Saturday, June 30, 2007

Another Pixar Triumph

There is little that I can say about Ratatouille that hasn’t been said already. From the most popular of media outlets to the multitude of Disney related blogs and online communities, praise for this latest endeavor from Pixar is very close to unanimous. And deservedly so.

It is a triumph of technique, design, story and character and a film that transcends the very genre that its makers have essentially been defining and redefining for the past fifteen years. While few in Hollywood would likely ever rank Ratatouille writer-director Brad Bird among such luminaries as Scorsese, Spielberg or Eastwood, he manages a filmmaking process that is ever much more complex and produces results that are equally as entertaining and captivating.

Let’s face it—Pixar does not settle for the conventional. And nothing can be more unconventional than the story of Remy, a country rat with a passion for food and cooking, who inadvertently finds himself at the center of Paris culinary culture. While there are countless reasons to cheer this film, Remy stands out distinctly. He is an amazing triumph of character animation. When sharing the screen with his fellow rats, his personality his brought to life through the excellent voice acting of Patton Oswalt. But it is the nuances of his silent interactions with his human counterpart Linguini that provide a performance that is a triumph of humor and heart. For Remy, a simple shrug of the shoulders or the slow blink of an eye conveys an essence of character that you will never find in a Shrek film or among a group of dancing penguins.

While Monday morning will bring a new round of box office tallies, of which Ratatouille will undoubtedly be a focal point, this film will never need validation rooted in financial accounting. Pundits and Wall Street analysts will potentially drone on and on again on the merits of the Disney-Pixar merger, rehashing suppositions that have long grown stale and hold little relevance. For Ratatouille revisits the same passion for filmmaking and levels of artistic achievement that Walt Disney himself brought to productions such as Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia over a half a century ago. To discuss such an achievement strictly in the context of short-term number crunching and marketing campaign challenges, demonstrates a short-sightedness barely worthy of debate. Sometimes it is the intangible investments that in the long run pay the highest dividends.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Snapshot! - Diggin' Around Chester & Hester's

Here are a few more snapshots from Chester and Hester's Dino Store. The first hearkens back to when the location was originally a service station. Below are a couple of shots that feature the Burma Shave inspired signs under the eaves at one of the main entrances.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Teachers Are People - June 27, 1952

Despite its now uncomfortable parade of guns, grenades and schoolhouse explosions, the Goofy cartoon Teachers Are People remains one of the studio’s funnier endeavors and yet another hilarious take on post-war America sensibilities.

Released on June 27, 1952, this animated homage to the teaching profession took the interesting twist of placing Goofy’s Mr. Geef persona into a role that was at the time nearly completely dominated by the fairer sex. And much like his other Geef vehicles, the Goof plays the role with the usual disconnected innocence that is in stark contrast to the antics of the young pupils in his charge.

Allen Reed, who would go on to voice Fred Flintstone for Hanna Barbera, provided the irony-laced narration that was a standard feature of many of the Goofy shorts. All of the usual schoolhouse conventions are present: pigtails dipped in inkwells, apples for teacher, paper airplanes and overbearing parents. But the short’s humor is better found in its irreverent depictions of some of the less than innocent realities of childhood. The mayhem of the classroom and the apparent joys of truancy are not ignored, while homage is also played to cheating on exams and the limited attention spans of even our best and brightest. The cartoon’s most funny and likely perceptive observation is that sex education is more often learned in the schoolyard than in the classroom. Not necessarily the kind of gag one would expect to find in a 1950s era Disney production, but it’s an excellent example of how the Goofy shorts often pushed the envelope in ways more typically associated with the efforts of Warner Brothers and MGM.

This is no more apparent than in the scene where George, the resident class clown empties his pockets of everything from a slingshot and firecrackers to the slightly more lethal hand grenade and revolver. Potentially offensive in our current era of increased school violence, the scene manages to maintain its overall tone of absurdity enough to diffuse any real strong cries of protest. But even then it’s hard to completely exorcise from mind recent headlines and news reports when the schoolhouse literally explodes into ruin, and the cartoon concludes with George at the blackboard repeatedly scribing I will not bomb the school again. It’s a funny moment, but sadly, due to our all-too-recent history, a somewhat disquieting one as well.

Teachers Are People can be found on the Disney Treasures Complete Goofy DVD set.

Images © Walt Disney Company

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Lost Imagineering: Crossroads U.S.A.

Like other Disney Parks, Disney's America also had its version of a Main Street hub that served to transition guests to the other areas of the park. Here's the description of Crossroads U.S.A. that appeared in press materials from 1993:

CROSSROADS USA 1800 - 1850
A spirited portrait of mid-19th century commerce, Crossroads USA is the hub of DISNEY'S AMERICA, launching guests on an unforgettable journey through the vivid tapestry of American history. An 1840 train trestle bridge marks the entrance to this territory and supports two antique steam trains that visitors may board for a trip around the Park's nine territories.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Killin' the Villain at The Motley Fool

While the shakeup at the DisneyToon studios has had the Disney online community abuzz these last few days, financial pundits are beginning to weigh in on the Lasseter-Catmull influenced restructuring that will lead to the eventual elimination of the company's lucrative direct-to-DVD sequels and spinoffs. The Motley Fool provides this interesting perspective on the subject. The conclusion of Rick Munarriz, the writer of the commentary?

"Remember that $7.4 billion purchase of Pixar? Do you think it would have been necessary if the non-Pixar animation being put out by Disney was still the handiwork of a respected market leader? Of course not. That's a dear price to pay for Disney's mistake of squandering its hilltop vista by playing it cheap, quick, and stupid.

