Archive for the ‘Disney’ Category

DVD review: We wished upon a star, and got ‘Pinocchio’

March 11, 2009

Why are the first Disney feature-length animated films so special? In large part because of their intrinsic artistry — but also for what they signify.

With 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the significance was a do-or-die gamble by Walt Disney. He’d sunk most his resources into an untried realm — a feature length “cartoon” — and Snow White was even derided by some in the industry as “Disney’s folly.” But the beautiful, good-hearted fairy tale wound up as a classic, and launched a studio then known for animated shorts into another arena which still thrives and shakes the global pop culture today.

With Disney’s next full-length animated feature, 1940s’s Pinocchio, that significance remains. Too often in entertainment, the so-called “sophomore slump” proves fatal. But Disney’s second animated feature was as good as the first — and provided a slogan for his dream factory via the Oscar winning original song When You Wish Upon a Star.

Now Pinocchio is back via a two-disc DVD and Blu-ray High Definition  debut, both brandishing superbly restored sound and picture, along with the wildly eventful story of a wooden boy who longed to be human and — magically — became so.

These aren’t just special films — they’re precious ones. In an era of fast-action CG contemporaneity in animation — a new art form which I fully embrace — let us not forget or neglect the classics which set the stage so many years ago. Thanks, Disney. We are forever indebted — and should be forever grateful.

DVD review: ‘Mary Poppins’ 45th anniversary sports lavish looks at grand stage show

January 27, 2009

If you’re a longtime Mary Poppins fan and already have one of its earlier editions on DVD, chances are you’re wondering if you should bother with the new 45th anniversary version, just out from Disney. And here’s your answer:

There’s probably not enough new content to merit a full purchase, but there’s definitely enough to merit taking a look via a rental. That’s because this Mary Poppins transcends the story’s origins in books, plays and on the big screen to launch a loving look at its recent stage incarnation as an impressively elaborate musical which expands the film’s story. And that musical may be coming your way on its national tour.

A 48-minute featurette on the DVD’s second disc is both informative and richly entertaining, with interviews of the stage musical’s two stars (Laura Michelle Kelly and Gavin Lee) at Sardi’s restaurant in New York City, mixed with footage of co-composer Richard Sherman (in California) and the show’s new English composers (from a home in France) as they collaborate long-distance. And their creative process gives credence to the Sherman brothers’ song Spoonful of Sugar, hich avows that for every job that must be done there is an element of fun. Lots of fun, in this case.

On the downside, there’s theater-crowd gushing about producer Cameron Mackintosh, which comes across as sucking-up irrelevancy — especially when the average viewer doesn’t know this Cameron from James Cameron. I’m not saying the veteran producer doesn’t deserve credit, but it shouldn’t approach this level of fawning exaltation.

More enjoyable in the new DVD featurette are generous looks at the stage production itself, which truly dazzles, looking as colorful and magical as much of the ultimate big-screen triumph of Walt Disney, who died just two years after its 1964 release. There’s even a full-length (about six-minute) number, also on disc two, showing Step in Time as it’s performed on stage. Stage production drawings also are featured.

All this stage-setting has me salivating for a national tour stop of the Mary Poppins stage musical in Houston this October — and believe me, I’ll be there. Meanwhile, I’m savoring the fantasy and fun of this grand movie musical, and reminding myself that classy family entertainment such as this can be truly timeless.

So thanks to you Walt, author P. L. Travers, screen stars Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, composers the Sherman brothers and so many others. In creating this crowning achievement, you’ve shown how supercalifragilisticexpialidocious entertainment can be.

DVD Review: ‘WALL-E’ is ripe for Oscar glory

November 16, 2008

WALL-E is the best animated movie of the year, and though it’s largely about robots, it’s also one of the most human.

You could argue that the film is derivative, but what isn’t? For me, it spins off the most from 1972’s Silent Running, in which Bruce Dern played an ecological spaceman safeguarding domes of forests in the heavens while Earth died below, with help from lovable little droids or robots. In WALL-E, Earth is dead, and only the little ‘bot of the title is left to tidy up, befriend a lively cockroach and wistfully watch Hello, Dolly! on video.

Wistfulness? In a robot? There’s your artistic license, but grant it, because in the wildly eventful tale which follows, robots are more human than the bloated, pampered residue of the human race which remains parked in space in a ginormous ship, passing the time in exile with numb self-indulgence while waited on by machine servants.

WALL-E has such eye-popping details that you must see it more than once, and DVD certainly is a better medium than theaters, since you can freeze the picture and study its elements.

