Friday, November 30, 2007

A Goofy Christmas Game

The holiday season is upon us so let's get the festivities started with some Four Color Fun from 1957. A Goofy Christmas Game appeared as one of the activity pages in the Dell comic Christmas in Disneyland. The rules in case you need them:

The night before Christmas, Goofy dreamed he had a visit from Santa's elves and played a game with them on his Christmas tree. This is the game they played, and you and a friend can play it, too, one of you being Goofy and the other taking the part of the elves. You will need a colored button as a marker for Goofy, which you will place on the star in the center, and seventeen white buttons as markers for the elves, to be placed on the ornaments marked E. Goofy and the other player move in turns following the lines, from one ornament to the next, in any direction. Each time Goofy can jump one of the elves, as in checkers, he takes it off the board. So it is up to the elves to try and get Goofy in a position where he cannot jump or move.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

How Does the Show Go On?

I am about as far removed from Broadway as one can get. So in that regard, reading the new book How Does the Show Go on? An Introduction to the Theater by Thomas Schumacher and Jeff Kurtti was both an entertaining and educational experience. Jeff, prolific author and noted Disney historian, has long been an enthusiastic supporter of our efforts here, and was kind enough to share some background on this wonderful new release from Disney Press.

Thomas Schumacher is well known for being a major part of Disney's animation renaissance, serving as president of Walt Disney Feature Animation during the heyday of such efforts as The Lion King, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He moved on to become president of Disney Theatrical Productions, producing such Broadway fare as Aida, Tarzan, the Tony Award-winning The Lion King and the upcoming The Little Mermaid. The collaboration between Jeff and Tom was born out of a longstanding friendship as Jeff relates, "I have known Tom Schumacher for almost 25 years now. We've been colleagues and collaborators and just plain pals. I love what he does, and I love how smart he is, and how passionate, creative, and clever he is. He is also a fiercely loyal and protective friend, and has often been a lone supportive soul when my life has been at low ebb."

The genesis of the idea for the book came about four years ago, during a conversation the two friends had in a place not very far from Broadway itself.

"On December 26, 2003, we had taken the "A" Train to Harlem to see a show at the Apollo Theatre. We were walking up Lexington Avenue, and Tom asked me if it was hard to write a book. My first response was 'No, but it's like anything, you never know till you try. Why?'"

Tom then indicated to Jeff, "I want to write a book."

While not necessarily surprised by Tom's revelation, Jeff admits that the subject Tom had chosen wasn't exactly what he expected.

"I thought he wanted to do something about Disney's resurgence in animation in the 1980s and 1990s from an eyewitness perspective, or something lofty about adapting a film to stage."

But instead, Tom revealed, "I want the book I wanted when I was eleven. I want something that explains what theatre is all about, and simply, and joyously, so it's not intimidating or snobby."

Jeff's reaction? "When do we start?"

The two worked on and off on the the project for about a year. "Tom is a VERY busy guy," says Jeff, "but between in-person meetings, e-mails, and phone calls, we developed the book concept and hammered an outline of the book together by about the Fall of 2004. Over the following year, I would work back and forth with Tom on every aspect of the book--he would bring up ideas, I would provide responses and raw materials, he would refine, revise, and rewrite so the information was delivered, but with his charming and unique voice."

Similar in design to interactive tomes such as Robert Tieman's Disney Treasures, Disney Keepsakes and Mickey Mouse Treasures, How Does the Show Go On? is a lavishly illustrated yet still very extensive and comprehensive look at the world of theater, using Disney stage productions such as The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Tarzan and Mary Poppins as the backdrops. That style of publication was clearly their intention as Jeff notes, "We looked at a lot of book styles and designs, and we really liked the recent books that becker&mayer! had done with Robert Tieman, and asked them to join the team. Their designers really stepped up, and have delivered one of the most charming and beautiful designs--it really fits with the tone and feel of the writing. The addition of artifacts and objects within the book was a natural, and they really add to the book's value and personality."

The book's chapters are cleverly but still appropriately labeled "Overture," "Act One," "Act Two" and "Encore." The "Overture" instructs you on the basics. The term "theater" is defined and distinctions are explained in regard to terms such a Broadway, off-Broadway and touring shows. A section that describes styles of theaters notes the importance of placing a production in a theater that best suits it.

