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Blog, Movies
Posted on Nov 03 2011 by Greg
It wasn't loaded with special effects, blaring music, big splashy stars or explosions. Summer 2011's Disney theatrical release, Winnie the Pooh, was exactly the kind of animated film Walt Disney was making in the late '50s/early '60s -- not sweeping epics, nor pop music short packages, but simple, glowing stories packed with rich characterizations (both in writing and animation), superb voice work and hummable tunes.

Some found this film to be too much of a throwback, but how many modern films can truly rekindle the texture and charm of a classic without succumbing to the present day trappings and trends? Like the TV series Seinfeld was in its deceptively self effacing claim to be "about nothing," Pooh's power shines in his basic plotlines, only without the cynicism. A.A. Milne's books had slim storylines, too, and attempts to clutter them have met with mixed results.

First and foremost, Winnie the Pooh is one of the funniest movies of the year. I don't say this with any hint of irony or sarcasm, it's just true. Without messing around with the characters or updating the humor, you find yourself laughing at the clever "who's on first" wordplay. Pooh and pals may be guileless, a bit deluded and sometimes clueless, but they're not stupid or held to ridicule. This is very, very hard humor to pull off successfully.

The most clueless character of all is Owl, a character never fully realized in past Poohs but brought to scene-stealing fervor by the sharp vocal timing of Craig Ferguson, who with narrator John Cleese and Zooey Deschanel, are as far as the voice casting ventured into celebrity (but with respect to suitability, not just fame). Cheers to the creative team for retaining the seemingly endless talents of Jim Cummings as Pooh and Piglet rather than hiring a marquee name and wrecking the character for an easy marketing hook. Tom Kenny also does a wonderfully neurotic Rabbit, and my kids got a kick out of hearing wisps of his Spongebob voice peeking out within the characterization.

The musical score by Robert Rodriguez and Kristen Anderson-Rodriguez (she also voices Kanga) is a tribute to the Sherman Brothers' art of the deceptively simple and infinitely singable song. I can't help but assume that the chorus singing "hunny, hunny..." was a nod to the Wonderful World of Color theme ("color,  color...").

The Blu-ray looks marvelous, but I was a little let down by the lack of extras. No commentary, not much behind the scenes stuff, pretty lacking all around. Most interesting were the deleted scenes. Charming as they were, the scenes were cut because, it seems from the explanation, to keep the story focused and evenhanded. Although Owl is a scene stealer, he's never the complete focus. Each character gets a sufficient time to shine, even "B'loon." The filmmakers even resisted padding the feature to make it longer, instead adding on The Ballad of Nessie (another film that could have been released in the early Disney/Pooh days). Historically, Dumbo was a short feature too, but it's a gem at its ideal running time.

I can only hope they're saving some additional features for a reissue in the future, because this Pooh should not get lost in a sea of direct-to-video movies. Not to slight them all (many were very nice), but it's pretty crowded out there with Pooh videos. Maybe that's why the title is simply "Winnie the Pooh" with no subtitle, in order to set it apart from the pack.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Oct 29 2011 by Greg
The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are all lots of fun, kind of creepy and very funny (mostly due to Captain Johnny/Jack Depp/Sparrow), but of late they've become convoluted and serpentine. I watched the second and third films with a kind of glaze, not really following the storylines at all, but just drifting from set piece to set piece, enjoying the ride but not really keeping track of what was going on.

Remedying this was among the marching orders of new-to-Pirates director Rob Marshall, a virtuoso musical film director in an era in which such craftsmen are few and far between. He's perhaps the only director capable in recent years of making good, solid musicals that even the non-fan can enjoy - among them the acclaimed TV version of Annie and the Oscar winning Chicago.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is, in effect, a musical without songs. And it works perfectly (unlike 1972's Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which was supposed to be a musical, and 1961's Fanny, which should have been but had its song torn out). Like a classic Hollywood or British musical film, it's lavishly mounted with magnificent sets and grand costumes. Even the dirty, filthy settings are meticulously detailed (and all look amazing in Blu-ray). The characters are larger than life, the action scenes are inventively choreographed and the story stays simple to allow for all the elements to take the forefront.

On Stranger Tides has a refreshingly linear plot -- the search for the Fountain of Youth, and it has a staple element of musicals: the dual couples. Oklahoma! had Laurie, Curly, Ado Annie and Will, The Sound of Music had Maria, the Captain, Liesl and Rolf -- and this film has Jack, Angelica, Philip and Syrena. All the elements fall beautifully into place.