The film goes against our conditioning; there’s very little dialogue for long stretches, and you may need to activate subtitles to understand some robot-speak. But at heart it’s a sweet story of plucky romance — yes, love among the ‘bots — while the world we’ve known teeters on the brink of extinction.

Thanks Disney, thanks Pixar and thanks director and co-writer Andrew Stanton. But your biggest thanks will come Feb. 22, 2009. That’s when WALL-E seems certain to win the Oscar as best animated feature. And like 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, it just might even be up for Best Picture, too.

Review: Disney ‘Tinker Bell’ weaves magic spell on DVD

October 30, 2008

OK, so Disney’s new Tinker Bell isn’t a typical topic for an adult reviewer who proclaims his love of films such as The Exorcist, but that same adult grew up on Peter Pan and has long been a Disney fan, so I gave Tink a spin.

Produced for release directly to DVD (not counting a theatrical run at the Disney-geared El Capitan theater on Hollywood Boulevard — I even saw Herbie Fully Loaded there), Tinker Bell is a tidy (read: 68 minutes at the credits) foray into fantasy starring the tiniest supporting character of Peter Pan. It’s an origin or prequel, tracing Tink’s birth and origin as she does what all kids do: figures out who she is. This happens in the land of fairies who bring Earth the seasons, the dew, the colors on ladybugs, you name it. It’s Nature personified by winged little boys and girls (led by a queen voiced by Angelica Huston) who act very much like contemporary kids.

And they all speak, including Tink, which goes against her mute character in Peter Pan. If that’s artistic license, I forgive it.

The animation is CG, and it’s gorgeous, especially the vast vistas of natural beauty. The action scenes are lively if not riotous, too. Unlike many recent Disney flicks, this is no musical, though a song or two creeps in, notably at the end credits. Rather, it’s an extremely anecdotal series of comic misadventures as Tink tries to be what she’s not before inevitably embracing her inner “tinker” and helping the universe in the ways she knows best.

There’s virtually no reference to Peter Pan until the end, when that story’s Wendy Darling makes a cameo as an even younger girl growing up in London, with fleeting sounds of the song You Can Fly. For all of us who know what’s to come in Disney’s robustly entertaining 1953 film, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

But with its steady stream of flamboyant magic, Tinker Bell should be soaring fun for today’s kids, especially girls, who aren’t even vaguely aware that the character was reportedly modeled after Marilyn Monroe, a sexpot from their grandparents’ era. (In truth, that’s an urban legend, though Tink certainly is and was a shapely blonde.) For now, though, she’s just another modern girl who happens to be a magical fairy, full of innocence, wonder and a sprightly assertiveness that many of us first fell in love with in our own childhoods. Enjoy.

‘Sleeping Beauty’ DVD shows gorgeous end to a Disney era

October 9, 2008

Like the city in which I live, Houston, I’m no traditionalist. I believe in progress, modernity, pushing forward and the future, whether it’s into space or any other endeavor. And that’s why, though I’m a longtime animation fan and adore classic Disney work, I quickly embraced the shift to computer animation, even though it meant the eclipse of hand-drawn efforts. After all, if it works, it works. And nothing has to be done the same way forever. Progress counts. Otherwise, we’d never have graduated to “talkies.”

But that said, I’m heartened to see the immaculate reissue of Disney’s 1959 masterpiece, Sleeping Beauty, on DVD.

This romantic, exciting film pushed the limits as far as Disney could take them in terms of hand-drawn animation for that time. Not only was it lovely and lavish, with a strong  — and dark — fairy tale story, but it also was produced and exhibited in 70mm in theaters, for a superwide 2:55 to 1 aspect ratio.

That’s the way Sleeping Beauty should be seen, and that’s the way it can be seen on Disney’s new two-disc Platinum Edition (and, to be fair, on its original 2003 Special Edition DVD, now out of print, which also offered a full-screen option).

The story, of course, involves lovable royals in a magical kingdom, including the radiant Princess Aurora, whose beloved is Prince Phillip. The wicked Maleficent casts a spell on Aurora which causes her to enter a timeless sleep, from which Phillip must rescue her, with the help of three tiny fairies.

The film has one spectacular battle scene between Phillip and a dragon (Maleficent in monstrous reptilian form). It also has lovely music from Tchaikovsky, no less, and dazzling creativity  for its elaborate, painstaking animation.

Sleeping Beauty is truly a state-of-the-art picture for the end of Disney’s first golden era of animation, soon followed by more modernized films such as 101 Dalmatians. Much of its creation and history you can learn from intriguing making-of materials on Disc 2.