"Act One" begins outside the theater, explaining the dynamics of the box office and even provides a diagram of how to read a ticket. To illustrate, facsimiles of a ticket and playbill from The Lion King are incorporated. Readers are then treated to extensive descriptions of all the production personnel, from the director, producers and playwrights to music supervisors, set designers, costumers and even publicists. Another very nice interactive piece is a set of design sketches Julie Taymor did for the "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" number from The Lion King.

"Act Two" literally takes readers backstage and walks them through the creation of a Broadway production, from initial conception right up to opening night. The technical side of the process is given extensive attention, covering all the various nuances of the stage from special effects to lighting to wardrobe. Did you know that there are four different types of curtains? Or that the term "limelight" had it origins in the stage lighting that predated electricity? These are just a couple of the many, many enlightening pieces of information imparted by the authors.

Especially notable is the book's price, just $19.95. "The fact that Tom has worked to keep the cost of the book under twenty dollars is pure genius and absolute commitment to his medium," comments Jeff. "He wants this book in kids' (and grown-ups') hands so that a new generation of kids will be attracted to bringing their talents and enthusiasm to the theatre."

While How Does the Show Go On? may seem to have been generally created to serve a more youthful readership, it is equally deserving of attention by adults as well, something that Jeff agrees with. "That's a great thing about the way Tom has written this book--it's accessible enough for kids, but it's not a "children's book"--adults will find as much to enjoy and inform them as a kid will."

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Snapshot! - Jurassic Gas

The decor at Chester and Hester's Dinosaur Treasures in Disney's Animal Kingdom at times pays a subtle tribute to the storyline behind the establishment. Prior to the nearby discovery of prehistoric bones and the subsequent arrival of the Dino Institute, the couple ran a sleepy little gas station on the fringe of civilization. This impromptu design reflects the store's former emphasis on "fossil fueling."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Lost Imagineering: The Rhine River Cruise

The show building still exists behind the Germany pavilion in Epcot for what had been planned to be the Rhine River Cruise. The 1982 book Walt Disney's EPCOT provides this brief description of the proposed attraction:

"The future River Ride promises to be as enjoyable as it is informative. An early concept has visitors boarding a "cruise boat" for a simulated ride down the Rhine and other rivers, the trip affording a visual impression in miniature of the cultural heritage of Germany's past and the highlights of its present. Among the detailed models envisioned are scenes in the Black Forest, the Oktoberfest, Heidelberg, the industrial Ruhr Valley . . . the possibilities are limited only by the planners' imaginations."

Monday, November 26, 2007

Freeze Frame! - Bug City is All in the Family

Pixar is famous for inside jokes and this is especially true of the Bug City scene from A Bug's Life. When Flick arrives in the big city in search of warrior bugs, he is literally surrounded by thrown away cartons and containers whose brand names allude to family members of the film's creative team. Most notably, the names of director John Lasseter's five sons, Joey, P.J., Bennett, Sam and Jackson are represented on a soup cup, a soda bottle, a sardine can, a jar lid and a pretzel box respectively. John's wife Nancy has her maiden name Tague displayed on a wine bottle that sits in a corner of the bar.

A Bug's Life is filled with numerous other references, from Pizza Planet to Lost in Space to even the Broadway incarnation of The Lion King. But my particular favorite is the nod to Walt Disney Studios veteran Joe Grant. The Pixar folks salute Grant via the box of Casey Jr. Cookies, manufactured by the J. Grant Bakery. Casey Jr. is the circus train from Dumbo; Joe Grant is credited as one of that film's writers.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Celebrating Birthdayland

Mickey's Birthdayland is certainly one of Walt Disney World's most amazing success stories. Consider Charles Ridgway's analysis from his book Spinning Disney's World:

It was originally planned as a temporary attraction, but Michael soon decided to change the name to Mickey's Starland and make it permanent. It was a prime example of the Eisner-Wells team's ability to seize on a good idea and move fast, allowing talented people to carry it out.

Mickey's Birthdayland probably could not be built today with all the financial analyzers sitting on top of it — certainly not in the same way. That kind of shoot-from-the-hip management, so typical of Michael and Frank at the time, was what made everything fun, exciting and — big surprise — "successful."

