Ron Miller, Rest In Peace

On February 9th 2019, Disney Legend Ron W. Miller passed away at the age of 85.  

If you’re new to Disney fandom and history, the name “Ron Miller” may not ring a bell for you, but he played an important part of keeping the Disney company afloat during a very challenging time.

Two things seemingly unrelated to each other contributed to Ron’s involvement with the Disney Company.  First, he married Walt’s daughter Diane. Second, he played professional football.

Ron was drafted in the 1961 NFL Draft and wound up playing quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams for two seasons. In the documentary Walt: The Man Behind the Myth (click on this link to view the documentary), Ron says:

“My father-in-law saw me play in two football games when I was with the Los Angeles Rams. In one of them, I caught a pass and Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane let me have it from the rear. His forearm came across my nose and knocked me unconscious. I woke up in about the third quarter. At the end of the season, Walt came up to me and said, ‘You know, I don’t want to be the father to your children. You’re going to die out there. How about coming to work with me?’”

Walt would groom Ron over the next years to take on the role of producer for Disney productions. The first movie he worked on was Old Yeller. He would work for Disney for the rest of his professional career, beginning as the 6th employee on the original Disneyland team to eventually becoming President of Walt Disney Productions in 1977 and CEO in 1983.

What I find so fascinating about Ron Miller is that he was pushed into the family business, like someone marrying into a family that owned a pizza restaurant or something. He wasn’t someone who dreamed of making movies or cartoons as a kid (as far as we know), and yet he ended up being the top guy of what is now in 2019 the most powerful entertainment company in the world. This is not to take anything away from his achievements – I personally find his role in the company so interesting precisely because of his learn-on-the-job situation. Even though he learned as he went, he developed the ability to let the artists in his company have a lot of free reign do develop their projects. 

Ron Miller had a huge role in starting Tim Burton’s career as a director. He managed the company during some its most experimental films, among them Tron, The Black Cauldron, The Rescuers, and The Black Hole. Say what you will about the underwhelming box office performances of most of these films, but you can’t say they were lacking in daring and experimentation. Most of those films freaked me OUT when I was kid, which is an often overlooked aspect of classic Disney films. Have you seen Pinocchio lately? That thing is a horror film!

According to the book Disney War by James B. Stewart, Ron Miller’s tenure was a time of great uncertainty for the Disney company. It was a time when Disney was losing its domination in the animation field and there were multiple attempts by corporate raiders to stage hostile takeovers. If one of those had been successful they could have sold the Disney company off in chunks, and we wouldn’t have theme parks or the Disney animation catalogue we have now. It was not smooth sailing.

By 1984, Ron would be forced out of the Disney Company after one of those attempted takeovers and Michael Eisner would step into the role. Ron Miller would go on to serve as the President of the Board of Directors for the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Check out Disney War for the inside scoop on the end of Ron Miller’s tenure at the top of the Disney Company – it’s an amazing read. Sadly, there don’t seem to be any books devoted to the details of the rest of his career at Disney, which I assume would be a fascinating tale. A man who stepped into the family business, which happened to be running one of the most legendary entertainment companies ever created and keeping it afloat during a difficult time.  Thanks to Ron Miller, we have a few more beloved classics in the Disney canon (seriously, Tron rules), and most importantly the imagineers and theme park side of the business remain Disney-managed entities the way Walt designed them, and were never sold off to the highest bidders.

Rest in peace, Ron Miller!

 

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Book Review: Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City

Walt Disney World’s Epcot has the most fascinating history of any of the Disney parks (and probably more than any other theme park in the world).

Epcot is in a very transitional phase as I write this. In the past decade or so, some of the classic Epcot attractions have either gone through a major overhaul (The Living Seas) or disappeared entirely (poor Horizons, RIP). In their place we see more intellectual properties moving in to what was once a park that was meant to be devoid of the classic Disney characters. The Living Seas was re-themed and became The Seas with Nemo and Friends, while Horizons is being replaced entirely with a brand-new attraction featuring Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

There are a lot of opinions about the direction Epcot has taken over the years. Well, I guess there are only three: There are those who think Epcot has strayed so far from Walt’s original intentions that it’s essentially blasphemy to even call it “Epcot.”  There are those who just want more rides and experiences and don’t care about the history of what was the most ambitious project of Walt Disney’s life. Then there are people like me who fall somewhere in between.

