Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Donald Duck's Best Christmas

Disney legend and comic book artist-writer Carl Barks is well known for his deft storytelling and often times sharp wit, and these qualities are certainly evident in the various Christmas-themed tales he put to paper over his long and prolific career. But it is also interesting to note that the Duckman never really succumbed to infusing excessive holiday spirit into these efforts, and more often than not, his tales of Christmas seemed more prone to cynicism than sentimentality. However, Barks' very first four color Christmas story, "Donald Duck's Best Christmas," does touch on themes of kindness and unconditional giving that even the bluster and self serving qualities of its title character can't completely overshadow.

Donald and his nephews anticipate their best Christmas ever; they're heading to Grandma's house via horse and sleigh, bringing presents and the Christmas turkey and singing festive carols along the way. But a curmudgeonly farmer and bad weather soon impede their travels. When Donald is nearly frozen by a plunge into icy waters, they are forced to seek shelter with a destitute family in a remote cabin. Without any thought at all, the mother and her two children quickly offer what little they have--the warmth of the fire and the last of their hot milk--to aid in Donald's recovery. Not surprisingly, Donald can only focus on his own troubles and fails to recognize the hardship that surrounds him, or even acknowledge the sincerity and selflessness of those who have come to his aid.

It falls to Huey, Dewey and Louie to act collectively as the story's moral center and good conscience, roles they typically play in so many of Barks' efforts. For when the ducks give up their trek to Grandma's and sadly turn back for home, the boys reveal to their uncle that they have in fact given away the presents and the holiday bird to the needy family. While Donald is surprisingly non-plussed by the revelation, he still remains relatively true to self by being seemingly unimpressed by his nephews' kind and genuine gesture. His self-centered, final panel proclamation gives credence to the theory that Barks' parting words in holiday tales tended to be jaded and cynical ones.

It was an odd dynamic and one that Barks scholar Geoffrey Blum commented on in a collection of Barks Christmas stories published by Gladstone Comics back in the late 1980s. Blum noted of Donald, " . . . if anything, the story has proven him eminently fallible. By giving Donald the last word, however, Barks managed to soften what would otherwise have been an unbearably preachy ending. It's the first in a long line of ambiguous morals, a device at which the artist became quite proficient. As a purveyor of wholesome entertainment for children, he could seldom finish up with a snarl, yet he was equally determined not to end on a syrupy note. Best to conclude with a question mark."

Whether or not Carl Barks was a Christmas curmudgeon is certainly open for debate. Stories such as "Letter to Santa" and "You Might Guess" were almost totally void of sentiment, but in "Donald Duck's Best Christmas," and his most famous holiday story "A Christmas for Shacktown," even the Duckman allowed a little warmth of heart to emerge from some of the panels contained within those efforts. And that, in and of itself, is a small testament to spirit of the holiday season.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Disney's Christmas Mice

. . . and we don't mean Mickey and Minnie.

A different breed of mice came into prominence at the Disney Studio during the 1950s, but they were of a different nature than the oversize icons with the big round ears that had come to represent the company. The design style of these creatures seems rooted in rodents of Cinderella, epitomized by Gus, Jacques and their many friends who helped that film's heroine ultimately realize her happily ever after destiny.

Similarly-styled mice appeared in Ben and Me, of which the title character of Amos was the most prominent. This mouse-type also extended into other Disney efforts. In 1957, McCall's magazine featured the illustrated story Walt Disney's Christmas Carol that retold the classic Dickens tale but replaced Bob Cratchtet with the character of Cedric Mouse, who in physical resemblance could easily have been a cousin of Gus, Jacques or Amos. We featured illustrations and excerpts from Walt Disney's Christmas Carol in a previous post here at 2719 Hyperion.

In an interesting twist, the studio extended this mouse-mythology into the audio arena with the release in 1958 of Mickey Mouse Christmas Favorites which was in fact Walt Disney Records first holiday album. The album combined a number of previously released selections, the most notable of which was what would become the company's perennial Christmas tune "From All of Us to All of You." But as these liner notes describe, a number of the recordings came from some freshly discovered talent:

Discovered under a stairway at the Disneyland Studio, the unique all-mouse symphony orchestra under the able baton of Ludwig Mousensky is undoubtably the first and finest rodent ensemble in the world. And, we here at Disneyland Records are proud to present their first recording, "The Christmas Concert." Here are Yuletide hymns, "Hark The Herald Angels Sing," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Jingle Bells," and the popular 'Winter Wonderland." The Mousensky group's rendition of these songs is truly a delightful experience for all. Under the maestro, the orchestra, consisting of Squeeky, Zeke, Horace, Henrietta, Tubby, Tootie, Clarence, Pinky, Stuffy, Zooty, Hans, Fritz, Otto (these three were formerly with the Vienna's famed DeutschMICEster Band), Pee Wee and Frenchy give a new dimension to these Christmas favorites. All proving that Christmas is a time for both mice and men.

