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REAL-LIFE FAMILY DRAMA THAT'S "REALER" A REALITY SHOW
Blog, Movies
Posted on Sep 07 2012 by Greg
When the filmmakers who brought the Disneynature feature film Chimpanzee to the movie screen, they may have expected some hazards (wait until you see the eye-popping bonus feature in which they're constantly tormented by bees), but they never expected a rare and amazing story to tell itself right before their cameras.



A young chimp, named Oscar for the film, suffers a difficult loss and a astonishing gain. Sorry if that's too much of a spoiler, but that is only one of the experiences you will share in this, perhaps the most remarkable of the Disneynature film series. Tim Allen narrates with a fine blend of warmth, concern and humor as this chimpanzee troup lives through various challenges, searches for food and has fun -- like most families.

The film is so engrossing, the 78 minutes seem to fly by. Generous bonus sequences that chronicle the creation of the film, though not as plentiful for DVD users, are almost as fascinating as the film itself. If you see this on Blu-ray, prepare for a breathtaking ride. Some of the scenes are so lush and painterly, they look as if they came from a classic Disney animated feature -- particularly a stunning long upward pan resembling a fantastic mulit-plane Disney sequence.

Young children may be unnerved by some of the material, and there is a disclaimer about the bee sequence -- it's that intense.

it's nice to be able to watch this from a comfy chair in a climate-controlled room and be grateful to the filmmakers for going to such extreme lengths to capture all of this for all of us to experience.






DO SEQUELS WORK OR DO THEY NOT?
Blog, Movies
Posted on Sep 06 2012 by Greg
Walt Disney did not believe in sequels, at least as far as his animated features were concerned. He did not have a problem with Son of Flubber, The Monkey's Uncle, Savage Sam or Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, but these films surely were a different matter to him entirely.

Of course, debate and comment has never stopped since the direct-to-video release of The Return of Jafar. This sequel to Aladdin was so successful, it opened the door for direct-to-video (and occasional theatrical) releases of follow-ups (and even second follow-ups) to Bambi, Cinderella, Peter Pan, 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, The Fox and the Hound, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Mulan, Brother Bear, Lilo and Stitch, The Emperor's New Groove and others I've probably left out. Lots of Pooh, too.

All of these sequels were produced by Walt Disney Television Animation, later known as DisneyToon Studios, on budgets far less then their originals and with staffs combining talents from around the world. With less money and a different working circumstance, one cannot expect every one of these sequels to strike the same chords.

However, it's not for lack of trying. Despite the constraints, some creative teams were often capable of remarkable results, especially if the team involved was emotionally invested in the original classic AND if there is a second story worthy of telling.

Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure seems a natural for a sequel, since Scamp himself was a popular comic book character for many years. The first movie laid some groundwork for Tramp's new life as a domestic dog.



The creators of the sequel emphatically yearned to recreate the magic of Walt Disney's 1955 canine family romance. For a art direction standpoint, they succeeded admirably. The background elements of Lady and the Tramp were mined for research and look almost exactly like the original. Animation poses were studied for accuracy. The degree to which these details were reached is worthy of celebration. This is one of the few sequels to feature an audio commentary (thank you!) and the folks involved were earnest indeed.

Perhaps more attention might have been given to the story (or, as in some corporate situations, perhaps it could have benefitted from less unnecessary meddling).

In hundreds of comics, Scamp was a cute puppy who got into mischief. For this film, Scamp is a lovable yet discontented adolescent (which distances him from some of the audience already). It's as if the script must undo something that was fine in the first film.

We get less time with our old friend Tramp (and even less with Lady, voiced by the heavenly Jodi Benson). In revisiting most of the same locations as the first story -- including the Italian restaurant, which is very clever -- the film can't keep from chewing its cabbage twice.

Still it's a pleasant film with very nice songs by the great Melissa Manchester and one of my favorite lyricists, Norman Gimbel (who worded "A Whale of a Tale" for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a hit parade of TV themes and the excellent Pufnstuf movie score).

Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World has the benefit of having lots of additional story left to tell so it doesn't lend itself to the repetition of some sequels. It's actually one of Disney's best direct-to-video sequels story-wise, since the first film kind of left things hanging.

Being a fictionalized biography, it is known that Pocahontas had quite a life after she met John Rolfe and moved to England. The film makes the most of every opportunity, from the My Fair Lady-like sequence in which the young maiden is versed in the English trappings for a grand ball to the inspiring way Pocahontas stands up to yet another king for what is right and true.

