Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Revisiting the Fantasias, Experiencing Destino

We continue to explore this week's perfect storm of Disney entertainment with a look at the just released Blu-Ray special edition of both Fantasia films.

Any high definition release of a classic Disney animated feature is indeed a welcome occurrence.  Both Fantasia films in one package, along with some very high profile bonus features takes the experience to an almost celebratory level.

Walt Disney Home Entertainment made some interesting decisions when creating the 4-Disc Special Edition of Fantasia-Fantasia 2000.  They notably retained the Blu-Ray/regular DVD combo package, despite the fact that the Fantasia films are considered more adult-audience in nature.  In the past, the combo packs have been very much marketed as a family-friendly products, with the regular DVDs deemed more accessible (and less risky) for younger kids and toddlers.  Hence, two of the four discs are simply (and not entirely complete) ports of the Blu-Ray content.  By deciding to not include a fifth disc of additional bonus features, the set is notably without much of the material that was included on the Fantasia Legacy disc that was a part of the original Fantasia DVD collection released in 2000.  The Fantasia Legacy represented close to three hours of supplemental content.   Some, but not all of that material has been migrated to Disney's Virtual Vault, a BD-Live feature that allows you to stream the content, but it does require an ethernet-equipped Blu-Ray player and a solid broadband or higher connection.  So it's probably a good idea to still hang onto that older Fantasia DVD set if you already own it.

The new set comes with a number of significant bonus features.  The Fantasia disc features a fascinating documentary entitled The Schultheis Notebook.  Herman Schultheis was a special effects animator at Disney and worked extensively on the original Fantasia.  He documented much of his work in a set of notebooks that were only just recently discovered and restored by the Walt Disney Family Museum.  Disney scholars have called it a "Rosetta Stone" of animation history as it has revealed many heretofore unknown processes and techniques thought lost and beyond historical recovery.  An additional short piece provides a brief tour of the Walt Disney Family Museum, a welcome addition for those of us who have yet to make the pilgrimage to its San Francisco location.

The Fantasia 2000 disc offers up two exceptional bonus features.  First, a profile of Musicana, a proposed animated feature of a Fantasia-style anthology, shepherded by Disney Studio veterans Mel Shaw and Wollie Reitherman during the 1980s.  It is a fascinating and enlightening what-might-have-been piece that presents an amazing array of pre-production artwork and story ideas.

Many, many Disney fans have been anxiously awaiting the release of Destino, a 2003 animated short that completed a project initiated by Walt Disney and famed artist Salvador Dali all the way back in the late 1940s.  Destino was originally scheduled to be released on DVD in 2008 as part of the Walt Disney's Legacy Collection, but went into limbo when Walt Disney Home Entertainment abruptly canceled that series after its first wave of titles that featured the True-Life AdventuresDestino has now finally reemerged on the Fantasia 2000 disc.

Accompanying the short is a somewhat overlong but still quite informative and worthwhile documentary entitled Dali and Disney: A Date with Destino.  The film unfortunately gives far too much screen time to controversial Disney biographer Neal Gabler who distinctly over-performs throughout most of his talking head segments.  Gabler has earned a fairly negative reputation for the sensationalist approach and long list of inaccuracies found in his 2006 biography of Walt, and continues to feed those perceptions here.  I groaned outwardly when he misidentified the location of the original Hyperion Avenue studios as being in Glendale rather than Silver Lake.  Michael Barrier, John Canemaker and Charles Solomon, also participated in the film and they all could have easily covered the same material with infinitely more authority and professionalism.

Destino itself is a remarkable piece of animation produced more out of historical obligation that any commercial sensibilities.  It is wonderful to see Disney history celebrated and commemorated in this manner, and it was a real joy to finally have the opportunity to view the film.

Although I feel that not having a tangible disc edition of the prior Fantasia Legacy content is regrettable, the high definition release of Fantasia-Fantasia 2000 still serves up a wealth of new material that is most certainly welcome and distinctly appreciated.  I highly recommend it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Tangled: A Success in All But Name

This week feels like a perfect storm of Disney entertainment.  DVDs that include three exceptional Disney history documentaries and the Blu-Ray release of the Fantasia films.  Epic Mickey, easily the most eagerly anticipated Disney-related video game in history.  And finally Tangled, a modest little film that appears to be returning both critical and commercial success to the Disney-branded animated feature category.

Forget long gestating (and often-media-generated) negative expectations.  Forget Disney's over saturation  of the Princess brand.  Forget about an extended and sometimes troubled development and production history.  And more than anything, forget about the lousy, marketing-driven title change that ranks right up there with The Great Mouse Detective.  Just walk into the theater, take your seat, and simply enjoy Tangled for what it is: a visually stunning, cleverly written and eminently fun and entertaining animated film.

To be very honest, I nearly fell victim to some of the issues I cited above.  A hopeful curiosity, combined with numerous enthusiastic reviews, ultimately drove me to my local multiplex when I normally would have been patient to wait a few months for the DVD release.  It was well worth the trip.

Tangled breaks no significant new ground beyond being Disney's first CG-animated fairy tale, but frankly it has become quite tiresome that many animation pundits place generally undefined and intangible expectations upon new Disney animated features.  With this interpretation of the classic Rapunzel tale, I was pleasantly surprised by a clever script, snappy dialog and beautiful designs which, despite being computer-generated, remain visually true to many of the studio's earlier fairy tales.  Although the score provides no real showstoppers, the film's songs are integrated seamlessly and effectively into the storytelling process.