This new Magic Kingdom "land" was the centerpiece of Walt Disney World's celebration of Mickey's 60th birthday in 1988, and literally went from concept to debut in just a few short months.

For more pictures of Mickey's Birthdayland and its connection to the comic book stories of Carl Barks, check out our earlier "Welcome to . . . Duckburg?" post here at 2719 Hyperion. And be sure to check the comments section of that particular post for additional background on Birthdayland by its very own original show director Steve Hansen.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Snapshot! - Enjoy Ice Code

Believe it or not, there are even crates in Tomorrowland.

These futuristic cargo carriers carry the Coca Cola brand and can be found near the center of Tomorrowland in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Mickey's Lost Thanksgiving

The Disney Studio never released a Thanksgiving-themed cartoon during their classic years, but one in fact was literally on the drawing board at one time. Pilgrim Mickey went through an extended preproduction period beginning in 1938, but was suddenly suspended in the spring of 1939. Charles Solomon's excellent and extensive book The Disney That Never Was provided this brief description of the proposed short's storyline:

"The film was to open with a shot of a settler's cabin; Mickey appears to be wrestling with an Indian Chief in a warbonnet, but he's actually just using a feather duster to illustrate the tale he's telling his nephews. When he goes hunting, he mistakes an Indian's headdress for a turkey's tail and gets captured. Significantly, his nephews rescue him."

Mickey and friends did finally celebrate Thanksgiving some sixty years later on the television show "Mickey's Mouse Works." Mickey, Donald and Goofy go hunting for the holiday bird in a short entitled Turkey Catchers.

Have a safe and very happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

People and Places - Denmark 1967

One day you're writing a post about a nearly fifty year old Donald Duck cartoon, the next day you have a brand new friend from halfway across the world. Different countries, different languages, different cultures; but despite these many obstacles, we can still connect through our shared passion for Disney entertainment in its many different incarnations.

This new friend that I speak of is Frantz Aschengreen who is a native of Denmark. Our mutual interest in the cartoon Donald and the Wheel initiated our contact, but we soon found common Disney ground in other areas, most notably the comic book works of Carl Barks and Don Rosa. And Frantz relayed to me one particular story from his youth that I felt just needed to be shared with 2719 readers:

I am Danish. I was 10 years old in late 1967, having discovered Walt Disney and Donald Duck a couple of years before. My parents had decided to finance an annual subscription to the weekly Disney publication “Anders And & Co.” (Donald Duck) for my younger brother and myself.

That year and the next had bad news appearing on television almost as regularly as weather bulletins. Every night seemed to bring fresh images of horror and violence. Vietnam, race riots, assassinations, angry protests by kids not all much older than me. I’d watch them with my tutting parents, wondering if the world would go crazy before I got further into my teens.

As a counter weight there would be “Uncle Walt” beaming friendly optimism and adventure on television every Saturday when introducing new incentives in Disneyland and a number of funny cartoons to follow. I became smitten. I loved Uncle Walt and everything he represented - mind you it would still be another year until Neil Armstrong brought a whole new level of adventure into our living rooms! Being a rather enterprising young man then, I pondered for days as to how to get close to the magic world of Disney, which seemed, on the one hand, so alluringly close, but on the other hand so very far away from small-town life in suburban Denmark.

Then I had an idea: I would contact the Disney Studios and inquire if, amongst the Disney artists, there would be anyone with a boy my age who would like a Danish pen pal! This I did – in my schoolboy-English. And then I waited. Christmas 1967 came with the annual “Walt Disney Christmas Show” on 24 December and Jiminy Cricket crooning “When You Wish Upon a Star." But no letter in the mailbox. Wishes do come true, mind you. Lo and behold a letter did arrive. However, not necessarily with the reply I wanted.

I since wondered many times if any of the artists ever learned about my request. Somehow I did not mind the rejection; at least I tried. And Uncle Walt stayed with me in my heart as I grew up and maintained an interest in animation and cartoons – even to the extent of having cartoons of my own published! Not long ago I found the envelope from Disney amongst some old papers. It is still fully intact, complete with the letter (which tells a small story of its own), the promotional mini posters (which did please a 10-year-old boy) and the Uncle Walt postcards which today stand out as uniquely 1960ish in style. All in all a regular “time capsule” from the Walt Disney Studios in 1968!