Those Pixar chaps know what they're doing. So farewell, Cinderella III. The shoe never quite fit."

Considering that DisneyToon brought in billions, it's interesting to see such a point of view emerge from the business world.

Walt Disney's Surprise Package: Lady

I'M LADY. I like it here where I live. Everything is good, especially Mister Fred and Missis. They always speak in gentle voices. Besides Mister and Missis, there's the Small One. He's only been here six months and he's too new to speak.

So begins a cute little dog story from the 1944 storybook collection Walt Disney’s Surprise Package. In an earlier post, I provided some background on this very interesting Simon and Schuster publication and how it presented material from animated projects that were at that time still in some state of concept development or production at the Burbank studio. Preceding Lady and the Tramp by more than ten years, the story “Lady” features an earlier and much abbreviated version of the 1955 film’s storyline. It had yet to include Tramp and many of the other colorful supporting characters such as Jock, Trusty and Peg.

Told in the voice of its title character, the story includes the three primary human characters that were ultimately realized in the film as Jim Dear, Darling and Aunt Sarah, and unnamed incarnations of Si and Am, Lady’s devious feline adversaries. Names and relationships were somewhat different. Lady’s owners began their conceptual life as Mister Fred and Missis, while it is in fact Missis’ mother who brings the malicious and troublesome Siamese cats into the picture. Lady identifies her as the horrid Cat Woman.

In a scene that didn’t make it into the film, Lady is framed for the disappearance of the household’s pet canary Trilby:

Suddenly, over in the corner, the dishes trem­bled in the china closet. Two brown bodies bounded from the top. They leapt into the air, straight for the canary cage. They grabbed it with their eight horrid feet and two horrid tails.

Trilby shrieked with terror. The cats were snatching at her through the bars!

"Coming!" I barked. I sprang, snapped at the cage bottom, and pulled it off. Trilby fluttered down. Out of the cage, out of the open win­dow, she flew for her life. Trilby and cats don't mix. No, Sir.

"What's going on down there?" cried the voice of Missis from upstairs.

Footsteps came hurrying down. Mister and Missis and the Cat Woman too! The cats scurried off. They flattened themselves safely into the darkness under the china closet.

The Cat Woman reached the dining room first. She pointed at me, and then to the empty, broken cage. "That animal has eaten your poor canary!" she cried. "She's a dangerous dog! There's no telling what she'll do next!"

"Lady!" That's all that Missis said. It was just her voice that made me wish I were dead. No one saw the cats peek out from their dark safe corner and sneer with their slanted eyes.

Everyone looked at me and began to whisper. "Take her away right now," said the Cat Woman. "She's dangerous . . . don't waste any time."

In the movie, the two cats do set their sights briefly on the pet canary, by are quickly distracted by the nearby goldfish and then again by "baby cries." Later in the storybook version, Lady is again blamed for an incident that would ultimately evolve into the films “rat” confrontation. However, in this early version, the cats are still the primary villains:

I was prowling about upstairs. Somehow I didn't like the sniff of things. I searched the bed­room, the bathroom, and the cupboard where they keep the towels. I walked down the hall. The Small One's door was open a little wider than it usually was. I poked in my head just to see if all was well. I blinked. All the hairs on my back stood up straight. Cats!

They were clawing at the Small One's basket . . . tearing the dainty lace ruffles . . . pulling off the beautiful ribbon as though it were com­monplace, everyday string! Then suddenly they jumped for the blue bow on the hood of the basket, just over the Small One's head! They missed the bow and crashed against the basket. It rocked wildly from side to side. It almost spilled the Small One out!

This was too much!

I sprang through the open door. I snarled. I barked. I growled like the thunder that comes when it rains. The Small One made loud screams. He wasn't hurt, but he was mighty scared. The cats raced away down the hall and disappeared.

Fast feet came rushing up the stairs. I wanted to run but I didn't. Lights flashed on. The Cat Woman shouted, "I knew it would happen! I told you so! She's a dangerous dog!"

But in the end, Lady is ultimately vindicated:

Mister came up close. He knelt down beside me right in the mud. He ripped off my muzzle. "Lady! Lady, forgive us! We know now it was the cats! We found lace and blue ribbon in their claws. What might have happened without you!" He picked me up in his arms, mud and all. He carried me all the way home like a puppy. A grown-up dog like me!

The story’s illustrations depict a very different and slightly “toonnier” version of Lady, but the Siamese cats are not very far removed from their future Si and Am renditions. In ten subsequent years of development, Lady would discover romance, adventure, new friends and the joys of Italian cuisine. Unknown to its young readers in 1944, Walt Disney’s Surprise Package was providing an early peek at what would become one of the Walt Disney Studios most beloved and cherished endeavors.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Disney-Pixar: A Wall Street Perspective

I thought as a follow up to my Pixar commentary of a few days ago, I'd post a link to a recent article from Business Week that addressed the Disney-Pixar merger. Here is a particularly telling excerpt:

Because even if Ratatouille doesn't come out of the gate with some super-duper opening weekend, and folks say that Iger and company got snookered in the Pixar deal, it doesn't matter. Sure, the Pixar deal was pricey, but it was worth it. Disney all but reinvented itself with the deal. Top Pixar creative font John Lasseter has remade Disney's stumbling animated studio, replacing the director for the upcoming American Dog and jumping in to overhaul the recent Meet the Robinsons. The latter flick is approaching $100 million, a rarity these days for Disney-made animated films. Disney also gets a clear shot at making theme-park rides based on Pixar flicks, such as the new Finding Nemo ride at Disneyland.