What I enjoyed the most about Tangled were its well-realized and engaging characters.  Rapunzel does seem to channel Arial by way of her curiosity and rebelliousness, but still manages to come across as distinct and in many ways quite unique.  Flynn Ryder is definitely a Disney fairy tale original; more adventurous rogue than heroic prince.  It's rare that a male lead in a princess-centric tale is infused with this much personality and it's a refreshing change of pace.  Supporting players Max the horse and Pascal the chameleon are very well conceived.  Together they are responsible for many of the film's best comedic moments, but often by way of more subtle and understated gestures and expressions.  The ongoing interactions between Flynn and Max are especially humorous and entertaining. 

Despite its unfortunate and ill-advised title, Tangled is indeed a welcome addition to the Disney animated feature film library.  Take a look if you haven't already.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Disney History at Its Documented Best

Living in the wilds of North Carolina affords little access to much of what my big city Disney enthusiast cousins frequently take for granted.  Thus to some, my very passionate discussion today about a trio of recent Disney-related documentaries is likely old news.  Walt and El Grupo, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story and Waking Sleeping Beauty have all previously graced theater screens in major markets such as New York and Los Angeles, and have been critical darlings at numerous high profile film festivals.  But their collective release this week in DVD editions makes them in fact very new to me and no doubt many others.

Walt and El Grupo
Walt Disney's South American excursion of 1941, an intended goodwill tour made at the behest of the U.S. government, has generally gone unexamined and undocumented.  It recently began to emerge from that shadow of negligence, due primarily to the release of J. B. Kaufman's excellent and incredibly comprehensive book South of the Border with Disney, and Ted Thomas' equally impressive documentary film Walt and El Grupo

Thomas, son of veteran animator Frank Thomas, is not without Disney documentary experience.  He wrote and directed the very well-received 1995 film Frank and Ollie, an entertaining and often sentimental chronicle of the decades-long friendship between his father and fellow Disney animator Ollie Johnston.  The younger Thomas retains a similar personal connection to Walt and El Grupo; Frank Thomas was among the Disney staffers and artists that accompanied Walt on the 1941 Latin America trip.

Thomas essentially recreates the 1941 journey, revisiting many of the locations that the studio delegation originally found their way to.  The story of El Groupo is told primarily through recollections of family members, and also recitations of passages from many of the group's own private letters and correspondences.  But Thomas smartly balances that content with interviews of many of the native South Americans that El Grupo encountered in their travels.  One particular sequence that was especially moving: the son of Jorge Delano describes the fast friendship struck up between Walt and his father in Chile and how Walt ultimately paid tribute to this in the Pedro the Plane sequence in Saludos Amigos.

The film is dense with archival film footage and vintage photographs which have been thoughtfully and carefully enhanced and expanded via current digital technologies.  A bonus feature on the DVD describes the technique as "photos in motion," wherein the filmmakers essentially deconstruct the source material and rebuild the images in 3-dimensional layers.  The result is an artistically dynamic presentation that remains subtle in execution yet often breathtaking when you least expect it.  Especially effective are moments when Thomas dissolves between vintage photos and contemporary views that seem to match up almost exactly to the pixel.

In an interesting juxtaposition, Saludos Amigos, the first animated feature that resulted from the trip, is included as a bonus feature.  Other supplemental features include an audio commentary by Thomas and author J.B. Kaufman, additional footage and material found under the heading From the Director's Cut, and original theatrical trailers for both Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story
Cousins Jeffrey Sherman and Gregory Sherman showcase their famous fathers, Robert Sherman and Richard Sherman respectively, in The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story.  The film is indeed a loving testament to Disney's most famous and prolific musical composers, but it distinctly and very honestly also presents the somewhat darker side of the siblings' long-running professional partnership.

The younger Shermans, both entertainment industry professionals, have crafted an engaging and frequently poignant chronicle of conflict and collaboration heretofore largely undocumented.  The brothers' almost unparalleled legacy of professional successes largely hid from view decades of personal conflicts and a long term estrangement that is still essentially in place.  Greg and Jeff gently peel back the layers of the relationship and reveal two individuals, much lauded by peers and other professionals, deeply loved by family and friends, but ultimately unable to reconcile despite a much celebrated common history.  Despite such sad undertones and occasional heart-wrenching moments, the film is for the most part a celebratory experience.  Numerous happy moments are well-featured, represented most distinctly by their initial meetings with Walt Disney in the late 1950s and later Oscar wins for Mary Poppins in 1966.

There is plenty of new information and material presented in The Boys to satisfy even the most seasoned of Disney enthusiasts and historians.  Jeff and Greg recruited an impressive array of contributors including Roy Disney, Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, and Stephen Schwartz, just to name a few.  I was personally delighted to learn of the brothers' close connection to Disney veteran Roy Williams who had long occupied an adjacent office  in the studio's animation building.  The former "Moose-keter" would frequently slip quickly-sketched cartoons under their office door.  These gags were inspired by collaborative vignettes and office activity by the brothers that Williams would often overhear due to the close proximity.  A bonus feature of the DVD presents many of these drawings, with one particular set of sketches involving a wastebasket fire being especially hilarious.

In approaching The Boys, I had expected a fairly generic biographical profile, generally akin to what you would find buried within the bonus features of another DVD.  I quickly learned otherwise; it is an amazing and wonderful film, crafted with much love and care.  Jeff and Greg had hoped that the making of the film might serve to reconcile their fathers on some level.  But they themselves admit near the end of the film that, "In life, not everything turns out like a Sherman Brothers musical." It is a heartbreaking moment.

(I'd like to express special congratulations to our good friend and long-term 2719 Hyperion cheerleader Jeff Kurtti, who served as a Co-Producer on The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story.)