Thanks to Frantz for sharing with us his memories on what is now the 4oth anniversary of this very special time from his childhood.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Walt Likes Ike

While Walt Disney often possessed very strong political convictions, he rarely if ever used the company he and his brother Roy founded as a conduit to the general public for those opinions and viewpoints. Walt's political adventures have generally stayed under the radar, even when they have come to attain a degree of historical significance. This is especially true in the Disney Studio's creation of the what is largely considered one of the first presidential campaign television commercials, aired in 1952 for then Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The animated "I Like Ike" one minute spot channeled the famous campaign slogan into a cross sectional demographic march to the White House led by Uncle Sam and followed close behind by a flag-carrying, drum beating elephant. Certainly benign by today's mudslinging standards, its harshest moment portrays Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate, riding a donkey away from Washington, accompanied by the lyrics "Let Adlai go the other way, we'll all go with Ike." But it was a bold move for 1952; Stevenson generally disdained the use of television commercials, but Eisenhower had no such qualms. He reached some 19 million viewers and went on to win the presidency in a landslide vote.

While Walt did have a reputation for sometimes bullying studio subordinates into making political contributions, he typically did not make many public endorsements. The Ike commercial was credited to brother Roy Disney as a producer and sponsored by the Citizens for Eisenhower-Nixon. It would be the genesis of a warm and friendly relationship between Walt and Ike that would extend all the way to Walt's death in 1966. Walt corresponded with the former president as late as summer of 1966; a few weeks following Walt's passing, Ike eulogized him, saying in part, "His work will endure so long as men and women and children retain a sense of wonder, a need for bright laughter, a love of the clean and decent. Consequently, Walt Disney's name and his creations will endure through generations. In honoring him, we salute an American who belongs to all the world."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Snapshot! - New York News - November 18, 1928

Hot off the presses, the November 18, 1928 edition of the New York News has landed on the Streets of America at Disney-MGM Studios.

November 18, 1928

But believe it or not, November 18, 1928 has not always been the recognized birthday of Mickey Mouse. In the recent book Mickey Mouse Treasures, author and Disney Archives manager Robert Tieman explains:

Walt Disney always said that Mickey's birthday was the day Steamboat Willie premiered, but the exact date had been lost to history. For the early birthday commemorations, the studio routinely picked a convenient day in the fall—generally a Saturday so movie theaters could schedule kiddie matinees, and generally in September (even though Steamboat Willie was nowhere near finished that early in 1928). Over the years, September 28 became known as Mickey's birthday, even making it into print in several reference books—until the establishment of the Walt Disney Archives in 1970.

One of the first things archivist Dave Smith tracked down was a vintage program from New York's Colony Theatre, the site of Mickey's debut. Inside was conclusive documentation at last of the debut of Steamboat Willie on November 18, 1928. This discovery allowed for Mickey's actual birthday to be recognized for his golden anniversary in 1978.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Tribute to Bruce Gordon

Friends of Bruce Gordon have posted a heartfelt and moving tribute to the Imagineer, author and much loved and respected Disney creative force. Gordon tragically passed away this past November 6th at a far too early age, sadly bringing to an end his distinguished and celebrated careers in numerous entertainment disciplines and endeavors. Special thanks to Jeff Kurtti, a close friend and frequent collaborator of Bruce Gordon, for sharing the link with us.

Tim Burton to Direct Two New Disney 3D Films

Very cool breaking news. Tim Burton will be returning to Disney very soon. According to SCI-FI Wire:

"Director Tim Burton has signed a two-picture deal with his longtime studio, Disney , that will see him direct and produce 3-D movies of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and a remake of his short Frankenweenie, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The Alice adaptation will be a combination of live-action and performance-capture animation and will be based on a script by Linda Woolverton (The Lion King). It will be produced by longtime Burton collaborator Richard Zanuck and former Disney chairman Joe Roth, with Jennifer and Suzanne Todd.

Filming will begin in early 2008, with a production completion date in May 08.

