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DON'T HIDE FROM HANNA-BARBERA'S "HEIDI'S SONG"
Blog, Movies, Music
Posted on Oct 16 2012 by Greg
Timing is everything, especially when a feature film is released. When Hanna-Barbera released Heidi's Song in 1982 through Paramount, family films had become more edgy and sophisticated, while this warmhearted musical was something that might have been more widely embracned in the mid-60s, when The Sound of Music was a Hollywood smash.

It's very possible that Hanna-Barbera had Heidi's Song in the production pipeline for many years, assigning artists to it between TV series projects. I do recall a 1982 cover story in Millimeter Magazine in which director Robert Taylor (DuckTales, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Men in Black: The Series) was attached to the film and some of it being redone.

Clearly it was a difficult film for Hanna-Barbera to complete. They were clearly hoping for a Disney-type classic that would perhaps live on as an example of what they could do with the right amount of money and time. Heidi's Song does show a lot more loving care -- and a much higher frame rate resulting in above average animation fluidity by HB standards -- than most of their animation of the 70s and 80s.

Story must have been a challenge, too, but Bill Hanna, Joe Barbera, Taylor and cowriter Jameson Brewer really gave it their best shot. Like so many children's tales, Heidi may not have enough plot to sustaio an animated feature in the Disney tradition. Like Walt Disney, they and their artists came up with many clever ways to keep things moving and add to the plot, including subplots with dogs and cats which are, of course, Hanna-Barbera specialties.



Among the films biggest strengths is its score. Any lover of movie or show music will want to play this DVD on a stereo system to fully appreciate the scope of the music of Burton Lane (Finian's Rainbow) with lyrics by Sammy Cahn (Disney's Peter Pan, among many others). This is also the only major HB feature film arranged and conducted by HB musical director Hoyt Curtin. It's a joy to hear what he could do with a gigantic orchestra and chorus (including Hollywood's best singers including Gene Merlino and BJ Baker).

There are so many songs, though, that some of them advance the plot ("A Christmas-sy Day," for example, covers the time in which Heidi adjusts to mountain life and bonds with her Grandfather), while others suspend the story. These are delightful, but not always crucial to the story. As Disneylike at Heidi's Song is, the film has roughly twice the amount of songs and musical set pieces than the average Disney fairy tale feature.

By the way, the box claims that there are 16 original songs and there are indeed 16 musical pieces but some are reprises and instrumentals, as I have noted here:

Overture (Orchestra & Chorus)
Good at Making Friends
Heidi's Nightmare (Orchestra)
A Christmas-sy Day
Heidi
An Armful of Sunshine
Heidi (reprise)
Frankfurt (Orchestra)
She's a Nothing
An Armful of Sunshine (reprise)
Monkey Theme (Orchestra)
Imagine
An Unkind Word
That's What Friends Are For
Ode to a Rat
End Title, including "Wunderhorn" (Orchestra & Chorus)

The voice cast is not star studded, but rather filled with the superstars of Hanna-Barbera and cartoons in general, like Janet Waldo, Michael Bell, Joan Gerber, Pamelyn Ferdin, Fritz Feld, Frank Welker and others. Stage star Margery Gray (spouse of Fliddler on the Roof lyricist Sheldon Harnick) voices Heidi.

On the celebrity side, Lorne Greene bellows nicely as Grandfather and Sammy Davis Jr. brings the film to an even higher level with the excellent "Ode to a Rat," a spectacular example of design, animation and especially the dazzling brass section so associated with Hanna-Barbera theme songs.

The rat sequence near the film's end, as well as the nightmare sequence near the beginning, could be scary for the very young children. Therein lies the dilemma with films like Heidi's Song, Annie and others with a primary appeal for girls but not for boys. Knowing this, HB's team added the darker moments as well as the dog, cat, and monkey mayhem. This only makes it harder to decide if Heidi's Song works for everyone.

It sure does for me, because I love it when Hanna-Barbera reached higher than the usual level of TV animation. Personally, I think Charlotte's Web was their crowning achievement in theatrical films, but each one is a fascinating experience.

Heidi's Song makes a particularly great listening experience. The 1982 K-Tel soundtrack album, released on vinyl, was a story record that emphasized dialogue and edited the music. A full-fledged musical soundtrack album was not released.

Now that this DVD is available, it's like having a soundtrack album. Okay, the movie can be as sticky as microwaved Jujubees, but c'mon now, that "Wunderhorn" tune is pretty magnificent in full stereo! Maybe if this DVD-R does well enough, the picture can be fully restored for Blu-ray.







CINDERELLA: DREAMS (AND STEP-NIGHTMARES) ON BLU-RAY
Blog, Movies, Music, Records
Posted on Oct 08 2012 by Greg
What's the most nightmarishly terrifying scene in movie history? The shower scene in Psycho? Sure. Tippi and those pesky birds? Maybe. Moviedom's got an endless parade of horrors, most of them supernatural, many of the inhuman sort.

But I would venture that few movie viilains can quite match the level of cruelty contained in what is also one of the most beloved family classics of all time. It's that scene in Cinderella, in which the stepmother incites the stepsisters into ripping Cinderella's dress to shreds -- while she's wearing it. Moments earlier, we saw her all happy in anticipation of going to the royal ball and perhaps being treated more as a peer by her family.

