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BOOK REVIEWS: Over There & Marc Davis: Walt Disney's Renaissance Man
Blog, Reviews, Movies, People, Books
Posted on Sep 23 2014 by Greg


A new Disney Press series and a much-anticipated celebration of a Disney giant are on the way to bookshelves.

 

The new series allows the artists of Pixar and Disney to stretch beyond animation and express their creative visions through picture book art and text. The first was No Slurping, No Burping by Lorelay Bove (who worked on Wreck It Ralph, Winnie the Pooh the upcoming Big Hero 6, and is the first designer to create new artwork for Walt Disney Records’ Legacy Collection CD albums.

  

For the second book in the series, Pixar Production Designer created Over There, a gentle children’s fable about a wistful little shrew named Shredder. This simple story, carefully laid out on each page spread, takes Shredder on a small quest to find one thing and somehow finding another.



 

With the quiet power of its peaceful forest settings and snuggly places for the characters to nestle, this is just the sort of story for bedtime, rainy days or those times when things just need to settle down. My kids are in their teens, but they still occasionally yearn for the comfort of story time. Pilcher himself takes part in readings of his book to groups of youngsters in public storytime events.

 

The story is very cute (not in a treacly way), but the artwork is over the top great, reminiscent of the classic Big Golden Books illustrated by such Disney artists as Al Dempster and Gustav Tenggren. It’s a grand tradition that will hopefully continue with further releases.



 Marc Davis with the voice of Sleeping Beauty, Mary Costa.


The other new Disney Press release shines a well-deserved light on Disney Legend Marc Davis’ career, which goes all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He animated Alice, Tinker Bell, Cinderella, Maleficent and Cruella DeVil. He designed characters for Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Jungle Cruise and the fondly remembered America Sings attractions. He was an accomplished painter and a caring, unforgettable teacher.

 

Marc dreamed up enough major works to fill several lifetimes. Yet he was definitely not one of those “look at me, I’m so great, blah, blah, blah” kind of people. He was devoted to his wife, Alice (also a Disney Legend as a major contributor to Disney history as costume designer for many attractions), dedicated to Disney art and imagination, and, across the board, remembered as a genial, unassuming fellow.

 

His admirers include some of the most accomplished individuals in the art and entertainment industry, who along with many of us, were waiting a long time for such a magnificent book as Marc Davis: Walt Disney’s Renaissance Man to come along. This book is their opportunity to reminisce about Marc for us, and our opportunity to look for hours at each and every vivid image in this new book—many of which seem to jump off the page.

 

Imagineering and Disney Legend Marty Sklar expresses his awe at Marc’s work for Disney Parks. Peter Docter, Oscar-winning director of Disney•Pixar’s Up and Monsters, Inc. presents an extensive portfolio of Marc’s concept art and pencil drawings. Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King producer Don Hahn elaborates on Marc’s fine art. Veteran Disney animator and historian Andreas Deja takes us on a tour of Marc’s animal studies. Glen Keane, acclaimed animator of Ariel, the Beast, Tarzan, Rapunzel, Aladdin and others, guides us through Marc’s vast collection of sketchbooks.

 

And there’s so much more. Walt Disney Family Museum Creative Consultant and historian Paula Sigman-Lowery explains Marc’s fascination with the art and people of New Guinea. Author/filmmaker Mindy Johnson helps us get acquainted with the wondrous Alice Davis. Renowned animation historian and critic Charles Solomon presents a look at the unproduced animated feature, Chanticleer. Award-winning animation director Bob Kurtz recalls Marc’s skill as a teacher. There are even selections from Marc’s unpublished book on how humans and animals move (Parents’ alert: some tasteful nudes in this section.)


 

Marc Davis: Walt Disney’s Renaissance Man is already on sale at select Disney Parks shops and through Merchandise Guest Services at 1-877-560-6477). It goes on sale nationwide October 7. Steve Pilcher’s Over There is available now.








Blu-ray/DVD Review: Justin and the Knights of Valor
Blog, Reviews, Movies
Posted on Sep 13 2014 by Greg


Something strange happens when watching this film. For the first sixteen minutes, there are uncomfortable limitations in the animation that only its spectacular art direction and the detailed textures make it possible to overlook. Too much story information is setting itself up. Far too many characters are introduced. It’s tricky to keep track of who is who. The character’s names, most of them long and complex, are not repeated enough to learn.

Giving the artists the benefit of the doubt, the plasticity of the character renderings is balanced by the expressive nature of the poses, likely a result of very strong storyboards. But relative “weights” of characters and objects don’t always ring true. The story teeters between “been there, done that” and “should I care, since I’m lost anyway.”