While the album jacket did not provide any visual representations of this "rodent ensemble," its high-pitched renditions are certainly reminiscent of those performed by Cinderella's pint-size pals.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

On Wheels of Progress

On September 29, 2006, a mere nine days into my blogging adventures, I wrote a very brief post about one of my most favorite pieces of Disney entertainment--the generally innocuous and now considerably obscure Donald Duck film Donald and the Wheel. I came to feel that my passion for this particular amalgamation of early xerography, rotoscoping and brief snippets of live action was a very rare emotion indeed. But I have come to discover fellow brothers in the Wheel cause who literally span the globe. So I have decided it is time again to celebrate this largely forgotten production that continues to gather dust in an unvisited corner of the Disney celluloid archives.

Donald and the Wheel was in fact part of one the most dramatic transitions in the history of Disney animation--the move away from hand-inked cels to the faster and more productive xerography process. Xerography was largely the innovation of resident studio technical genius Ub Iwerks. While 101 Dalmatians is most frequently heralded as the first major demonstration of the process, it was actually used experimentally in Sleeping Beauty, and tested more completely in the 1960 short subject Goliath II. But largely absent from the animation history books is the further exploration of xerography in Donald and the Wheel, which made its way into theaters a mere six months following the release of Dalmatians. Its eighteen month production schedule certainly crossed over with those of both Goliath II and Dalmatians.

An exhibitor's kit for Donald and the Wheel, though steeped heavily in PR prose, provided this generally informative background on the film's technical accomplishments:

Walt Disney scores another entertainment first with his Technicolor cartoon featurette, "Donald and the Wheel." Using the revolutionary Xerox and Sodium Screen Processes together for the first time, Disney and his director, Ham Luske, combine real people and objects in the same perspective as animated characters and objects.

Telling the story of man's greatest invention, the wheel, required illustrations of many types of wheels and cogs, sometimes highly technical in nature. Instead of having an animator draw them, Disney had color film taken of wheels and transferred them to the screen with the Xerox Process.

For example, when a scene called for an illustration of the wheels used in a cotton gin, Eli Whitney's original invention was photographed and transferred to the screen.

With the Sodium Screen Process, Disney technicians were able to reduce a beautiful, auburn-haired ballerina to the size of Donald Duck and place her on a phonograph record with him.

The Sodium Process uses two films exposed simultaneously through the same lens, one sensitive to the Sodium screen, the other not. When the two are combined, a perfect silhouette is achieved, which is then superimposed on a master print.

The same kit provided this very detailed synopsis of the film:

In Walt Disney's newest Technicolor cartoon featurette, "Donald and the Wheel," Disney brings to the screen a story he has been working on for the past twenty years, man's greatest invention, the wheel.

The tale is told in rhyme with a pair of ghostly narrators, the Spirits of Progress, Sr., and Progress, Jr. The straight man is none other than Walt's old pal, Donald Duck, aptly arrayed in the garb of a cave man.

The faint figures of Progress, Sr. and Jr. watch a common, ordinary wheel rolling. Barrel-voiced Senior explains to bopster Junior that the wheel is man's greatest invention.

"Without the wheel, mankind would be at a standstill," he observes.

Junior disagrees. "What about the airplane, automobile, typewriter, steam engine, cotton gin, sewing machine and washing machine," says the boy.

Progress Senior strips each invention of all but its basic parts — wheels — and graphically proves his point, that the wheel, son, is man's greatest invention.

Caveman Donald, however, is harder to convince. The spirits take the little character on a meteoric ride from a circular drawing on a rock down through the ages to our present day hot rods. When Donald piles up his heap on the crowded freeways, he gives up.

"Who needs wheels," he says. "I'd rather walk."

The spirits try again by showing the duck that even the world spins like a wheel, that the solar system is really wheels within wheels, that a clock depends upon wheels, gears are adaptations of wheels, and finally, a music box works on wheels.

Music is to Donald's taste, it develops, especially when a beautiful redheaded dancer does a jazz number, a square dance and a ballet with him atop of an oversized, spinning phonograph.

The spirits have chosen the wrong cave man to invent the wheel, however. Donald scurries back to his cave, erases the circle drawn in the rock and pulls his wheel-less sled over the horizon.

"No thanks," says Donald, "I'm not going to be responsible for that thing."