BTW, the commanding voice of Maleficent is by Eleanor Audley, an actress who also was known for many on-screen roles, unlike some voice actors for classic Disney films. In Audley’s case, you may have seen her as the sternly disapproving mother of Edward Albert’s lawyer-turned-farmer character on Green Acres. Often playing a haughty society grand dame, she also appeared in many other sitcoms of the era, from McHale’s Navy, The Beverly Hillbillies and The Dick Van Dyke Show to My Three Sons, Hazel and Mister Ed.

But it was voice work as villainesses that supplied two of her greatest roles. Before Maleficent, Audley voiced the character of the cruel stepmother in Disney’s Cinderella — one of the best Disney’s villains ever (and that’s saying quite a lot).

In short, if classic Disney films scare you — and many of them should — chances are you’ve felt a chill from the imperious, sinister tones of Eleanor Audley’s rich voice. Yes, great animation goes a long way, but great voice talent also makes a huge difference. And until or unless computerized voices are perfected, that’s one artistry which won’t subside in the name of “progress.”

As a DVD prequel, ‘Ariel’s Beginning’ marks Disney’s ‘Mermaid’ rebirth

August 26, 2008

In some ways, Disney’s The Little Mermaid — Ariel’s Beginning is just another made-for-DVD spinoff of a theatrical animated hit. Familiar characters and voice actors return, yes, but the animation isn’t nearly on a level with the original, and in this case — with such a hard act to follow — neither are the songs.

But one thing truly pops out about this prequel to 1989’s The Little Mermaid: As its title suggests, it’s a beginning, but in crucial ways so was its source movie, which was as pivotal a picture in the history of Disney animation as 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Snow White, of course, was Disney’s first feature-length animated film and a brave project which, during lengthy production, was widely branded around Hollywood as “Disney’s folly.” Who’d want to sit through a feature-length musical cartoon, anyway, when animation routinely ran in theaters as seven-minute comedy shorts?

But people didn’t just see it. They adored it, making Disney a new power in theatrical production, a power that’s continued to this day.

Yet after Walt Disney’s death in 1966, that power began to fade. In the turbulent ’70s — a decade of unbridled creativity but also unprecedented rawness in mainstream movies — Disney became a relic in search of a future-forward identity. Its live-action and animated films were largely G-rated clunkers, and the studio struggled to find a contemporary niche.

Finally, with The Little Mermaid, it did. Thanks largely to the superb songcraft of composers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, Disney delivered a Broadway-worthy musical (which is where it wound up in 2007) with a spry sense of modernity and not a whiff of stuffy, old-hat innocence. The film was a huge hit and won two Oscars — Disney’s first for an animated film in 18 years. And though it was Disney’s final animated feature totally reliant on hand-painted cells, it launched a rebirth of Disney as an animation powerhouse and led to a long line of hits melding strong music with modern sensibilities, from Aladdin and The Lion King to Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Of course, that bubble burst when computer animation claimed Disney’s long-held throne. Now Pixar delivers most “Disney” hits. Nonetheless, The Little Mermaid is a landmark Disney film — a rejuvenating elixir for a studio that had been stumped. And now, after almost two decades, we see its straight-to-DVD “beginning.”

A prequel, Ariel’s Beginning starts with back-story about the tragic loss of Ariel’s mother and King Triton’s queen, leaving Ariel and her six sisters to languish in a typical teen state — sullen self-absorption — while a grieving Triton unaccountably bans all music from his undersea kingdom. Ariel finds a way around that, of course, and soon the waters are alive with the sound of music — not remarkable or memorable, but frothy and fun, and often evoking the Busby Berkeley style adopted in the original (and repeated, in a warped way, at China’s closing Olympics ceremonies, which played like Fellini meets Busby Berkeley in a creepy collective worker hive).

Ariel’s Beginning also has some unwelcome detours into slangy current-day talk — sheer pandering which doesn’t jibe with the feature film to come. (This one appears to be set shortly before events of the original.)

Still, it’s good to see lovable characters again, particularly Samuel E. Wright’s Sebastian. And while new villainess Marina (voiced by Sally Field) is minor league (as a power-mad  governess, she’s Mary Poppins with ‘roid rage), the film’s high spirits — and its glorification of music — still carry the day.

A new day? Hardly. Really more of a recycled one. But if any Disney movie of the past 20 years deserves a revisit via prequel or sequel, it’s The Little Mermaid, a film without which so much Disney glory which followed might never have happened.

‘Enchanted’ recycles ‘Beach Blanket Babylon’

March 31, 2008

The big irony of new DVD Enchanted isn’t that naively idealistic romantics from a cartoon fairy tale wind up in hard-living, world-weary, modern-day New York. It’s that Disney’s animation-becoming-live action sendup of such classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs owes much to an outside creation with which the studio has queasy familiarity and documented distrust.