Moreover, the deal was a signal to the rest of the creative community that Disney could attract and keep the likes of such big-deal animation directors as Brad Bird, who directed
The Incredibles and Ratatouille, as well as Steve Jobs' top two Pixar hands, Lasseter and Ed Catmull. "We didn't buy Pixar for any one film," says Disney studio chairman Dick Cook. "We bought it for people like John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, Brad Bird, [Finding Nemo writer/director] Andrew Stanton, and many others who we hope will make hundreds of films for us."


According to Disney Chief Financial Officer
, Tom Staggs, the company is six months ahead of schedule in buying back those 279 million Disney shares it issued as currency in the Pixar deal. Indeed, since the deal, Disney stock has jumped 40%, in part due to Iger settling the Pixar issue.

Bear in mind that these observations come from a noted Wall Street analyst and a very reputable business news source. These are not the musings of a couple of hardcore Disney fans wearing rose-colored glasses.

Again, get ready. As the author of this article even noted, the financial performance of Ratatouille will likely reignite the Pixar debate in some circles. But it appears those circles are getting quite a bit smaller and distinctly less populated.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Lights, Camera . . . Muppets!

Admit it, you can never really get too tired of all the cool Muppet*Vision details. These very funny production clapboards are scattered throughout the pre-show area of the Disney-MGM Studios version of the show. As Dr. Seuss once said, "From here to there and there to here, funny things are everywhere." Wise words in context to to the Muppet*Vision 3D attraction.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Addressing the anit-Pixar . . . Again

While a great many Disney pundits (and Wall Street analysts) spent a lot of time and copy last year making the argument that the Disney-Pixar merger was not necessarily a good deal and that the mouse house would be hard pressed to see any return on their multi-billion dollar investment, these same often vocal critics have become somewhat quieter in recent months.

It was interesting how many of these folks used last summer’s Cars as the poster child for their overpriced-Pixar mantra. Even after the film grossed a whopping half billion in worldwide revenue, it was still being labeled a disappointment. And a recent article in Variety underscores a financial upside of Cars that the naysayers seem to still conveniently ignore:

While many refuse to rank "Cars" as Pixar maven John Lasseter's finest two hours, its merchandising campaign has become a global phenomenon. A year after the motion picture release, a sojourn to a local Toys R Us will reveal collectors -- boys to men -- on the prowl for the new shipment of Mattel-made die-cast miniatures, with the movie's extensive ensemble of characters yielding an endless array of product iterations (Dinaco Blue Chick Hicks, anyone?).

According to Andy Mooney, Chairman of Disney Consumer Products:

"In a year without content in the marketplace, we'll do $2 billion in ('Cars') sales. It underscores the fundamental point that not every animated movie is created equally in terms of merchandising. 'Cars' gets into the very fundamental play pattern for kids. And it seems every boy and every man in the world has panache for vehicles."

It’s interesting isn’t it? $2 billion in merchandise sales. Those are Star Wars types of numbers and demonstrate the promise of a long term evergreen franchise. Other than Star Wars, what other property in recent years has demonstrated that level of merchandising potential. Oh wait, that would probably be Toy Story. If you haven’t noticed, Buzz and Woody toys still litter the shelves of your local Targets and Wal-Marts some eight years after Toy Story 2 graced cineplex screens. Toy Story, Toy Story . . . sounds familiar. Isn’t that a . . . Pixar movie?

Apologies for the sarcasm. But I am just amazed that people continue to debate the Pixar acquisition, especially the financial end of it. And no doubt many of these same folks will spend the next few months over analyzing the receipts for Ratatouille and spinning their assessments into similar short-sighted sound bites. It’s short term thinking on what was a very long term investment. An investment that is already beginning to pay some remarkable dividends.

And that’s just the financial side of it. Has anyone noticed the really dramatic changes sweeping the Walt Disney Company, as clearly brought about by the influence of Pixar gurus John Lasseter and Ed Catmull?

Walt Disney Feature Animation is now the Walt Disney Animation Studios. The potentially troubled productions of American Dog and Rapunzel Unbraided have been redirected to hopefully better ends. Ron Clements and John Musker have returned, and with them, traditional animation in the form of The Princess and the Frog. For the first time in close to fifty years, shorts will be produced again on a regular basis, with a brand new Goofy cartoon arriving this fall. And the studio itself will be relocating to a less toxic, Pixar-like campus in Glendale to better isolate it from the bean counters and non-creative execs.

The recent shakeup at Walt Disney Imagineering and the uber-successful debut of the new heavily Pixar influenced Finding Nemo Submarine attraction at Disneyland seem to indicate that this long troubled division may finally be shaking off the creatively stifling, heavily political baggage it’s been carrying these many long years.

Perhaps more than anything, the implosion of the DisneyToon Studio, the division responsible for the controversial line of direct-to-video sequels and spinoffs, indicates a real shift in overall company philosophy. This line of products, while ranging in quality from okay to awful, were purely marketing driven, revenue-generating endeavors that were increasingly diluting the value of classic Disney characters and films. This division brought in billions. The removal this week of DisneyToon’s head Sharon Morrill seems to send the not-so-subtle yet very refreshing message that the creative process at Disney will no longer be wholly influenced nor held hostage by the mighty $. It’s a striking turn of events.

And rooted where? In what will likely be Robert Iger’s single greatest legacy as CEO of the Walt Disney Company. For the merger with Pixar included not just a juggernaut animation studio and a stable of popular characters, but also what appears to be a creative philosophy and an emphasis on artistic integrity that will long influence the direction of nearly all of Disney’s entertainment endeavors.