I am not qualified to write a history of Epcot and others have already done a much better job. At the end of this post I’ll give you a list of some other things to listen to and read to learn about Epcot’s long journey. In broad strokes it goes something like this.

Walt Disney was never someone to rest on his laurels. First he revolutionized the cartoon and motion picture industries. Then he conquered television. Then he built Disneyland, which everyone predicted would be a catastrophe. When it succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest dreams, Walt could have simply just looked to build a second Disneyland on the east coast, but instead he came up with the idea to perfect and build a forward-looking, modern city.

A freaking CITY! Dude wanted to build A CITY.

He called it the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (or…EPCOT). It was to be a place where people lived and worked. A place where the most modern technologies and urban planning would be used. People would live only for short periods in Epcot, the idea being they would take the ideas found there back home with them to pollinate their hometowns with modern ideas of city management and layout.

His commitment to Epcot being a truly revolutionary concept was what got “the Florida Project” off the ground. He was so committed that in order to finance Epcot, he would need to first build The Magic Kingdom park to fund his new and futuristic city.

Books like the one I am reviewing here, Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City, help us get a better idea of just what Walt was intending when he began creating Epcot. Written by Sam Gennaway, a trained urban planner and theme park historian, it’s a deep dive into the architectural ideas and urban planning philosophies that went into various Disney projects leading up to Walt’s conception of Epcot.

Mr. Gennaway takes us through the major projects of Disney’s life that helped evolve his creative impulses and execution. We don’t even get to discussing Epcot until chapter 13, but what we learn in the preceding chapters is context. Gennaway helps set the tone for the time period in which Disney lived. We get detailed descriptions of the World’s Fairs that Disney attended and designed attractions for. We also get his well-known enthusiasm for trains and the eventual construction of his own, and of course – Disneyland.

Because of Gennaway’s expertise in urban planning and architecture, this is no mere history book. There are numerous Walt Disney biographies that hit all those major projects in his life that I just mentioned, but none of them get into the design theories that help explain why we react to Disney parks the way we do. This book dives into the psychology behind human reactions to architecture to show us just why Disney parks are so special in their construction.

Gennaway describes Disney’s ability to create a “higher degree of life.”  He delves into architectural ideas like “arriving in a space,” and “denial and reward.” Both of these practices are described to help the reader understand why our brains react in such a way to the layout of a great Disney park or land. Gennaway also connects Walt’s theories on theme park design to his work in motion pictures. How the lands within Disneyland “cross dissolve” into each other like the scenes within one of Disney’s cartoons.

And then we get to Epcot. Gennaway examines many of Walt’s public comments about city life, and about what he intended Epcot to be. It is truly an incredible idea – one that has not been replicated since Disney’s death. The models and drawings that existed of Epcot’s early designs are truly something to behold.

In Epcot, Walt was looking to change everything about the modern city – how people got around, how their trash was collected, how they shopped, how they engaged in recreation, and how city services were administered. It was an all-encompassing mission to fundamentally reshape the way people were living in the 1950’s and 60’s.  

Unfortunately, Walt’s grand plans for Epcot died with him in 1966. He had just completed the acquisition of his Florida land, which would have been all the land he needed. He had filmed a promotional video describing Epcot in broad terms. But quite honestly, no one at Walt’s company could have possibly carried on and built what he had in mind. It was so singular a vision, so personal a mission that it would have been impossible in those early stages for anyone to follow through with Walt’s ideas.