Burton will then segue to produce and direct a full-length motion picture version of his cult favorite 1984 film short, Frankenweenie, about a pet dog who is brought back to life by his loyal owner in a very unusual way. The film will be shot in stop-motion animation

Both movies will be presented in Disney Digital 3-D."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Road Ahead from Magic Highway USA

It is with great pleasure that I am finally able to present the video of "The Road Ahead" segment from the 1958 Disneyland episode Magic Highway USA. I provided background on this nifty piece of 1950s futurism in the posts The Road Ahead and Another Drive Down the Road Ahead.


Where Pluto Goes for Therapy

Amenities for Rover and Kitty are not just limited to kennel services at the Disney-MGM Studios theme park at Walt Disney World. The services of therapist Hugo Bark and the Lend-A-Paw Pet Clinic are readily available should you be successful in smuggling your little canine or feline past front gate security.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Camping doesn't mean "cheap" - It means "value"

If you plan on heading over to the Africa section of Disney's Animal Kingdom to see the animals, realize that the proprietors of Kilimanjaro Safaris are not the only game in town. Cap'n Bob's Super Safari offers visitors to Harambe a more value-priced excursion, and hits such hot spots as the Mauti Crocodile Farm and Camel Rides at Ujinga Ranch. Remember when you call to ask for "Ed."

I've generally tried to not go overboard in featuring too many Disney Park details, but my inbox has been filling up lately with requests for more frequent Snapshot! and Theme Parkeology posts. If that seems to be the consensus I will endeavor to increase my output in those two 2719 Hyperion categories. Let me hear your feedback, either via email or, as my buddies George and Andrew recommend--Geek Love (translated--the comments section).

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Freeze Frame! - Mrs.Potts in the Jungle

While by no means a "hidden detail," this cameo appearance by Mrs. Potts and Chip in Tarzan was still a fun discovery nonetheless. At the rate that Terk and her friends were "trashin' the camp," one must wonder if these slightly less animated Beauty and the Beast incarnations managed to survive the encounter.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Desert Living in The Living Desert

Fifty four years ago today, Walt Disney released the first True-Life Adventure feature film The Living Desert. With its cactus-perched bobcat and square-dancing scorpions, the film launched yet another successful chapter in the history of the Disney Studios. Especially notable is the fact that RKO, Disney's distributor up until that point, balked at releasing The Living Desert, asserting that there was no market for longer form nature documentaries. Walt and Roy Disney were quick to show RKO the door and Buena Vista, an in-house distribution division was subsequently born. The Disney brothers were quickly validated in their decision; the film would gross over five million dollars on a budget of approximately $500,000, and would also win that year's Oscar for feature length documentary.

True-Life Adventures veteran writer and director James Algar explained the genesis of The Living Desert in a 1968 interview:

"Living Desert came about in this way. A young man from UCLA came in and showed us about 10 minutes of film that he had made as a thesis. Because it had to do with nature and we were then making nature stories, he brought it here. This was a boy named Paul Kenworthy. And this was one moment when Walt spotted a thing instantaneously; it sounded very exciting. Kenworthy's sequence was the story of the wasp and the tarantula. It was a very-well-covered, very-well-photographed, thorough going account of how this wasp stings the tarantula to a state of paralysis and lays its eggs inside the body of the tarantula. The tarantula is in a state of preservation, and when the wasp's young hatch, they then feed on the tarantula and become new wasps and fly off. This was a little complete short story right out of nature, and the boy had done it well. And Walt said, "Let's get hold of this young man and set him up out there and see if we can't find out more such stories about the desert and build a thing about the desert." And this is what happened."

Kenworthy would become one of two principal photographers on The Living Desert and ultimately go on to contribute his skills to subsequent True-Life films, most notably The Vanishing Prarie in 1955.