On the Blu-ray audio commentary (thank you, bonus feature people!), director Rob Marshall and executive producer John DeLuca express their (and Johnny Depp's) fondness for movies, expressing their excitement of using the very same beach made famous by Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity, the remains of a hotel where Elvis appeared in Blue Hawaii and more. It's nice when the movie makers are fond of the genre and the project to which they are assigned. It shows.

Penelope Cruz makes her Pirates debut with panache, power, beauty and even some warmth (deep, expressive eyes), though I would have liked to see her given more humor. She proved to be capable of sparring with Sparrow -- and gets in quite a few good lines -- but for some reason, there is a tendency for modern films to confuse feminine strength with dourness. Behold the perfect combination Diana Rigg in the 60's series The Avengers and you'll see what I mean.

Love to have the commentary included, but otherwise not a ton of extras, which is a bit of a surprise. Overall though, one of the series' best.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Oct 18 2011 by Greg
I know some might not like to hear me admit this, but the character of Simba kind of gets me annoyed in The Lion King. Yes, I know he's young and foolish at the start, but when he brags and taunts Scar, he spurs the villainous lion into his treachery. When he sings "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," he's not realizing what has to happen for him to be king. When Mufasa is killed, only a moron would believe what Scar is able to convince him of. And yes, I know, that's part of the story arc -- that Simba must mature and get a clue before he is worthy of his kingdom.

But the film has never fully convinced me that Simba truly reaches that point. It actually seems that Simba's ascent is more due to the efforts of Timon, Pumbaa, Rafiki, Sarabi, Nala and the ghost of Mufasa. Yet he gets to be king anyway. Maybe my perspective is tainted by some real-life business politics, but I've never been able to shake this feeling, at least until The Lion King 1 1/2, when Simba actually acknowledges and thanks Timon and Pumbaa. (The Broadway show also was able to allow Simba's character more introspection that isn't possible in the format of an animated film.)

Don't get me wrong. The Lion King is a masterwork and a landmark Disney animated film, a perfect storm of talent and artistry that continues to command awe from the public, even recently in its 3-D release.

What makes The Lion King even more amazing is how close it came to never happening, or at least faltering along the way. A candid, revelatory bonus feature, which is included on both the Blu-ray and the DVD (unlike the commentary and many other features which are exclusive to the Blu-ray), Producer Don Hahn narrates the story of the film from his perspective. During most of its production, The Lion King was considered "the lesser project" next to Pocahontas, it went through several personnel changes and backstage angst, and the filmmakers were concerned that the public would reject the movie--right up to the first release date.

That's why such bonus material is so valuable and important. This knowledge serves to make me appreciate The Lion King even more, even if Simba gets my goat a little. (Of course, if really he did get my goat, it would little more than a snack, wouldn't it?)


Special offer
Now through 1/31/12, Disney Movie Club is offering a limited edition 3-pin set with the purchase of any Diamond Edition of The Lion King.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Oct 15 2011 by Greg
One of the latter day projects that the late Roy E. Disney was surely most pleased with had to be the Disneynature series. Since he earliest days with the Disney Studios, he was closely involved with the True-Life Adventures series and other animal-related films (he even wrote the script for the Disneyland Records Storyteller vinyl album for Bambi).

Disneynature doesn't just pay lip service to the tradition of combining spectacular animal footage with gripping dramatic narrative, it delivers, thanks to partnerships with some of the best wildlife photographers and documentarists in the world. African Cats is a great example of this level of quality.

Narrated with a combination of familial warmth and grave intensity, Samuel L. Jackson guides us offscreen through the politics between lions and other wild cats, their triumphs and losses. So parents be prepared for some heavy stuff in parts, including real catfights (as opposed to the reality show variety).

There is also some humor, particularly in the end credits. While the genuine film credits appear on the right, at the left appear animals, one after the other, with amusing "behind-the-scenes" credits for fight choreography, etc.

The Blu-ray brings out the already-stunning photography as well. The extras are sparse, though, and I would have loved to see more of how the film was made, as was shown in other DVDs in the series.

This makes a good pairing with The Lion King, to compare and contrast from animated fiction to live action documentary. African Cats is about as close to the real thing as many of us will ever get.

Blog, TV
Posted on Sep 30 2011 by Greg

Jeff Bennett, voice of Smee and Bones on the series Jake and the Never Land Pirates, just released on DVD, talked with me about doing voices and acting with Corey Burton, who voices Captain Hook.

GREG: You have fan followings for quite a few of the things you do. Gargoyles has a fan following and you have also played a lot of Disney iconic roles for various projects, like Tramp, Mr. Toad and Prince Eric. Apparently you even sang for the Centipede in James and the Giant Peach.

