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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.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Jul 16 2012 by Greg
Hopefully someday, when they make a sequel to the excellent documentary to Waking Sleeping Beauty (Waking Pocahontas maybe?), we'll see how Treasure Planet figured into the behind-the-scenes nachinations of the post-Katzenberg Disney animation division. One can't help but wonder whether Treasure Planet fell victim to some of these politics, or, as perhsps it was with John Carter, the public just didn't want a scifi/space version of Treasure Island.

The film itself is jaw-droppingly impressive. Few films from any studio have blended cel animation with CG as perfectly, created such vivid, vulnerable characters and such breathtaking, detailed panoramas. Seeing it on the new Blu-ray is almost like seeing it for the first time, unless perhaps you saw it in IMAX. Every line and every miniscule object or person in the distance can be seen in razor sharp clarity.

Maybe the visual scope and tech detail overwhelms the characters and the narrative, as some suggested was the case with Sleeping Beauty. However, there's some superb acting here, including the now-A lister Joseph-Gordon Levitt as Jim Hawkins, Brian Murray as Silver, Martin Short as BEN, Emma Thompson as Captain Amelia and the always dependable David Hyde-Pierce as Doppler (a character that suggests those Duckburg "dog people" from vintage Disney comics).

The generous bonus features, pretty much the same ones from the earlier DVD release, are very copious. Instead of an audio commentary, there is a vast "Visual Commentary" that starts and stops the film with supplemental information, stretching the experience out well over two hours. A feast for animation fans.

My son loved this movie when he was seven and he loves it today. It was an attempt to grab the non-Princess audience for Disney features, and while it would never attract the "Hot Tub Time Machine" older males, it's great stuff for younger kids.

Be sure to show your kids Walt Disney's original Treasure Island to compare and contrast the storyline. The relationship between Silver and Hawkins is more from Walt and less from Stevenson. And hey, reading the classic book is nice, too!

Blog, Movies
Posted on Jul 13 2012 by Greg
When Home on the Range was first released, for some reason the fate of 2-D or "traditional" animation was resting on it, as Disney was still in a tempestuous internal swirl and did not yet own, nor at the time have hope to stay attached to, the formidable Pixar -- who to this day, have had an unbroken string of films with strong, and usually gigantically successful openings.

It seems odd now to pin such hopes on such an unpretentious film, one that revels in its non-CG-ness and harkens back to the sunny Disney vistas of Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan and the lesser-known Saga of Windwagon Smith.

The performance of Home on the Range at the box office is less a refection of its quality than simply that there wasn't much of an audience for cartoon westerns starring cows in 2004. When you strip away its history and look at the film on its own (and many will today when they watch the new Blu-ray/DVD), you have a highly entertaining romp with fun characters, a loose story, some magnificent artwork and top animation.

Most of all, there some really fine songs, especially "Little Patch of Heaven" and the haunting "Will the Sun Ever Shine Again" (the latter been inspired in part, according to composer Alan Menken, by the despair following 911).

While the leading cast received much attention, one of the nicest things about Home on the Range is that it also employed such talented actors as SCTV's Joe Flaherty as Jeb, the goat, and, in particular, Carole Cook as Pearl. Cook was a close friend and protegé of Lucille Ball and played Bessie in the beloved film, The Incredible Mr. Limpet.

Watching and listening to the generous bonus features, it is evident that a great deal of skill and creativity goes into a film like this, so it cannot be dismissed as mere fluff, though it certainly does not leave you with the same glow as Beauty and the Beast. Nor it is intended to do so.

The most comical thing in retrospect turns out to be that a lighthearted animated movie about cows could be held up as the deciding factor in the future of cel animation. Of course, it didn't happen that way, and there have been other traditional features since, including last year's well-received and exquisite Winnie the Pooh.

Blog, TV, People, Music, Records
Posted on Jun 29 2012 by Greg
Some folks who remember Don Grady as Robbie Douglas, the teen-turned young husband on the long running TV sitcom My Three Sons, may not also know that he was one of the original Mickey Mouse Club Mouseketeers, joining the series later in its run under his real name, Don Agrati.

With his untimely passing this week, he not only leaves behind two iconic TV personas, but also an extraordinary music career that in sheer volume and scope, eclipses his onscreen work.

Don Grady was part of Yellow Balloon, a feel-good late '60s pop group at the same time as he was still performing on My Three Sons. He has written numerous scores for stage, TV and video (including a lot of Disney video bonus materials and games) and an acclaimed Las Vegas show called EFX.

The items most overlooked in his various obits are some Disney albums that literally millions of families have listened to for years: Disney Princess Tea Party and, ever more notably, Disney's Princess Christmas Album.

Both albums feature the magnificent voices of such greats as Lea Salonga, Paige O'Hara, Judy Kuhn and Jodi Benson -- plus arrangements, production and original compositions by Don Grady. These albums will never really become dated and will surely be reissued in one form or another for untold generations. We can never know how many scores of children will be delighted by this fine work.

That's a mighty impressive legacy.

Blog, TV
Posted on Jun 21 2012 by Greg
If you've never watched, the Disney Channel animated hit Phineas and Ferb, you're missing some inspired cartoon fun, expertly dished up. Speaking analytically, each half hour show generally consists of two story self-contained segments, each with two or more original (and very eclectic) songs.

Each segment has at least three story angles: brothers Phineas and Ferb come up with a very elaborate idea/enterprise/invention and their sister, Candace, is the "Mrs. Kravitz" who tries to expose them, while at the same time their pet playtpus, Perry, gets a mission to save the world in his secret identity as "Agent P" to thwart evil but feeble Dr. Hans Doofensmirtz's plan to conquer the world (and/or the tri-state area).

That's a lot to get into a short cartoon, but with the kind of wit, savvy and pacing that made Rocky and Bullwinkle a classic, the creative team does it amazingly well -- tying the subplots together in either cleverly surprising or knowingly coincidental way.

The new DVD, The Perry Files, is a collection of seven show episodes -- so fourteen individual cartoons in all -- that best showcase the adventures of Agent P. My favorite is called "Misperceived Monotreme," which is highlighted by a Yellow Submarine-like surreal sequence with more inventive touches than some TV shows have in an entire season.

I would have liked another fun documentary or a commentary in the bonus features, but there is a nice "Tour Inside the Playbus" and a collection of clips called "Nerves of Teal."

Inside the DVD package is a neat little "Activity Pack" containing character stickers with a background scene, a postcard, a "find the clues" card, mood magnets and even a 48-piece mini jigsaw puzzle! There's also a digital copy so you can watch on your mobile device.

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