Senior and Junior shrug off their disappointment, but are happy that some cave man, if not Donald, eventually did have the foresight to invent the wheel.

There are likely many who view negatively the film's on the surface mishmash of rough edged styles and and distinctly non-Disney techniques and would no doubt quantify it all as short-cut animation. But in the end, director Hamilton Luske and his crew crafted a charming, entertaining endeavor that successfully mixes humor, music and education. Unlike its much more popular but decidedly stuffier cousin Donald in Mathmagic Land, Donald and the Wheel appropriately moves along at a much more energetic pace, largely due to the the clever rhyming dialog and equally creative song lyrics provided by Mel Leven. The song "The Principle of the Thing," whose lyrics I excerpted in my earlier post, stands as a truly unrecognized gem from the studio's vast library of music. Thurl Ravencroft and his fellow MelloMen did justice to Leven's efforts, with Ravencroft himself performing the voice of the senior Spirit of Progress.

What is especially ironic about Donald and the Wheel is that our favorite duck essentially plays second fiddle to the rotoscoped silhouettes of Progress Jr. and Progress Sr. A generation gap-dynamic is played out by these two characters, highlighted by Junior's beatnik-speak, again cleverly realized in Leven's rhyming dialog.

"Gazooks, Pop! This cat is really nowhere! In some circles we'd call him square"

Through narration and song, these two Spirits of Progress elevate the film beyond the potentially dry history lesson it might have been otherwise. When they are taken out of the forefront in the story's slightly weaker jukebox-phonograph sequence, the pace noticeably slows, but recovers quickly when the duo return for the final fanfare.

The short recycled animation, most notably from the Pecos Bill sequence from Melody Time, then itself later had its own material recycled for the Ward Kimball-directed 1970s' television program Mouse Factory. The gear and cog contraption created during the "Principle of the Thing" song found its way into that show's opening montage. And in an example of typical Disney synergy, the film's subject matter, humorous tone and musical nature would resurface twenty years later in the form of EPCOT Center's World of Motion pavilion.

A comic book tie-in for Donald and the Wheel was released in 1961. It was featured in this prior post here at 2719.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Up With Monsters

Disney Mathematics 101--

Today's Lesson:

Pixar + Blu-Ray = Entertainment Heaven.

My recent home theater upgrade began late last spring. It started very indirectly with the purchase of a Blu-Ray-compatible Playstation 3. It culminated mid-summer with the acquisition of 40" flat panel HD television and a Yamaha surround sound receiver. Even then, I was still generally reluctant to begin the $-intensive task of upgrading my rather extensive film library.

But then I watched the Blu-Ray edition of Cars and whatever reservations I possessed were quickly dispelled. Animation is indeed a marvel to behold in Blu-Ray format; Pixar animation on Blu-Ray is simply a jaw-dropping, visual overload of the highest order. I immediately purchased Ratatouille, Wall-E and A Bug's Lif, the only other Pixar titles then available in Blu-Ray format.

Happily, this week marks the arrival of two more Pixar features in Blu-Ray editions. It is a Pete Doctor old-and-new combination as the general home entertainment release of Up is accompanied to market by the director's first feature, Monsters, Inc. in brand new Blu-Ray trappings.

"Blue" serves quite well as the buzzword for this new high-def version of Monsters, Inc. Sulley's blue fur is simply breathtaking to behold in all its 1080 dpi glory. In a roundtable feature exclusive to the Blu-Ray, the filmmakers spoke of the challenge of rendering Sulley in the Himilaya scene with winds blowing and snow mixing into the character's fur. Viewing that particular scene in high definition certainly demonstrates that challenge and showcases the skills and talent that successfully executed it.

While many of the set's bonus features have been recycled from the original DVD release, a number of new Blu-Ray exclusive features have been added. Notable among them is a 12-minute look at the new Monsters, Inc. Ride and Go Seek attraction at Tokyo Disneyland and aforementioned Filmmakers Roundtable, a 22-minute discussion featuring director Pete Doctor, producer Darla Anderson and co-directors David Silverman and Lee Unkrich. For the younger set, Roz's 100-Door Challenge Game has been added. And as Pete Doctor notes in a new Blu-Ray intro, much of the original DVD bonus material, especially production art, has been upgraded to higher resolutions to match the high-def format.

Doctor's second feature and Pixar's 10th consecutive box office blockbuster, Up is equally served well by the Blu-Ray format. In contrast to Monsters' bright and colorful fantasy-based designs, Up showcases towering cityscapes and sweeping landscapes rich in earth tones. Textures in particular seem to jump off the screen, whether it be the rocky ground of South America or just simply the clothing worn by Karl and Russell.

