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BOOK REVIEW: "Creativity, Inc." by Disney/Pixar's Ed Catmull
Blog, Movies, People, Books
Posted on Apr 17 2014 by Greg

For Pixar and Disney fans, this book is required reading because it details the evolution of Pixar, all the way to the merger with Disney -- with most of the bumps encountered on the journey.

If you wonder "How does Pixar do it?" with an unbroken record of box office hits and the pinnacle of CG animation excellence, Ed Catmull details the achievements and challenges. One challenge was actually the many big achievements.

Catmull strikes me as the "Roy Disney" or "Frank Wells" of the trio of John Lasseter, the late Steve Jobs and himself. Though he is accessible and far from a shrinking violet, he stays mostly in the background as the "business guy" and lets the people of the studio take center stage.

The hard part of reading this book -- and marveling at how Pixar combined innovative management techniques with some classic organizational tenets (even if Catmull doesn't know they existed before) to constantly address issues that never go away -- is wondering just how plausible it is to expect in other work environments.

It has to come from the top down. Pixar evolved its own heritage, which was somewhat in line with Walt Disney, but markedly different in several ways -- especially in that they don't want Pixar to fizzle with the depature/loss of an individual visionary.

But can your workplace allow a "Brain Trust" in which all could speak freely about each other's work without deference to job titles? Can the bulldozers in your group accept exclusion, as Jobs did, because they would throw the free flowing ideas off by their overpowering ways? Can human resources deal with grey areas between departments? Can one or more oppressive and demoralizing "layers" of approval (such as Disney's aptly-named "overseers," be eliminated?

You can read between the lines as Catmull gingerly explains how some could not align with their culture and thus departed. He also admits mistakes, including the fact that he cannot really know what's going on without being accessible to people beyond the syncophants, and how he is vigilant about noticing and listening rather than hiding behind pomp, circumstance and office space.

Some of the book travels into Oprah's book club "self actualization" territory with bromides and visualization exercises that are just as lovely as can be. However, I have seen this sort of thing before. The danger is if organizations use only the superficial material as a smokescreen for pretending to "embrace Pixar culture" at some blue sky meeting, give their version a cute name and launch it with "pep rallies," bells and whistles, -- and yet the organization goes back to where it was before, who is kidding who? You can't just check organizational change off a list and walk off, satisfied that it's over with.

Again, no matter what Catmull and his exceptional, insightful solutions may have done for Pixar, it must be noted that he is the head of the company. One of the most illuminating sections of the book deals with Catmull and the Pixar brass struggling through the muck and mire of a mismanaged Disney Animation. The truth is that, when a flawed administration takes command, even when it seems to have gone away, it still leaves a bathtub ring of like-minded people and ideas that sustain the previous mindset. Catmull and Company were able to cut through to the sincere people and get to the truth, even when -- I am certain -- it was cautiously guarded from them.

But could he have changed the culture if he wasn't the boss? He points out that there was a small faction already at Disney that was struggling to improve the system and creativity -- the "Story Trust." These creavtive people operated "under the radar" but could not make a difference until a change at the top blew the mucus out, allowing them to breathe freely in the sunshine. Small groups like this are everywhere. It's the smart leader that is secure enough to trust the person who isn't necessarily saying what he/she want to hear, but seeks out and trusts those who have true, constructive, caring passion for making a work environment the best it can be.

If you can do that, to paraphrase Kipling, then you've become a success, my friends.

DVD REVIEW: Sofia the First: The Floating Palace
Blog, TV
Posted on Apr 16 2014 by Greg

This is the third collection of episodes from the Disney Junior TV series. First was Once Upon a Princess (with Cinderella), second was Learning to Be a Princess (with Jasmine) and now The Floating Palace features an appearance by Ariel (voiced and sung by the wonderful Jodi Benson).

There are two kinds of Disney Junior series, educational (of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse variety that encourage participation) and more story-driven ones like Sofia the First. I tend to prefer the latter, more linear plotting. Sofia is a fine example, with some fine songs by John Kavanaugh, too.

The Floating Palace (Season 1, Episode 22) 49 minutes
Original Air Date: November 24, 2013
This is a double-length show in which Sofia (voiced by Modern Family's Ariel Winter) becomes a mermaid and and Cedric (Jess Harnell) tries to steal a magic comb from Oona (Mad Men's Keirnan Shipka). Very much at the high quality of a direct-to-video Disney movie.
Song: "Here in Merway Cove," a big band/"Under the Sea"-type production number, sung by Benson and the Cast and "The Love We Share."

