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Blog, Movies
Posted on Jan 18 2013 by Greg
There's a tendency to see Blu-ray as a boon to color films and it is. Babes in Toyland, as reported earlier, is true eye candy. However, when it comes to black-and-white film, Blu-ray accentuates the details and makes the clarity sharp as can be.

Such is the case with the Blu-ray of Frankenweenie. As with so many Tim Burton movies, there are those who just can't get into his very specific vision and those who can't get enough of it. If the latter is you, Frankenweenie is, to quote Fawlty Towers, a "televisual feast."

My kids enjoyed it, particularly my son, but the family agreed that it was very intense viewing for young children. Please don't just plop this into the player and let the kids loose on it if they're very young and impressionable -- but you're the best judge of where your kids are in relation to movies and TV (we waited a loooong time before we showed Bambi to my son).

Frankenweenie, in Burton style, is grotesque yet touching, strange yet perceptive. If you haven't seen the 1984 live action short that inspired it (included on the Blu-ray but not the DVD), it's the Burton world of a misfit in a suburban environment of eccentrics that screams "Who's the real crazy one?" This motif is especially strong in Frankenweenie, in which the neighborhood kids are much weirder than the odd central character.

Things get pretty monstrous in the final climax, much like a vintage sci-fi matinee (only done with a great deal more time and budget). The animation is as amazing as ever. There is just nothing like stop-motion and its kinetic excitement. The massive work behind this kind of art is nicely shown in another Blu-ray only feature, "Miniatures in Motion."

DVD only viewers will also get a look at the traveling Frankenweenie exhibit that spent some time at Disney California Adventure Park. But the original short, "Captain Sparky vs the Flying Saucers" is also Blu-ray only. It's a charmer, very much a nod to Burton's Ed Wood and Plan Nine From Outer Space, as well as hundreds of amateur movies made by eager young filmmaking kids. Too bad it's so short, but then, so was a reel of 8mm film.

The voice cast is uniformly superb, including Burton's Lugosi from Ed Wood -- Martin Landau -- and SCTV alums Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short (who turns in a lovely, restrained performance).

Blog, TV
Posted on Jan 01 2013 by Greg
Until this year, I had no idea there was a live musical spectacular based on Babes in Toyland on NBC in 1954 and 1955, but this year, it showed up on DVD from the same folks who gave us the treasure of The Stingiest Man In Town on DVD last year.

This production, produced and directed by Your Show of Shows' Max Leibman, was co-written by Neil Simon not long after the young scribe was in the Show of Shows writers room. It was likely to be a very big event for TV viewers in '54 and '55, as it starred the Today Show host Dave Garroway as a department store Santa who narrates the story, as well as Wally Cox as toymaker Grumio (a character from the original 1903 script). Cox was starring in Mr. Peepers at the time.

Dennis Day, best known as Jack Benny's confused tenor, is perfect as Tom (Tucker this time, not Piper). Ellen Barrie and the legendary Broadway/cabaret performer Barbara Cook play Joan, in the '54 and '55 broadcasts, respectively. Jack E. Leonard plays villainous Barnaby to the hilt in the most wisecracking, sardonic version of the character to date (likely benefitting from the comedy material supplied by Simon, William Friedberg and Fred Saidy (the latter the co-ilbrettist for Finian's Rainbow).

Musically, many of the Victor Herbert/Glen McDonough songs are intact, along with several instrumental melodies throughout, particularly during two lengthy clown performances that put one in the mind of "Circus Day" on the Mickey Mouse Club. Irwin Kostal did the orchestrations, with such landmarks as West Side Story, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music ahead of him.

It's cool to watch both years' broadcasts and compare them. There isn't a lot of difference overall, except the female leads and the ending, which contains a more overt plug for the "Rocket Engine Oldsmobile" in the second show. You'll notice changes in the technical quality and some improvements to the sets as well.

Because both shows are live (presented here in very good kinescopes), there are the occasional flubs. Most notable is Garroway's stumble over his lines about the meanness of Barnaby, getting ice cube trays and eggs scrambled up in the 1955 show (he does is perfectly in 1954).

Babes in Toyland showed up again on NBC in Living Color on the December 1960 Christmas episode of The Shirley Temple Show, hosted by Shirley Temple Black, former star of such movie hits as Dimples and Curly Top, now grown up with three kids of her own. About a dozen of these charming shows are available through her own website.