The Living Desert has any number of memorable moments, but a few stand out and those have become burned into the collective subconscious of the baby boomer generation. Dramatic confrontations--among them a red tailed hawk versus a rattlesnake, the aforementioned tarantula-wasp showdown, and two male tortoises jousting for the same potential mate. This harsher side of nature is offset throughout the film by lighter moments, most notably the comical, and occasionally criticized, scorpion square dance. Of that particular sequence, Algar noted:

"In Living Desert we had the material of the scorpions in their little mating ritual where they walk back and forth and circle. And the more we looked at that, the more it obviously felt rhythmic and the more we saw the chance of creating something interesting. This is one time where we actually created the music, and we set it to a square-dance routine. Now people tend to marvel, "Gee, how do you get those animals to perform to music?" where in truth you get the musician to perform to the animals. It's not quite as mysterious as it might seem."

One specific scene in the film would become legendary and in many ways iconic. When a peccary, an American cousin of the wild boar, chases a bobcat up a very tall cactus, the resultant image of the perched bobcat subsequently became representative of Disney's once and future nature themed efforts. It was displayed in marketing materials, on merchandise, and included in the opening montage of the Wonderful World of Disney. It was even recreated as part of the Nature's Wonderland attraction that was a Frontierland mainstay for many years at Disneyland.

Despite its recent DVD release, The Living Desert remains largely unseen except by the most devout of Disney enthusiasts. It is quick becoming lost in an age of high definition Imax productions and 24 hour nature-themed cable channels. It is regrettable as the film still retains a timeless charm and remains both entertaining and often compelling some five decades after its inital debut.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Snapshot! - Air Conditioning Duck

Where else but the inspired lunacy that is in fact the exterior queue area of Muppet*Vision 3D at Disney-MGM Studios in Walt Disney World. We could post a detail a day about this attraction and it would still likely be years before we ran out of material.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Hooray for Main Street U.S.A.!

When you walk right down the middle of Main Street U.S.A., remember to proudly wave your pennant!

I have always loved it when Walt Disney World produced souvenirs for the Magic Kingdom that were distinctly "land-centric." Here is not one, but two pennants that celebrate the resort's most famous neighborhood. Both feature film connections--Cyril Proudbottom, Mr. Toad's loyal compatriot pulls the trolley, while Mickey and Minnie are decked out in their Nifty Nineties finery.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Your Friend the Rat

Once again, Pixar steps out of the box, but even more notably, steps back in time.

Its funny that so much of the initial buzz about Your Friend the Rat, the new Pixar short subject that appears on the just released Ratatouille DVD, is focused on the fact that it is largely comprised of two dimensional animation. For in truth, the roots of this particular endeavor can be found not simply so much in its more traditional hand drawn format, but in the cartoon modern style trappings and fast paced irreverent humor found in early Disney television productions largely written and directed by Ward Kimball.

This entertaining and often hilarious film owes much in theme and structure to Kimball's 1969 Oscar-nominated It's Tough to Be a Bird, and in some places even echoes that film's dialog. But in style and design it is clearly rooted in Kimball's earlier efforts on the Disney television anthology programs. It also is related to films such as The Truth About Mother Goose and additionally to many of the television episodes that showcased the eccentric and always very funny Ludwig Von Drake.

Remy and brother Emille take us through a fast paced and surprisingly educational history of the rat. Beginning with a quite expressive summary of mankind's longstanding war with this rodent species, the film then segues into a chronicle of global rat infiltration. It makes a hilarious pit stop in the 14th century to expose the real truth behind the Black Death, and at the same time affords us a clever but slightly more obscure Pixar character cameo. The fun continues, especially in an inspired sequence borrowing visuals from early pixel-heavy video games that illustrates how brown rats were vanquished from Alberta, Canada.

But the film rarely strays far from its Ward Kimball-inspired zaniness. When it touches on how rats have managed to survive extended exposure to nuclear radiation, the resulting mutant rodent is distinctly reminiscent of Kimball 's creations in 1957's Mars and Beyond. And shortly thereafter, when Mars plays a prominent part in the film's closing musical number, the dots are quickly connected. These Pixar folks are clearly fans of that particular member of Disney's Nine Old Men.

One piece of advice - be sure to read the details of the ending disclaimer. It's a bit of a challenge due to the antics of Remy and Emille, but well worth the effort.