Waking Sleeping Beauty
The Disney animation renaissance of the late 1980s and early 1990s was a heady time for Disney fans.  The joys of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Little Mermaid ultimately escalated into near euphoria with the over the top creative and commercial successes of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.  It was therefore not very difficult for a Disney fan such as myself to at that time, associate an idealistic and happy environment with the Walt Disney Company and its animation department.  I have long since set aside that rosie and very unrealistic notion.  But even then, Don Hahn's and Peter Schneider's account of that time period in the film Waking Sleeping Beauty has forged within me an even more disquieting and somewhat cynical perspective on much of those events.  And I'm not sure that was their intention in making the film.

Let me be clear, I loved Waking Sleeping Beauty.  I found it informative, exceptionally well-crafted and distinctly compelling.  The reconstruction of events within the halls of Disney animation from 1984 through 1994 is quite revealing and very well presented. They notably throw out the talking head documentary model and exclusively use existing footage (vintage interviews, documentary footage, newscasts, press material and home movies) supplemented by Hahn's own narration and audio-only commentary from a number of key figures such as Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy E. Disney.  But although the intention is to showcase the creative and commercial revival of the art form that is Disney animation, it very, very often instead highlights the quite ugly side of Hollywood corporate governance where politics and egos are quick to overshadow just about everything else.  Many reviewers and pundits have criticized the film for potentially pulling its punches; I frankly was amazed that it probed as deep as it did.  Hahn and Schneider very much acknowledge that a "warts and all" philosophy was integral to the project, but to an outsider such as myself it proves at times quite jarring and unsettling.

The film is a distinct juxtaposition of triumphs and tragedies.  The hope of rebirth instilled by the installation of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells as new company leaders is quickly dispelled when the Animation department is literally removed from the studio lot and relocated to Glendale.  The impending success of Beauty and the Beast is sadly contrasted with Howard Ashman succumbing to death caused by the AIDS virus.  And the penultimate success of the era as quantified by The Lion King is quickly diminished by the tragic death of Frank Wells and the subsequent political squabbling of Eisner, Katzenberg and Roy E. Disney.  The film in fact presents a low key but still very disturbing ego-driven interaction between Eisner and Roy that unbelievably happened at a memorial service for Frank Wells.  Especially revealing are generally cold and insincere videotaped vignettes from Eisner, Katzenberg and Roy intended to be used as expressions of congratulations to the Animation department upon the release of The Lion King.  Yes, most definitely "warts and all."  Yet, I guess perhaps the positive message that the filmmakers attempt to convey, is that Disney animation reinvented itself despite all this.

Initially, that seemed an adequate but still somewhat empty consolation. After watching Waking Sleeping Beauty, I found myself feeling a number of different emotions, but inspired and uplifted were not among them.  Yet after a healthy dose of hindsight, I slowly came around to a more positive perspective.  What also helped were a number of enlightening bonus features, most especially one entitled Why Wake Sleeping Beauty? where both Hahn and Schneider elaborate on their motives and inspirations for making the film.  As they so note, Waking Sleeping Beauty is an honest and powerful documentation of a true renaissance era, and a well deserved recognition of all those individuals who participated and made it possible.  In the end, I must say that I wholly agree with that assessment.

Friday, November 26, 2010

EPCOT Center Retro

Imagineering Disney tipped us off to these very cool posters that very much appealed to our early EPCOT Center passions and sensibilities.  Created by Chicago-based artist and graphic designer Stephen Christ, they combine early 1980s EPCOT font, icons and graphics styles with designs reminiscent of earlier World's Fair promotional pieces.  Prints of all eleven posters can be purchased at Stephen's ImageKind Gallery.  Great stuff!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Happy Four Color Thanksgiving!

We are going to serve up this week's Four Color Friday one day early in honor of the Thanksgiving holiday.  For your Turkey Day enjoyment, we present three classic Thanksgiving-themed covers from the very early years of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories.
Walt Disney's Comics and Stories Issue #2
November 1940
Art by Al Taliaferro

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories Issue #15
December 1941
Art by Al Taliaferro

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories Issue #63
December 1945
Art by Walt Kelly

Taken together, they almost tell a story of sorts.

To all of our readers and friends, thank you for your continued attention, encouragement and support.  If you celebrate this day of good food and fellowship, we hope you have a very happy and safe Thanksgiving holiday.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Vintage Snapshot! - America on Parade Celebrates Thanksgiving

Today's Vintage Snapshot takes on a seasonal flare in honor of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.  This memory dates back to 1976 when Walt Disney World celebrated the Bicentennial with the very popular America on Parade.  It was never quite revealed where these particular pilgrims and their Native American friends were taking that especially impressive holiday bird.

Explore the 2719 Hyperion Archives:
America on Parade

Image Source: The Bill Cotter Archives

Monday, November 22, 2010

Once You've Grown Up You Can Never Come Back

The motion picture industry has long had a disquieting reputation for chewing up and spitting out many of its juvenile performers and unfortunately the Walt Disney Studio is not without its own tragedy in that regard.  The Bobby Driscoll story could be easily considered a textbook example of the rise and ultimately fatal fall of a child star.  It was a story that began happily against the backdrop of 1940s Hollywood, but ended sadly in an abandoned New York City tenement building two decades later.