Originally called Shirley Temple Storybook, this weekly anthology series managed to do a full-fledged musical almost every week. Such an ambitious undertaking had mixed results, as the show was delightful but limited to the TV capabilities of the day. It was also NBC's competition to the Disneyland series on ABC. The following year, Disney would take over Temple's time slot on NBC as Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.

Unlike the Disney film of 1961, which retained the original score -- adding new lyrics to songs and melodies and keeping others intact -- the Temple version of Toyland is perhaps the first to replace most of the score with completely original songs. The remaining songs are "Toyland," "Floretta," "I Can't Do The Sum" and "March of the Toys."

Though it's difficult to assume because so many rewrites of Babes in Toyland took place between its major stage runs, touring companies and local shows, the concept of "Meantown" takes place, at least on the Temple show, for the first time on TV. Within a few years, a Pickwick children's record would also incorporate Meantown, which is exactly what the name implies: a town where everyone is cranky.

The cast appearing with Shirley Temple (who also plays Floretta the gypsy witch) is especially notable -- Jonathan Winters as Barnaby with Joe Besser, Carl Ballantine and Jerry Colonna as his bumbling crew; plus a very young Angela Cartwright as Jane. Even Temple's own children appear as she narrates.

Babes in Toyland didn't show up on TV in another version for decades. Meanwhile, the Disney film was broadcast twice on network TV since its theatrical release and the Roach/Laurel & Hardy movie became a staple of local programming throughout the '70s. At the dawn of the home video era, TV would take one last official trip to Toyland.

I couldn't wait for the night in 1986 when a new musical TV movie version of Babes in Toyland would premiere. How could it miss? New songs by Leslie Bricusse (Scrooge, Willy Wonka) conducted by Ian Fraser! Great character actors in the cast, like Eileen Brennan as Mother Goose and Richard Mulligan as Barnaby! Fresh from E.T., there was a slightly older Drew Barrymore as the star, with a young Canadian lead actor named Keanu Reeves. The whole was even filmed at the same Munich studio where Wonka was made.

Sadly, it was not to be. The entire production has an earthbound feel to it. The Toyland outdoor set looks like office bungalows that had porches and quick paint jobs and signs added. One of the climactic battle scenes took place on little go-karts. All but "Toyland" and "March of the Toys" were removed, yet apparently some of Bricusse's songs were cut, too, leaving a few that I am sure he doesn't like to think about.

If this were a low-budget schlock kiddie movie like Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, it might make sense. But considering the credits of almost everyone involved, it makes one wonder whether anyone really knew what they were getting into when they agreed to do it. This film did make it to VHS, even sold for one Christmas season at McDonald's (perhaps to cash in on Reeves later fame), but it never made it to DVD.

The last non-stage version of Babes in Toyland was the only animated version ever produced. MGM had intended it for theatrical release, but after the failure of All Dogs Go to Heaven 2, the project became direct-to-video (and I suspect the budget was cut). The resulting film was released to VHS and is now available on DVD.

MGM's animated Toyland has its head in the '90s, very much a product of the "second Golden Age" of Disney animated musicals and modern-day sensibilities. Virtually the entire storyline is new. Mary (who bears a resemblance to Disney's Belle from Beauty and the Beast, is now the modern concept of a strong, assertive woman who runs her late father's toy factory. Tom is her employee, a dreamer who resembles the hunky male lead in Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.  Mary says Human Resources phrases to Tom, like "I admire your enthusiasm." Both characters have those wedge haircuts that came and went in the '90s.

Gone is the Herbert score again, except the "big two." The new songs are quite wonderful, very much in the Howard Ashman/Alan Menken mold of the Disney films (and every studio's animated feature that tried to repeat their successes).

That may be a bit of nitpicking, because this Toyland is actually quite entertaining, especially for young children. It is animated very much like the high-grade TV animation of Animaniacs, with lots of action, though it does sag a bit (as do many direct to video features). Despite its 90's-ness, it holds up very well and is worlds better than the 1986 Barrymore TV movie.

One thing that this version seems to prove, though, it how it becomes more and more difficult to produce a filmed Babes in Toyland for a modern audience that incorporates any of the original Herbert/McDonough creations. The further we get away from the original in time, naturally the more our music, social mores, storytelling tools and mass tastes change. Many kids today don't know who Mother Goose is, much less her rhymes and characters.

However, it's awfully tempting to take such a fanciful story and melodic score and try something. One thing is for certain -- there are never enough remakes to suit the entertainment industry. Perhaps the law of averages will tilt in Toyland's favor and there will be a new vision. It may not be the best version, but, like the others, it sure will be fascinating.