Am I overdramatizing? Perhaps. But the story of Cinderella is eternal because so many of us identify with her. We've been in situations that allow others to inflict cruelty on us. Call it bullying, call it abuse, physical or mental. What Walt Disney's Cinderella did was to take a bare bones story and make us worry that it might not end happily, even though we know full well that it does. Walt Disney and his amazing artists did it by making the characters seem so real, this familiar fairy tale becomes downright riveting.



As a character, Cinderella is extraordinarily likable, a feat that cannot be said of all Disney animated feature lead characters. Usually we identify with the sidekicks -- and the Disney version has lots of them in the form of compassionate mice -- but in this film, they only reinforce our kinship with the leading lady.

As a film, Cinderella was crucial in reviving the Disney studio's postwar doldrums, so much so that its creators did as much as possible to assure its success, even to cutting the live-action model footage to match exactly what the animators had to produce, with little wiggle room (except for Ward Kimball, who apparently had relatively free rein with the mice and Lucifer, the cat).

Speaking of Lucifer, the meows and shrieks were provided by the radiant June Foray in her feature film debut. She just turned 95 last month.

The voice cast benefits also from Lucille Bliss as Anastasia (she was also Smurfette on the Hanna-Barbera cartoon), and Rhoda Williams as the stepsisters, Eleanor Audley as the stepmother (who also played Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty and Madame Leota in The Haunted Mansion attraction), Verna Felton as the Fairy Godmother (also the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland and star of TV's December Bride among countless others) and even narration by Betty Lou Gerson (Cruella DeVil in 101 Dalmatians).

2012 Blu-ray Bonus Features:
- Diane Disney Miller Introduction
- Personalized Digital Storybook "Bibbidi Bobbidi You"
- Behind the Magic - a New Disney Princess Fantasyland
- Tangled Ever After short
PLUS All the bonus features from the 2005 2-disc DVD except:
- Cinderella Stories Presented by ESPN
- A Dream is a Wish Video - DChannel Circle of Stars
- The Making of the Music Video
- Every Girl Can be a Princess video montage

2102 DVD Features:
- Diane Disney Miller Introduction
- Behind the Magic - a New Disney Princess Fantasyland
- Tangled Ever After

The Cinderella original sound track album has also been reissued in a Special Edition one-disc album and a two-disc Collectors Edition CD set that includes brand-new renditions of "Lost Chords" deleted songs.











THE GOLD STANDARD: CHILDHOOD TREASURES RETURN
Blog, TV, People, Music, Records
Posted on Sep 29 2012 by Greg
There was a time when legends like Danny Kaye, Alfred Hitchcock, Soupy Sales and Shari Lewis sang songs and shared stories on vinyl records. Often Mitch Miller directed the orchestra. This was the decades-long era of Golden Records--and now it's returning on CD and download in the form of classic original recordings as well as new versions featuring with celebrities like Ed Asner, Susan Sarandon, Cheryl Hines, Alicia Silverstone and many more.

Golden Records started as 6" yellow 78 RPM records some of us played with steel needles on acoustic kiddie players. Along came 45 RPM and LP records from the Golden label in New York under the supervision of Arthur Shimkin, who would also lead the Columbia and Sesame Street children's labels.

The original Golden Records themselves may have been small in size, but their influence in the industry was huge. The first records for Mickey Mouse Club Records, Howdy Doody, Roy Rogers, you name it, they recorded or were distributed by Golden.

By early '60s, the Golden sound became more mellow under the baton of Jim Timmens. A light jazz style was the usual sound of late 60s/70s producer Ralph Stein, while at the same time Producer Howard Scott brought original musicals, folk songs and rich London-based styles to the label.

In the late 70s, Golden Records became Wonderland Records, having added titles from the Riverside Wonderland catalog and some classic Capitol albums into the fold. By the 80s, two-time Grammy winning composer/producer Dennis Scott provided some of his earliest work before moving to Sesame Street.

Then there was nothing.

The label fell into a morass of legal issues and virtually vanished. Several companies made valiant attempts to reissue the records but the issues persisted until Shout! Factory released a handful of successful albums and compilations a few years back.

Now Verse Music Group has stepped up to reboot Golden Records as a brand, as you can see on their website or Facebook page, and created a two-tiered series that satisfies those of us who love the classic recordings and introduces them to today's parents and kids in a fresh new way with current showbiz names.



The first album in this "Celebrity Series" offers the distinctive musical style many of us cherish, but remastered to crystal clarity, with the stories read by the above actors, plus songs sung by Didi Conn (Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure, Shining Time Station).

Two albums of remastered and restored original Golden Records are being released in the "Timeless Series" and are budget priced, along with Halloween and Christmas collections in the celebrity series. Even if you and your young children have never heard Golden Records, there nothing else that sounds like them. For the price alone, you'd be much better off sharing these songs with your kids in this manner than hearing thin, synth versions often on current budget kids' CDs.

This is a very ambitious project indeed, with many albums coming soon in both series. If you fondly  remember the classic sound of these discs--which sold in the multi-millions in their day--hearing it remastered in such a spectacular way is like striking gold.







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.









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