We’re talking long-running San Francisco musical revue Beach Blanket Babylon, a delightful romp in which a starry-eyed Snow White hits the sinful Bohemian rhapsody of San Francisco to declare she’s “looking for my prince,” then has crazed adventures with its well-meaning though decadent denizens, many of whom wear fanciful, sky-high headdresses.

Sound familiar? It should if you’ve seen Enchanted, where Amy Adams’ cartoon princess is zapped to Manhattan and goes looking for her prince (James Marsden), who’s also there, looking for her. Fish-out-of-magic-kingdom-backwater comedy ensues, amid some solid songs and by-the-numbers romance.

But here’s the tricky part: It’s also familiar if you saw 1989’s 61st annual Oscar telecast, a memorable show in that it just may have been Oscar’s worst ever (though I’d argue this year’s was the dullest).

Producing was Allan Carr, a guy who’d had a big hit with Grease — and a big miss with Can’t Stop the Music. Danger! Danger!

Carr, it seems, was a huge fan of Beach Blanket. So he hired its creator, Steve Silver, to stage a gall-to-the-walls opening musical number whose out of control excesses — and 12-minute length — made it feel like Can’t Stop the Music meets Apocalypse Now on the road to Babylon. (Speaking of Carr’s Can’t, you can catch star Steve Guttenberg in comeback mode on Dancing With the Stars.)

While Oscar night is known for labored, time-killing, wrong-headed stabs at musical fantabulousness, this one took the cake: It was overdone, overwrought, overlong — over-everything. Yet its source was good: the Beach Blanket revue which had run 15 years at that point (and is still going).

Carr wanted Silver to deliver the ultimate Oscar number — full of stars, story and busy showmanship, while informed by Beach Blanket’s premise of an  innocent Snow White exploring a new world. But with an ill-cast Rob Lowe opposite Snow, the number tanked — big-time. Even a lawsuit followed by an outraged Disney. The studio was steamed that its animation icon had been used without permission — not to mention subverted. Silver’s little song-and-dance show with silly hats in tiny SF theaters was one thing. This was the Oscars. Disney got an apology, and the suit was dropped.

Almost two decades later, Enchanted shows that in entertainment, as in anything, what goes around comes around.

Years after the studio’s outrage at Snow White with a Beach Blanket bent on Oscar night, it’s Disney that does the co-opting. Enchanted clearly adapts  Silver’s core premise of a sheltered fairy-tale princess finding herself in a mecca for worldly urban indulgence. Now who’s copying whom?

Then again, Enchanted has no sky-high headware, nor does it show Manhattan with the wry hedonism of Beach Blanket. No, this is the Manhattan of too many movies, which glamourize it like a magical kingdom of scenic serenity, ample privacy and warm comfort. (Clamor, clutter, crowds, dirt, wintry chills — begone!) Exceptions are a derelict who steals Adams’ tiarra and her own tuneful but appalling recruitment of vile rats and cockroaches to help her clean new friend Patrick Dempsey’s apartment. (What is it with Disney and rats, anyway?)

So forget about a sweet princess meeting hell-raisers galore, as in Beach Blanket. Instead, Adams spends much of her time with natty, stuffy, blandly woo-ready lawyer Dempsey and his cute little girl. She also leads sunny Central Park revelers in boisterous, absurdly preposterous choreography that turns Manhattan into an Up With People summer-stock camp.

In short, NY’s true culture shock is wasted, since much of what amazes Adams and Marsden (buses, aquariums, TV remotes) could have been found in Toledo, Ohio.

The problem is, by evoking a beloved show, Enchanted disappoints by not following through on its promising high-concept. If it had gone full-bore into Beach Blanket’s “lovable innocence meets lovable hedonism,” it might have been adorable. Instead, it’s pat, polite and predictable, and you know everyone will live happily ever after — at least by this film’s safe definitions, where everyone behaves like cartoon characters. But that’s just Disney doing its job for its audience, making a movie to please parents and, in this case, ‘tween girls. Fair enough. Different strokes.

Thus, the film’s biggest irony remains a subtle one: Disney has borrowed from the same folks who’d miffed the studio with their Snow White subversions years ago, then subverted their concept into sanitized family fare.

I know, I know. Enchanted made money — but it’s still a long way from the  decades-long durability of Silver’s beloved little show. Give me Beach Blanket’s winking awareness,  zestful spirit and stronger rings of truth any day. Real people need love, too.