Whether or not most of the story actually happened is beside the point -- this is Hollywood, folks -- and there's even a disclaimer at the end of the credits encouraging viewers to read up on the real-life lady. Now that both Pocahontas and Pocahontas II are combined on one Blu-ray, the films fit together nicely.



One can dispute whether or which film has better songs, but why? Just enjoy the musical excellence in both: Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz in one, Marty Panzer and Larry Grossman in the other. Grossman is another of my musical heroes, having written the incredible "Just One Person" for the musical Snoopy. This gorgeous song became a Muppet Show icon (he wrote for that series, too). Bernadette Peters sang it to Kermit when he guest-hosted The Tonight Show and it was performed at Jim Henson's memorial service.

He also wrote another iconic song -- the countermelody, "Peace on Earth" for David Bowie to sing as Bing Crosby crooned "Little Drummer Boy" on Bing's last TV special. Both Pocahontas 1 & II soundtracks are currently available for download on amazon.







FRENCH KITTY CATS, HILLBILLY DOGS & MRS NAUGATUCK IN ONE MOVIE!
Blog, Movies
Posted on Sep 05 2012 by Greg
The first Disney animated feature produced after Walt Disney's passing was 1970's The Aristocats. While it has never been held in the same esteem as Snow White, Fantasia, or even latter-day classics like Beauty and the Beast, it's a thoroughly entertaining romp that places characters and set pieces over a very basic plot reminiscent of 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp.

It's also a bit puzzling because it combines disparate voice acting performances from, among others, Hungarian Eva Gabor as a French cat, Pat Buttram and George Lindsey as country cornpone dawgs in rural France and even an elegant performance by Hermione Baddeley as Madame Bonfamille -- a change of pace from her more familiar blustering Mary Poppins/Happiest Millionaire domestics or the bawdy Mrs. Naugatuck on TV's Maude.



What's loveliest about The Aristocats as a film, especially in the crisp light of Blu-ray on this new edition, is the masterful animation, captured in its spontaneous glory through the Xerox process, a method of copying pencil art directly onto animation cels in place of inking each line again.

As kids, we called this the "scritchy lines" type of animation -- not as clean and polished and at the time, not as preferable. But seeing it today in an age where even TV animation has a slickness and therefore a distancing perfection, this kind of animation is now precious and rare. On Blu-ray, you can really appreciate the lines as they vibrate in every motion. Not a nuance is lost.

Another fine aspect of The Aristocats is its score. Though not a musical in general, there are several fine songs by Terry Gilkyson, Floyd Huddleston, Al Rinker and especially the Sherman Brothers, who apparently created several songs left unused in the film. Richard Sherman is very much a presence on the bonus features (carried over from the previous DVD release and now primarily on the Blu-ray disc). Richard narrates an entire opening sequence that is very different from the one we know.

But from a Mouse Tracks perspective, the most fantastic thing about the bonus features is that they include mention of our beloved Robie Lester, who provided Eva Gabor's singing vocals for Duchess the cat. The appearance of these material on the DVD was the very first time her significant contribution was acknowledged and it's nice to know it's also here on the Blu-ray.







"THE TIGGER MOVIE'S" A WONDERFUL THING
Blog, Movies
Posted on Aug 30 2012 by Greg
Even though it was produced by Walt Disney Television Animation, The Tigger Movie is one of a handful of direct-to-home-video Disney animated features that had a respectable run in theaters. It's also the last feature film with original songs by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman.

And find songs they are. My favorite is "Round My Family Tree," which is chock full of clever lines (and visual in-jokes, including a reference to the Rankin/Bass Saturday morning cartoon, Jackson 5ive). The end credits introduced "Your Heart Will Lead You Home," which has now become an easy listening standard, co-written and sung by Kenny Loggins.

It's also the first time the Sherman song, "The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers," is sung to completion onscreen. In the earlier films and TV shows, Paul Winchell (Disney's original Tigger voice) sang four lines of the song, but in The Tigger Movie, Jim Cummings (the current Tigger) sings the entire song. Historically,  Sam Edwards was the first actor to sing the whole song, but on Disneyland records instead of films.

The Tigger Movie makes a nice companion to all the original Walt Disney featurettes, or the compilation film, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, as well as the recent theatrical Winnie the Pooh. The storyline is simple in the Milne style and meanders on purpose -- the world of Pooh and friends is simple, direct and free of extraneous spectacle.