I would be remiss in not acknowledging Honor Hunter’s really terrific Blue Sky Disney blog as part of the inspiration for this particular commentary. Thanks again Honor for your daily doses of positive insight and information!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Snapshot! - Muppet*Vision's Largest Star

There is enough eye candy associated with Muppet*Vision 3D to keep blogs such as this in material indefinitely.

This oversize tribute to a certain oversize Muppet is ironically often overlooked by most visitors to Disney-MGM Studios. Wander down paths not typically traveled, and be sure to look up.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Don Rosa, Ganduck the Grey and a Very Crowded Con

I traveled to Charlotte, NC this past Saturday for the annual Heroes Comics Convention. The main hall, with its combination of dealers and talent, was heavy on congestion and light on non-superhero fare. If there were good deals on classic Harvey, Disney, Archie and other such nostalgia, they were so far off the radar as to be non-existent.

The highlight of the day was my all to brief meeting with Don Rosa. A long line behind me prevented any kind of extended conversation, but Don did personalize a really unique (and hilarious) print that he generously gave me permission to showcase here. It is likely the closest thing you'll ever find to a Disney-Lord of the Rings crossover.

Thanks again, Don!

For more information on the very talented Mr. Rosa, check my earlier posts in the Four Color Fun Department.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Mickey's Mechanical Man - June 17, 1933

Here’s an interesting quote from Walt Disney:

“The robot angle is popular now. There have been several robots made that really do perform things, and the public is aware of the possibility of the thing.”

Is he referencing the now-famous Buddy Ebsen “little man” experiment? Or discussing the advent of audio animatronics as ultimately realized by such milestones as Great Moments with Mister Lincoln or Pirates of the Caribbean?

No, these words predate even those events by quite a number of years. They were written in January of 1933 as Walt put to paper his ideas for a cartoon short that would ultimately take the form of Mickey’s Mechanical Man, released on June 17 of that same year.

The cartoon was an odd and decidedly offbeat entry in the still clearly evolving Mickey Mouse series. As Walt noted, a fascination with robots and mechanical men was gradually emerging in Depression-era popular culture and it would reach a crescendo of sorts with Westinghouse’s introduction of Elektro the Robot at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. But while Mickey’s automaton marvel is certainly inspired by representations of robots in the science fiction pulp magazines of the era, the cartoon’s story and setting are much more pedestrian and decidedly non-“fantastic” in nature. For Sam, as Mickey named his mechanical wonder, is not destined for the amazing adventures experienced by his magazine and Hollywood counterparts, but was created in fact for a slightly less inspired function: boxing.

Sam’s adversary in the ring took its cue from another popular archetype of the period, a savage and menacing gorilla. Likely the short’s creative talent were aware of the impending April 1933 release of Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong, as the story’s boxing simian just happened to be named The Kongo Killer.

The story’s action and humor center on the literally one-note gag of Minnie’s car horn that sends Sam into a frenzied, out-of-control rage. It is ultimately that gimmick that empowers Sam to defeat his rival. In a fast paced sequence, boxing glove-donned arms and apertures rapidly and successively emerge from all over Sam’s body and pummel Kongo into submission.

While Walt’s original notes detailed scenes of Mickey actually building Sam and subsequently operating him by remote control, the finished short provides no apparent explanation of the robot’s origin, and he acts relatively autonomous from his mentor. Without this background, the cartoon takes on an almost matter-of-fact attitude towards its somewhat wacky premise, as if robot-gorilla matchups were common events during those early years of the Great Depression. But as in many of Mickey’s early black and white efforts, it’s the occasionally off the wall and weird ideas such as those realized in Mickey’s Mechanical Man that became many of the mouse’s more memorable moments.

In the end what I enjoy the most about this particular short is the simple tin can-style design of Sam and how it epitomized those early steam-powered, gear-filled representations of mechanical men. Cartoons are very often snapshots of popular culture, and Mickey’s Mechanical Man presented us with an early rendition of what would become a major icon of science fiction-themed entertainment.

Special thanks to Hans Perk who made available Walt’s original notes for Mickey’s Mechanical Man on his website A. Film L.A.

Happy Fathers Day!

A big Happy Fathers Day to all my fellow dads out there. If you are in possession of the Disney Treasures Complete Goofy DVD set, today's the perfect day to pop disc 2 in the player and kick back and enjoy the adventures of George Geef. Its animated fatherhood at its finest.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Coming Soon: WALL*E

The first trailer for WALL*E, Pixar's summer release for 2008, has arrived, and it's very different to say the least. It is surprisingly sentimental in a way you wouldn't necessarily expect, but still very short on details.

WALL*E himself? If his scant few seconds of screen time are any indication . . . wow.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Now Appearing at the Top of the Tower

Another very cool set dressing from Disney-MGM Studios. Anthony Fremont and His Orchestra were the featured performers at the Tip Top Club on that fateful night at the Hollywood Tower Hotel.

Anthony Fremont is the name of the character portrayed by Billy Mumy in The Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life" that originally aired on November 3, 1961.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

540 Echo Park Drive

Here's a fun little detail from Disney-MGM Studios. This particular address faces Echo Lake on the opposite side of the Keystone Clothiers building. I wonder if dentists Pullum, Payne and Canal ever hung out in the Catwalk Bar after a rough day at the office?

Creative Shockwave at Blue Sky Disney

Honor Hunter at the always interesting blog Blue Sky Disney has posted an analysis of the Pixar/Disney dynamic and how it potentially relates to the overall future of Walt Disney Imagineering and Disney Parks worldwide. The optimistic outlook presented by the piece was very refreshing and extremely encouraging. Take a look if you get the chance.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Snapshot! - Muskrat Moonshine

You see, alcohol is not entirely banned from the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. You just have to have the right connections and know just where to look for it.

