Thursday, December 22, 2011

Exhibition Hall: Walt Disney's Christmas Carol

Every Christmas season, I still get emails about Walt Disney's Christmas Carol.

In those very early days of 2719 Hyperion, back in the latter months of 2006, I featured what I thought was an interesting, if rather obscure piece of Disney ephemera from the 1950s.  A friend, upon cleaning out the nooks and crannies of his elderly parents' home, presented me with eight torn, water-stained and near crumbling pages that had been removed from a copy of the December 1957 issue of McCalls magazine.  Contained on those pages was an illustrated holiday vignette entitled Walt Disney's Christmas Carol.  It was a perfect match for my fledgling Disney blog and on December 16, 2006, I posted the article Cedric's Christmas Carol that described what I considered a likely long forgotten piece of holiday nostalgia.

Shortly thereafter, the emails started arriving.  I heard from many fellow baby boomers who distinctly remembered this liberal retelling of the Dickens classic from their childhoods.  For many, it was a holiday tradition to read the story on Christmas Eve.  And every correspondence I received included a request for a copy of the story.

With the launch of the 2719 Hyperion Exhibition Hall, I realized I finally had an ideal forum in which to make available the complete text and illustrations of Walt Disney's Christmas Carol.  You can read the complete story in Exhibit Room 3S.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Rocketeer: High Flying in High Defintion

First the good news: The Rocketeer has been released in a remastered high defintion Blu-Ray.  It appears that Disney took note of the numerous pundits and bloggers who, earlier in the year, called for such an edition to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the film's original release.  The not-so-good news: the Blu-Ray release is an embarrassing bare bones affair, devoid of all but the film itself.  It is yet another reminder of the sad state of Walt Disney Home Entertainment and its utter lack of interest in marketing to Disney enthusiasts and historians.  With The Rocketeer, they threw us a bone, and as noted, it is a very bare bone indeed.

Since there is so little to say about the new Blu-Ray release, I will reprint the content of the Retro Review I posted earlier this year as part of our own celebration of the film's 20th Anniversary:

Two decades ago, one of Disney's better live-action films met with a severe case of audience apathy. It has since languished in unfortunate obscurity despite being an exceptionally well crafted period adventure and a loving homage to vintage movie serials and 1930s era pulp heroes.

The Rocketeer deserves to fly much, much higher.

I personally found the film to be very much in the tradition of early Disney live-action movies, though in setting, eras removed from the studio's 19th century adventure stories and swashbucklers.  I am always loathe to in any way channel the ghost of Walt Disney, but I think he would have approved of  The Rocketeer, if not necessarily the slightly edgier Dave Stevens' comic books upon which the movie was based.  Much in the way that Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson provided the boyhood nostalgia for Walt that he then successfully translated into motion pictures, the filmmakers behind The Rocketeer similarly tapped into the nostalgia of classic Hollywood B-movies and serials, and combined that inspiration with the new-found romance with aviation that was prevalent during the 1930s .  The result was an exciting and entertaining romp that was largely ignored by film-goers who, during that summer of 1991, were more enticed by the groundbreaking special effects of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the comedy antics of Billy Crystal in City Slickers.

The Rocketeer was Joe Johnston's sophomore directing effort.  Johnston, a special effects veteran who had cut his teeth with George Lucas on the original Star Wars films, was fresh with success from directing Disney's own Honey I Shrunk the Kids when he was enlisted to helm The Rocketeer.  His special effects background served him well on the assignment and the film's pre-digital-era craftsmanship remains impressive to this day.  Johnston recently directed the excellent The Wolfman remake and is currently wrapping up work on the World Wat II-based Captain America: The First Avenger, set to arrive in theaters this summer.

Beyond its well-executed and fast paced storyline and capable cast, The Rocketeer is a visual cornucopia of 1930s popular culture and Hollywood archetypes.  Aviation pioneer and eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes plays a central role, while Errol Flynn is not so subtly channeled into the villainy of movie star Neville Sinclair, an undercover Nazi agent in pursuit of the jetpack that is the centerpiece of the film.  Also included in the mix is California Crazy architecture in the form of the  Bulldog Cafe; the over-the-top but rather accurate-for-the-era set design of the South Seas Club; the giant German dirigible Luxembourg; the film's climatic showdown at the Griffith Observatory; the true fate of the original and iconic Hollywoodland sign; and a brilliantly realized piece of animated Nazi propaganda showing squadrons of rocket-propelled German soldiers symbolically conquering Europe and North America.

One of the film's most notable components is the perfectly matched score by composer James Horner.  It was an Oscar-worthy effort that went almost entirely unrecognized at the time.  

Disney had intended The Rocketeer to be a trilogy of films, but the lackluster (but not entirely disastrous) box office returns quickly quashed further productions.  The film's troubled production history (screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo were fired and rehired several times during the movie's five years of development) and aforementioned box office did not endear it to studio execs, and it has subsequently faded from view. 

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Cars 2: Racing Beyond the Cynicism

One could almost imagine the metaphorical arm-twisting that occurred between Disney CEO Robert Iger and Pixar chief John Lasseter, that ultimately resulted in the making of Cars 2.  Beyond the Toy Story films, Pixar has always been generally against sequel-driven inspirations (unlike say, Dreamworks), but Iger, a stalwart believer in franchising, apparently convinced John and company otherwise. Thus Cars 2 arrived in theaters this past summer.  It certainly succeeded commercially but, unusual for Pixar, it was savaged by mainstream critics and not entirely beloved by audiences.  I must with some shame admit that I was not wholly immune to the cynicism that surrounded Cars 2; I skipped it at the multiplex, preferring to wait for its home entertainment release, which occurs this week.