Images © Walt Disney Company

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Old Mill - November 5, 1937

It is well near impossible to underestimate the importance and impact of The Old Mill, Disney's classic Silly Symphony that was released seventy years ago on this date. Cited most often as the first film to employ the multiplane camera, its merits extend well beyond that particular technical innovation. In their now classic book Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston succinctly describe why The Old Mill is so notable and important, even beyond the achievement of the camera itself:

By 1936, a new type of picture was becoming possible. Technical skills were advancing and a new camera was being built that promised wonderful illusions; animation of rain and clouds and lightning had improved to the point where they were quite convincing; cartoon colors were beginning to glow; and new styling coordinated all of a film's parts into one unified concept. When these achievements were combined with the ability to portray mood on the screen, a true milestone in the development of the animated cartoon resulted: The Old Mill, Academy Award winner for 1937. With no story other than the reaction of various animals to one stormy night in a broken down mill, the film showed that an audience could be swept up by sheer artistry and become deeply involved in an animated film.

Echoing similar themes, authors Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman remarked in their recent excellent and extensive tome Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies:

This is the first Disney film meant to be taken seriously, the first with quasi-religious overtones in which art, nature, and machinery are given a sacred aura.

Much could certainly be written about The Old Mill, from the specific technical intricacies of the multiplane camera to the film's numerous awards and accolades. But its very simple, yet stunning interpretation of life, death and renewal is what truly resonates and continues to distinguish the film some seven decades later.

The Old Mill, under the inspired direction of Wilfred Jackson and Graham Heid, is brilliant in both composition and visual direction. The viewer is literally drawn into this microcosm of nature, almost as if taking the form of an incorporeal spirit and witnessing the events that subsequently transpire. This is in fact a deliberate dynamic created by the film's makers, in that frequently, the various creatures seem to acknowledge the viewer, most notably an especially observant owl.

The film opens some distance from the mill, as seen from the perspective of an orb weaver spider meticulously crafting its web. A slow and methodical zoom brings us in closer to the mill as we witness ducks and cows in their deliberate motions and travails. The focus settles on a small songbird whom we follow into the mill's interior to its mate and a nest of eggs. In a truly amazing vertical tracking shot attributed to animators Bob Wickersham and Stan Quackenbush, we travel from the building base to its peak, along the way encountering mice, doves, the aforementioned owl and finally a colony of bats who, with the approaching dusk, take leave and return us to mill's surrounding community of residents.

A cacophony of frog croaks and cricket sounds becomes an entertaining musical interlude. In perhaps one of the film's most stunning scenes, fireflies dance before the backdrop of the mill. This all leads to the climatic and visually mesmerizing thunderstorm. Drama unfolds as the mill residents attempt to survive an assault that culminates in a dramatic lightning strike.

Dawn arrives, peaceful and serene. The bats return from their nightly sojourn and we journey through and away from the mill much in the reverse manner of how we initially approached it. Starting at peak, we descend through the mill's now slightly more disheveled interior and revisit again the owl, doves, mice and a nest of newly hatched songbird young along with their attentive and proud parents. Retreating back from the mill, we see ducks and cows reversing their prior travels and we ultimately return to the spiderweb of the film's beginning, destroyed, yet still beautiful in its rain soaked glistening. While the mill's residents have ultimately weathered the storm, in a subtle testament to the nature of life and death, it is the fate of the distant spider that is questionable.

As noted, The Old Mill was a dramatic departure for Walt Disney, and especially remarkable in that it was less than a decade removed from the more primitive presentations of Steamboat Willie and The Skeleton Dance. In theme and execution, it paved the way for much of what would emerge a few years later in Fantasia. It's opening scene would be reinterpreted close to fifty years later for the equally stunning opening sequence of The Rescuers Down Under.

The Old Mill is an amazing and notable achievement, a film whose depth extends well beyond the visual dynamic afforded to it by one of the Disney Studio's most famous innovations.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Snapshot! - Call the Boys in Maintenance

Just another authentic corner of the Hollywood Tower Hotel at Walt Disney World's Disney-MGM Studios. This small maintenance storage office sits just out of direct view at the Picture If You Will area at the end of the Tower of Terror attraction. The wall calendar on the bulletin board does indeed display October 1939.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Disneyland Malaysia?

Reuters is reporting that Malaysia might become the sight of Disney's next theme park. Citing a weekly business publication called the Edge, the news service stated that "The government unveiled a $105 billion blueprint late last year to transform the southern tip of Johor state, which neighbours Singapore, into a regional economic zone for industry, logistics, trade and leisure."