Blog, Movies, TV
Posted on Dec 21 2012 by Greg
By this time, Blu-rays have become so prevalent that pretty much every recent and classic movie has been released in the format. The real event releases are the ones that really show the brilliance and clarity of Blu-ray to its fullest.

That would be Walt Disney's Babes in Toyland. It's been over one hundred years since the Victor Herbert/Glen McDonough operetta premiered, yet there have only been two theatrical movies based on it. We'll get to the first one in a moment.

The second one came to theaters in 1961, when Walt Disney had just given the world Disneyland, three hit TV series and movies that were broadening from animation alone to live-action comedies and adventures as well. To understand and fully appreciate the significance of Babes in Toyland, it helps to put its release within that context and then see how it looks now.

Starting with the context: the Mickey Mouse Club had left ABC TV but was heading to syndication. Zorro was canceled, but still carried on in a few prime time episodes on the Disney Sunday night anthology show. They all overlapped, many of the performers appearing in numerous other productions for the studio.

For Toyland, we got Annette Funicello, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, all of whom had been stalwarts of the Mickey Mouse Club. From Zorro, we have the underappreciated Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon, both of whom turn in superb comic performances in Toyland -- not mere Laurel & Hardy knock-offs, but genuinely unique on their own. (It's worth mentioning that their characters, Rodrigo and Gonzorgo, both existed in the 1903 Toyland stage show, long before the Laurel & Hardy version).

The Disney studio had only been making sporadic attempts at live action films for a relatively short time by 1961. Most of the earliest movies were British productions, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea being the first all-live action feature made domestically. And that was only 1954. Making a full-scale musical was a little ambitious at this point -- and the one Walt Disney wanted to make was called "The Rainbow Road to Oz."

Rainbow Road was to star Annette, Tommy Kirk and many of the other Mickey Mouse Club performers in an original musical that would even tie into a Disneyland attraction. Neither happened (though you can get a glimpse at Rainbow Road on the DVD set, "Your Host, Walt Disney').

When Walt turned to Toyland, he used many of the same creatives intended for Rainbow Road. At the same time, his animators and other artists had worked on Disneyland projects, blending the Disney movies, TV and theme park productions into a house style of its day.

That's exactly what you see when you watch Babes in Toyland today, especially in the bright light of Blu-ray, in which even the fabric textures are astonishingly defined -- as if you're looking through a magic window.

What you're admittedly not really seeing, though, is a movie in the strictest sense. Few critics have good things to say about Toyland, and though they certainly make valid points, I don't think a movie is what this production ultimately is. It's more a big show on screen -- and a theme park ride if you will.

Looking at Mary Contrary's garden is like seeing a floral display at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. The settings would not be out of place in Fantasyland (the sets, in fact, were displayed at Disneyland in 1961 for holiday Guests to explore).

And the stylistic design, very much out of any Big Disney Golden Book, have influenced the Theme Park parades and shows ever since 1961, especially the Toy Soldiers, who have become such a Disney fixture that many do not realize they were created for this film by X Atencio and Bill Justice (and also appeared briefly in Mary Poppins).

In essence, Walt Disney's Babes in Toyland was no Poppins, but it's an E-ticket in other ways. And it paved the way. Musical fantasy and high camp are both notoriously difficult to capture in movies (The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins being the only two such films to be embraced by critics and audiences upon their very first releases).

Toyland doesn't flinch from being as broad as a barn, just like the stage show upon which it is based, which has its roots in vaudeville and British Pantomime. When you approach it like that, suspending disbelief as you would for a whimsical children's stage show, suddenly it's one of most bold and brash of its kind.

Ray Bolger isn't so much playing a villain as having a blast and letting us all in on it. Annette Funicello is the very soul of sincerity. Tommy Sands is remarkably believable considering the silliness going on around him -- no easy feat -- and he gets a chance to jump into the "camp camp" with his unbridled Floretta performance, so totally different from the Tom character that one wonders if it's the same person.

And then there's Ed Wynn, who always plays "Ed Wynn" even when he's in a serious role, and what a joy he is to watch. After all, you're listening to Alice's Mad Hatter and seeing Mary Poppins' Uncle Arthur at the same time And that toy making machine -- couldn't you just see it in Willy Wonka's inventing room or at a candy shop in Downtown Disney?