It is certainly difficult to praise the film on any level without appearing to be an Iger/Lasseter apologist.  The film was, after all, created to support a still incredibly lucrative billion dollar toy business, a pedigree that is difficult at best to overlook.  But one cannot also overlook high standards of Pixar craftsmanship and creative energies, and Cars 2 is distinctly infused with both.  Strip away all of the movie's aforementioned external baggage and what is left?  A fun couple of hours, beautifully rendered and well realized, and certainly entertaining. 

Pixar often takes its cues from retro-based themes and in Cars 2 it milks 1960s spy films for inspiration.  Mater takes center stage but his presence is thankfully and necessarily diffused by new characters Finn McMissle and Holley Shiftwell, automobile incarnations of super spies in the James Bond mold.  Lightning McQueen is relegated to a third string supporting player while the rest of the Radiator Springs gang fades even further into the background.  The action is fast and furious; the humor, while never subtle is rarely overdone.  The visuals are spectacular and often eye-popping.  Pixar eye candy remains unmatched in contemporary CG animation.  While it does not break any new ground, neither does it disappoint to the degree many have suggested.  It appears that many critics and viewers are not willing to extend Pixar the same benefit of the doubt they typically show to non-Pixar franchises such as Shrek, Ice Age and Kung Fu Panda.

In keeping with recent Disney DVD packaging/marketing misfires, the non-3D Blu-ray set is a bare bones affair, devoid of extras beyond the Toy Story short Hawaiian Vacation, a Mater's Tall Tale entry, and a director's commentary.  The Mater short, Air Mater, is a not-so subtle introduction to the upcoming direct-to-DVD spinoff Planes, produced by Disney Toon Studios.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Winnie the Pooh - Traditonal, Fresh and Wonderful

Winnie the Pooh, Disney's most recent return to hand-drawn feature animation, proves both traditional and fresh, charming in its simplicity and possessing a gentle humor that inspires smiles and quieter laughter.  It is a wonderful film, especially for the most youngest audience members, but manages to retain a level of sophistication that will certainly satisfy older viewers.  It arrives this week in a myriad of home entertainment formats.

Poor Pooh Bear has been stretched pretty thin over the past couple of decades.  He remains the centerpiece of one of Disney's most lucrative franchises, and hence has been reinterpreted and reinvented almost non-stop since Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree debuted in 1966.  Over this time, the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood have been brought to life on both film and television via animation (Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and theatrical and direct-to-video features), costumed actors (Welcome to Pooh Corner), bunraku-style puppetry (The Book of Pooh) and rather uninspired and misguided CG animation (My Friends Tigger and Pooh).  In this context, Winnie the Pooh directors Stephen Anderson and Don Hall have done something entirely new and different--they returned to Pooh's roots, as represented by the original A. A. Milne stories and Disney's original short features from the late 1960s.  It's a very welcome creative turn.

The film is a near seamless mixture of beautiful scenery, appropriate music, comfortable storytelling and traditional Pooh silliness, deftly executed to entertain the younger crowd and bring forth nostalgic memories and good feelings to the adults in the crowd.  And with good reason--the credits include names such as Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, Eric Goldberg and Dale Bear.  Most notably, Studio veteran and Disney Legend Burny Mattinson, who worked on the original Pooh films, served as the movie's Story Supervisor.

The new songs by Robert Lopez (Avenue Q and Finding Nemo-The Musical) and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez complement recycled Pooh standards by the Sherman Brothers, and the musical sequence "The Backson," is an eye-popping delight with its chalkboard inspired artistry.

DVD bonus features are adequate for the family demographic but slight for the animation enthusiast.  Winnie the Pooh and His Story Too is an all too brief profile of the famous bear and his history.  Also included are five deleted scenes presented by directors Stephen Anderson and Don Hall, and two animated shorts, The Ballad of Nessie and Pooh's Balloon (actually just recycled material from Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree).

Monday, October 24, 2011

Freeze Frame! - Gary Time in Hawaiian Vacation

The newest Pixar cartoon Hawaiian Vacation, featuring the Toy Story gang, arrives next week as part of the Cars 2 DVD.  Quick pause-button reflexes found this homage to film's director Gary Rydstrom.  When Ken and Barbie "sunbathe" as part of their simulated island holiday, they use a kitchen timer branded "Gary Time" to alert them as to when to flip over.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Snapshot Missouri! - Walt Disney Elementary School

How cool would it be to go to school here!

The entrance foyer of the Walt Disney Elementary School in Marceline, Missouri has changed little since its inception more than fifty years ago.  Disney Legend Bob Moore created the cutout mural that adorns the wall.  Additional murals can be found in the school's gymnasium.  The school also features an original flagpole from the 1960 Winter Olympics, of which Walt served as Chairman of Pageantry.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Curse Resistant Pirates Sail into Home Ports

It is still somewhat beyond belief that a series of pirate movies based on a theme park attraction could become a 21st century multi-billion dollar entertainment franchise.  Yet, as Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides proves, Disney's hottest entertainment property still remains commercially viable and surprisingly, critically  bulletproof.  It sails into home entertainment venues this week.