If you’re looking for a good entry-level book on Epcot history, The Promise of Progress City probably isn’t it. Gennaway’s book really gets into the nitty gritty and it helps if the reader has a decent level of knowledge concerning Epcot’s history. Gennaway isn’t so much interested in giving the broad strokes of the park as he is in digging into what Walt was intending and why he made Epcot his last and final project. This is definitely what I would classify as a “rabbit hole book,” in that it really takes you into the weeds of Disney history. For a Disney freak like myself, it was a fascinating read. If you’re just beginning to learn about Epcot, I would start with the list of resources at the end of this post.

The question that can never be answered is this: would Walt’s original plans for Epcot have succeeded? Admittedly, on paper, Epcot was a pretty bonkers idea. It seems like an incredibly expensive gamble that had a million ways to go wrong – but that’s what Walt made a career out of. Many smart people doubted Walt’s commitment to making sound cartoons; they doubted his ability to make a successful feature-length animated film; they doubted his ability to create a successful theme park, and he proved them wrong each and every time. I have to imagine that he would have found a way to make the core principles of Epcot work, even if it may have changed along the way.  

Though we never got the Epcot of Walt’s dreams, books like this one give us another dimension in understanding just how fascinating Mr. Disney was, and why there probably won’t be another person with a legacy like his.

Click here to grab a copy of Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City!

Click here for Walt’s original Epcot film – it’s fascinating.

For some intro-level info on the history of Epcot, check these out:

Podcasts

Connecting With Walt, Episode #004 – The Master Plan

Connecting With Walt, Episode #005 – The Torch is Passed On

Connecting With Walt, Episode #007 – Pursuing the Dream Without the Dreamer

Books

Walt Disney’s Epcot Center: Creating the World of Tomorrow

By Richard R. Beard

Since the World Began: Walt Disney World: The First 25 Years

By Jeff Kurtti

 

 

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Add More Magic Kingdom Music To Your Day!

When I first visited the parks as an adult in 2011, I was struck by how integral music is to the experience of a Disney park. Every single park (and every individual area within) uses music to enhance the things you see, eat, smell and experience. Two great examples are Harambe Market at Animal Kingdom and The World Showcase at Epcot.

Walking through Harambe would be a completely different experience without the percussive sounds of drum circles. In The World Showcase in Epcot, Disney uses expert sound design as you walk through each pavilion. From Mexico to Norway, China to Germany, the music flows seamlessly in a way that doesn’t seem to be noticeable. That is until you suddenly realize the landscape and architecture have changed and you find yourself in a completely different part of the world.

That first adult trip to Disney World sealed the deal for me. I came home obsessed with learning as much as I could about why and how these parks came to be. As I’ve stated before, a yearly visit to a Disney park is out of reach for my family currently. The long stretches between visits have found me searching for any way to get some tiny amount of those park vibes. Even when I’m stuck in my work cube in the middle of a Northeast Ohio winter.

Though I would argue the internet as a whole straddles a line between “total garbage heap” and “mankind’s greatest invention,” there’s no denying how great it is for Disney enthusiasts in 2019. Thanks to other people out there equally obsessed with the music of Disney parks and lands, many of those soundtracks are available via YouTube. On any given day you will often find me in my work cube first thing in the morning, working on my first cup of coffee and listening to this:

Yes, it is the entrance music for The Magic Kingdom. Thanks to YouTube user Tony R for uploading and annotating the tunes contained within. Much like a prelude in an old musical film that would preview the themes of the songs you will eventually hear as the story progresses, this entrance loop gives you pieces of tunes from classic films, themes of legacy attractions (Pirates of the Caribbean, Carousel of Progress) and other media from the Disney archive (Davy Crockett, The Mickey Mouse Club). In other words, it’s got a little something for everyone regardless of which part of Disney you most connect to.

The next loop is fantastic for background music, or late night sci-fi vibes. It’s the Tomorrowland Area Music Loop! This was uploaded by YouTube user WDWFacts, and it is excellent.

It varies pretty wildly from esoteric and atmospheric to…funky synthesizer? Sure, why not! My personal favorite section kicks in around the 13:20 mark. Enjoy!

 

One more before we go, and it’s a doozy. Here we have maybe my favorite loop overall from the Magic Kingdom park – the Adventureland Loop!  