Bonus features also abound on the Up set. The theatrical short Partly Cloudy is included, as well as the brand new Dug's Special Mission, a hilarious, if somewhat slight new vignette starring one of the film's more popular characters. Numerous featurettes and documentaries fill out the set's two Blu-Ray discs, as does the interactive Global Guardian Badge Game for younger viewers.

The Blu-Ray editions of both Monsters, Inc. and Up include the standard DVD versions of the films as well as digital copies that can be transferred to PCs and digital devices.

But most important, beyond all the home theater-high definition bells and whistles, exist two wonderful and very emotionally satisfying films. Even on small conventional television screens in mono sound, neither would fail to entertain.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Treasures of a Bold Renegade

Good news, bad news.

We'll get the bad news out of the way first. There are only two titles being released this year in the Disney Treasures DVD line. And unfortunately, neither features animation, anxiously awaited Disney anthology series content, nor material relating to Disney theme parks.

The good news however, is that the titles that have arrived, Zorro - The Complete First Season and Zorro - The Complete Second Season, are top-of-the-line productions and welcome additions to the Disney Treasures family.

The Zorro sets are unconventional Treasures. It is the first time Disney has ventured beyond the 2-disc, $32.99 SRP. These collections weigh in at a hefty six discs each and carry $59.99 price points (although smart shoppers can find them as low as $38.99). It also marks the first time Disney has marketed any of their vintage television properties in complete season sets. Disneyland program episodes have appeared in numerous themed Treasures collections, and an earlier Treasures set featured the very first week of the Mickey Mouse Club. Interestingly, Zorro collections have been offered in the past through the Disney DVD subscription club (albeit in the much maligned colorized versions originally aired on the Disney Channel), but not at retail. These new complete sets of the Bold Renegade seem to mark an equally bold marketing strategy for the normally more reserved execs at Disney Home Entertainment.

In my much younger days, I watched syndicated Zorro episodes on one of my local stations. (Yes, back in the days of antenna reception and a channel selection that included three networks, PBS and a couple of independents.) I was never a huge fan of the program, but it was a means of killing a half hour on a rainy summer afternoon. Revisiting Zorro some four decades later as a Disney enthusiast and historian has been a both enlightening and very entertaining experience.

Much like the Davy Crockett Disneyland episodes, Zorro exploded far beyond its television incarnation into a pop culture phenomenon. Its brief two-season run from 1957 to 1959 beget a national passion that encompassed publicity tours, Disneyland tie-ins and tons of merchandise. At its peak, it claimed more than 30 million weekly viewers, American Idol numbers by today's standards; a dominating 40% share of the audience in the less populated late 1950s. Legal squabbling between Disney and ABC brought about the program's premature demise and, although it has never made a very large impact on recent generations of Disney enthusiasts, it remains a very significant part of Disney Studio history.

Zorro is a wonderful mix of humor, adventure and engaging performances. Guy Williams, a relative unknown at the time, became an overnight star as he portrayed both the swashbuckling hero and his meek and submissive alter-ego Don Diego de la Vega. Henry Calvin, as the bumbling but well meaning Sergeant Garcia became an audience favorite. The production values of the series were also especially notable. As Leonard Maltin notes in his introduction to Season One, "Walt never did anything halfway," and Zorro certainly reflects this. Extensive location shooting mixed with Peter Ellenshaw's beautiful matte work demonstrated results more akin to feature films than to a weekly television program.

The Zorro DVDs certainly live up to the standards we've come to expect from the Disney Treasures line; high quality transfers and generous supplemental features. Each season features 39 episodes. Season One also includes "Zorro: El Bandido" and "Zorro: Adios El Cuchillo," a two-part adventure aired during the 1960 season of Walt Disney Presents, a combination of episodes originally intended to be part of a never realized third season; an excerpt from the 1957 "Fourth Anniversary Show" featuring an appearance by Guy Williams; and a history of the Zorro character entitled "The Life and Legend of Zorro."

The Season Two set provides two additional episodes from the 1961 season of Walt Disney Presents, "Zorro: The Postponed Wedding" and "Zorro: Auld Acquaintance." An additonal feature, "Behind the Mask," profiles star Guy Williams.

Whether you are a passionate Zorro fan, a Disney historian and enthusiast, or a person just simply wanting to enjoy some old fashioned swashbuckling entertainment, the Disney Treasures Zorro sets will be well worth your time and resources.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Vinyl Magic: The First Official Album

Today it's common to find yourself in a shop at Walt Disney World or Disneyland and be confronted with a variety of music Compact Discs all themed to a particular facet or aspect of your visit to the park: there are Magic Kingdom Event CDs, Haunted Mansion CDs, and of course the ubiquitous "Official Album of the Walt Disney World Resort". Today these 2 CD sets are well produced, high quality source audio presented just for the occasion.