I passed on seeing this latest POTC adventure in a multiplex setting, preferring to wait for a high definition living room experience (a $25 Blu-ray remains a substantially better value than a family of four night at the movies with bloated concession stand prices and 3D surcharges).  My verdict?  It was an exceptionally well-crafted and often visually stunning endeavor with an engaging cast that manages to entertain despite some rather muddled storytelling.  I am an enthusiastic fan of the original POTC trilogy (At World's End included), so I was likely more forgiving of the film's flaws than most.  And although Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow remains the driving force of the franchise, it is Geoffrey Rush's Captain Barbossa, quite prominently featured in On Stranger Tides, that I personally find the greater draw.  With all due respect to Depp, it is the Barbossa character that seems the most rooted in the style and themes of the original theme park presentations.  Penelope Cruz is an adequate if not wholly inspired addition to the ensemble, while Ian McShane's performance as Blackbeard proves somewhat low key and understated.  The script, certainly less complex than previous POTC entries, still frequently suffers when necessary expository dialogue is performed in rather quick and heavily accented pirate-speak orations.

Disney Home Entertainment continues to frustrate with its increasingly maddening strategies of content distribution among its release packages.  Be aware that there are very distinct differences between the normal Blu-ray package and the Blu-ray 3D set that runs an extra $10.  If you are without the need for a 3D copy (which the vast majority of consumer still are), you will be slighted a digital copy of the film and an additional Blu-ray disc of bonus features.  In that regard, I am unable to speak to the quality or significance of these features: Legends of On Stranger Tides, In Search of the Fountain, Last Sail/First Voyage, Under the Scene: Bringing Mermaids to Life, and Deleted and Extended Scenes with Rob Marshall.  The normal Blu-ray does contain a scant handful of bonus features, most significantly the Disney Second Screen.  Also included are Bloopers of the Caribbean and Lego Animated Shorts: Captain Jack's Brick Tales.  It is a shame that Disney continues to penalize consumers who have no need for a 3D Blu-ray version of the movie.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Donald's Diary: Bewitched, Bothered and Bogie

It's always fun to mine yesteryear popular culture from a vintage cartoon.  Earlier this week we showcased a Freeze Frame! from the 1954 Donald Duck cartoon Donald's Diary that paid homage to Disney artist Tyrus Wong.  In the same short, the production crew also made reference to a rather famous popular song, and in addition, hijacked one of Humphrey Bogart's notable film quotes.

When Daisy primps before a big date, three of the perfumes on her vanity are identified as Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.  This is a reference to the song Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, written and composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for the 1940 Broadway musical Pal Joey.  The show tune quickly transcended its initial venue, evolving into a pop standard performed by any number of notable vocalists including Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Barbara Streisand, Carly Simon and even Sinead O'Connor.

Near the end of the short, Donald abandons his plans for matrimony and instead enlists in the foreign legion.  The narrator extolls, "Though I was born when I kissed her, I died when we parted."  As Donald is shown walking guard duty at a remote desert outpost, the narrator adds,  "But I lived for a little while."

That ending sequence is a riff on one of Humphrey Bogart's most memorable film quotes.  In the 1950 movie, In a Lonely Place, Bogie plays a cynical and violence-prone screenwriter suspected of murder.  In a scene with co-star Gloria Grahame, Bogart's Dix Steele character speaks a line from a script he is writing:  "I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Freeze Frame! - Ty Wong Chop Suey

Tyrus Wong had been absent from the Walt Disney Studios for more than a dozen years when the Donald Duck cartoon Donald's Diary was produced in 1954.  But he was still very much remembered.  The proof is in this Freeze Frame from the short wherein Wong was immortalized as the proprietor of a Chinese food restaurant.

Wong's tenure with Disney was brief but significant.  He worked at the studio from 1938 to 1941.  According to his Disney Legends biography:
Looking for steady employment, he joined The Walt Disney Studios to work on animated shorts, but quickly moved into feature films after submitting landscape paintings with deer as early concepts for "Bambi," which was in pre-production. Among his paintings, a stunning image of a stag fight filled with dynamic action, strong compositions, and dramatic lightning. 
Wong went on to work for Warner Bros. for twenty-five years as a production artist for live action films.  Beyond Warner Bros., he was a successful commercial artist, designing Christmas cards for Hallmark and providing illustrations for magazines such as Reader's Digest.  Still very active at age 101, he currently designs elaborate flying kites that have been described as "masterful expressions of his artistic sensibilities."

Explore the 2719 Hyperion Archives:
Freeze Frame! - Daisy's Favorite Spot

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The True-Life Legacy Well Served with African Cats

I really love the Disneynature brand.  Though a rather low key division in the increasingly overwhelming Disney corporate pantheon, it serves to rekindle and revitalize a legacy that Walt Disney himself initiated over six decades ago with the True-Life Adventure films.  Disneynature's newest film, African Cats, arrives this week in various home entertainment formats and serves both the brand and its legacy very well.

African Cats marks the return of Alastair Fothergill to Disneynature; he shared writer/director chores with Mark Linfield on Earth, the very first Disneynature release.  Fothergill has an extensive resume in regard to nature film making and documentaries.  Most notably, he was the executive producer of the acclaimed BBC series Planet Earth and Blue Planet.  With African Cats, he partnered on writing and directing responsibilities with Keith Scholey, another veteran of BBC nature programming.  The result is an entertaining and often breathtaking view of life on the African savanna, as seen through the lives and actions of two different cat "families"--a large pride of lions and a mother cheetah and her cubs.

