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.