A native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Bobby Driscoll arrived in southern California very early in life with his parents Isabel and Cletus Driscoll.  It was, interestingly enough, a Pasadena barber who helped launch Driscoll's career in the movies.  In an interview in 1954, a seventeen year-old Bobby described the sequence of events that led to his first film role: "My dad used to take me to a barber [sic] in Pasadena whose son was in the movies. The barber liked me, so he spoke to his son and his son spoke to his agent and his agent spoke to a director who was arranging a tryout for a part with Margaret O'Brien in Lost Angel."  The then five year-old Driscoll won the part, an uncredited minor role as a young train passenger.  A few years later, Walt Disney selected him for the very high profile part of Johnny in Song of the South.  He was the first actor the Disney Studio signed to a long term contract.  While his Disney-related performances were in fact the most prominent of his career, he notably won a juvenile Oscar for his performance in a non-Disney film, the 1949 RKO release The Window.

His resume at Disney was considerably less than one might imagine.  After Song of the South, he appeared again with co-star Luana Patten two years later in So Dear to My Heart.  His tenure with the studio culminated in the early 1950s with the part of Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island, the voice of Goofy Jr. in cartoons, and then finally the voice of Peter Pan.  In 1953, the studio released Driscoll abruptly and prematurely from his second studio contract, likely due to a severe acne infliction.

During the remainder of the decade he played small guest parts on television.  His final theatrical film was the B-grade The Party Crashers with Connie Stevens, released in 1958.  Discouraged over his career slide and often socially ostracized by peers, he began experimenting with various narcotics as early as age 17, leading to a heroin addiction and subsequent run-ins with law enforcement.  He was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia on October 12, 1959 after a police officer noticed needle marks on his arm.  According to a newspaper report the following December, he was acquitted of the charge because ". . . a sheriff's deputy testified he was unable to say definitely that a paper sack containing a hypodermic needle and a syringe fell from Driscoll's hand."

In June of 1960, he was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon ". . . after he allegedly whacked a heckler with a pistol," according to newspaper accounts.  He told police that the victim, a young woman, had turned her face into the gun.  He had taken the gun from a car he was washing in Topanga Beach near Malibu, after the victim and her boyfriend began to taunt him.  Felony assault charges were later dropped when the local DA failed to issue a complaint.

The following April he was held by police on suspicion of burglary in the theft of cash and checks from a veterinarian's office.  Charges were dismissed a few weeks later, but within days he was in trouble again. On May 1, 1961, he was arrested for attempting to cash a check that had been stolen from a liquor store the previous January, and at the same time was also charged with driving under the influence of drugs.  He pled guilty to both charges and was sentenced to six months of treatment for drug addiction at the California Institute for Men at Chino.  Prior to entering the facility, he told a reporter, "I'm not really sure why I started using narcotics. I was 17 when I first experimented with the stuff. In no time at all I was using whatever was available, mostly heroin, because I had the money to pay for it."

Following his release from Chino, he reportedly remained clean and worked as a carpenter until his term of probation was complete in 1964.  Shortly thereafter, he headed east to New York City where he purportedly settled into Andy Warhol's Greenwich Village art community known as "The Factory."  During this time, he also participated in an underground film entitled Dirt, directed by avant-garde filmmaker Piero Heliczer.  In late 1967, he fell completely out of touch with family and associates.  His mother later remembered, "Bobby had called us once and said he was having a hard time getting work. None of the studios in New York would hire him because he had once been on drugs."

A 1971 newspaper account of Driscoll's tragic death, published in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Driscoll's home town.

On March 30, 1968, two children would discover the dead body of Bobby Driscoll on a cot in a deserted apartment building in the East Village.  Beside his body were two empty bottles of beer and a number of religious tracts.  The medical examiner determined the cause of death as "socclusive coronary arteriosclerosis," or hardening of the arteries.  No identification was found and a canvassing of the local neighborhood with a photograph of the body provided no answers.  He was classified as a John Doe and buried in an unmarked grave in the Potter's Field section of New York City's Hart Island cemetery.  Two years would pass before his family would learn of his fate.  The public at large would not know of the tragedy until 1971, when Driscoll's mother revealed the story to the press just as the Walt Disney Company was preparing to re-release Song of the South to theaters after a controversial 17-year moratorium.

"In October 1969, Bobby's father was dying," Isabel Driscoll explained to a reporter.  "He asked to see Bobby. I called Disney Studios, and asked if anyone there knew where my son was."  Disney's New York offices made inquiries and fingerprint records ultimately provided the very sad solution to the mystery.  His mother took some comfort from the police and medical reports relating to her son's death.  "He told us that he would straighten himself out. And we know he kept his promise. Police reports state that he was clean at the time of his death.  There were no traces of heroin in his body.  There were no puncture marks on his arms, and no paraphernalia was found in his apartment."

Bobby Driscoll once told the press, "I shall not return until I can be accepted as an actor
again, not a freak exhibit."  Those words would ultimately become both heart-wrenching and tragically prophetic.  But perhaps even more poignant is a piece of dialog from Peter Pan, his final film for the Walt Disney Studios.  It was spoken by Driscoll himself in the title role.

"Once you've grown up you can never come back . . . "

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Old Mill: November 5, 1937
By Jeffrey Pepper
Originally published November 5, 2007It is near impossible to underestimate the importance and impact of The Old Mill, Disney's classic Silly Symphony that was originally released on November 5, 1937.   Cited most often as the first film to employ the multiplane camera, its merits extend well beyond that particular technical innovation. In their now classic book Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston succinctly describe why The Old Mill is so notable and important, even beyond the achievement of the camera itself:

"By 1936, a new type of picture was becoming possible. Technical skills were advancing and a new camera was being built that promised wonderful illusions; animation of rain and clouds and lightning had improved to the point where they were quite convincing; cartoon colors were beginning to glow; and new styling coordinated all of a film's parts into one unified concept. When these achievements were combined with the ability to portray mood on the screen, a true milestone in the development of the animated cartoon resulted: The Old Mill, Academy Award winner for 1937. With no story other than the reaction of various animals to one stormy night in a broken down mill, the film showed that an audience could be swept up by sheer artistry and become deeply involved in an animated film."