By the way, the original vinyl "original cast" album of Disney's Toyland (a studio recording of the score with Annette, Wynn, Bolger, Ann Jillian and others) is downloadable on iTunes.

To many fans, Hal Roach's 1934 Babes in Toyland (retitled March of the Wooden Soldiers) is the superior film. But I love both versions for any number of reasons.

This Laurel & Hardy vehicle is one of the most quotable movies, at least in three generations of my family ("You're not scared now!" "I don't love him!" "Good night, Ollie!" "Why, that's neither pig nor pork! It's beef"" "Ollie, here's your watch!' "He and I are just-like-that." Tut-tut-tut-turrut!" "We shall seeeee." I could go on and on...)

This Toyland is closer in musical tone to the 1903 show, complete with a tenor (Felix Knight) and other trappings of the musical form of theater before Rodgers and Hammerstein. It also bears a musical resemblance to Disney's own Snow White, released only three years later. What is amazing is how The Wizard of Oz, which came only five years later, avoids the operetta sound and still sounds amazingly mainstream. But then, Snow White was less than ten years after Steamboat Willie -- how fast the advancements came!

Laurel & Hardy starred in several similar operetta-style films -- Swiss Miss, Fra Diavolo and The Bohemian Girl -- that had the elements of a young singing couple, evil villains and comic set pieces with Stan and Ollie. Several of the Marx Brothers films did this as well.

High-pitched operetta-style though it is, Roach's Toyland is more cinematic than Disney's version. They both begin with a Mother Goose introduction and a glorious reveal of the village, but Disney deliberately shows the polished wood stage while Roach's village seems more grounded.

Walt Disney and Hal Roach apparently also had a friendly relationship; according to Leonard Maltin's The Disney Films, Disney warmly agreed to Roach's use of the Three Little Pigs (with different names) and a monkey appears to be playing Mickey Mouse (riding in a blimp that gets a visual nod in the 1961 film's toy battle scene).

Another Laurel & Hardy historian, John McCabe, wrote that Stan Laurel was very fond of Toyland, but regretted it not being filmed in color. The film is very accessible on home video in both colorized and black-and-white editions (Warner released a very nice print on DVD in recent years).

Colorization is a pariah to many film buffs, but since Laurel himself wished Babes in Toyland was made that way, it's kind of fun to watch the colorized version (keeping a black and white copy on hand as well). Toyland is so unreal, the lack of true tones and tints in colorization actually works, even clarifying some of the darker, less defined scenes in the last reel. It's a question of taste, but in this case, it's worth seeing in color at least once.

So which is better? I'm not the person to ask, being like Archie having to chose between Betty and Veronica (or Charlotte Henry and Annette). Roach's is more of a "movie," Disney's is more of a very, very expensive TV special or Theme Park extravaganza. Why worry about it? They're both delectable holiday confections. Enjoy.

Blog, TV
Posted on Dec 21 2012 by Greg
Actually, the DVD is called Mickey & Donald Have a Farm (as in ee -yi-ee-yi-yo). It's a collection from the Disney Junior CG-animated preschooler series, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

The signature episode, Mickey & Donald Have a Farm is presented along with other garden and home-related episodes, including:
Goofy's Petting Zoo
Clarabelle's Clubhouse Moo-sical
Goofy the Homemaker
(Right on, Goofy! Shatter those stereotypes!!)
Donald Hatches the Egg

I love that Goofy refers to eggs as "eggies" in this episode, since that is what I do with my kids. We even bought one of those as-seen-on-TV gadgets called "Eggies" just because of the name (even though it really didn't work very well.

One of the nicest things about Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, is that it brings Mickey and company to TV for young viewers as as warm, Dora-like friends, rather than only as park icons, corporate symbols, geometric shapes or an "old" characters. For many years, some kids grew up not knowing who Mickey was, or at least having a context into which they could have memories of him, so that's nice.

The other thing that's great about the series is that we also see characters like Professor Ludwig Von Drake (voiced by the great Corey Burton), Clarabelle Cow (the multi-talented April Winchell) and others. It's important to keep these dear friends from becoming obscure friends.

The package also includes a little garden kit with a package of seeds (I got lettuce), some fun facts and a set of character garden markers. Nice touch for a little more fun beyond the show watching itself.

There's also a paperback companion book of Mickey & Donald Have a Farm, sold separately.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Dec 19 2012 by Greg
"Dick Tracy" and "Heavyweights" seem to have little in common except that they were both just reissued on Blu-ray disc. But their very differences are fascinating, especially in view of how the movies and mainstream entertainment in general have changed.