What's "Up"?

From yesterday's edition of Variety:

Pixar is going a little older in 2009 than its typical demo.

The Disney-owned toon studio's release that year will be "Up," about a 70-year-old man who teams with a wilderness ranger to fight beasts and villains.

"Monsters, Inc." director Pete Docter is helming.

Pixar vet Bob Peterson is writing the script and will co-direct.

Monday's announcement fills in the remaining gap in the animation powerhouse's sked through 2010. After this month's "Ratatouille," it will release "Wall*E" next summer and "Toy Story 3" in summer 2010.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Walt Disney's Surprise Package: Happy Valley

In 1944, the Walt Disney Studios did something that would be quite unheard of in our current day and age. They assisted in producing a storybook collection that featured stories from animated projects that were at that time still in some state of concept development or production. In fact, two of the stories in Walt Disney’s Surprise Package, “Lady” and “Peter Pan and the Pirates” were derived from films that were not released until the mid-1950s. Can you imagine Pixar or Walt Disney Feature Animation giving consumers that kind of sneak preview in the current tight-lipped, secrecy enveloped culture of 21st century film production?

Published by Simon & Schuster and adapted by H. Marion Palmer (who was the first wife of Theodor Geisel, AKA Dr. Seuss), Walt Disney’s Surprise Package is an interesting, albeit unintentional glimpse at early ideas and concepts for some of the studio’s notable post-war endeavors.

One of the stories I found most interesting was “Happy Valley,” which would ultimately become the Mickey and the Beanstalk sequence in the 1947 feature Fun and Fancy Free. In this early rendition, the story was slightly expanded from its final filmed incarnation, likely due to the fact that it was originally conceived as a full length feature. The setting of Happy Valley is expounded on more fully. It is ruled by the kind and generous Queen Minnie, who has not only a magic harp in her service, but a hen who lays golden eggs as well. Early in the story, the “magic” of Happy Valley is explained:

The reason for this truly remarkable state of affairs was simply this:

In the courtyard of the Queen's palace on top of the hill stood a harp. Like all other harps, it was a beautiful thing, glistening, glossy, and gilded. Yet this harp was different from every other harp in the world. This harp could play its own strings. This harp could sing. And the voice that it sang in was sweeter than any voice that had ever been heard before. All day it sang to the people as they went about their work. All night it sang to the corn and the wheat, and the fruit as it ripened on the trees.

Naturally, with such music in the air, every day was a won­derful day, and everyone had a very fine time. The bakers al­ways whistled as they rolled out their dough. The butchers hummed gay little ditties as they wrapped up the bacon. The farmers didn't trudge wearily along behind their ploughs; they waltzed. And when the royal horses drove the smiling Queen to town, they pranced before her carriage in a jaunty, horsy swing.

But the singing harp was not the only thing that made everyone so happy. There was some­thing else too. In the barnyard of the palace lived a hen who laid golden eggs. Whenever anyone wanted to buy something, but had no money in his purse, he just went to the Queen and asked for some gold.

"Go to the hen coop and help yourself," the Queen would always say. "Take an egg . . . any one . . . there are plenty in the nest."

For Mickey and the Beanstalk, Queen Minnie and her slightly bizarre golden egg-based economy were ultimately discarded. In the film, Mickey returns from town having traded the cow for the notorious magic beans. In “Happy Valley” the details of the trade are provided:

In another instant, Mickey was off on his errand. Leading Evangeline by a rope, he climbed up the steps to the palace. Sighs and sobs burst out from the windows of the throne room. It was the Queen crying over her empty bowl.

Mickey knocked at the big front door.

"Enter!" sniffled the Queen.

Mickey turned the door handle and walked in. Down the long royal carpet he marched, with Evangeline shuffling along right behind him. He stepped up before the Queen and bowed.

"Well?" She dabbed her eyes with a bit of thin, worn-out lace. "What can I do for my poor unhappy subject?"

Mickey looked up into her pale, tear-stained face. "I can't ask her to buy anything," he thought to himself. "She's as poor as we are." He stammered. "Your Majesty ... I want . . . I want ... I want to give you my cow."

"Your cow!" gasped the Queen. "Don't you need her?"

"Need her?" gulped Mickey. "Oh, no!" He forced a laugh. "My friends and I have lots and lots of cows!" He forced another laugh and tied Evangeline to a statue beside the throne. "Good-bye. ... I guess I'll have to be going now." He backed away toward the door.

"Wait a minute!" commanded the Queen. She went to a shelf, took down a little green box, and handed it to Mickey. "In return for your kindness to me, here's a present for you."

Mickey took the box and lifted up the lid. His heart sank. "Beans!" He bit his lip, and tried to smile politely.

"Yes . . . beans! But not ordinary beans . . . magic beans!" said the Queen. "They were given to me by my father the King. 'If you plant them,' he said, 'in the light of the first full moon, something will come to pass.' "

Mickey stared forlornly at the scrawny, thin little beans. "What will come to pass?"

"I don't know," answered the Queen. "That all depends on the moon."

Mickey thanked her. He backed away and hurried home. He felt worried. How would he explain what he'd done with the cow? Donald and Goofy were expecting him to bring back a big supper.

