it’s not really honest.

GREG: Smee and Hook are like those classic comedy teams, where you’ve got one guy in charge but neither is really the “smart one.”

JEFF: Their whole crew barely adds up to one smart man!  Between Hook, Smee, Bones and Sharky maybe, they might go in the right direction one out of four times.

GREG:  Tell me a little bit about Bones, whom you also voice.  I watched quite a few episodes and noticed that he is a man of few words.

JEFF: Out of all the crew, he is definitely the dimmest lightbulb in the batch, for sure. He is probably the “Gilligan” of the bunch, who looks off and says the most obvious thing. He’s just out there. I don’t think he ever gets a good nights sleep.

GREG:  Do the guys who appear on camera singing also sing when the animation characters are singing?

JEFF: Yes, exactly. We don’t usually get to work with them. When each show premieres, I say, “Oh! Now I have the pieces all together, its great.”

GREG:  Do you watch a lot of the animation in which you’ve done voices? Do you find it surprising when it comes out—maybe different than you expect?

JEFF: Sometimes its shockingly surprising to me because things might just come from a story board and you don’t always know how they’ll turn out. But, with Jake and the Never Land Pirates, I knew it was going to look beautiful and I was sure that most kids would love it. It has a fun new twist on these classic characters and then throws in the groovy new kids.

GREG:  Are those singers going to tour?

JEFF: Yes, and they really are wonderful.   They have been doing this for a while.  I wish my daughter were younger, she’s twelve.  Although she probably dig it even at twelve.  I would love to see them.

GREG:  This is the first time that an animated cartoon has done this since the Groovie Goolies and The Hardy Boys cartoon. Filmation had live performers for them, too.

JEFF: I wonder if The Banana Splits ever went on tour?

GREG:  Knowing that you are part of Jake and the Never Land Pirates, that kids are watching, and when they grow up they are going to be nostalgic about it, how cool is that?

JEFF: That is kind of the ultimate cool. The fact that I get to work with Frank Welker, who was Fred on Scooby Doo and he’s still doing Freddy’s voice. Casey Kasem can do Shaggy until he is 84. I got to do the Man in the Yellow Hat on Curious George and there are kids that come up to me and say I grew up on that.  Same thing with The Land Before Time. I think it is going to be the same thing with this show.

"...FERBULOUS!" - The Danville Tri-Stater
Blog, TV
Posted on Sep 02 2011 by Greg
The above critical rave is fictional, but don't you just love the way some reviews make the huzzahs really big and the sources small? ("*****A TRIUMPH!" - The Margate Pennysaver).

In the case of Phineas and Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension, its acclaim was well-earned and the ratings were high. The series is one of the best series on television today, including live action and prime time. And if you follow the series, you can spot references between episodes and learn its "language," so to speak. And it's very easy to do that because Disney Channel and Disney X-D runs the already large library of episodes quite a lot.

This helps in appreciating the first TV Phineas and Ferb movie, Across the 2nd Dimension, especially the spectacular climactic scene that parades elements from numerous episodes within minutes. However, it's not necessary to be a Phineasoid to enjoy the film.

Like the series, it's chock full of eclectic songs that weave through a snappy script. It's not just a padded episode, but a well-constructed story that sets up a logical way for the basic series premise to unravel. For fans of the show, it's the equivalent of Dr. Bellows finding out the truth about Jeannie. How it resets itself to sustain the series' continuity is clever.

The DVD package comes with a bonus digital disc so you can download the movie on an I-device plus eight songs (though I recommend the soundtrack album too). There's one episode from the series with a commentary track, though I wish the feature had a commentary too.

Blog, TV
Posted on May 04 2011 by Greg
In anticipation of the many big-screen Marvel Comics adaptations heading our way in the coming months, two volumes of select episodes from the recent animated series, The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes.

The premise is not unlike DC's Justice League, in which the all-star heroes form a group, but as is Marvel's style, the heroes have a bit more angst and dysfunction in addition to super powers--which can also be burdensome (though not as socially distaff as Marvel's X-Men).

The seven episodes on Volume One festure introductory (and semi-introductory) stories for Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Ant Man and others. The team is formed by the end of the two parter that concludes the volume, Breakout.

By Volume 2, The Avengers team is established. In some ways, the six shows on this second volume contain more character-driven material because these mighty folks don't always get along.

But every show is loaded to the brim with almost constant action, superb animation by Film Roman. This studio, but the way, is amazingly versatile, since they also produced more comedic cartoons like Garfield and Friends (which shares some voice cast members, including the wonderful Wally Wingert, now the announcer on The Tonight Show).

It's remarkable how the creators of these shows come up with so many interesting variations on the themes of gaining and losing power (usually by way of radiation) and megalomaniacal villains. The best way to really enjoy these shows is to leaf through the book, Marvel Avengers: The Ultimate Character Guide, a nicely priced hardcover volume with color profiles of each character.

The two DVDs also include short bonus segments about "season two." 

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