But then, 16 minutes and 45 seconds into the film, Justin and the Knights of Valor (available on DVD and blu ray on July 22nd via Arc Entertainment) really begins where it should have. Young Justin (voice of Freddie Highmore) starts on his way to the training grounds, first stopping at a pub housing the film’s most interesting characters—Talia, a likable barmaid (Saoirse Ronan), and Melquaides or “Mel” (Little Britain’s David Walliams), a “mystic” with two personalities.

Mel is the most amusing character in the movie. He talks to his “other self “ like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, but he can move so fast from one place to another, he often is seen literally as two people. It’s a pure animation conceit, and very clever.

When Justin leaves the pub and resumes his journey, this is where film’s title should come onto the screen. Next, we meet Justin’s trainers, another set of better-realized characters (voiced by James Cosmo, Charles Dance and Barry “Dame Edna” Humphries). Though we’ve been here before in Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon and The Karate Kid, the sequence still works, with amusing side gags including a room sized miniature chess-like tableaux that is constantly in danger of being destroyed.

There is no denying that this film feels derivative of How to Train Your Dragon, but it has no genuine magicians, fairies or dragons (except for a ridiculous makeshift fire-breather). Justin must accomplish his quest on his own. The story puts one more in the mind of The Sword in the Stone (T.H. White’s, not Disney’s).

The film’s “presenter,” Antonio Banderas, gives a fine comic performance in the role of charlatan Sir Clorex, the type of macho buffoon that Patrick Warburton practically patented. But with a few exceptions, the film tends to lean toward characters who are act silly but aren’t largely funny. Considering that this was made in today’s more sensitive age, it’s disconcerting there is such a stereotypical character in Sota (Rupert Everett). Did Everett know that his character would be animated in such a mincing, Monty Python way? Sota continues to be a broad caricature in the second half of the film, but his flouncing isn’t as pronounced.

No kidding, you could cut out the first 16 minutes and 45 seconds and have a very entertaining motion picture in which most of its shortcomings are less pronounced. All the plot points are repeated and clarified, including a very nice two-dimensional retelling of the story of Justin’s grandfather. Characters come along when they should, in due time—and their names are given more frequently as the film progresses.

The climactic battle is inevitable and predictable, but nevertheless exciting and suspenseful. Because Justin has to train and learn rather than get assistance from magic or sidekicks, the movie sends a strong message to kids about seeking goals with hard work and no shortcuts.

Ilan Eskeri’s score is suitably sweeping to buoy the action and breathtaking visuals; a handful of contemporary tunes recall the tunes in Treasure Planet. While incongruous to the storybook setting, the songs are not intrusive. Had this film begun at 16:45, one ballad that provides a “heart moment” would not slow the film at all, but would only make the viewer more invested in Justin’s situation.

Watch Justin and the Knights of Valor from the beginning and it’s a passable diversion with technical issues that are hard to ignore. But watch it from 16:45 and it becomes a more solid film in which its shortcomings are overshadowed by the brisk pace, nicely balanced character interaction, and—while still not an A-lister by any stretch—a handsome and engaging entertainment.








Blu-ray REVIEW: Toy Story of TERROR!
Blog, TV
Posted on Aug 19 2014 by Greg


When you start to play your Toy Story of TERROR! disc, be sure to choose to watch it with the commercials. You’ll be glad you did. This was an ABC TV special last year—the first Pixar TV special ever—and it was constructed to break for commercials. So for the Blu-ray, Pixar included the ones they created especially for the show.

Sure, this is a great for Halloween watching, complete with a cheesy black-and-white Saturday drive-in style movie (love that puff of smoke!), but it’s also year round fun for Toy Story fans, as it could be thought of as an unofficial “sequel" to Toy Story. Many of the characters introduced in that film are here again, and they get more screen time, like Mr. Pricklepants, the self-appointed movie expert (you can almost see Marshall McLuhan making a cameo to contradict him, á la Annie Hall).

The 22 minutes focus mostly on Jessie, which is welcome. She’s a character with a lot of layers and audience empathy. Who among would want to be shut into a suitcase or box? The others characters are supportive in their various ways. One just wants to watch them do things together for as long as possible.

In this story, they find themselves at a creepy old motel with a manager hiding creepy secrets, but don’t worry about it being kid-friendly, it’s not Psycho, though  nods to numerous suspense conventions abound. There’s a lot packed into this special.

The three Toy Story Toons included on the Blu-ray alone are worth having, since they in effect are follow-ups to the Toy Story films. Michael Keaton and Jodi Benson walk away with “Hawaiian Vacation,” Rex gets his time to shine in “Partysaurus Rex” (a stunner in high-def), and the characters have to grapple with their happy meal identities in “Small Fry.” Everything in this package is highly rewatchable.