The emergence of the beanstalk and Mickey, Donald and Goofy’s subsequent confrontation with Willie the Giant remain fairly consistent from book to film. But the penultimate climax between the trio and Willie is substantially different in the concept story. In the movie, as in most variations of the classic Jack and the Beanstalk tale, the hero chops down the beanstalk and sends the villain plummeting to his doom. This Surprise Package version has a decidedly much odder sequence of events:

"Now, watch out!" yelled the bunny. "Willie can change himself into anything! He knows the magic wordies. Fedy fidy fody fumdum!" Another explosion rocked the room.

"Look!" gasped Mickey, "he's a giant again! Look . . . look ... a super giant . . . growing bigger every second!"

Mickey, Donald, Goofy, the harp, and the hen, too, shuddered and gaped. Willie was now so colossal his hair was brushing down plaster from the ceiling. "Fedy fidy fody fumdum!" Another explosion! Now Willie was growing smaller . . . shriveling down as fast as a punc­tured balloon! "Fedy fidy fody—oh ... oh!" He moaned. "That last word . . . what is it? . . . Oh, oh, oh!" He wailed.

"He's forgotten the magic word! Now's our chance to get out!" whispered Mickey. "Donald, you give me a hand with the harp. Goofy, you carry the hen."

Willie's moans now burst into yowls. "Oh . . . oh! I've forgotten the magic wordie! Now I can't change myself into anything!"

The three dumbfounded friends peered over the edge of the table. There was Willie down underneath, among the crumbs! ... a puny little man, not half as tall as Mickey!

The gang bunks out in their still beanstalk-perched house and overnight, the beanstalk magically diminishes, returning all concerned back to Happy Valley. And Willie’s fate? Here are the final two paragraphs from the story:

Great was the rejoicing in Happy Valley when the people saw the harp and hen once more. The harp sang such a merry song as they carried her back to the Queen that all the crops for that year and the next year, too, burst up through the ground and began to sprout. The hen made a personal visit to every single home and laid a bright golden egg upon the doormat.

Willie asked the Queen's pardon for the un­pleasant giant that he had been. The Queen granted the pardon because of the pleasant midget he had become. She hired him to serve her as a footman. And every day from that day on, a midget-giant in a scarlet suit with big brass buttons pranced beside the royal horses when the Queen drove down to town.

That’s quite a difference from the events that transpire in Fun and Fancy Free. Upon seemingly falling to his doom in the cartoon sequence, Willie returns to pry the roof off narrator Edger Bergen’s house and inquire as to whereabouts of a certain mouse. He then wanders off through Hollywood, where at one point he lifts up the California crazy architecture of the famous Brown Derby restaurant and fits it to his head.

Three years separated the publication of “Happy Valley” from the release of Fun and Fancy Free. It appears that Minnie and the hen were they only major casualties of the development process. And clearly the film benefited from the ejection of the weird anti-climactic Willie metamorphosis in favor of the more traditional Jack and the Beanstalk ending.

Sixty-plus years ago, Walt Disney’s Surprise Package served only as storybook collection targeted expressly for young readers. Today, it provides a window for Disney historians and enthusiasts into the Burbank studio of the 1940s and the ability to pay some small witness to their now famed creative process.

Stay tuned for future posts that will feature additional content from Walt Disney’s Surprise Package.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Happy Birthday Donald!

Wow, I almost let this one slip past me. Thanks to Rob Richards for sending on this happy reminder:

Couldn't let this important day go by without celebrating!

Donald's full name is Donald Fauntleroy Duck. He debuted in the cartoon "The Wise Little Hen" on June 9, 1934, so... today is his birthday. Donald lives in Duckburg with his three nephews; Huey, Dewey and Louie. He is the son of Uncle $crooge's older sister Hortense and her husband, Quackmore, but he and his twin sister, Della, were raised by Grandma Duck. He has a cousin, Gladstone, a pet St. Bernard named Bolivar and a long-term girlfriend, Daisy.

Happy Birthday, Donald!

Rob Richards
House Organist

El Capitan Theatre, Hollywood, CA

Thanks again Rob. I guess things just got a little too goofy around here lately.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Brave Little Tailor and the Beanstalk

You know, it's almost as if Sir Mickey’s in the Magic Kingdom is the Walt Disney World equivalent of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.

Picture if you will, two Imagineers hurriedly rushing to a blue sky meeting, both eager to present their concept designs for a new Fantasyland gift shop. Both have taken inspiration from classic Disney animation. Suddenly, they collide into each other as they both attempt to enter the meeting room at the same time. Their presentation materials go flying, landing in a big collective heap on the floor. They scurry to retrieve their designs and the following conversation ensues:

Imagineer 1: “You got Mickey and the Beanstalk in my Brave Little Tailor!”

Imagineer 2: “Well you got Brave Little Tailor in my Mickey and the Beanstalk!”

And just as in those classic commercials, light bulbs go off, grins emerge on faces, and Sir Mickey’s is subsequently born.

Located immediately on your right as you emerge out of Cinderella Castle into Fantasyland, Sir Mickey’s is an odd amalgamation of two classic Mickey Mouse cartoons: the 1938 short The Brave Little Tailor, and the Mickey and the Beanstalk sequence from the 1947 feature Fun and Fancy Free.

One of the most elaborate of the Mouse’s cartoon shorts, The Brave Little Tailor is a retelling of the classic fairy tale with Mickey in the title role. When his “seven with one blow” boast is misinterpreted by fellow citizens (flies, not giants), the unassuming tailor is sent forth by the king to vanquish a scary, albeit dimwitted behemoth who has been terrorizing the countryside. In the end he successfully defeats his foe and wins the hand of the Princess Minnie.