Dear reader, I struggle with the winter weather of my chosen home, Northeast Ohio. The lack of sun is a killer, and when everything ices over it’s a miserable experience simply driving to and from work. But I’ll say this: no matter what mood I’m in, I pop this thing on, and it is IMPOSSIBLE to be in a bad mood. All the music is by a group called the Balafon Marimba Ensemble, and it is fantastic. Learn more about them by clicking on this link. Thanks go to YouTube user Disney Theme Park Audio for uploading this for all to enjoy.

I hope these loops help you chill out during a stressful day, get your Disney Park vibes on or help make a decent day even better.

Dave

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More Mary Poppins Might Be On The Way

According to a new article out in The UK Sun, the creative team behind Mary Poppins Returns is already in the early stages of planning out a sequel.

A few weeks ago I saw the film on opening day and gave it a pretty enthusiastic review. As soon as I posted it I began wondering if the rest of the world would agree with me?  Or maybe I had simply settled for something I really wanted to be good. I try to be objective with new movies, but when a sequel to one of my favorites arrives 50 years after the original, it’s hard not to hope they stick the landing. I could have been biased, is all I’m saying.

As of this writing, the U.S. box office is at $150 million, with that number nearly doubling with the foreign gross. This gives a total take of around $288 million against a budget of $130 million. This doesn’t exactly make it a worldwide phenomenon, but it’s definitely not a flop either. It also came out on a difficult weekend for film releases. Any film going up against Aquaman was probably going to be heavily impacted during the holiday season, when a lot of families are looking for things to see together. Disney likely wanted to position it as counter programming. I would guess some families opted for the giant action spectacle of a musclebound fishman over the politely entertaining magical British nanny musical.

In that same Sun article, director Rob Marshall mentions that they have plenty of options for making sequels because there’s so much source material by author P.L. Travers to draw from. I’m clearly no movie producer, but I’m not sure that’s the greatest starting point for a follow-up.

I have not read the original Poppins books, but after reading many reviews of this film the melancholy tone was mentioned in almost all of them. This film is centered on a family that is disintegrating because of the death of a mother, which certainly starts the film off on a much different feeling in the early going than the original film. I am under the impression that this setup came directly from the original books. I have to wonder if the melancholy feeling and undertones of grief and loss led some people to avoid it as part of their holiday family viewing.

Again, I really liked Mary Poppins Returns and I would love to see another entry in the next few years. Since this is my blog and I can pretend to be a Hollywood consultant for a minute, here is what I would do: look to what Walt Disney did with the original. He knew there was something in the books that spoke to his daughters, but he freely added elements (like cartoons, and penguins) simply because he had a feeling in mind that he wanted to achieve. This is also precisely what drove P.L. Travers nuts about Walt’s interpretation, but that’s a topic for another article.

If we get another Poppins movie, I would love to see them use the books as a jumping-off point to create a Poppins film that is truly for modern kids. Let’s see a more diverse cast. Let’s see Mary Poppins in America, or some other country. Put some dinosaurs in it.  Let’s see her work her magic in a new way for a new generation instead of doubling down on the original novels.

I think what Mary Poppins Returns did well was pay a loving homage to the original while proving that there are people out there who still want to see this kind of movie. But for the sequel, do what Walt did – use the incredible sequences P.L. Travers came up with but stop at nothing to make the film feel like something new and unmissable, and not just another “Mary Poppins” film.

 

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Disney Films 2019: Part 2!

Toy Story 4 – June 20th

I saw the first Toy Story movie in theaters when I was 13 and I distinctly remember feeling really excited to see something that had been promoted as a major milestone in filmmaking (the computer animation was very hyped up in those days). I also remember leaving the theater when it was over and talking to my dad the whole way home about the closing scenes over and over again. The final chase scene is a master class in animated storytelling. 

The animation is only a tiny part of why these films are so great. From the score and original songs by Randy Newman to the great voice acting troupe that keeps adding new voices with every film, Pixar’s flagship franchise nailed the toughest part of filmmaking straight out of the gate. Create characters that people simply can’t get enough of. Even the two direct-to-tv specials, The Toy Story That Time Forgot and Toy Story of Terror, are fantastic.