Echoing similar themes, authors Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman remarked in their recent excellent and extensive tome Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies:

"This is the first Disney film meant to be taken seriously, the first with quasi-religious overtones in which art, nature, and machinery are given a sacred aura."

Much could certainly be written about The Old Mill, from the specific technical intricacies of the multiplane camera to the film's numerous awards and accolades. But its very simple, yet stunning interpretation of life, death and renewal is what truly resonates and continues to distinguish the film some seven decades later.

The Old Mill, under the inspired direction of Wilfred Jackson and Graham Heid, is brilliant in both composition and visual direction. The viewer is literally drawn into this microcosm of nature, almost as if taking the form of an incorporeal spirit and witnessing the events that subsequently transpire. This is in fact a deliberate dynamic created by the film's makers, in that frequently, the various creatures seem to acknowledge the viewer, most notably an especially observant owl.

The film opens some distance from the mill, as seen from the perspective of an orb weaver spider meticulously crafting its web. A slow and methodical zoom brings us in closer to the mill as we witness ducks and cows in their deliberate motions and travails. The focus settles on a small songbird whom we follow into the mill's interior to its mate and a nest of eggs. In a truly amazing vertical tracking shot attributed to animators Bob Wickersham and Stan Quackenbush, we travel from the building base to its peak, along the way encountering mice, doves, the aforementioned owl and finally a colony of bats who, with the approaching dusk, take leave and return us to mill's surrounding community of residents.

A cacophony of frog croaks and cricket sounds becomes an entertaining musical interlude. In perhaps one of the film's most stunning scenes, fireflies dance before the backdrop of the mill. This all leads to the climatic and visually mesmerizing thunderstorm. Drama unfolds as the mill residents attempt to survive an assault that culminates in a dramatic lightning strike.

Dawn arrives, peaceful and serene. The bats return from their nightly sojourn and we journey through and away from the mill much in the reverse manner of how we initially approached it. Starting at peak, we descend through the mill's now slightly more disheveled interior and revisit again the owl, doves, mice and a nest of newly hatched songbird young along with their attentive and proud parents. Retreating back from the mill, we see ducks and cows reversing their prior travels and we ultimately return to the spiderweb of the film's beginning, destroyed, yet still beautiful in its rain soaked glistening. While the mill's residents have ultimately weathered the storm, in a subtle testament to the nature of life and death, it is the fate of the distant spider that is questionable.

As noted, The Old Mill was a dramatic departure for Walt Disney, and especially remarkable in that it was less than a decade removed from the more primitive presentations of Steamboat Willie and The Skeleton Dance. In theme and execution, it paved the way for much of what would emerge a few years later in Fantasia. It's opening scene would be reinterpreted close to fifty years later for the equally stunning opening sequence of The Rescuers Down Under.

The Old Mill is an amazing and notable achievement, a film whose depth extends well beyond the visual dynamic afforded to it by one of the Disney Studio's most famous innovations.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Freeze Frame! - An Unintentional Non-Toon Cameo

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is of course literally littered with cameos of classic cartoon stars.  This particular sequence featured among others, Bre'r Bear, Bucky Bug and Koko the Clown.  Clearly not an intentional cameo was the crew member seen reflected in the window of the Red Car trolley.  Brandishing a megaphone and in non-period garb, the individual was identified in an IMDB listing as an assistant director.  He was probably directing Bre'r Bear who can be seen quickly exiting the right side of the frame.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Pleasure Island Evolves into Hyperion Wharf

Definitely overdue but very, very welcome news nonetheless.

I have long been dismayed that Disney has let the near lifeless environment of Pleasure Island languish these last number of years.  The company finally announced today a rather ambitious makeover for the Downtown Disney district that will be completed by 2013.  I am especially taken with its new name, Hyperion Wharf, for rather obvious reasons.  Nightclubs appear to be completely jettisoned in favor of more retail and restaurant space.  The area's new theme will be a " . . . nostalgic yet modern take on an early 20th century port city and amusement pier."

Other Downtown Disney establishments will be experiencing upgrades and enhancements, including a major expansion of the Lego Imagination Center.

Check out the Disney Parks Blog for more concept art and further details.

Happy 82nd Birthday!

My father and Mickey Mouse were born five days apart in November of 1928.  (Dad is the elder of the two.)  A very sincere happy 82nd birthday to both of them!

What a Character! - Moby Duck

Well remembered? Hardly.  Significant?  Not really.  Creatively dynamic?  No.  But Moby Duck is enough of a Disney curiosity to warrant at least a few paragraphs here at 2719 Hyperion.

Moby Duck is not altogether dissimilar to Uncle Scrooge.  He was born out of comic books and was featured in one animated vignette in the 1960s.  But where Scrooge McDuck went on to become a major player in the Disney character canon, Moby quickly returned to relative obscurity where he has largely remained for the past five decades.  One could almost imagine him sitting in a seedy dockside tavern, crying into a pint of grog and lamenting opportunities missed and paths not taken.

Moby Duck first appeared in the comic book Donald Duck #112, published by Gold Key in March of 1967.  In the 14-page story, A Whale of an Adventure, written by Vic Lockman and drawn by Tony Strobl, Donald accidentally drifts out to sea on a rubber raft where he is rescued by Moby Duck and his pet porpoise Porpy.  In exchange for the rescue, Donald agrees to be the first mate on Moby's boat, the Miss Ambergris.  Moby returned to Donald Duck two issues later in the story The Jewels of Skull Rock, and then Gold Key launched him in his own title in October of 1967.