Mickey and the Beanstalk puts the Disney spin on the classic “Jack” tale, but expands the cast to include Donald Duck and Goofy, harkening back to the earlier Mickey Mouse “trio shorts” from the mid to late 1930s. Willie the Giant is the piece’s villain, and while similar to his Brave Little Tailor precursor, his oafish nature masks a clever and devious side that was absent from his earlier counterpart.

Sir Mickey clearly refers to The Brave Little Tailor, and the shop’s exterior sign bears an illustration of Mickey as that character. But the building’s exterior is in fact an elaborate homage to the Beanstalk story, as the plant leviathan envelops and protrudes from the building's architecture.

Inside, the most elaborate of the store’s design elements ironically seems to go mostly unnoticed. Directly opposite the shop’s primary entrance, Willie the Giant is lifting up the roof in an attempt to peek inside.

For the most part, it appears that once the Imagineers decided to mix the two films into one theme, there was clearly no turning back. In one corner, tailor Mickey stands prominently on a portion of beanstalk, surrounded by his trade supplies of cloth and threads. Nearby, hanging pictures depict the Happy Valley setting of Beanstalk and the infamous family cow that was ultimately traded for the magic beans. The shop’s window displays continue this peculiar mashing of stories, going so far as to feature Huey, Dewey and Louie who were not present in either cartoon. Their tableau is distinctly set in the Tailor universe, but the wanted poster displayed within the scene highlights Beanstalk’s Willie.

Perhaps the most over-the-top merging of the two is a slightly more subtle element also found in a display window. A clever “Suit Ye Self” advertisement for Mickey’s Tailor business includes the following copy:

Tayloring to thy needs
Nine with one blow
Will trade for hens with golden eggs, musical harps or seed with magic power

In final analysis, the blending of the two cartoons seems to represent a tongue-in-cheek playfulness on the part of the designers who certainly realized that the combination would be lost on 99.99% of Magic Kingdom visitors. For those of us in that other miniscule .01%, it was an initially confusing, but ultimately funny and entertaining discovery

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

This is the Space Age!

Explorer! Vanguard! Sputnik! What are they -- and WHY have they been rocketed into space? This is their story . . .

The future from 1958 was oh so bright and shiny and fun. Walt Disney was certainly one of the biggest proponents of the U.S. space program during the Eisenhower years, as reflected by his many space-themed television shows and also by Tomorrowland in Disneyland. These endeavors spilled over into other entertainment formats, and kids of the era were even able to get a pretty strong dose of scientific idealism at their local newsstand.

The comic book Walt Disney's Man in Space: Satellites is a wonderful example of 1950s pop culture futurism. Here are a couple of fun panels from that 1958 four color excursion into outer space.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Snapshot! - Donaldus Girlfriendium

From Clarabelle's Big Book of Pun Plants:

"DAISY (Donaldus Girlfriendium) The adorable blossoms of the Daisy are recognized all over the world. This plant looks heavy, but is actually light as a feather. Allow it to float in a pond once a day."

I learned all about the Daisy on a recent visit to Minnie's House in Mickey's Toontown Fair at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Freeze Frame! - Andy's Bookshelf

The Pixar folks are notorious for putting in-jokes and company references in their films. One of the earliest examples of this is a tribute mash of sorts in the original Toy Story, released in 1995. Near the beginning of the movie when Woody is speaking to all the toys, a close inspection of the bookcase behind him reveals books whose titles and authors pay homage to some of Pixar's short films and also to some of the company’s staffers of that time period.

Adventures of Andre and Wally B. refers to John Lasseter’s experimental film made at the Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Project before it was spun off to become Pixar.

Smyrl Smyrl Twist and Twirl refers to Eliot Smyrl, primarily a modeling artist whose Pixar credits include Toy Story, A Bugs Life, Finding Nemo and Cars. The author of the book is L. Money, a reference to Smyrl’s wife Laura.

Scooter Run has no immediately obvious connection other than to possible studio extracurricular activities. However, the author credit of Aupperle refers to Larry Aupperle who worked on the lighting team for Toy Story and was a technical director for Toy Story 2.

Red’s Dream, Tin Toy and Knickknack are all references to Pixar short films. The author of Tin Toy is Lasseter (as in John) while Reeves marks the spine of Red’s Dream. This represents Bill Reeves who was technical director on Red’s Dream and Tin Toy and was a supervising technical director on Toy Story.

Ant and Bee Go on Vacation is a likely reference to A Bug's Life, Pixar’s next film after Toy Story.

Two other titles on the shelf are Great Places for Children to Visit and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Another very, very thin book appears to have the title Fluppy the Puppy. On the lower shelf are three books, Feet First, Help the Planet and one whose title begins with Pale Cowboy. . .

If anyone knows of any hidden meaning to these last few titles, please let us know.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Charles Ridgway in NC This Week

One last reminder of the Charles Ridgway event this Tuesday, June 5, at the Barnes & Noble in Winston-Salem. Mr. Ridgway will be appearing for a discussion/presentation relating to his new book Spinning Disney's World. The event will get underway at 7PM.

If anyone needs directions, feel free to contact me via the email link in my profile. The store is easy to get to--just a few minutes off of I-40.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Attack of the 20 Billion Dollar Expansion

Foxxfur from the really terrific blog Passport to Dreams Old and New contributes a special commentary today. She takes a look at Disney World’s recent and upcoming plans for resort hotel expansion and provides a perspective both insightful and just a little bit provocative at times; hopefully a refreshing change of pace from my usually Pollyana-based views on the World. Enjoy!