Tri-Kingdom Picnic (Season 1, Episode 10)
May 17, 2013
At annual games, a friendly competition between three kingdoms,  James (Zach Callison) learns how to be a good winner and a good loser.
Song: The Picnic of the Year" Sung by the Cast

Finding Clover (Season 1, Episode 13) 23 minutes
June 28, 2013
Thinking Sofia no longer needs him, Clover fills in as a magician's rabbit.
Song: "Why Did I Go?" Sung by Brady and Winter.
Make Way for Miss Nettle (Season 1, Episode 16) 23 minutes
August 23, 2013
Wanting to be "more magnificent than Maleficent," an egotistical fairy (Megan Mulally) schemes to steal the magic book from Flora, Fauna and Merryweather.
Song: "Make Way for Miss Nettle" Sung by Mulally.

As a bonus gift, this DVD package comes with two knitted bracelets with images of the sea woven into the design.

Blu-ray & DVD Review: The Pirate Fairy
Blog, TV
Posted on Apr 11 2014 by Greg

In his book about the Pixar challenges and triumphs, Creativity Inc., Ed Catmull describes how the role of the "Brain Trust" in making the best films possible -- and their record speaks for itself. As part of Disney, Pixar has inspired their "Story Trust," which is actually mentioned on one of the bonus features.

Clearly this system, while not infallible, works, because The Pirate Fairy has one of the tightest and fastest paced stories of not just the Disney Fairies series, but direct to video films in general. Of all the Fairies films, this one ranks alongside my favorite in the series, Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue.

But you'll notice that "Tinker Bell" does not appear in the title. Perhaps it's because the Disney Fairies franchise has proven so strong, it alone can carry a film, with Tinker Bell as almost a supporting character.

The star of this film is the title character, an inquisitive, ADD fairy named Zarina who, in a strangely Breaking Bad kind of plot, uses her talents as a chemist (or "alchemist") to use the -- yes -- "blue" pixie dust to create a line of multi-purpose dusts. When her plans cause chaos and she is chastised, she turns to a life of piracy on the high seas.

Christina Hendricks (Joan Holloway-Harris on Mad Men), turns in her third vocal performance for animation, preceded by Goro Miyazaki's From Up On Poppy Hill and as Lois Lane in All-Star Superman. Tom Hiddleston, of The Avengers and War Horse, has a blast playing and singing her assistant pirate, John (as he demonstrates in another bonus feature).

Though there are quite a few excellent direct to video animated features, some of them tend to sag after the first 20-30 minutes. This one never does. It's slam-bang adventure/fantasy, with lots of visual eye candy, character-based humor and a fine score by Joel McNeely.

Second Star to the Right: The Legacy of Never Land (4:45)
Croc-U-Mentary (4:45)
Deleted Scenes with Filmmaker Introductions:
     Tea House Disappointment
     Vidia's Birthday Surprise
     Zarina Experiments
     Fairies United
The Making of "The Frigate That Flies" (4:21)
Animated Shorts:
     "Treasure Chest"
Sing-Along Songs

Blu-ray & DVD Review: Disney's Frozen
Blog, Movies, Music
Posted on Apr 10 2014 by Greg

To fans of Disney and musicals, there hasn't been a more satisfying phenomenon than Frozen. When Disney is true to itself, making the kind of movies that have been the hallmark of the studio for over 70 years, it's "magic" the thing, not "magic" the word.

At first glance, Frozen doesn't seem to break any new ground for the genre. It's great storytelling, a marvelous score, spectacular visuals -- everything one expects from classic Disney. But its overwhelming success suggests that it is more of a landmark than it may seem.

They listened to their audience. Not through data, research and focus groups, but in everyday life. This movie has true insight into where young and old really are in this day and age. Possible more than most live-action movies, Frozen taps into commitment, loyalty, frustration, self-sacrifice and the many forms of love. It's not all about me-me-me -- ultimately it's about we-we-we. You just don't see this much in today's entertainment, which leans toward the you-deserve-a-break-today message.

