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.