The producers of The Wonderful World of Disney wasted no time drafting Moby Duck for a television appearance.  Pacifically Peeking was first broadcast on October 6, 1968.  Directed by Ward Kimball and Ham Luske, the show was a series of South Pacific travelogues sewn together with animation featuring Moby. It was almost as if Ludwig Von Drake took an unexpected sabbatical and Moby was asked to fill in at the last minute.  Disney veteran Paul Frees provided the voice of Moby for the program. 

While his tenure in animation was distinctly brief and unremarkable, Moby Duck did live on, albeit again in unremarkable fashion, for another decade.  His own Gold Key Comic lasted thirty issues before ending in 1978.  Well known cartoon writer and comics scribe Mark Evanier scripted a number of Moby Duck stories early in his career.  The character appeared in a series of the Donald Duck daily comic strips at around the same time.  He was also exported to Disney comics overseas but with no real lasting impact in any market.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Race for This Year's Animated Oscar

The Hollywood Reporter has confirmed that there will be only three nominations for the animated feature Oscar this year, as only fifteen films have qualified for the award nomination.  The rules for the category, as set forth by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences require a minimum of sixteen qualified films to allow for a field of five nominations.

Toy Story 3 is considered a shoe-in for a nomination, if not the award itself.  DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon is also considered to have a lock on a slot.  That leaves Disney's Tangled in the unenviable position of having to duke it out with a number of other generally well-received films such as Universal's Despicable Me and the recently released Megamind from DreamWorks.  Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue is the only other Disney qualifier and most certainly a non-player in the race.  Shrek Forever After likely has long odds considering that Shrek the Third was shut out of a nomination back in 2008.  If Toy Story 3 should bring the statue home, it would extend Pixar's winning streak in the category to an unprecedented four years.   Considering that both prior Toy Story films predated the inauguration of the Animated Feature category in 2001, Academy voters may see this as an opportunity to belatedly reward the entire franchise.

Nominations will be announced January 25, 2011.  Awards will be presented February 27.

Vintage Snapshot! - Herbie Rides Again

A new spin on an old standard.

The Snapshot! feature was one of the very first features inaugurated here at 2719 Hyperion back in September of 2006.  We've shied away from these posts in the last year or two, primarily due to the overabundance of sites and blogs that have emerged devoted to Disney park details.  But in digging through my photo archives, I found some lost memories that predate our current era of digital photography.  I doubt I will be sharing anything wholly new to the Disney faithful, but it has at least been fun digging through old boxes and albums.  I do intend to focus on items of a parkeolgy slant.  Bygone obscura casually but thankfully preserved.

First up, Herbie the Love Bug surprises guests on the original Disney-MGM Studios Backstage Studio Tour circa 1989.  Herbie was parked in a driveway on Residential Street and could be seen from the Backstage Shuttles that provided transportation for the first half of the tour.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Great Role in the Wonderful World of Color

Among Disney historians and enthusiasts, November 15, 1965 is perhaps best remembered for the numerous news photos that were snapped of Florida Governor Haydon Burns seated between Walt Disney and Roy Disney with a nearby sign proclaiming Florida Welcomes Walt Disney.  The setting was the Egyptian Room of the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando.  While this particular press conference was the first official joint announcement from Burns and Disney about the "Florida Project," the Disney cat had been let out of the Florida bag some three weeks earlier when Burns confirmed speculation (primarily from Orlando Sentinel reporter Emily Bavar) that Disney was indeed coming to central Florida.

Disney historian Jeff Kurtti notes in his Disney World history tome Since the World Began 
that the November 15 press conference, ". . .  was a cavalcade of vagaries and generalizations."  Most news accounts characterized the information presented as being almost entirely devoid of details.  Walt himself stated that specific plans were at least 12-18 months from revelation.  According to an Associated Press report from November 16, 1965: 

Disney said only that he envisioned two corporate municipalities--one a City of Yesterday and the other a City of Tomorrow in which use of automobiles would be restricted. He said the cities, built mainly to serve an expected 4,000 employees, who would be required to operate the Disney attractions and a Florida branch of Disney productions, would be in addition to "whatever Disney does in Florida."

The City of Tomorrow is an easy enough reference to decipher as that concept evolved into Walt's grand vision of EPCOT.  But the City of Yesterday is a bit more enigmatic.  It is described as one of two corporate municipalities and held separate by Walt from "Disney attractions" and whatever else "Disney does in Florida."

A UPI report stated that Walt, " . . . declined to be too specific about the type and scope of the attraction, but said it will be principally entertainment with some educational value. He added the area undoubtedly will include a number of major industrial plants."

Tom Cope, a reporter who attended the press conference made these observations in an article published on November 17, 1965:

One got the feeling, somehow, that this conference was premature — and one wondered just why it had happened so.  But then perhaps it wasn't: perhaps it was just a case of imagineering to nth degree. Item: the $100 million is yet to be raised. Item: Mr. Disney may build two cities, one of Yesterday and one of Tomorrow . . . and then again he may not. (He did make one sensitive point: science is advancing so fast that a City of Tomorrow might be obsolete before it was completed.) Item: it may be necessary to change some laws to accommodate Mr. Disney's plans, even to calling a special session of the legislature . . . maybe. Item: Mr. Disney may be able to tell "about the first of the year" what some of his Florida plans may be ... or he may not. And one very important item: work on the project "may start" in 18 months or perhaps not before 1968.