The film is more of a storytelling experience than prior Disneynature releases, with the storyteller being actor Samuel L. Jackson by way of his off screen narration.   Jackson relates two separate stories that occasionally intertwine.  A pride of lions, led by patriarch Fang are juxtaposed with Sita, a courageous mother cheetah carrying for a large brood of cubs. Jackson's narration is much less academic and more conversational than that in previous Disneynature entries.  Though not quite as endearing as True-Life Adventure veteran Winston Hibler, Jackson manages a kid friendly tone from what is clearly a more kid-friendly script, but without necessarily alienating the adult crowd.  The scenery is indeed spectacular, especially when viewed in Blu-ray high definition.  I was very impressed with the film's musical score, a majestic and sweeping endeavor by Nicholas Hooper, also a veteran of BBC nature productions and the composer for both Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.   Sadly, Hooper's efforts are slightly undermined by the apparent desire on the part of Disney execs to inject a totally unnecessary "pop" sensibility into the proceedings by way of a theme song ("The World I Knew) performed over the end credits by American Idol winner Jordan Sparks.  Synergy and cross-marketing be damned; it just didn't fit.

DVD extras include the strictly PR-driven Disney and Nature segment, a testimonial about the Walt Disney Company's numerous environmental initiatives.  Saving the Savanna is a brief piece on the making of African Cats specifically, and also showcases efforts to preserve the wildlife and habitats presented in the film.  Filmmaker Annotations is an interactive in-movie feature that presents an additional twelve behind-the-scenes featurettes on the making of the movie.

According to promotional literature, proceeds from the sales through October 10 of DVD sets and digital downloads will be donated "to help conserve the land the magnificent species featured in African Cats call home."

Apple Every Day

I will be listening to an audiobook on my iPod as I drive my son to school.  I've already read the latest news via my iPad and will be falling into a Raymond Chandler novel later on one of the iPad's e-reader apps.  At some point in the day, someone in my family will likely stream a Netflix movie by way of Apple TV.  And then of course there is Pixar.

Thanks, Steve.  You have significantly improved my quality of life on many levels.  You will be missed.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Phenomenon of The Lion King

What can you truly say about a pure, undisputed phenomenon?  For that is certainly The Lion King.  Seventeen years after its initial release and unqualified critical and commercial successes, it has now again roared into theaters by way of a 3D conversion that has dramatically surprised even the most optimistic of Hollywood bean counters,  So much so that its two week engagement has been extended and is now bumping into its latest home entertainment release.  The Lion King arrives this week in its sparkling new Diamond Edition that comprises any number of purchasing options involving Blu-ray, standard DVD and digital download formats.

Though often inconsistent in their treatment of animated classics, Disney Home Entertainment does do justice to the films selected for the high profile Diamond Editions.  The Lion King is no exception.  Beyond its high definition upgrade to Blu-ray, the new set includes any number of new and rather impressive bonus features.  The Pride of the Lion King is very well-produced and entertaining talking head retrospective that includes the likes of Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, Julie Taymor, Peter Schneider, Thomas Schumacher, producer Don Hahn and directors Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers.  Noticeably absent?  Elton John, no doubt due to his disappointment in  Disney for its lack of marketing and promotional support in regard to Gnomeo and JulietThe Lion King: A Memoir-Don Hahn makes extensive use of home movies and videos to transport viewers back to the early 1990s and behind the scenes in the making of the film.  Five deleted scenes are rather minimal and only marginally interesting, while some newly animated bloopers (derived from audio outtakes) are brief, occasionally cute, but little more.  Bonus features from the earlier Platinum Edition are made available via an online connection with a broadband compatible Blu-ray player.  The "Morning Report" sequence that was seamlessly integrated into the film for the Platinum release has been extracted and now exists only as a stand-alone feature.

The big kahuna of the bonus features is indeed the Disney Second Screen, now in its third incarnation following notable inclusions in Bambi and Tron Legacy.  To recap, Second Screen is an additional interactive platform that provides supplemental content that is synchronized to the actual presentation of the film.  Two such platforms are currently available, either an Apple iPad or a laptop computer.  Second Screen comes to the iPad by way of a free application downloaded via the App Store.  For the Mac or PC, it is a Flash-based interface streamed through Disney's web site.   Similar especially to the Bambi Second Screen, The Lion King Second Screen presents a veritable wealth of animation related content--production art, storyboards and flipbook simulations in addition to archive photos and videos and anecdotal snippets of text and trivia.  It is a much more integrated and interactive experience than your typical gallery type DVD bonus feature and certainly more user-friendly.

I only had one complaint with The Lion King Diamond Edition.  Once again Disney has limited the Digital Copy to the much more expensive 4-Disc Blu-ray Combo Pack which includes the Blu-ray 3D copy.   This continues to penalize the vast majority of consumers who have no need for a 3D version of the film but still desire a digital copy.  It is a distinct blemish on an otherwise excellent home entertainment package.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Happy 40th Anniversary Walt Disney World

 Explore the 2719 Hyperion Archives:

Friday, September 30, 2011

Winnie the Pooh . . . and Nessie Too!

It was exceptionally well-reviewed, modestly successful (considering that it was overshadowed by a certain boy wizard) but certainly not exactly what you would call high-profile.  And I must admit with some embarrassment that I didn't rush out to see it; in fact, I didn't see it at all.  In the last few years I have been less enchanted with my local cineplex and much more comfortable with my own home theater system, and sadly, Pooh had to suffer as a result.  But thankfully, Winnie the Pooh, Disney's most recent animated feature, arrives October 25 in any number of home entertainment options.

