Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Winnie the Pooh - Traditonal, Fresh and Wonderful

Winnie the Pooh, Disney's most recent return to hand-drawn feature animation, proves both traditional and fresh, charming in its simplicity and possessing a gentle humor that inspires smiles and quieter laughter.  It is a wonderful film, especially for the most youngest audience members, but manages to retain a level of sophistication that will certainly satisfy older viewers.  It arrives this week in a myriad of home entertainment formats.

Poor Pooh Bear has been stretched pretty thin over the past couple of decades.  He remains the centerpiece of one of Disney's most lucrative franchises, and hence has been reinterpreted and reinvented almost non-stop since Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree debuted in 1966.  Over this time, the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood have been brought to life on both film and television via animation (Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and theatrical and direct-to-video features), costumed actors (Welcome to Pooh Corner), bunraku-style puppetry (The Book of Pooh) and rather uninspired and misguided CG animation (My Friends Tigger and Pooh).  In this context, Winnie the Pooh directors Stephen Anderson and Don Hall have done something entirely new and different--they returned to Pooh's roots, as represented by the original A. A. Milne stories and Disney's original short features from the late 1960s.  It's a very welcome creative turn.

The film is a near seamless mixture of beautiful scenery, appropriate music, comfortable storytelling and traditional Pooh silliness, deftly executed to entertain the younger crowd and bring forth nostalgic memories and good feelings to the adults in the crowd.  And with good reason--the credits include names such as Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, Eric Goldberg and Dale Bear.  Most notably, Studio veteran and Disney Legend Burny Mattinson, who worked on the original Pooh films, served as the movie's Story Supervisor.

The new songs by Robert Lopez (Avenue Q and Finding Nemo-The Musical) and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez complement recycled Pooh standards by the Sherman Brothers, and the musical sequence "The Backson," is an eye-popping delight with its chalkboard inspired artistry.

DVD bonus features are adequate for the family demographic but slight for the animation enthusiast.  Winnie the Pooh and His Story Too is an all too brief profile of the famous bear and his history.  Also included are five deleted scenes presented by directors Stephen Anderson and Don Hall, and two animated shorts, The Ballad of Nessie and Pooh's Balloon (actually just recycled material from Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree).

Monday, October 24, 2011

Freeze Frame! - Gary Time in Hawaiian Vacation

The newest Pixar cartoon Hawaiian Vacation, featuring the Toy Story gang, arrives next week as part of the Cars 2 DVD.  Quick pause-button reflexes found this homage to film's director Gary Rydstrom.  When Ken and Barbie "sunbathe" as part of their simulated island holiday, they use a kitchen timer branded "Gary Time" to alert them as to when to flip over.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Snapshot Missouri! - Walt Disney Elementary School

How cool would it be to go to school here!

The entrance foyer of the Walt Disney Elementary School in Marceline, Missouri has changed little since its inception more than fifty years ago.  Disney Legend Bob Moore created the cutout mural that adorns the wall.  Additional murals can be found in the school's gymnasium.  The school also features an original flagpole from the 1960 Winter Olympics, of which Walt served as Chairman of Pageantry.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Curse Resistant Pirates Sail into Home Ports

It is still somewhat beyond belief that a series of pirate movies based on a theme park attraction could become a 21st century multi-billion dollar entertainment franchise.  Yet, as Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides proves, Disney's hottest entertainment property still remains commercially viable and surprisingly, critically  bulletproof.  It sails into home entertainment venues this week.

I passed on seeing this latest POTC adventure in a multiplex setting, preferring to wait for a high definition living room experience (a $25 Blu-ray remains a substantially better value than a family of four night at the movies with bloated concession stand prices and 3D surcharges).  My verdict?  It was an exceptionally well-crafted and often visually stunning endeavor with an engaging cast that manages to entertain despite some rather muddled storytelling.  I am an enthusiastic fan of the original POTC trilogy (At World's End included), so I was likely more forgiving of the film's flaws than most.  And although Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow remains the driving force of the franchise, it is Geoffrey Rush's Captain Barbossa, quite prominently featured in On Stranger Tides, that I personally find the greater draw.  With all due respect to Depp, it is the Barbossa character that seems the most rooted in the style and themes of the original theme park presentations.  Penelope Cruz is an adequate if not wholly inspired addition to the ensemble, while Ian McShane's performance as Blackbeard proves somewhat low key and understated.  The script, certainly less complex than previous POTC entries, still frequently suffers when necessary expository dialogue is performed in rather quick and heavily accented pirate-speak orations.