To me, the best thing about Frozen is the music -- the songs and the background score (which tends to be overshadowed by the great songs). This means that family musicals may have life again and perhaps survive a little longer than in the past. Disney's life blood is animation, but its soul is music.

And the songwriting innovation that the Lopezes brought with them from the stage (as well as their fine work on Winnie the Pooh and Finding Nemo-The Musical) is the "revue" song. There have been many humorous Disney songs, but never with this precise kind of verbal interplay. Yet their work is extremely reverential to the Disney musical canon and the great talents that created all those songs.

The bonus features are nice, but there will probably be more on the inevitable "Crystal Edition" or some such reissue, since Frozen has shattered home entertainment records the way it did at the box office and in Billboard.

You let it go, girl!

Original Theatrical Short - Get a Horse
The Making of Frozen (3:18)
D-Frosted: Disney's Journey from Hans Christian Andersen
   to Frozen (7:28
Deleted Scenes (with optional intros from directors)
        Never Underestimate the Power of Elsa
        The Dressing Room
        Meet Kristoff #1
        Meet Kristoff #2
"Let it Go" Music Videos
Original Teaser Trailer

Original Theatrical Short - Get a Horse
"Let it Go" Music Videos

DVD REVIEW: The Bobby Darin Show
Blog, TV, People, Music
Posted on Apr 08 2014 by Greg

The Bobby Darin Show may well be the very last of the grand TV variety shows done in the classic style. Sonny and Cher, Donny and Marie and their ilk were more campy, more deconstructive, in their approaches. Bobby Darin was a throwback to the Rat Pack, the essence of cool and ultimate timelessness. (For those too young to know Darin's work, one of his biggest hits was "Beyond the Sea," which gained new fame in Finding Nemo, as performed by rock star Robbie Williams in tribute to Darin.)

It's also a study of a extraordinary performer giving his/her all, almost to the point of collapse. (Judy Garland's TV series is another example.) Here is a singer/actor/musician/showman who is seriously ill. Darin had struggled with health issues since childhood and when he was doing this series, his irregular heart beat often made him in a dreadful state when the cameras stopped rolling. He passed away only a few months after the series left the air.

But when the cameras were on, all the audience sees is a consummate entertainer with seemingly boundless energy and a personable quality ideal for television. He also had the rare quality of reaching audiences of all ages by singing Sinatra pop, country, classic rock and roll and blues, all in a way that came naturally. That was because there were many Bobby Darins -- he was one complicated fellow. Everything he had he gave on stage.

The TV show, whose writers included Alan Thicke and regulars included versatile TV host/radio personality Geoff Edwards, followed the basic variety format. The first few shows' finales salute a specific city with its music, there were assorted sketches, commercial bumpers with Darin as Groucho, and what had to be the most personal of the sketches, "The Neighborhood."

"The Neighborhood" was akin to Jackie Gleason's "Honeymooners," a slice of life in the tough, working class streets of New York, surely as much a part of Darin's early life as Gleason's. Darin plays Angie, the voice of reason, while familiar character actor Dick Bakalyan (who appeared in numerous Disney comedies, as well as voicing the Oscar-winning "It's Tough to Be a Bird") plays Carmine, the dreamer who always hatches a money making scheme or is snared by a fishy endeavor.

Darin's other characters include a hippie poet and "The Godmother," two more personas that come from his life as living in a trailer on the beach and in the company of tough old Italian mamas.

The shows also include another unique regular feature, in which Darin sings to his female guest, face-to-face, both in a highly seductive way that says more than the most of today's more overt depictions of romance and general bedroom hijinks.

This was the early '70s, so many of the songs have that groovy sound. The dancers have that Disneyland "Kids of the Kingdom" vibe. It's also interesting to see what fine singing voices guests like Dyan Cannon and Cloris Leachman have. (Ever strange, Leachman does a butterfly number that is characteristically bizarre.)

But it's the last episode that is most unforgettable. Watch the bonus documentary for the background. Because of a lack of rehearsal, Darin performed pretty much his entire Las Vegas act while Peggy Lee simmered in her dressing room, waiting to go on. Once she did her segment with Darin, the tension is palpable, yet fitting as the duo sings very dark songs of lost loves. By the end, the two have connected as two giants of song interpretation.

One can only speculate what Bobby Darin would have given the world had he not died at 37. This DVD truly captures his lightning in a bottle.

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