Music to remind you of your visit to a Disney theme park has always more or less been a part of the theme park experience, as early as the early days of Disneyland when 78 records were distributed through Mattel on durable cardboard about "Your Trip to... Disneyland! (On Records)", or the seminal if hokey "Walt Disney Takes You to Disneyland" LP from 1955. Later this evolved to include such full length long playing records like "Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room" with the full show on one side and an audio rendition of the Jungle Cruise on the other side with Thurl Ravenscroft as your skipper, or the full-show Hall of Presidents LP from 1971.

The first time the now-venerable term "The Official Album of..." appeared was in 1980, on this 12 inch long playing record which includes such classic tracks as "Grim Grinning Ghosts" from the Haunted Mansion, as well as some more obscure items like a track from "The Blue Grass Boys" who once haunted the eastwardly portion of Frontierland at the Magic Kingdom. It's really a compilation of a variety of different, already published material, culling tracks from records like the 7-inch "Main Street Electrical Parade Picture Disc", "Walt Disney World's The Hall of Presidents", "Walt Disney Productions' America Sings", and others.

But it is a uniquely satisfying musical experience, and one of the few park music overviews which was made widely available on vinyl record. The recordings are well chosen and some have become conventions of such releases - such as choosing, for example, the singing busts music loop to represent The Haunted Mansion, which continues to this day. There is a satisfying medley of the sounds of Main Street and a fairly satisfying condensation of Country Bear Jamboree into a few minutes on side one and America Sings on side two. There is even a snippet of the very end of the Hall of Presidents to bring out the record on a fairly strong note, itself a snippet taken directly from the 1978 4-LP set "The Magical Music of Walt Disney".

Side One:
Main Street Electrical Parade
Pirates of the Caribbean
The Music of Main Street
- The Dapper Dans
- The Saxophone Quartet
- The Main Street Pianist
The Enchanted Tiki Room
The Blue Grass Boys
Country Bear Jamboree

Side Two:
The Disneyland Band
It's A Small World
The Steel Drum Band
The Haunted Mansion
The Royal Street Bachelors
America Sings
The Fife and Drum Quartet
The Hall of Presidents - Mr. Lincoln

A lot of this material is culled from a fairly obscure little 1973 picture disc called A Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, an impressive looking but fairly dull compilation of tracks performed by the various park musicians of the day:

Side One:
1) The Walt Disney World Band - Walt Disney Medley
a) Hi To You
b) Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah
c) Whistle While You Work
2) The Dapper Dans - The Coney Island Washboard
3) The Saxophone Quartet - Medley
a) Minnie's Yoo Hoo
b) Hurry
4) The Main Street Pianist - Maple Leaf Rag
5) The Pearly Band - Mary Poppins Medley
a) A Spoonful of Sugar
b) Chim Chim Cheree
c) Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
6) The Banjo Kings - Swanee River
7) The Fife and Drum Corps - Medley
a) Liberty Tree
b) British Grenadiers
8) The Kids of the Kingdom - I Love a Parade

Side Two:
1) The Town Band - Mickey Mouse March
2) The Tavern Singers - Medley
a) How Great is the Pleasure
b) To Our Musical Club
3) The Polka Band - Snow White Medley
a) Heigh-Ho
b) Whistle While You Work
4) The Blue Grass Boys - Tennessee
5) Mariachi Chaparral - Guadalajara
6) The Steel Drum Band - Adventureland Jump
7) The Walt Disney World Band - It's A Small World

As much as "The Official Album of Walt Disney World / Disneyland" reminds us of a simpler time in the Company's history when the two castle parks were her primary offering to us, the "Musical Souvenir" album takes us back even further, to days when very little of the park's in-house entertainment was pre-recorded, organized, or even planned. Costumed characters used to wander in and out of areas at will, and it wasn't an uncommon sight to see a lone musician or two wandering about, spreading the simple pleasure of live music. This is one thing sorely lacking in the parks today.

"The Magical Mystery Tour is coming to take you away!"