So now there’s a fourth one coming. If I would be nervous about anything having to do with Toy Story 4, it’s that following up such a perfect ending in Toy Story 3 is a tall task. The ending of Toy Story 3 simultaneously blends the melancholy and excitement of growing up in a way so few films before it have. 

Based on the limited info we have so far, this one centers on a new character named “Forky”. He is a homemade toy that has the same type of soul and life the other toys in the film do.  I’m sure Pixar is going to use this character to explore all kinds of things related to self-identity, fitting in, and being a misfit, and holy crap I’m getting all misty just thinking about it.

I  have absolutely no doubt that this will be great. I also have no doubt that it’s going to reduce me and a whole lot of other grown adults to tears while our kids sit next to us and wonder what on earth is wrong with us.

Watch the Toy Story 4 trailer here

The Lion King – July 19th

The third film in Disney’s 2019 trio of live action remakes of their classic animated films is The Lion King.

As I already wrote in Part 1 of this series, I find that the more these live-action retellings differ from the source material, the more interesting I find them.  Though I don’t find Maleficent to be a perfect film, I was thoroughly entertained by the way the used the original Sleeping Beauty as a jumping-off point to tell a new version of the story from a completely different point of view.

The voice cast on this rules. Seriously, look at this link . Disney seems to be doing a pretty great job of making 2019 a diverse year in terms of casting and storytelling. When they released the cast list for this it felt kind of like they were spiking the football, and I think they earned it.

There’s only been one teaser trailer released, and I think it’s pretty good.  I will say this – because this film is all animal-centric, this could be one that I’ll dig just because it’s amazing to look at even if they stick real close to the original film. The computer animation in the trailer is pretty great, and John Favreau has evolved into a fantastic large-scale director (He did Iron Man, and the new retelling of The Jungle Book).

Also, John Favreau made Zathura.  Have you seen Zathura?  It kind of failed at the box office but it RULES.  Go watch it and come back. I’ll wait.

Click here to see the Lion King teaser trailer

Artemis Fowl – August 9th

Ok, I’m in the dark on this one.  I know this is based on a series of books that were insanely popular back in mid-2000’s when I worked in a bookstore, but I am totally unfamiliar with what an “Artemis Fowl” even is. I watched the trailer, and I’m still baffled. Is it a person? A cruise ship? Some kind of poultry dish?  

According to Wikipedia:

“A teenage genius, Artemis, captures Holly Short, who is a Fairy and a captain of the LEPrecon (Lower Elements Police Recon), in the first book and holds her for ransom (gold) to exploit the magical Fairy People and restore his family’s fortune. In the sequel, Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident, he allies with the Fairies to rescue his father from the Russian Mafia.”

Huh. Well I can certainly say I would not have guessed from the title or trailer that this story involved fairies and the Russian mafia, but whatever. Sounds pretty weird!

See the trailer here, and check out the book series here!

Frozen 2 – November 22nd

If you’re reading this blog, I can guess with about 98% certainty that you’ve seen the film Frozen. If you have small children, I’m guessing you’ve seen it well into the double digits and heard the soundtrack more than your own voice.

There isn’t much to say about the original Frozen that hasn’t been said a hundred times before – the movie’s great. The songs were instant Disney classics, and it connected with kids in an incredibly special way. It’s a princess movie wherein the princess is not rescued by a handsome prince, but instead by the love and friendship of her sister. It was enormously successful and rightly so.

So now we have one of the very rare cases in which Disney has decided to theatrically release a sequel to one of their “classic” animated films (the only other examples I can think of are The Rescuers Down Under and Ralph Breaks the Internet). Much like in the case of Toy Story 4, Frozen 2 has a ton to live up to, and I’m fascinated with whether or not they can pull it off. As of this writing there is no trailer and no story synopsis, or even any images released. All the stars are returning from the first one as well as the directors, so we’ll see if lightning strikes a second time.