I am very excited to see it, especially as it is a return to the director's chair for Stephen Anderson, who impressed me greatly with Meet the Robinsons.  And the film's return to the artistic style of the original Winnie the Pooh shorts is especially welcome.  In regard to the Blu-ray/DVD set, a very notable inclusion is the animated short, The Ballad of Nessie.  Also featured is a brand new Pooh short entitled The Ballon, and a retrospective, Winnie the Pooh and His Story Too, hosted by John Cleese.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Snapshot Missouri! - The Zurcher Building

A number of sources have indicated that the Zurcher building in Marceline, Missouri was in fact the architectural inspiration for Disneyland's own Coca Cola Corner.  There are certainly structural similarities that lend credence to the supposition, but thematically there is unfortunately no connection; a jewelry store operated in the building from 1903 until 1973.  It is now home to a Mexican restaurant.  Coincidentally, there is a long faded mural that advertised Coca Cola on the side of an adjacent building.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Windows to the Past: The Shaggy Dog at the Palace

This particular Window to the Past, while highlighting a classic Disney live-action feature, also serves to illustrate segregation as it existed in the late 1950s.  This photograph reflects an era when many African American audiences had their own separate movie theaters, in this case the Palace Theatre in Kannapolis, North Carolina in 1959.  The featured attraction was Walt Disney's The Shaggy Dog, and the Palace's management certainly dressed up the front of the theater for the occasion.  A copy of the original movie poster can be seen in a glass case just to the right of the box office.

Photogragh via Cinema Treasures.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Dumbo: The Little Movie That Could

In Dumbo, Casey Jr. is the little engine that could, full of resolve and determination despite its small stature humble nature.  Similarly, The film Dumbo itself is the little movie that could, a pure and undisputed classic of Disney animation that is in many ways still overshadowed by its immediate predecessors--Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia.

Though less epic in both scope and length, Dumbo remains an often visually stunning film with an emotional depth both remarkable and sincere.  Clocking in at a mere 63 minutes, it makes everyone of those minutes count.  Disney historian John Grant very succinctly pinpointed the film's appeal and historical significance when he noted, "Dumbo was cheap and brilliant.  This was essentially because of its artistry.  Dumbo may not have had the richness of a Snow White, a Pinocchio or a Bambi, but what it did have was a simple and emotive story well told."

Despite its richly deserved reputation among critics and historians, Dumbo remains a second tier Disney title, at least as far as the company's marketing gurus have been concerned.  It has never earned a prestigious Platinum or Diamond designation in regard to its DVD releases, an honor that still eludes it in its just released high definition Blu-ray set.  Dumbo is instead a veteran of "Anniversary" marketing; 60th and 65th standard DVD editions were released in 2001 and 2006 respectively, while the new Blu-ray carries a 70th Anniversary branding.  Yet, despite not getting the high end Diamond treatment, this new home entertainment incarnation is commendable for not just its new high definition resolution but some rather new and notable bonus features.

The set recycles some content from the previous DVD editions, most notably the Celebrating Dumbo featurette and two Silly Symphonies cartoon shorts, Elmer Elephant and The Flying Mouse.  New content is minimal but quite significant.  Taking Flight: The Making of Dumbo is an exceptionally well realized short documentary that serves to entertain and inform even the most knowledgeable and seasoned Disney enthusiasts.  I was very happy to see two of my favorite fellow Disney historians, F. Paul Anderson and Didier Ghez among the assembled talking heads.  The feature is especially notable for sensitively addressing and ultimately dispelling the racially-based controversy that has long been associated with the depiction of the crow characters.  Also new are two recently discovered deleted scenes, "The Mouse's Tale" and "Are You a Man or a Mouse?"  The former is an especially charming sequence where Timothy explains the origins of the elephant-mouse dynamic.  Less impressive is The Magic of Dumbo: A Ride of Passage, a very quick and overly sentimental look at Disneyland's Dumbo the Flying Elephant attraction.

Though it certainly deserves better, Dumbo is generally well served in this newest "Anniversary" Blu-ray/DVD edition.  A must for the high definition collector and an upgrade of sorts from the prior DVD releases. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Exploring Kansas City on WEDway Radio

 "We're going to Kansas City, Kansas City here we come!"

I am happy to announce that I have once again been the guest of podcasters Nate Parrish and Matt Parrish on their very popular and always entertaining WEDway Radio program.  In its latest edition, the three of us explore one of my very favorite subjects--Kansas City!  It is an often overlooked place and time in Disney history but engrossing and fascinating nonetheless.  From Walt's childhood there delivering newspapers to the formation of the Laugh-O-Grams Studio, it remains a significant pinpoint on the map of Walt Disney's life.
Nate and Matt are two great guys and we had a lot of fun doing the show.  Download links for WEDway Radio Episode 88 can be found at the WEDway Radio home page.  Its definitely worth a listen!

Within the 2719 Hyperion Archives you can find a number of articles pertaining to Disney and Kansas City.

Explore the 2719 Hyperion Archives:
Studio Geo: Kansas City and the Laugh-O-Grams

Friday, September 16, 2011

Snapshot Missouri! - Kansas Avenue U.S.A.

It is a Disney historical fact.  The concept for Main Street U.S.A., as it was initially conceived for Disneyland, and then subsequently exported to Disney Parks in Florida, Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong, was based directly on Marceline, Missouri, Walt's boyhood hometown.  The notable irony to this is that, unlike so many other small towns across the Midwest and the entire U.S.A., there is in fact no Main Street in Marceline.

Marceline's equivalent primary thoroughfare is Kansas Avenue.  The residents however have sought to clarify the Disney connection as reflected in this Snapshot of a Marceline street clock and signpost.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Theme Parkeology: The Mark Twain Cave

Underground caves are a key element of many of Mark Twain's books, but most especially The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  Imagineers saw fit to include such settings on the various Tom Sawyer Islands at Disney Parks in Florida, Anaheim and Tokyo. The inspiration behind those dark enclosed mazes, where youngsters scamper happily while their adult counterparts frequently slide, trip and bump their heads, lies within Missouri, a state already quite rich in Disney history and theme park relevance.