A handful of first year performing groups are missing from the lineup - notably absent is Karen Anders and Tommy Russell, who performed at the Mile Long Bar, and a small nautical trio who performed near 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Many of these groups undoubtably consisted of the same people, who then would go on to change clothes and put in appearances at the Golf Resort, or The Contemporary, or Fort Wilderness. The fate of many of these acts is fairly unknown, and photographs are even less common. The Steel Drum Band became known as J.P. and the Silver Stars and even was relocated to Disneyland for some time (the bandstand atop the Jungle Cruise queue was built for them) and some of the original musicians from this group perform in Animal Kingdom today. The Fife & Drum Corp - The Ancients - moved to EPCOT Center in 1982, and brought the Tavern singers along with them to become The Voices of Liberty. The Banjo Kings relocated out of Liberty Square and performed on Main Street in the late 80's, and the Saxophone quartet was reborn many years later, in a fashion, as today's "Toontown Tuners".

Perhaps best of all, better than the performances (by far..), is a little blub on the bottom of the LP sleeve, explaining who all of these groups are that we're having a Musical Souvenir of.

"THE WALT DISNEY WORLD BAND: This band of on-the-go musicians provides Magic Kingdom guests with plenty of Sousa marches, turn-of-the-century oldies, Disney classic favorites, and humorous arrangements of today's top show tunes. THE DAPPER DANS: These four 'happy men of Main Street' can be found in the shops and on the streetcorners singing your favorite barbershop melodies. THE SAXOPHONE QUARTET: (Keystone Kops) Dressed in nostalgic costumes of the 1920's, these talented saxophonists are ready for a musical chase down Main Street USA just when you least expect it! THE MAIN STREET PIANIST: Whether playing your favorite ragtime tune or leading a sing-along, this piano player is always adding to the happy mood of Walt Disney World's guests. THE PEARLY BAND: This versatile sextet from 'Mary Poppins' is forever ready with a fun treatment of a Disney classic while strolling through Fantasyland. THE BANJO KINGS: Sounding much the same as the original banjo 'pickers' of the 1800's, this duo takes guests back to those good old days on the riverboats. THE FIFE AND DRUM CORPS: Providing the authentic sounds of 1776, Walt Disney World's fifers and drummers give visitors to Liberty Square the feeling they are sharing a famous moment of American History. THE KIDS OF THE KINGDOM: This lively group of young singers entertains Tomorrowland guests with exciting production numbers and the latest hit songs. (Author's Note: THE WORST!!!!!!!)

THE TOWN BAND: The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker all get together for some musical fun in Town Square. THE TAVERN SINGERS: Dining at Magic Kingdom restaurants is also a listening pleasure as these delightful voices sing a merry catch. THE POLKA BAND: It's always dance-time in Fantasyland when these 'old-world musicians' play your favorite polkas, waltzes, and schottisches. (Author's Note: you all have a favorite schottishe, right?) THE BLUE GRASS BOYS: Foot-tappin' mountain music has never sounded better than what you hear from this group in Walt Disney World's Frontierland. MARIACHI CHAPARRAL: Guests find themselves 'south of the border' when enjoying the music and songs old old Mexico performed by these authentic Mariachis. THE STEEL DRUM BAND: The energetic performances of this top Adventureland group of entertainers are much too captivating to be forgotten."
"Why? Because we like you!"

These two records, although now obviously out of print, are common enough finds on the secondary market, and provide enough entertainment and historical interest to make them worth seeking out for those of us who still enjoy dragging needles across slabs of plastic to make music.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Make a Wish on Wishing Stars

We have long been a fan of the work of Greg Maletic. We have in the past featured Greg's beautiful attraction posters here on 2719 Hyperion, and also happily referred readers to his well-written, insightful articles on Laughing Place. Greg just recently unveiled his latest project: Wishing Stars, a Disneyland GPS-based game that is now available for the iPhone.

Greg's professional resume includes software design, illustration and game design. He married all these skills to his passion for Disney and Disneyland and Wishing Stars was the result.

Greg explains the inspiration behind Wishing Stars:

Wishing Stars started out not as a game, but as an app that would let Disneyland visitors automatically send Twitter and Facebook updates to friends, letting them know what they were doing at the park: riding "Pirates of the Caribbean," attending the fireworks show, and so on. I got pretty far with that concept but was sidetracked by what was supposed to be a minor aspect of the app: "unlockable" features. Just like a video game, if certain special goals were met, the app would gain new abilities. I started devising little quests you'd have to go on to enable these new features in the app. But it wasn't long before these quests seemed more interesting to me than the app itself. So the concept changed: I was now working on a game, one that utilized the GPS in the iPhone to let users uncover hidden treasure at Disneyland.