While Cope did puzzle over the "vagaries and generalizations" that Jeff Kurtti would allude to decades later, he did provide this wonderfully prophetic footnote:

In Florida, the land of make-believe, it was easy to believe that — not tomorrow, not next year, perhaps — but sooner than later, as surely as God made little red oranges, this great state will be called upon to play a great role in the Wonderful World of Color.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Four Color Friday: A Couple of Crocodile Collectors

An interesting scenario:  An editorial staff determines that the cover illustration of a 37-year old comic book in fact, deserves a better story.  Thus in 1988, the world was bequeathed a second Crocodile Collector.

Way back then (has it really been over twenty years?) I was not well educated in regard to Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, especially as they related to a gentleman named Carl Barks.  But ironically, I had found my way to the talents of a certain Don Rosa, who was then working very diligently to create new Duck stories that were very much faithful to the Barks legacy.  The Crocodile Collector, published by Gladstone Comics in Donald Duck Adventures #8, was Rosa's fourteenth Duck tale and his very first long form Donald Duck adventure.  The inspiration for the story?  The aforementioned illustration that was displayed on the cover of Dell Four Color Comics #348, and drawn by none other than Carl Barks, the "good duck artist" and future Disney Legend.  Barks depicted Donald standing atop an apparently hungry croc, carefully examining the creature's hide with a magnifying glass and distinctly in possession of a crocodile-skin ladies handbag.

So what was so special about the original 1951 cover illustration that lead Gladstone's editors and Rosa to create an entirely new Crocodile Collector?  Gladstone staffer Byron Erickson at the time offered this explanation:

"Back In the '40s and '50s. before Donald Duck got his own comic book. he was featured in a series of 30 one-shot comics. Carl Barks had at least one story in 24 of them. One consisted of AI Taliaferro newspaper reprints and the rest were completely drawn by other artists because Barks was too busy. However. the Old Duck Man did do three covers illustrating stories he didn't draw and for a long time we've wanted to base new adventures on them so the covers could be reprinted (the original stories aren't very good)."

Rosa's story takes Donald and his nephews on a rousing and pratfall-filled journey across the African continent in search of a rare breed of crocodile immortalized by the ancient Egyptians and identified by an unusual hieroglyph-type marking on its hide.  Uncle Scrooge has offered a $10,000 bounty on such a creature so to include an example of one in his zoo of exotic creatures.  The story follows a familiar pattern: Donald comically bumbles through multiple escapades while the nephews do the heavy lifting via their own wits and their Junior Woodchuck Manual.  Along the way they discover the source of the Nile and then ultimately uncover their prey in a mysterious and hidden ancient Egyptian temple.  Rosa peppered the tale with numerous details and inside jokes, most of which pay homage to Barks.  Reference is made to Barks' 1951 Donald Duck story Trail of the Unicorn.  Among the occupants of Scrooge's zoo are Barney Bear, Benny Burro and Andy Panda, all MGM cartoon characters rendered for comic books by Barks.  And in the ancient Egyptian temple, a caricature of Barks can be found among column-adorned hieroglyphics.

But, now let us step back to the very beginning.  In late summer of 1951, Dell Comics published the 348th issue of their Four Color Comics series.  Its formal title: Walt Disney's DONALD DUCK, THE CROCODILE COLLECTOR.  The book's content was exclusively Donald Duck; it was comprised of two 16-page stories and three one-page story-gags.  The lead story was Donald Duck in "Crocodile Collector." It was only recently that I was exposed to this story for the first time.  I was pleasantly surprised.

It is of course, no great masterpiece.  The scope and sophistication of the story pales in comparison to the works of Barks and Rosa, but it is certainly not the dismal disaster I expected.  It is small in scale compared to Rosa's globetrotting epic; Donald and nephews caper to Florida to capture a croc so to ultimately please Daisy with an alligator-skin pocketbook.  (The story actually addresses the crocodile-alligator discrepancy.) Definitely long on alligator-wrestling silliness and short on plot, it still manages to succeed by way of well crafted artwork by a rather exceptional but largely unrecognized artist by the name of Frank McSavage.

McSavage first went to work for Disney in a New York City merchandising office back in 1936.  Five weeks later he moved to California where he soon found himself employed at the Hyperion studio as an in-betweener and breakdown animator.  After a stint with the Walter Lantz Studio and a brief return to Disney in the late 1940s, McSavage found his way to comics in 1949 by way of Western Publishing with their extensive roster of licensed characters.  For the next decade, he would draw the likes of Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Li'l Bad Wolf, Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda, Oswald the Rabbit and Tom and Jerry.  From 1959 until his retirement in 1975, he continued to work for Western, but only produced illustrations for storybooks, primarily due to worsening eyesight.

In a history dominated primarily by names such as Barks, Gottfredson and Walt Kelly, McSavage's talents as a comic book artist have been regrettably overlooked.  His disadvantage in this regard likely stems from his artist-only credentials, his legacy diminished by generally unremarkable stories of which Crocodile Collector is a good example.  He was particularly adept at composing half-page splash panels and he used the additional space such panels afforded to great advantage.  It was in fact the splash panels in a number of Bongo and Lumpjaw stories from Dell's Four Color Comics series that initially brought McSavage to my attention.

