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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.

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.

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.

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.

Blog, TV
Posted on Jul 28 2012 by Greg
My daughter and I approached the new Tim Burton/Johnny Depp big screen version of TV's Dark Shadows with some caution, not because we were worried about the comic aspects promised by the trailers (which turned out to be deceptive),  but simply because it may not have been very good, since the buzz was less than overwhelming.

It turned out to be a highly entertaining celebration of the original series, with exactly the touches you might expect from the parties involved - horror, blood, pathos, humor, goth and irony.

Dark Shadows was made into a feature film before, in 1970, when the series was still on the air. MGM, which was going through one of its many financial downturns, was buoyed by the film's success. Unlike the series, it was filmed in several real locations, but like the series, it starred many of the original cast members. The film was more graphic in its violent, bloody retelling of the Barnabas storyline, but did so with the kind of brisk economy a daytime soap could not have.

However, no feature film or series revival could ever capture the magnetic power of the original series. Looking beyond the low budget and relishing the occasional flubs and shaking tombstones, the original Dark Shadows was able to dig deeper into its characters and pull viewers into the day-to-day "reality" of the lives of the denizens of Collinsport.

There were several kinds of characters, generally. The main protagonists were the supernatural creatures, and they all had a sort of awareness of each other, from werewolves, zombies, witches to of course, vampires. Like the witches and warlocks of Bewitched, they were a society unto themselves, either in opposition or alliance with each other.

Then there were the crossover characters who knew about the supernatural creatures but didn't necessarily have any powers of their own. Dr. Julia Hoffman was chief among them, moving and shaking among the Barnabases, Quentins and Angeliques.

Then there were what we like to call the "clueless" characters, who were drawn in and out of involvement with the supernatural people and events yet seemed to live on the periphery. Roger Collins, Elizabeth Collins and even Victoria Winters fell into this category.

Watching the series again on DVD is loads of fun, especially sharing it with your kids (I know it requires patience with the leisurely pace of the show, but they'll get drawn in).

You have to admire the clever way the writers protracted each storyline to maximum stretchability, but gave you just enough to keep hanging on, adding in wonderful moments that add more and more facets to each character. For example, the "B" story of Elizabeth's marriage to Jason McGuire is pretty tedious, but it brings out the gallantry of Barnabas and helps form him into the landmark sympathetic vampire that set the standard for all to come. Joan Bennett and Jonathan Frid have a fine scene in which she's thinking of jumping off a cliff and he talks about death -- each talking about different things, unaware of what the other is expressing, yet affecting each other. Those moments occur a lot on the original series, born of necessity to keep the series going, but also adding to the viewer's attachment to the characters.

There never was anything like it and there may never be again. But fortunately, all 1,225 shows are on DVD. You don't have to wait days between episodes like we did in the "old" days, and without commercials each show moves much faster and runs about 23 minutes.

As the series went on, things got more wild. There was parallel time in the present, trips back to 1795 and 1840 and parallels inside there, too. The cast was like a repertory groups, playing numerous roles. Keeping track of everything was part of the fun.

And yes, it was fun. Outlandish fantasy, but much like a fairy tale cut off from the real world for pure escapism. A getaway from the troubles of the day into a world of people with problems so off the wall that it's kind of cathartic. And it's often funny without meaning to be in its melodramatic fervor.

If you've never watched it before, start with Collection #1, which picks up when Barnabas joined the show and it skyrocketed. Continue to the end of the series as you please, and then if desired, there's a DVD series called "The Beginning," which covers the less-successful, pre-Barnabas shows in which the pedestrian gothic story was given jolts by the entrance of a ghost and a phoenix.

How much you get into it is up to you. But you'll never experience anything like it in any other form, no matter how much CG and 3-D and dazzling digital stuff comes along.

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