For inspiration I took a look at other GPS-based games for the iPhone. Most are sprawling, open-ended, city-based adventures like FourSquare and GoWalla. In these games, a “game player” sets a GPS tag for a geographic location like a restaurant or dance club; other game players visit that location later and get a virtual award, typically points or badges. Calling these "games" isn't quite accurate: though they employ game concepts, they're far more open-ended and abstract than any traditional video game. What I envisioned was tighter; more focused. Like "Super Mario World," I wanted there to be a beginning, middle, and end to the game. Like "Myst," I wanted the game to have a puzzle or mystery feel, something beyond "go to this spot and earn points." I wanted a narrative, albeit a simple one; I wanted people to feel that they'd stumbled onto something remarkable lurking just below the surface of a place they'd been to many times before.

After many visits to Disneyland, coding and testing while lugging around my laptop and iPhone, the first beta version of the game was completed in June 2009. In line with that "mystery adventure" feeling, the game didn't present much context. You'd go to the park, the app would give you a clue...and that was it. That first clue would lead to another clue, and another...until a story was revealed bit by bit. I loved this idea: the whole experience would seem very "real" in that you didn't know where it was going and when it would be over.

But there was a problem. When people come to Disneyland, they're coming to ride rides, meet Mickey, and watch parades. No matter how great Wishing Stars would be, my game would be secondary. (In the battle between what my game was telling a guest to do and what their 5-year-old was telling them to do, I knew my game was going to lose out.) I couldn't distract from a guest’s day at Disneyland; I had to supplement it. For similar reasons, the game had to be scalable. My original plan required gamers to play Wishing Stars for hours; now, if a guest only had time for a 15-minute experience, the game would need to provide that guest with a 15-minute experience. Instead of being one massive Quest to uncover a hidden Wishing Star, the game became a dozen or so tinier Quests, each at a skill level ranging from "Easy" to "Ultimate."

Beyond the gameplay, the other critical piece of the puzzle was the user experience. Since the target audience for the game was much broader than traditional video game players, the game had to be drop-dead simple to operate. And since Disneyland guests are used to highly-themed experiences, the game had to feel like an authentic Disney experience (though not to the point where there’s any confusion about where the game comes from—it’s not a Disney product, after all.) The graphics were perhaps the easier to problem to solve, by going with a faux-medieval look that reads “fairy tale” without being explicitly “Disney.” Making the user experience as simple as possible was a continual challenge, but the model I used was Nintendo. Their “Super Mario World” games offer intricate experiences tailored to a broad audience. Asking myself, “what would Nintendo do?” in any predicament offered up a good solution. Based on feedback received so far, Wishing Stars is both fun and exciting…and no doubt the experience will improve over time as we learn more about this new gaming format.

Wishing Stars is available for purchase at the iTunes Store. For more information, check out the official Wishing Stars site at

Monday, August 31, 2009

Discovering Disneynature's earth

earth, the initial offering of the Disneynature imprint, is truly a True-Life Adventure for the 21st century. It successfully marries the charm and wonder of Walt Disney's mid-20th century groundbreaking nature documentaries with current filmmaking techniques and innovations.

I unfortunately missed earth when it premiered in movie theaters this past spring. But happily, the just released Blu-ray Disc provides a in-home experience to rival just about any theatrical venue.

A joint production of Disney, Discovery Channel and the BBC, earth successfully distills footage from the acclaimed television series Planet Earth into an entertaining ninety minutes that in many ways distinctly brings to mind the film's True-Life predecessors. James Earl Jones provides a narration that is immediately reminiscent of Winston Hibler, the very memorable voice behind the original True-Life Adventure series. Like Hibler before him, Jones effectively injects enough charm and humor into his efforts to insure the interest of even the youngest of the film's viewers. By loosely following the travels of three separate mother-offspring animal sets (polar bears, humpback whales and elephants), the film provides a degree of storytelling connectivity both entertaining and necessary.

Visually, earth is spectacular to say the least. It is the perfect showcase for Blu-ray technology and high definition televisions. Especially impressive are the filmmakers' uses of aerial photography and time-lapse effects that, in a high definition presentation, are simply breathtaking.

Disc special features include a making-of feature and an interesting, but still somewhat insubstantial interactive menu screen that can be enhanced and updated by means of internet connectivity.

Though the film is essentially an abridgment of the Planet Earth series, it can effectively stand on its own merits, or otherwise serve as an introduction to that clearly more extensive production. It is a laudable beginning to the Disneynature brand and a worthy successor to Disney's True-Life Adventure legacy.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Art Corner: "How to Draw Jiminy Cricket"

Thanks to Ken Storms for generously providing the images. Visit Ken online at:
Up next: How to Draw Donald Duck.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Behind the Walls of Hollywood Studios

But just not the same Hollywood Studios you may have been thinking of.