Attack of the 20 Billion Dollar Expansion

One of the varied blessings Walt Disney World allows for is the blessing of the resorts. After years of having been variously elated and rather beaten-about by the Walt Disney World theme parks, storming in at 9:00 and out twelve hours later, after endless treks back and forth in the rain from the Train Station lockers to the Haunted Mansion, and after getting sick twice on Casey’s hot dogs, I discovered the wonder of the resorts.

The resorts are a blessing, especially for the Walt Disney World frequent abuser who has apparently seen and done it all, and I hold to the belief that Walt Disney World would be a less stressful, more sane place if more guests would bother to leave the park, go to a resort, and spend several hours doing nothing, or drinking heavily, or whatever it is they need to do before returning for more abuse. It’s been repeated ad infinitum from 1989 on, but this is genuinely good advice.

What is even better about the resorts is how they’ve become clustered: some of my nicest days on property haven’t been in parks as of late, but spending time in the resort areas. Magic Kingdom resorts are accessible by about a hundred different ways to Sunday, and with the sheer volume of recreation, shopping and dining that these singular mega-getaways offer it’s easy and reasonably cheap to forgo that extra day at MGM and just go to the Magic Kingdom or EPCOT resort areas for the day. Although Disney says we’re not supposed to, pool hopping is always fun (just don’t get caught at the Yacht & Beach Club one), you can rent a surrey bike at Boardwalk or boat to Downtown Disney from Dixie Landings, and generally actually enjoy living.

But in the last ten years I’ve also began to become really miffed. As nice as these places are in expanding your vacation and as convenient they are, clustered as they are, I’ve begin to become increasingly uneasy about the Walt Disney World machine. Finally, when will enough finally be enough? I can go to Disney’s official website, wait for the interminable interface to load, and count from one to twenty-one without landing on something you’re not supposed to stay in for seven to ten days. I can add five or eight to that figure if I count the Disney Vacation Club adjuncts as separate resorts, like Disney does. And now with four cheap-o resorts on property, and that’s without counting the “not really Disney” Hotel Plaza Boulevard madness, we’re supposed to swallow that they’re planning on opening even more, even cheaper hotels on property, as well as a Four Seasons on top of one of the Golf Courses, as well as whole new sections of Animal Kingdom Lodge and Contemporary… and one begins to wonder if the person pulling the strings here has ever heard of the concept of supply exceeding demand.

I can go to Coronado Springs and not see a single normal guest in sight. This may be because the resort is so effing huge that your vision gives out before the acreage does, but it probably mostly has something to do with the fact that the resort only seems to exist for an endless parade of conventioneers. The resort is so strange and dead that Disney’s doesn’t even run the food court and there is no upscale dining option. Was all this money spent really necessary, in the long run? The resort is huge but it feels like a ghost town. Where is the demand?

Last time I stayed at Old Key West, I stayed in a room which hadn’t been opened in months. There were actually cobwebs the cleaning staff hadn’t gotten yet, and the whole place had a dead atmosphere like it had been forgotten and boarded up. We were nowhere near anything convenient and it was unlike any Disney Resort experience I’ve ever had. You can’t tell me Disney is filling up those rooms. And yet we’re building an adjunct to Animal Kingdom Lodge that’s bigger than the original resort and another 16 floor tower next to the Contemporary while you can’t swing a killer whale in Coronado Springs and knock down a vacationing family and Old Key West rooms are becoming nothing but containers for spiders and ghosts.

And yet, terrifyingly, park attendance numbers continue to climb and soon you won’t even be able to go into Magic Kingdom on any day of the week without being slaughtered alive by ravenous Disney Dining Plan equipped theme park commandos because you’re standing between them and the Fast Pass machine. Considering that on many days EPCOT and Animal Kingdom can’t reach the numbers they’re capable of, Disney doesn’t care: they’ll push people through those Magic Kingdom turnstiles until nobody can move on Main Street and if anybody strikes a match everybody’ll burn alive because it doesn’t matter what the Guest Experience is like now that they’ve already got your money.

Disney ought to be reducing their attendance cap at Magic Kingdom and MGM and start outlawing traditional strollers in the park and helping guests enjoy themselves and stop shoveling more price effective and price gouging “punishment packages” at guests hoping they won’t notice they’re being conned. But they won’t. They’ll build more resorts and try to drag in more people and offer nothing in the way of a pressure relief valve until it’s too late.

And meanwhile the parks deteriorate because management is terrified that these people will stage a revolt if something is closed (if you doubt this one, you should’ve seen Orlando Pirates between April and July last year) because they’ve been planning this trip for years and Disney can’t get its’ act together to actually work on the time table they’re encouraging guests to have to plan on. It’s disgusting that you have to make dining reservations months in advance, but that’s the way Disney wants it. They’ve dug themselves into a hole they can’t even function inside of.

Why isn’t the resort hemorrhaging money on these hotel rooms? We know they can’t fill them but they irrationally continue to build more. Are buildings being closed in Phases? When the iron gets too cold will they pull the same joke they produced post 9/11 and actually close whole resorts for “refurbishment”? Why are they building more resorts when they refuse to finish a building they half constructed over at Pop Century?

Walt Disney World opened with one theme park, two resorts, a Country Club hotel, and a campground. Eventually they added another Country Club, a shopping plaza, some cheap-o hotels and, finally, another park. Walt Disney World grew into its’ skin. Euro Disneyland opened with six hotels and you couldn’t get the money flow out of that place to go the other way with a shovel for a few months because of it. And I’m just wondering when that bright shiny Walt Disney World bubble is going to pop, because it’s gonna happen, and at the rate we’re going – sooner, not later.