Though the editorial staff at Gladstone Comics was quick to dismiss this earlier effort back in 1988, there remains history and merit within those sixteen pages of Four Color Comics #348.  There is plenty of room in this world for more than one Crocodile Collector.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Favreau to Direct a Magic Kingdom Movie

It appears that the Walt Disney Studios is re-energizing its theme parks-to-film production strategy.  Folks were  happily surprised earlier this year when the studio announced it would revisit the Haunted Mansion via a new film by Guillermo Del Toro.  Now comes word that Iron Man director Jon Favreau has been recruited to interpret for the big screen, not just a theme park attraction but an entire theme park.  According to a news brief published yesterday by the Hollywood Reporter:

"Jon Favreau is set to direct Magic Kingdom, Disney’s project centered around the Disneyland theme park in which attractions and characters come to life."

Disney is apparently taking a cue from the very successful Night in the Museum franchise.  A release date is still uncertain as the studio is looking for a rewrite of  a script penned by Ron Moore.  

Three Dimension Color Pictures

Everything new is old again.

3-D books and 3-D comics.  3-D movies and 3-D televisions.  21st century high tech?  Not really.  Sometimes it seems like we are reliving the 1950s all over again.  

Take the View-Master for instance.  It had been around since the 1939 New York World's Fair, but in its first decade or so it was marketed primarily as an adult product.  According to the website View-Master Resource, "The View-Master system was invented by William Gruber, an organ maker and avid photographer who lived in Portland, Oregon.  He had the idea to use the old idea of the stereoscope and update it with the new Kodachrome color film that had just hit the market. A chance meeting with  Harold Graves, the president of Sawyer's, Inc. (a company that specialized in picture post cards) got the idea off the ground and quickly took over the postcard business at Sawyer's."

In 1951, View-Master gained access to Disney via a business acquisition.  Sawyer's purchased Tru-Vue, its main competitor in regard to View-Master. The merger provided Sawyer's with an already existing license of Disney material.  Thus the View-Master line of products began a transition from grownup gadgets to toy box standards.  Just about every kid I grew up with seemed to have multiple View-Masters scattered about his or her household.

View-Master aggressively advertised its Disneyland reels, as evidenced by this advertisement from 1956:

 A few months later, the Mickey Mouse Club "came to life," as noted by this advertisement:

View-Master products continue to be popular to this day.  Mattel subsidiary Fisher Price currently owns the View-Master brand and Disney characters continue to populate those trademark white reels.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Of Tall Tales and Great Cartoons

Pixar may not be the only studio currently producing short-form animated cartoons, but it is certainly doing its best to revitalize a genre that has been largely inactive since the mid-1950s.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Mater's Tall Tales.  That series of cartoon shorts featuring the very popular Tow Mater from Cars has just been released in collected form on Blu-Ray and DVD.

Mater's Tall Tales originally consisted of six cartoons, (Rescue Squad Mater, Mater the Greater, El Materdor, Unidentified Flying Mater, Monster Truck Mater and Heavy Metal Mater) produced for Disney cable stations such as the Disney Channel and ABC Family.  Each cartoon ranged in length from approximately three to four minutes.  A sixth cartoon, Tokyo Mater, was produced for theatrical distribution (and in 3-D) and ran a more traditional seven minutes.  It was released in theaters with the Disney animated feature Bolt in late 2008.  Two additional cartoons, Moon Mater and Mater Private Eye, debuted on the new DVD collection.

As alluded to in the introductory paragraph, the Mater shorts joyfully revisit the format of character-focused cartoons that were the backbone of animation throughout the golden age of Hollywood.  While Pixar has in the past produced shorts using characters from it feature films such as Monsters Inc., Wall-E, and The Incredibles, it never extended any of those into a series until Mater's Tall Tales.  Mater was himself the subject of such a short, Mater and the Ghostlight.  The closest Pixar came to such a series were interstitial vignettes featuring Toy Story characters produced for ABC Saturday morning programing during the mid-1990s.

Each Tall Tale highlights Mater reminiscing to Lightning McQueen of a great adventure he has experienced.  His exaggerations ultimately involve literally bringing Lightning into the story itself, of which Lightening of course has no memory whatsoever. The shorts come with a distinct pedigree; John Lasseter directed or co-directed all but the final two. He and his creative team infused the series with the high energy, quick editing and over-the-top visuals that were distinct dynamics of the Cars feature film.  All the shorts are immensely entertaining and frequently laugh-out-loud funny.  My personal favorite was Mater Private Eye with its wonderful and dead-on homage to old fashioned film noir, replete in black and white.

The true gem of the set however is easily Tokyo Mater, a direct send-up of the film The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.  Tokyo shines as the backdrop, J-Pop layers the soundtrack and fast and funny references to Japanese pop culture (notably Pokemon) abound.  A police car/donut shop gag is particularly hilarious.  What was a visually stunning 3D theatrical experience loses little in translation to a high definition home theater viewing.

Bonus features are generous, especially considering that the shorts themselves run just shy of forty minutes.  Quick vignettes profile the creation of the Tow Mater character and the making of the Tall Tales series.  Also included are story reels, production art from unmade concepts, Studio Stories and Paths to Pixar featurettes and a sneak peak at the upcoming Cars Land currently under construction at Disney's California Adventure.

Freeze Frame! - Mike, Sully and Buy N Large Lug Nuts

Relating to our review today of the new Blu-Ray DVD Mater's Tall Tales are these two Freeze Frames from the short Tokyo Mater.  This particular cartoon in the Tall Tales series was originally released in theaters with the Disney animated feature Bolt.

As Tow Mater inadvertently careens through a restaurant in downtown Tokyo, we briefly catch a glimpse of the Cars versions of Monsters Inc. characters Sully and Mike Wazowski.  These renditions first appeared as part of the end credits of Cars.  Also in the short, an electronic billboard pays subtle homage to Wall-E via an advertisement for Buy N Large Lug Nuts.