My only issue with The Tigger Movie is that its success, arguably thanks to the Shermans, did not result in their being involved with the follow-up, Piglet's Big Movie. Instead, Carly Simon handled the music without the brothers, which is fine, but somehow not the same.



The new "Bounce-a rrriffic" special edition is most notable for how great it looks in Blu-ray. It contains the same features as the 10th anniversary DVD (though some features are now exclusive to the Blu-Ray). For collectors, please note that the new edition does not include two episodes from The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh TV series.

Among the new bonus features is a collection of very short vignettes called "The Mini Adventures of Winnie the Pooh," basically edited scenes from the "Pooh" shorts and The Tigger Movie.

What's interesting is that these mini segments are narrated by John Cleese, who also added his unique narration to the recent Winnie the Pooh feature. The voices of Sterling Holloway (Disney's original Pooh voice) and Paul Winchell are replaced here by Jim Cummings, so it's interesting to consider the similarities and occasional differences between the performances.






GETTING RESCUED NOT ONCE, BUT TWICE
Blog, Movies
Posted on Aug 17 2012 by Greg
A substantial number of Disney animated feature debut on Blu-ray this Tuesday. One release, perhaps more than any other, stands as a crossroads between "old school" and "next generation" Disney animation: The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under.



When The Rescuers premiered in 1977, it was very well received but the public and the press, though things behind the scenes were getting tumultuous.

Based on Margery Sharp's book, The Rescuers follow two mice who rescue humans on behalf of their Rescue Aid Society (a group that co-exists behind the walls of the United Nations building).  Eva Gabor voices the lovely Bianca and Bob Newhart plays Bernard.

There's wonderful casting all the way around, harkening back to an era when Disney did enlist celebrities for the lead characters (who promoted the film on The Merv Griffin Show) and allow character actors and voice actors to round out the casts. Disney was still the name above the title and the studio had neither the budget nor the inclination to cast the multi-million-dollar variety of superstar often heard today in theatrical animation.

Times were simpler then, perhaps, and so is the film, which follows a very linear storyline as the mice board an albatross (voiced by longtime radio star Jim Jordan of Fibber McGee and Molly) and head for the bayou to rescue a little girl from Madame Medusa (the flamboyant Geraldine Page in her second Disney film) and her flunky Snoops (a caricature of Disney historian John Culhane voiced by Disney comedy veteran Joe Flynn in his only animated Disney role).

Not a musical, the film does have atmospheric songs performed offscreen by Shelby Flint, who hit the pop charts with "Angel on My Shoulder" and had become a very busy vocalist for TV shows, commercials and animation (Snoopy Come Home, Rankin/Bass' Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July, NBC's The Borrowers). An Oscar nomination for Best Song went to "Someone's Waiting for You." (Robie Lester fans take note: she is the singing voice of Bianca.)

But at the Disney studio, animators were becoming divided about artistic direction and Don Bluth was not pleased with what he saw as shortcuts on The Rescuers. Within a few years of this film, he would lead an artist walk out that impacted the next feature, The Fox and the Hound, the last feature to combine the talents of new and veteran animators.

You can also see this blend in The Rescuers -- masterful work by artists who worked with Walt and those that they mentored. Of course, the animation of Medusa is astounding, its roughness and energy captured in the sketchy, "scritchy" look of the xerox cel process. This a look didn't always suit the films in which it was used, but it works well here.

The Disney studio had never produced a sequel to any of its animated features before The Rescuers Down Under, but much had changed by 1990, including a new management team and transformations in corporate philosophies. But unlike some of the direct-to-video features that would emerge, this film boasts superior production values that actually exceed that of its predecessor.

Some of that sheen is due to rapid advances in computer technology, making specific settings, effects and animated objects more accessible. The CAPS system was perhaps the biggest develop to debut in The Rescuers Down Under. This eliminated the need for inked and painted animation cels -- the artwork went directly into the system for outline and color. Because of this, there is no breakdown in image quality (which could happen with layer upon layer of cels).

Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart are back as Bernard and Bianca, this time flown by a different albatross. Jim Jordan had passed away, so John Candy's voice added not only contemporary celebrity, but also a broader comedy potential and therefore appears in much more of the film as comic relief.

The biggest difference is that the villain is, this time around, not played at all for laughs, but completely evil and disturbingly unbalanced, brilliantly voiced by George C. Scott.

There are no songs at all in this sequel, though "Rescue Aid Society" is part of the underscore. Bruce Brougton's score is excellent -- and the recurring theme heard in his music is also used for the dancing fountain at the Epcot theme park.









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