The original movie voices are here, including Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack and Don Rickles, plus Carl Weathers voicing Combat Carl, a G.I. Joe type action figure with the fierce intensity of Liam Neeson (“Hurry! There’s no time!”) and the tendency to speak in third person like Regis Philbin likes to.








DVD REVIEW: Disneynature Bears
Blog, Movies
Posted on Aug 19 2014 by Greg

It’s a good idea to keep the Disneynature videos handy when someone in the house says, “There’s nothing good on TV for the kids!” This one is sure thing to please everyone, as it has big and little fluffy bears. They fight occasionally and the mother breast feeds (just in case seeing bear boobies on TV are a concern) but the experts and filmmakers explain in the bonus features that bears get a bad rap for being nothing else but fierce killers.

While they’re not Yogi and Boo-Boo either, the bears we get to know in this gorgeous film are intelligent, strategic, loving, focused and loaded with personality. While this film follows the Disney True-Life Adventures tradition of attaching a narrative to the edited footage, nothing is bogus. You spend a year with a mother and her female and male cubs as they travel the rugged but pictaresque Alaskan countryside in a quest for salmon—settling for other, less substantial foods along the way, and getting into tangles with predators, including bears like them whose hunger drives them to the brink of killing their own species.

The cubs are so adorable and the mother so devoted, this is a fine movie to watch together. As the narrator, John C. Reilly maintains a jaunty, gently humorous tone, interjecting facts so seamlessly that it doesn’t come off as dry and lecture-y. (One wonders how much of his “just a guy watching the movie with you guys” style narration is improvised.)

It’s likely that anyone watch Bears is going to say, perhaps more than once, “How did they film that?” There is a bonus feature with that name, along with other short docs about the bears, the filming and the rough terrain trodden by the movie crew.

Most fascinating is that the filming rarely took place a great distance from the bears. Within the protective boundaries of the sprawling preserve, the bears were never hunted or threatened by humans so were very comfortable being around people, as long as the skilled guides kept them calm off camera and the crew’s food was contained (more of this is explained on one of the bonus features). Jane Goodall even makes an appearance, visiting the crew and guides during their expedition.

Disneynature is an outstanding, spectacular and highly entertaining series of films. Bears is a worthy addition to the library.









DVD REVIEW: Muppets Most Wanted
Blog, Movies, People, Music
Posted on Aug 19 2014 by Greg


It’s always a great pleasure to see another big-screen Muppet movie. Like the earlier film with Jason Siegel, director James Bobin makes Herculean efforts to recapture the style, flair and glorious inanity of the original Muppet Show, thus the segments of the film featuring the actual show are the most fan-appealing. All the major Muppets and some lesser-known ones get a chance to shine in the most Muppety way possible.


The new movie has lots of color, great songs, clever cameos, very savvy scripting and skillfully timed direction going for it. But there’s still something missing. A jewel heist story was already done back in the ‘70s. Muppet movies seem to work better when they satirize show business, advertising or some other ripe-for-ridiculousness institution. Granted, the stakes are much higher here than they might have been in The Great Muppet Caper. Both films even have an Esther Williams-swimming cavalcade scene, though it was more lavish in Caper.

That wouldn’t matter so much if Ricky Gervais was either a supporting character than the co-star, was given more comedy to do, or was left to improvise so he would have been as funny as he is in the outtakes. Gervais is a great comic star, but not a movie star. Nor does he have the widespread appeal to justify how much screen time his character gets. This is in no way a criticism of him nor his talent, just a comment about how he might have been better utilized.

Ty Burrell, who gets just the right amount of screen time, making one want to see more, delivers his customary screen stealing performance—perfectly teamed with Sam the Eagle. Yes, his character is a Clouseau type, but he could easily play Clouseau. Nobody does determined cluelessness like Burrell. Tina Fey also takes on a tasty comic character role as the head of a Siberian prison, with convict show tunes (and incongruous cameos) worthy of Mel Brooks.

Like the last film, the songs are perfect for The Muppets and have a quality on their own that justifies more attention than they get. It was a shame that singer/songwriter Bret McKenzie did not get an appearance on the Academy Awards telecast, since that would have deservedly raised his profile. At least he is showcased to advantage is a music video with Miss Piggy (Bret looks a little like a bearded, lanky Herb Alpert).

Muppets Most Wanted is very good, yet not quite great. There’s a lot here to love, though, especially seeing the old gang (as well as welcome newcomer Walter) doing whatever it takes to get them on screen. Even on the classic Muppet Show, some episodes were better than others but it didn’t matter because The Muppets were the main raison D’être to tune in (ain’t I continental?).

Bonus Features are fine (but no commentary, sigh). There’s a blooper reel with a funny title about it being the longest ever, maybe. Again, Ricky Gervais is funnier here than he is in the movie. I realize he was playing a villain (Mr. Badguy), but they might have added in some of his infectious laughter.










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