Visiting the Mark Twain Cave in Hannibal, Missouri is like traveling back in time.  It retains a mid-twentieth century roadside attraction ambiance that stands in stark contrast to the slick, polished presentation of a Disney theme park attraction, an observation ironic in both context and history.  But the cave is indeed the place that inspired the literary McDougal's Cave, where Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher are terrorized by the actions of the villainous Injun Joe.  The Hannibal attraction's website provides the following brief history of the "real" cave:
Earliest documentation says the cave was discovered in the winter of 1819-1820 when Jack Simms and his dog when on a hunting trip. His dog chased a panther, which a sport in those days, into a small opening on the side of a hill. Since it was late in the day, he blocked the entrance, came back with his brother and torches the next day. They had to be awestruck upon what they discovered once inside. From that time on the cave has been rediscovered everyday by someone. This fabulous cave was written about in five of Mark Twain's books. The cave has been seen by millions of people since that time which includes, presidents, villains, heroes and most important those of us who are interested in history, literature and science.
It is most certainly quite fun to occasionally bump into the rough-edged reality behind the carefully crafted and idealized Disney-created fantasy.

From Tom Sawyer Island at Walt Disney World

Monday, September 12, 2011

Windows to the Past: Donald O Duck

A marquee malfunction inadvertently gives the temperamental cartoon star an Irish heritage in this vintage photograph that was likely snapped in early 1948, based on the release date of the movie Road to Rio.  The location is the Carolina Theatre in downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  The theater has since evolved into the Stevens Center for the Arts and bears little physical resemblance to its original movie palace incarnation.  The image is part of the Digital Forsyth collection.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Snapshot Missouri! - The Walt Disney Municipal Park

Our newest Snapshot! series will feature photographs from our recent road trip that took us to various Disney history sites in the state of Missouri.  Relating to our post earlier this week on the Midget Autopia in Marceline, this photo features a sign that identifies the community park in which the remnants of that former Disneyland attraction can be found.

The Walt Disney Municipal Park was dedicated on July 4, 1956 with Walt Disney and Roy Disney both in attendance.  The occasion was also marked by the premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase at Marceline's own Uptown Theatre.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Revisiting Tod and Copper

The Fox and the Hound seems to exist just off the radar.  It is a fine and commendable film, but one that is rarely focused on, either by Disney fans or the Disney Company itself.  Disney Home Entertainment, pausing briefly amidst its aggressive push into 3D Blu-Ray conversions, ported The Fox and the Hound into a new high-def format, and I in turn took the opportunity to revisit a film that I hadn't seen in a least a decade or more.

The Fox and the Hound seems to historically bridge two significant eras of Disney feature animation.  It was released in 1981, almost midway between the post-Walt xerography years and the renaissance of the 1990s.  It is notable for combining the talents of studio veterans such as Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas and Woolie Reitherman with then promising newcomers including Glen Keane, Randy Cartwright and Ron Clements. On the surface, it is a more polished film than predecessors such as Robin Hood and The Rescuers, and at times seems to almost achieve the artistic beauty of early classics such as Dumbo and most especially Bambi.  It was an enormous commercial success for its time and context, a fact that became largely overshadowed when Disney animated fare began to achieve astronomical successes a decade later with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.

In 1981, I was a young college student and aspiring entertainment writer, just a few years into a more academic study of Walt Disney and Disney animation.  At that time, I welcomed The Fox and the Hound as a very encouraging sign that Disney animation still had some life in it yet.  We would have to weather the controversial and inconsistent Black Cauldron before seeing the renaissance begin to blossom with Great Mouse Detective and The Little Mermaid.  Thus, Tod and Copper became the unlikely precursors of an industry that would literally explode in the final decade of the twentieth century.

Unfortunately, at least from a marketing standpoint, the Walt Disney Company has invested little historical significance to the film, especially as it relates to its most recent home entertainment incarnation.  Though upgraded to high definition Blu-ray, it is a generally bare-bones affair.  A combination 3-disc Blu-ray and DVD, the Blu-ray disc includes only one bonus feature, the very brief Unlikely Friends, which is nothing but a quickly assembled montage of clips from Disney animated features mixed with footage of "real-life" unusual animal friendships.  It is hardly notable, even to the younger set to which it is obviously directed.  The standard DVD offers the same minimal features as the previous 2006 edition, the highlight of which was a meager six-minute making-of vignette.  To balance out this startling lack of content, the marketeers decided to throw in The Fox and the Hound II, the film's rather misguided and unremarkable direct-to-video sequel.  John Lasseter had any number of good reasons for abandoning the controversial direct-to-video films and The Fox and the Hound II was likely one of them.  It is a visually jarring mix of traditional and wholly inappropriate CG animation, combined with a story that relates in almost no way to the original film.  (A group of howling dogs aspiring to be an act at the Grand Ole Opry?)

In the end, this recent edition is a purchase for the Disney Blu-ray collector and nothing more.  It appears that Tod and Copper will continue to remain on the lower tiers of the Disney canon, at least as far the current generation of Disney executives is concerned.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Ghosts of Marceline: The Midget Autopia

It was a somewhat haunting experience, to say the least.

My son and I arrived in Marceline, Missouri early on a Tuesday morning in the midst of an unrelenting thunderstorm.  It served to make this very small and quiet Midwest town even quieter.  We had some time to kill before the Walt Disney Hometown Museum opened, so we decided to drive to the south end of town and see the Walt Disney Municipal Park.  There we would find the remains of an early Disneyland attraction: the Midget Autopia.
A postcard of the Midget Autopia at Disneyland

The park seemed a quiet place, regardless of the poor weather.  It appeared as an almost forgotten area.  The nearby swimming pool was drained and apparently retired.  Playground equipment looked old and unmaintained.  I wondered if the park was more the destination of visiting Disney enthusiasts than Marceline residents.