‘Game Plan’ playbook mixes lively fun, weary preachiness

January 21, 2008

OK, I don’t expect many guys to appreciate chick flicks, especially one meant for grade-schoolers and ‘tweeners. But Disney’s The Game Plan sneakily mixes its chick-flick appeals (relationships, makeovers, ballet) with jock-guy star power in the form of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson as a pro football quarterback who (stop me if you’ve heard this one) suddenly learns he has a daughter (charmer Madison Pettis) whom he never knew existed.

Johnson’s character balks at first, naturally. He’s a selfish playboy with no paternal instincts. In fact, anyone without children is essentially selfish–but I get ahead of myself. Yet even in the midst of a playoff run, and even while opening a new restaurant, he finds time to devote himself to his daughter, so the world will seem ordered and we’ll all feel better in the end.

Well, how can you argue with love? The problem is, it all feels so forced and phony and preachy here, like it’s part of a political platform, not a flesh and blood story about real people. Besides, how many times must Hollywood — a place known for nannies and distant parents — shove down our throats the sermon that “kids change everything” and all adults should revolve their worlds around them? The Game Plan trots out these same old plays, served in the context of anecdotal comedy scenes that rarely advance the plot an inch. Mostly it’s about watching big, tough Dwayne get cut down to size with slapsticky sliming (via an uncovered blender and an overbubbled bathtub) and other comic discomfiture. Why, he even winds up in skimpy ballet tights on stage and shedding tears. He hasn’t been daddified — he’s been lobotomized.

But though it’s formulaic to a fault, the film does entertain in small doses. In fact, it’s served well by DVD, where I enjoyed its 105 minutes in increments (a half-hour here, 40 minutes there) more than when I was force-fed its thin soup of a story nonstop in a theater.

Besides, it also has Andy Fickman.

As a new film director, he’s not a household name, but one day he could be. That’s because Andy gets it: Movies are a diversion, not a necessity, and to paraphrase Jack Black’s gonzo guitarist in School of Rock, they serve society by entertaining.

Andy gets entertainment out of a cast — and a thin script — because he loves the process and is an all-around fun fellow and nice guy to be around. He’s also savvy, and he’s going places, just watch. His She’s the Man took a teen chick-flick spin on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and delivered a lively girl-power comedy sparked by the reliable Amanda Bynes. And with The Game Plan, he knew what he was making, and he did his job. In fact, the film broke him out of the pack commercially, with a $108 million global gross, almost $90 million of it domestic. Now he’s prepping a remake of Disney’s ’70s Witch Mountain movies, again with Johnson in tow. And one day, I’m telling you, Andy Fickman will be as beloved and famed as his hero, Garry Marshall — or close, anyway.

Now, a confession: Andy is from my hometown, Houston, and I know him, via interviews and his visits back home. Even so, if his work was bad, I’d say so.

I am not saying The Game Plan is bad. I am saying it’s not for me. Of course, as Dr. Frank N. Furter might say, Andy didn’t make it for me. But hey — I can dig chick flicks and family films, big-time. Even without being in their target audience, I’ve enjoyed Clueless, Election, Pretty Woman, The Princess Diaries, Green Card, 13 Going on 30 and many more. That’s because chick flicks can mean many things — most of them good — and those films all had something going for them besides pandering. But that said, I just can’t take more touchy-feely warm-fuzzy resign-yourself-to-parenthood movies where the message is “Have children — or your life will be utterly empty.” I’m sorry, but I’m done with that indoctrination. It’s old, it’s tired, it’s cliched, and it’s grossly misplaced.

You know what? Plenty of people who have kids after they’ve heard that message all their lives turn out to be lousy parents. And partly as a result, plenty of kids have turned out not so great, either. Looking for meaning in life? There are plenty of other places to find it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, and don’t assail me for not preaching motherhood and apple pie. I love my mom, I loved being a kid and hey, I was lucky. Plus, having kids (which I don’t) can be wonderful, as my relatives know in Dallas, where my niece just delivered twin boys after an arduous preganancy. What a blessing and a relief. But the truth is this: The enormity of parenthood isn’t for everyone, contrary to what’s ceaselessly foisted on us by movies and the culture at large.

Heck, these days even allegedly hip and edgy adult comedies like Knocked Up and Juno all but chant the mantra “Make babies, make babies, make babies.” You’d think we were all little girls of the ’50s being indoctrinated with dollies who wet themselves. Can’t you see how great this is?

Come on. As an unwavering mindset it’s not great, but unhealthy — and unnecessary, since zillions of us are going to procreate, anyway. But why poke, push and prod everyone to do so out of guilt or envy, or else they’ll feel they’re not with the program? Isn’t that a disservice to some, if not many?

Besides, I’ve done the math, and here’s my conclusion: This world doesn’t need more people. This world needs better people.