Nearly seven decades ago, Walt Disney and his talented staff of animators created a place called Hollywood Studios that served as the setting for the 1939 Donald Duck cartoon, The Autograph Hound. I have frequently noted that many of Disney’s animated shorts are windows to the popular culture of bygone days, and The Autograph Hound is very distinctly a snapshot in time of Hollywood during its golden era.

The hallmarks of this Donald Duck vignette are the numerous celebrity-inspired characters that were created to populate the fictional movie studio that Donald gate-crashes in search of autographs.

The first “celebrity” that Donald encounters within the walls of Hollywood Studios is the then well known character actor Henry Armetta. Famous for his ethnic-Italian personas, he was an almost constant presence in films during the era, appearing in thirteen films over the course of 1938-1939 alone. Next Donald encounters a mischievous Mickey Rooney who, unlike Armetta, achieved enormous fame and still enjoys a film career, now some seventy years later.
The cartoon’s only other surviving caricature is Shirley Temple. A precocious child actress, Temple was one of the brightest stars in Hollywood when The Autograph Hound was produced and released. In the 1935 movie The Little Colonel, her dancing skills were showcased when she and costar Bill “Bojangles” Robinson famously tap dance up and down a staircase. Temple is similarly dancing on stairs when Donald collides with her in The Autograph Hound.

While Shirley Temple’s fame extended far, far beyond the end of her film career, the Ritz Brothers and Sonja Henie have somewhat faded into Hollywood obscurity and are little remembered now in the 21st century. Like Temple, they were featured prominently in the short, sharing extended interactions with Donald Duck.

Al, Jimmy and Harry Ritz were a trio of brothers famous for their synchronized dancing, slapstick comedy and celebrity impersonations. They made the leap from stage and vaudeville productions to movies in the mid-1930s. They were reaching the peak of their fame at the time Autograph Hound was in production. 20th Century Fox headlined them in a number of films, starting with Life Begins in College in 1937.

Henie catapulted to fame in the late 1920s when she took the figure skating sport by storm. From her Wikipedia entry:

Henie won the first of an unprecedented ten World Figure Skating Championships in 1927 at the age of fifteen, and her first Olympic gold medal the following year. She also won six consecutive European championships. She is credited with being the first figure skater to adopt the short skirt costume in figure skating, and make use of dance choreography. Her innovative skating techniques and glamorous demeanor transformed the sport permanently and confirmed its acceptance as a legitimate sport in the Winter Olympics.

Henie signed with Fox in 1936 and starred in a string of successful films through the mid-1940s. The Autograph Hound was actually the second time that Henie was paid homage to in a Disney Cartoon. Released earlier in 1939, The Hockey Champ features an ice skating Donald Duck doing a brief impersonation of the star, complete with her trademark curly hair and long, dark eyelashes.

While these stars were featured in extended sequences with Donald, the bulk of the cartoon’s celebrity cameos are found in a fast paced montage near the end of the film. In a little more than thirty seconds, there is a total of twenty star caricatures that flash across the screen:Screen legends Greta Garbo and Clark Gable share a passionate embrace, despite their well known and often public statements that expressed a very clear and mutual animosity.

Mischa Auer, Joan Crawford, Groucho Marx and brother Harpo, and ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy, although his right hand man Edger Bergen is noticeably absent. The pair would eventually appear in Disney's feature film Fun and Fancy Free.

Eddie Cantor, Katherine Hepburn, Slim Summerville, Irvin S. Cobb and Edward Arnold.

Hugh Herbert, Roland Young, the long-censored Stepin Fetchit, and big mouths Joe E. Brown and Martha Raye.

Three appearances are notable in the fact that the personalities are featured in roles they were famous for when the cartoon was released in 1939. Bette Davis is garbed as her character from the 1938 film Jezebel, for which she was awarded a Best Actress Oscar. Lionel Barrymore appears as his character of Dr. Gillespie from the series of Dr. Kildare movies that were then just getting underway. Lastly, Charles Boyer is in his role of Napoleon Bonaparte from the 1937 film Conquest.

One final odd and interesting detail from the cartoon--when Donald collides with a painted backdrop that ultimately bounces him toward his collision with Shirley Temple, the set is identified with a sign that reads The Road to Mandalay. This was at one time the working title of what would become the first of the famous "Road" pictures that starred Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. Originally offered to George Burns and Gracie Allen, and then to Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie, it eventually evolved into The Road to Singapore and arrived in theaters in March of 1940, some six months after The Autograph Hound premiered.

Images © Walt Disney Company

This article originally appeared on 2719 Hyperion in September 2007.