The Midget Autopia was donated to Marceline during the summer of 1966.  The attraction had been removed from Disneyland when Tomorrowland received its famous makeover in the late 1960s.  It opened for the younger residents of Marceline following a dedication ceremony on July 3, 1966.  A faded and weather-stained dedication plaque remains:
Relocated from the Magic Kingdom of Disneyland as a gift to the children of this community from Marceline's favorite sons Walt and Roy Disney.  Accepted in appreciation July 1966 Mayor C. A. Young
It presents a mystery for the uninitiated; no sign remains of the former attraction, and it is not identified by name on the plaque.
What is left of the Midget Autopia lies now in stark contrast to the flash and flair we have come to associate with Disney entertainment.  Forgive the cliche, but it was indeed part of a much simpler time, especially in relation to the Disney Company and the corporate behemoth it has now evolved into.  A simple queue, cement tracks, a tunnel and overpass, and very sincere words on a small standing monument are what remains to remind us of this once bright moment in  both Disney history and the chronicles of Marceline.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Vacation's End

We will be returning to a more regular publishing schedule shortly.  I very much appreciate everyone's patience and understanding.  We are close to wrapping up our somewhat extended summer sabbatical.  It culminated in a wonderful road trip this past week that took myself and my research assistant (my youngest son) through eight states and eight major cities.  The highlight of the excursion was the state of Missouri where we visited Disney historical settings such as Kansas City and Marceline.  Needless to say, we will be relating many of our adventures to readers of 2719 Hyperion in the weeks and months ahead.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Four Color Freeze Frame: Uncle Scrooge and the Rocketeer

Consider this a mash-up of two of our more popular post categories: Freeze Frame! and Four Color Fun.

It is no secret that we are big fans of comic book artist and scribe Don Rosa.  And he is not at all dissimilar to the clever Imagineers and animators whose hidden details we love to discover and celebrate.  Don peppers his work with small details and clever references.  In a previous post, we noted his homage to MGM cartoon characters drawn for comics by Disney Legend Carl Barks.

Since we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the feature film The Rocketeer this year, we thought we'd make note of Don's subtle reference to Dave Steven's iconic character.  In his Uncle Scrooge story The Universal Solvent, Scrooge pays a visit to eccentric inventor Gyro Gearloose.  In the opening splash panel where Scrooge enters Gyro's laboratory, the Rocketeer helmet and jetpack can be seen in a box labeled "ABANDONED PROJECTS."

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Saturday at the Archives: On Wheels of Progress
On Wheels of Progress
By Jeffrey Pepper
Originally published November 17, 2009

On September 29, 2006, a mere nine days into my blogging adventures, I wrote a very brief post about one of my most favorite pieces of Disney entertainment--the generally innocuous and now considerably obscure Donald Duck film Donald and the Wheel. I came to feel that my passion for this particular amalgamation of early xerography, rotoscoping and brief snippets of live action was a very rare emotion indeed. But I have come to discover fellow brothers in the Wheel cause who literally span the globe. So I have decided it is time again to celebrate this largely forgotten production that continues to gather dust in an unvisited corner of the Disney celluloid archives.

Donald and the Wheel was in fact part of one the most dramatic transitions in the history of Disney animation--the move away from hand-inked cels to the faster and more productive xerography process. Xerography was largely the innovation of resident studio technical genius Ub Iwerks. While 101 Dalmatians is most frequently heralded as the first major demonstration of the process, it was actually used experimentally in Sleeping Beauty, and tested more completely in the 1960 short subject Goliath II. But largely absent from the animation history books is the further exploration of xerography in Donald and the Wheel, which made its way into theaters a mere six months following the release of Dalmatians. Its eighteen month production schedule certainly crossed over with those of both Goliath II and Dalmatians.

An exhibitor's kit for Donald and the Wheel, though steeped heavily in PR prose, provided this generally informative background on the film's technical accomplishments:

Walt Disney scores another entertainment first with his Technicolor cartoon featurette, "Donald and the Wheel." Using the revolutionary Xerox and Sodium Screen Processes together for the first time, Disney and his director, Ham Luske, combine real people and objects in the same perspective as animated characters and objects.

Telling the story of man's greatest invention, the wheel, required illustrations of many types of wheels and cogs, sometimes highly technical in nature. Instead of having an animator draw them, Disney had color film taken of wheels and transferred them to the screen with the Xerox Process.

For example, when a scene called for an illustration of the wheels used in a cotton gin, Eli Whitney's original invention was photographed and transferred to the screen.

With the Sodium Screen Process, Disney technicians were able to reduce a beautiful, auburn-haired ballerina to the size of Donald Duck and place her on a phonograph record with him.

The Sodium Process uses two films exposed simultaneously through the same lens, one sensitive to the Sodium screen, the other not. When the two are combined, a perfect silhouette is achieved, which is then superimposed on a master print.

The same kit provided this very detailed synopsis of the film:

In Walt Disney's newest Technicolor cartoon featurette, "Donald and the Wheel," Disney brings to the screen a story he has been working on for the past twenty years, man's greatest invention, the wheel.
The tale is told in rhyme with a pair of ghostly narrators, the Spirits of Progress, Sr., and Progress, Jr. The straight man is none other than Walt's old pal, Donald Duck, aptly arrayed in the garb of a cave man.