Like a child born of great privilege and pedigree, 1990's "Dick Tracy" was given every advantage and afforded some of the finest talents. It shows especially in the crisp definition of Blu-ray that this is an Art Director's dream come true. Every square inch of the film is meticulously crafted, each color chosen and tested for how it would appear on film and contrast with other tints.

Academy Awards were given to "Dick Tracy" for Art Direction, Make Up and Song (though with nothing but respect to Stephen Sondheim, would "Sooner or Later" have won if it was written by Fleetwood Schrum and sung by Shirley Woffenthaler?

There's little dated at all about "Dick Tracy;" pains were taken to keep it looking classic and authentic to its period. However, this may be lost on today's viewers as much as it was when the film premiered to box office that did not make it Disney/Touchstone's answer to "Batman."

Ironically, "Dick Tracy" may have been an attempt to capture the success of the dark "Batman" of the '90s, yet its look (including canted camera angles) harkens more to the 1966 camp "Batman." Yet "Dick Tracy" tries to be so many things at once, it doesn't quite find itself -- while the '66 "Batman" reveled in its own inanity.

Warren Beatty's best scenes seem to be the simple ones, like those with young Charlie Korsmo, the actor with whom he has the most chemistry. One wonders what the rest of the film might have been like if the mood of these brief scenes had the same blend of color and heart.

One theory might be that, with the stakes for a mega-hit being so high, too many people saw too much footage too many times and kept honing and tightening the film to the point to where the viewer cannot land on any one thing. "Dick Tracy" has all the ingredients of a great film, but either the ingredients needed to be restrained or there were too many chefs.

The "Dick Tracy" Blu-ray contains no bonus features whatsoever, which is odd because so much promotional coverage at the time of its release. However, permission to use this material may have proven too costly. Would have been nice to have at least a trailer or two.

"Heavyweights," a small, low-budget adolescent comedy about ugly ducklings, may have emerged over time as a little swan. Not a classic by any stretch, but a solid, entertaining romp with little fat (sorry!)

The creative team behind "Heavyweights" has gone from a small fraternity of struggling actors and filmmakers to some of today's movers and shakers, including Judd Apatow ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin") and Paul Feig ("Bridemaids").

Listening to the brand-new Audio Commentary is akin to visiting their school reunion, in which the once young, tireless and hungry rebels are now middle-aged, successful, but a little disillusioned. It's also interesting to hear how the pecking order of the past snaps back when they get back together, just from the way they all talk -- or don't talk as much -- on the commentary track.

Like Gene Wilder's "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and Walt Disney's "Alice in Wonderland," 'Heavyweights" was considered too dark and sardonic on its first release, but gained a loyal following over the years.

This was only Ben Stiller's second feature film. At the time, he had come off "The Ben Stiller Show" and accepted the role of psychotic Tony Perkis (a twist on "Perkins?"). He literally threw himself completely into the role, but according to the director, was disappointed when an audience of kids didn't find him funny, just mean. His image was not on tthe VHS or DVD release covers. Apparently he has reconciled his feeling about it -- he is prominently featured on this new Blu-ray package.

17 years later, with the tone of kid's cartoons like "Spongebob" and "Phineas and Ferb" presenting adversaries even nuttier than Perkis, the film seems to better fit the mood of today's times.

Often teetering beyond its PG rating, "Heavyweights" may still strike some as very strange indeed, being sort of a comical "Lord of the Flies" where all the boys are like "Piggy." It has deliberate nods to things like "Gone with the Wind," "Apocalypse Now" "Platoon" But so do "Spongebob" cartoons, just as Bugs Bunny classics contained references lost on kids but still funny to them. My son, who never saw it until now, finds it imminently quotable ("I am Lars!" "I come from far away!" "Repulse the monkey!")

Some parents may not be so enchanted, though. Foreshadowing their later, more raunchy movies, Apatow and company tread very close to the edge of bad taste and inappropriate material for young children, and Disney films in general (depending on your point of view, they fall off the edge at times, even in "Heavyweights" -- particularly in the alternate scenes).

But the filmmakers are not historically accurate in their comments that they were bringing an "edge" to Disney films. Lots of Walt's films had more "edge" than they sometimes get credit for. And even some basic humor. Pop in a "Fantasia" disc and you'll even spot one or two tushies.

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