Disney Home Entertainment continues to frustrate with its increasingly maddening strategies of content distribution among its release packages.  Be aware that there are very distinct differences between the normal Blu-ray package and the Blu-ray 3D set that runs an extra $10.  If you are without the need for a 3D copy (which the vast majority of consumer still are), you will be slighted a digital copy of the film and an additional Blu-ray disc of bonus features.  In that regard, I am unable to speak to the quality or significance of these features: Legends of On Stranger Tides, In Search of the Fountain, Last Sail/First Voyage, Under the Scene: Bringing Mermaids to Life, and Deleted and Extended Scenes with Rob Marshall.  The normal Blu-ray does contain a scant handful of bonus features, most significantly the Disney Second Screen.  Also included are Bloopers of the Caribbean and Lego Animated Shorts: Captain Jack's Brick Tales.  It is a shame that Disney continues to penalize consumers who have no need for a 3D Blu-ray version of the movie.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Donald's Diary: Bewitched, Bothered and Bogie

It's always fun to mine yesteryear popular culture from a vintage cartoon.  Earlier this week we showcased a Freeze Frame! from the 1954 Donald Duck cartoon Donald's Diary that paid homage to Disney artist Tyrus Wong.  In the same short, the production crew also made reference to a rather famous popular song, and in addition, hijacked one of Humphrey Bogart's notable film quotes.

When Daisy primps before a big date, three of the perfumes on her vanity are identified as Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.  This is a reference to the song Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, written and composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for the 1940 Broadway musical Pal Joey.  The show tune quickly transcended its initial venue, evolving into a pop standard performed by any number of notable vocalists including Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Barbara Streisand, Carly Simon and even Sinead O'Connor.

Near the end of the short, Donald abandons his plans for matrimony and instead enlists in the foreign legion.  The narrator extolls, "Though I was born when I kissed her, I died when we parted."  As Donald is shown walking guard duty at a remote desert outpost, the narrator adds,  "But I lived for a little while."

That ending sequence is a riff on one of Humphrey Bogart's most memorable film quotes.  In the 1950 movie, In a Lonely Place, Bogie plays a cynical and violence-prone screenwriter suspected of murder.  In a scene with co-star Gloria Grahame, Bogart's Dix Steele character speaks a line from a script he is writing:  "I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Freeze Frame! - Ty Wong Chop Suey

Tyrus Wong had been absent from the Walt Disney Studios for more than a dozen years when the Donald Duck cartoon Donald's Diary was produced in 1954.  But he was still very much remembered.  The proof is in this Freeze Frame from the short wherein Wong was immortalized as the proprietor of a Chinese food restaurant.

Wong's tenure with Disney was brief but significant.  He worked at the studio from 1938 to 1941.  According to his Disney Legends biography:
Looking for steady employment, he joined The Walt Disney Studios to work on animated shorts, but quickly moved into feature films after submitting landscape paintings with deer as early concepts for "Bambi," which was in pre-production. Among his paintings, a stunning image of a stag fight filled with dynamic action, strong compositions, and dramatic lightning. 
Wong went on to work for Warner Bros. for twenty-five years as a production artist for live action films.  Beyond Warner Bros., he was a successful commercial artist, designing Christmas cards for Hallmark and providing illustrations for magazines such as Reader's Digest.  Still very active at age 101, he currently designs elaborate flying kites that have been described as "masterful expressions of his artistic sensibilities."

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Freeze Frame! - Daisy's Favorite Spot

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The True-Life Legacy Well Served with African Cats

I really love the Disneynature brand.  Though a rather low key division in the increasingly overwhelming Disney corporate pantheon, it serves to rekindle and revitalize a legacy that Walt Disney himself initiated over six decades ago with the True-Life Adventure films.  Disneynature's newest film, African Cats, arrives this week in various home entertainment formats and serves both the brand and its legacy very well.

African Cats marks the return of Alastair Fothergill to Disneynature; he shared writer/director chores with Mark Linfield on Earth, the very first Disneynature release.  Fothergill has an extensive resume in regard to nature film making and documentaries.  Most notably, he was the executive producer of the acclaimed BBC series Planet Earth and Blue Planet.  With African Cats, he partnered on writing and directing responsibilities with Keith Scholey, another veteran of BBC nature programming.  The result is an entertaining and often breathtaking view of life on the African savanna, as seen through the lives and actions of two different cat "families"--a large pride of lions and a mother cheetah and her cubs.