The faint figures of Progress, Sr. and Jr. watch a common, ordinary wheel rolling. Barrel-voiced Senior explains to bopster Junior that the wheel is man's greatest invention.

"Without the wheel, mankind would be at a standstill," he observes.

Junior disagrees. "What about the airplane, automobile, typewriter, steam engine, cotton gin, sewing machine and washing machine," says the boy.

Progress Senior strips each invention of all but its basic parts — wheels — and graphically proves his point, that the wheel, son, is man's greatest invention.

Caveman Donald, however, is harder to convince. The spirits take the little character on a meteoric ride from a circular drawing on a rock down through the ages to our present day hot rods. When Donald piles up his heap on the crowded freeways, he gives up.

"Who needs wheels," he says. "I'd rather walk."

The spirits try again by showing the duck that even the world spins like a wheel, that the solar system is really wheels within wheels, that a clock depends upon wheels, gears are adaptations of wheels, and finally, a music box works on wheels.
Music is to Donald's taste, it develops, especially when a beautiful redheaded dancer does a jazz number, a square dance and a ballet with him atop of an oversized, spinning phonograph.

The spirits have chosen the wrong cave man to invent the wheel, however. Donald scurries back to his cave, erases the circle drawn in the rock and pulls his wheel-less sled over the horizon.
"No thanks," says Donald, "I'm not going to be responsible for that thing."

Senior and Junior shrug off their disappointment, but are happy that some cave man, if not Donald, eventually did have the foresight to invent the wheel.

There are likely many who negatively view the film's mishmash of rough edged styles and and distinctly non-Disney techniques and would no doubt quantify it all as short-cut animation. But in the end, director Hamilton Luske and his crew crafted a charming, entertaining endeavor that successfully mixes humor, music and education. Unlike its much more popular but decidedly stuffier cousin Donald in Mathmagic Land, Donald and the Wheel appropriately moves along at a much more energetic pace, largely due to the the clever rhyming dialog and equally creative song lyrics provided by Mel Leven. The song "The Principle of the Thing," whose lyrics I excerpted in my earlier post, stands as a truly unrecognized gem from the studio's vast library of music. Thurl Ravencroft and his fellow MelloMen did justice to Leven's efforts, with Ravencroft himself performing the voice of the senior Spirit of Progress.

What is especially ironic about Donald and the Wheel is that our favorite duck essentially plays second fiddle to the rotoscoped silhouettes of Progress Jr. and Progress Sr. A generation gap-dynamic is played out by these two characters, highlighted by Junior's beatnik-speak, again cleverly realized in Leven's rhyming dialog.

"Gazooks, Pop! This cat is really nowhere! In some circles we'd call him square"

Through narration and song, these two Spirits of Progress elevate the film beyond the potentially dry history lesson it might have been otherwise. When they are taken out of the forefront in the story's slightly weaker jukebox-phonograph sequence, the pace noticeably slows, but recovers quickly when the duo return for the final fanfare.

The short recycled animation, most notably from the Pecos Bill sequence from Melody Time, then itself later had its own material recycled for the Ward Kimball-directed 1970s' television program Mouse Factory. The gear and cog contraption created during the "Principle of the Thing" song found its way into that show's opening montage. And in an example of typical Disney synergy, the film's subject matter, humorous tone and musical nature would resurface twenty years later in the form of EPCOT Center's World of Motion pavilion.

A comic book tie-in for Donald and the Wheel was released in 1961. It was featured in this prior post here at 2719.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Saturday at the Archivies: A Patron of the Clock Store
A Patron of the Clock Store
By Jeffrey Pepper
Originally published January 25, 2009

Even in the very early years of the Disney Studio, animators were paying homage to themselves and other studio personalities in the very cartoons they were producing. In the 1931 Silly Symphony The Clock Store, two pocket watches appear, marked with the engraved initials of their supposed owners. The initials W.E.D. are a quite obvious reference to Walter Elias Disney, but the initials of H.G. are a bit more mysterious.

Digging into the the film's credits, as provided by Russell Merritt and J. B. Kaufmann in their book Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies, we discover that this particular sequence was animated by a gentleman named Hardie Gramatky.

Gramatky worked at the Walt Disney Studios from 1929 until 1936. On the website, Gramatky's daughter Linda Gramatky Smith notes:

"He went to Chouinard art school at night and to the Studio during the day. His first job was to do a Disney comic book, but he finished six months of drawings in three days when Walt asked him, 'Gee, Hardie, what would you like to do now?' Dad told Walt that he'd like to try animation. There were only fourteen animators there when he arrived (and 250 when he left for New York in 1936)."

In a 1938 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Walt Disney said of Gramatky, "There was a boy working for us who had a great future in our Studio. But his heart wasn't in his work and he decided to chuck it all and paint what he wanted to paint. We gave him a great send-off because we admired his spirit. He had a struggle, but he arrived. Even when he was struggling he was happy for he was doing what he wanted to do."

Gramatky would go on to become a well known artist and illustrator, perhaps most famous for his series of Little Toot childrens books. Disney would adapt Little Toot for the 1948 feature Melody Time. Gramatky was especially celebrated for his work with watercolors. In a 2006 magazine article, artist Andrew Wyeth named Gramatky as one of America's twenty greatest water colorists.

A footnote to the sequence from The Clock Store: The timepiece in the center is marked with the letter M, the meaning of which, if any, is a bit harder to decipher. The film's credits only list two individuals with names beginning with M: background artists Carlos Manriquez and Mique Nelson.

The Clock Store is available on DVD as part of the Walt Disney Treasures - More Silly Symphonies (1929-1938).