"The proposed Disneyland theme park and resort is slated to be bigger than Hong Kong Disneyland and about the size of Tokyo Disney Resort."

Other entertainment companies are also considering the development, including Warner Brothers and MGM, although at this point Disney appears to be the distinct front runner. If talks are successful, a deal could be signed as early as next year, with a possible opening date of 2014.

Screening The Pixar Story

The covered the recent screening at the Mill Valley Film Festival of the The Pixar Story, Leslie Iwerk's documentary that's creating quite a buzz in Disney and animation circles. Iwerks, along with John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, participated in a panel discussion following the screening. Leo Holzer provides details of the event in a great article, and also provides an audio stream of the panel discussion. It's definitely worth a look and a listen.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Something Special Afoot

Mouseketeers know Mickey's own Mickey Mouse shoes are extra soft and comfortable. They're so flexible you feel sure-footed as a deer. And the full cushioned insole lets you walk on clouds. They're tough, too, for lasting wear . . . and so good looking. Tell mother about the Mouseketeers' Special Shoes. They're only $4.95 to $6.95 depending on size.

It's been a little while since we visited some good old fashioned pop culture from the 1950s. This ad for Trimfoot Shoes appeared on the inside front cover of the December 1956 issue of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse Club Magazine. If you look closely, you'll see John Hench's 25th Birthday portrait of Mickey being offered as part of a mail-in premium, along with the official Mickey Mouse Club Ring.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

What a Character! - Spike

Animated bees will be all the buzz this weekend courtesy of Jerry Seinfeld and Dreamworks Animation. So what better occasion than this to revisit a certain cartoon insect who was the bane of a famous duck's existence during the heyday of classic Disney animation.

Alternately referred to as either Spike or Buzz-Buzz, the little fellow proved to be a worthy adversary to Donald Duck. Of the name confusion, author and Disney historian John Grant noted "It is certain that the bee who appeared in Bee on Guard was called Buzz-Buzz; a bee antagonized Donald in six other shorts, and this bee was often called Spike. The two bees are, to this eye at least, hard to tell apart; it is possible that any perceived differences may simply be the result of different artists working at difference times."

Spike made his debut in the 1948 cartoon Inferior Decorator. Fooled initially by Donald's flower print wallpaper, he quickly falls victim to the duck's trademark bullying. While Donald tends to maintain the upper hand throughout the short, the plucky Spike perseveres and comeuppance is ultimately delivered in the end.

Spike switched headliners in his second appearance, trading pratfalls with Pluto in the 1949 cartoon Bubble Bee. The short plays off of two totally oddball premises. First, that Pluto finds himself coveting bubble gum balls from a gumball machine. Second, that for some bizarre reason, Spike is pilfering said gumballs and hiding them in the nearby hive. A succession of bubble gum-based gags quickly follows and similar to Donald's previous fate in Inferior Decorator, Pluto also gets it in the end.

Spike returned to Donald Duck cartoons that same year in Honey Harvester, and remained the malicious mallard's co-star for his remaining five appearances. Slide, Donald, Slide, Bee at the Beach and Bee on Guard all featured similar bee-duck craziness. But Spike's final appearance in 1952's Let's Stick Together turned out to be an unintentionally appropriate swan song. An older version of Spike is seen reminiscing about an earlier, and often contentious partnership with Donald. Most notable about the short was that the older Spike was given a normal voice, distinctly different from prior appearances where he had always communicated via high pitched buzzes and squeaks. This is especially ironic in that longtime Donald Duck director Jack Hannah once noted the benefit of this particular attribute, saying "You can get a funny sound effect out of a bee. They can cuss you out with that little bee noise." This older Spike was also similar in personality to another insect supporting player, Bootle Beetle, who co-starred a few times with Donald during roughly the same time period.

Of the end of Spike's career, John Grant observed, " . . . it is very interesting that this retrospective [Let's Stick Together] should appear so abruptly, and at a time when the bee's career looked to be highly successful -- as if, indeed, he was all set to become a regular fixture in Duck movies in perpetuity. One can only assume that Disney overestimated his popularity."