The film is more of a storytelling experience than prior Disneynature releases, with the storyteller being actor Samuel L. Jackson by way of his off screen narration.   Jackson relates two separate stories that occasionally intertwine.  A pride of lions, led by patriarch Fang are juxtaposed with Sita, a courageous mother cheetah carrying for a large brood of cubs. Jackson's narration is much less academic and more conversational than that in previous Disneynature entries.  Though not quite as endearing as True-Life Adventure veteran Winston Hibler, Jackson manages a kid friendly tone from what is clearly a more kid-friendly script, but without necessarily alienating the adult crowd.  The scenery is indeed spectacular, especially when viewed in Blu-ray high definition.  I was very impressed with the film's musical score, a majestic and sweeping endeavor by Nicholas Hooper, also a veteran of BBC nature productions and the composer for both Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.   Sadly, Hooper's efforts are slightly undermined by the apparent desire on the part of Disney execs to inject a totally unnecessary "pop" sensibility into the proceedings by way of a theme song ("The World I Knew) performed over the end credits by American Idol winner Jordan Sparks.  Synergy and cross-marketing be damned; it just didn't fit.

DVD extras include the strictly PR-driven Disney and Nature segment, a testimonial about the Walt Disney Company's numerous environmental initiatives.  Saving the Savanna is a brief piece on the making of African Cats specifically, and also showcases efforts to preserve the wildlife and habitats presented in the film.  Filmmaker Annotations is an interactive in-movie feature that presents an additional twelve behind-the-scenes featurettes on the making of the movie.

According to promotional literature, proceeds from the sales through October 10 of DVD sets and digital downloads will be donated "to help conserve the land the magnificent species featured in African Cats call home."

Apple Every Day

I will be listening to an audiobook on my iPod as I drive my son to school.  I've already read the latest news via my iPad and will be falling into a Raymond Chandler novel later on one of the iPad's e-reader apps.  At some point in the day, someone in my family will likely stream a Netflix movie by way of Apple TV.  And then of course there is Pixar.

Thanks, Steve.  You have significantly improved my quality of life on many levels.  You will be missed.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Phenomenon of The Lion King

What can you truly say about a pure, undisputed phenomenon?  For that is certainly The Lion King.  Seventeen years after its initial release and unqualified critical and commercial successes, it has now again roared into theaters by way of a 3D conversion that has dramatically surprised even the most optimistic of Hollywood bean counters,  So much so that its two week engagement has been extended and is now bumping into its latest home entertainment release.  The Lion King arrives this week in its sparkling new Diamond Edition that comprises any number of purchasing options involving Blu-ray, standard DVD and digital download formats.

Though often inconsistent in their treatment of animated classics, Disney Home Entertainment does do justice to the films selected for the high profile Diamond Editions.  The Lion King is no exception.  Beyond its high definition upgrade to Blu-ray, the new set includes any number of new and rather impressive bonus features.  The Pride of the Lion King is very well-produced and entertaining talking head retrospective that includes the likes of Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, Julie Taymor, Peter Schneider, Thomas Schumacher, producer Don Hahn and directors Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers.  Noticeably absent?  Elton John, no doubt due to his disappointment in  Disney for its lack of marketing and promotional support in regard to Gnomeo and JulietThe Lion King: A Memoir-Don Hahn makes extensive use of home movies and videos to transport viewers back to the early 1990s and behind the scenes in the making of the film.  Five deleted scenes are rather minimal and only marginally interesting, while some newly animated bloopers (derived from audio outtakes) are brief, occasionally cute, but little more.  Bonus features from the earlier Platinum Edition are made available via an online connection with a broadband compatible Blu-ray player.  The "Morning Report" sequence that was seamlessly integrated into the film for the Platinum release has been extracted and now exists only as a stand-alone feature.

The big kahuna of the bonus features is indeed the Disney Second Screen, now in its third incarnation following notable inclusions in Bambi and Tron Legacy.  To recap, Second Screen is an additional interactive platform that provides supplemental content that is synchronized to the actual presentation of the film.  Two such platforms are currently available, either an Apple iPad or a laptop computer.  Second Screen comes to the iPad by way of a free application downloaded via the App Store.  For the Mac or PC, it is a Flash-based interface streamed through Disney's web site.   Similar especially to the Bambi Second Screen, The Lion King Second Screen presents a veritable wealth of animation related content--production art, storyboards and flipbook simulations in addition to archive photos and videos and anecdotal snippets of text and trivia.  It is a much more integrated and interactive experience than your typical gallery type DVD bonus feature and certainly more user-friendly.

I only had one complaint with The Lion King Diamond Edition.  Once again Disney has limited the Digital Copy to the much more expensive 4-Disc Blu-ray Combo Pack which includes the Blu-ray 3D copy.   This continues to penalize the vast majority of consumers who have no need for a 3D version of the film but still desire a digital copy.  It is a distinct blemish on an otherwise excellent home entertainment package.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Happy 40th Anniversary Walt Disney World

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