JEFF: Yes, I happened to be at a gig one afternoon and somebody was looking for somebody to do that. They asked, “How are you at singing Richard Dreyfuss?” I said, “Well, I always thought of him as like the Daffy Duck for real, in real life.” So I sang a little bit.  He was doing a sort of Bowery Boys thing in that movie. They said, “Great, we’ll see you at Capitol Records tomorrow. So I walk in, and there’s a 60 piece orchestra the room with pictures on the walls of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Tony Bennett and Dean Martin. So I was a little nervous.

GREG: When you approach a character like Smee, whose is based on a very recognizable voice [originally Bill Thompson], how do you take it beyond imitation?

JEFF: For me, a lot of it has to do with remembering what the story is. A lot of times, we will be recording, and I say, “Wait, what is it that is actually going on here?” It is really important to be aware of what the actual story is and how Smee would be involved in it. 

GREG:  You and Corey record the roles together, so you can a kind of rhythm and bounce off each other. Right?

JEFF: Oh, yeah and Corey gives 180 percent to anything he does. We sometimes say that he doesn’t even chew the scenery, he eats the entire scene!

GREG: I know that Smee is supposed to be the first mate, but what does he actually do?

JEFF: Smee does have several jobs, but mostly he’s around to placate Captain Hook. He’s the ultimate “yes man,” but in an endearing way.

GREG:  Kind of the Never Land equivalent of a Hollywood personal assistant?

JEFF: Right! That is exactly it. Smee has that bumbling way about him. He’s always trying to keep up and wants to try to make everybody happy—like the Mom who wants everybody to stop fighting and be friends and make nice and for the world to be every color of the rainbow. But every once in a while, you’ll hear—and I try not to do it too often—that little edge of “Boy, this job is really hard and I am a little tired of it.”

GREG:  Smee is in the villain category but he really isn’t a bad person.  It is almost like he just got on the wrong line at the employment agency.

JEFF: Especially in this particular show.  He likes Jake and the “puny pirates,” as Captain Hook calls them.  He actually can give a wink and a nod to them, saying something like, “They really are athletic and  great and I don’t know how they make that bouncy thing go but you got to hand it to them. They are pretty amazing.  Oops! Did I say that out loud?“ That kind of thing, which further annoys Hook. So Smee just can’t win no matter what he says. If he says what he is really thinking, he gets in trouble with Captain Hook. If he agrees with Captain Hook, then it’s not really honest.

GREG: Smee and Hook are like those classic comedy teams, where you’ve got one guy in charge but neither is really the “smart one.”

JEFF: Their whole crew barely adds up to one smart man!  Between Hook, Smee, Bones and Sharky maybe, they might go in the right direction one out of four times.

GREG:  Tell me a little bit about Bones, whom you also voice.  I watched quite a few episodes and noticed that he is a man of few words.

JEFF: Out of all the crew, he is definitely the dimmest lightbulb in the batch, for sure. He is probably the “Gilligan” of the bunch, who looks off and says the most obvious thing. He’s just out there. I don’t think he ever gets a good nights sleep.

GREG:  Do the guys who appear on camera singing also sing when the animation characters are singing?

JEFF: Yes, exactly. We don’t usually get to work with them. When each show premieres, I say, “Oh! Now I have the pieces all together, its great.”

GREG:  Do you watch a lot of the animation in which you’ve done voices? Do you find it surprising when it comes out—maybe different than you expect?

JEFF: Sometimes its shockingly surprising to me because things might just come from a story board and you don’t always know how they’ll turn out. But, with Jake and the Never Land Pirates, I knew it was going to look beautiful and I was sure that most kids would love it. It has a fun new twist on these classic characters and then throws in the groovy new kids.

GREG:  Are those singers going to tour?

JEFF: Yes, and they really are wonderful.   They have been doing this for a while.  I wish my daughter were younger, she’s twelve.  Although she probably dig it even at twelve.  I would love to see them.

GREG:  This is the first time that an animated cartoon has done this since the Groovie Goolies and The Hardy Boys cartoon. Filmation had live performers for them, too.

JEFF: I wonder if The Banana Splits ever went on tour?

GREG:  Knowing that you are part of Jake and the Never Land Pirates, that kids are watching, and when they grow up they are going to be nostalgic about it, how cool is that?

JEFF: That is kind of the ultimate cool. The fact that I get to work with Frank Welker, who was Fred on Scooby Doo and he’s still doing Freddy’s voice. Casey Kasem can do Shaggy until he is 84. I got to do the Man in the Yellow Hat on Curious George and there are kids that come up to me and say I grew up on that.  Same thing with The Land Before Time. I think it is going to be the same thing with this show.

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