Star Wars: Episode IX – December 20th

I am not much of a religious man, but Star Wars release dates are as close as I come to having high holy days. I am going to try and be spoiler-free for those of you who just emerged from a cave and haven’t seen the new trilogy yet.

I really liked The Force Awakens, and though I think I liked The Last Jedi, I really need to see Episode IX to clarify my feelings on that middle entry.  Like a lot of Star Wars fans, The Last Jedi was a lot different than what I was expecting. Now having seen it around 90 times, I am pretty sure I really like most of it. I had  mixed emotions about Luke Skywalker’s storyline, as well as the casino planet side story, but I think the film’s legacy is going to solidify one way or another once Episode IX comes out. Without knowing how these characters’ story arcs play out by the end of the Episode IX, how can you really judge the second entry’s cliffhangers?

I am also massively relieved that JJ Abrams is returning to finish the trilogy he started. I was pretty worried with the previous writer and director attached (Colin Trevorrow, director of Jurassic World) mostly because of the “writing” part, but he’s gone and in my opinion Abrams is a huge upgrade.

Adding to the stress of finishing such an anticipated and over-analyzed series of films is the fact that Episode IX was supposed to be “Princess Leia’s film,” just as Force Awakens was Han Solo’s and The Last Jedi was Luke’s. Sadly, Carrie Fisher passed away long before filming could begin, so that’s another thing they’ll have to contend with.

In the end, it’s freaking Star Wars, and I hope Abrams and Terrio smack it out of the park. I’ll be there opening day, because nothing is better than hearing the Star Wars opening theme blaring at you while surrounded by family and friends who are just as nerdy as you.

As with Frozen 2, we got no trailer and no plot details, but does that even matter at this point?

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Disney Films 2019 – The Year Ahead

I worked at a movie theater through college which enabled me to see hundreds of movies for free and probably eat enough popcorn to feed a large country. Though I would happily sit through just about anything, I couldn’t understand why people would always tell me that they went to the theaters to “turn their brains off for a while.” 

After college I began a career in social service work. I was immediately confronted with incredibly stressful and difficult real life situations during my average work day. I gradually began to understand why so many people avoid the sad movies at the theater. I understand why big action movies and feel-good endings will always be popular. It is a completely wonderful thing to go to a theater (or rent a movie) and escape the real world for a bit. It’s healthy.  It’s necessary. However, I believe the phrase above is incorrect – people don’t really want to turn their brains off at the movies, they just want to use the parts of their brain they don’t get to exercise every day.

Just as watching movies can be a great distraction from the hurdles of life, so too can the anticipation and build-up of those films. Considering that the Disney Company has cornered the market on my entire childhood over the years by gobbling up Marvel, Star Wars and the Muppets, 2019 is looking like a truly bonkers year to be a follower of Disney film. They have at least 10 big films coming out this year, so what follows is Part 1 of a two-part look at their currently announced slate of films. 

Captain Marvel – March 6th

For anyone like me who stayed at home on homecoming night in high school and read the backs of Marvel trading cards, we’re all excited about this movie. Captain Marvel is quite simply one of the absolutely most powerful heroes in the Marvel Universe. We need as many movies starring strong female leads as possible in this day and age. Hopefully this movie can be a Black Panther-type film that connects with girls and women looking for someone to root for that resonates with them. I am also pretty pumped because the rumors are that Captain Marvel (played by Brie Larson) is going to be a major presence in the final Avengers movie. The fact that they’re introducing her only a few months before that film comes out is a pretty incredible gamble (although probably one that has little chance of not paying off). It also takes place in the 90’s, so I’m looking for some fantastically placed Third Eye Blind music cues in this one. If Semi-Charmed Life doesn’t play I’m asking for a refund. Click this link to view the Captain Marvel Trailer

Dumbo – March 29th

I have a lot of feelings regarding Disney’s current project of turning every animated classic into a live action event, but I’m saving those for an eventual podcast episode. 

Directed by Tim Burton (of Beetlejuice and Batman fame, as well as Alice in Wonderland infamy), this version will reportedly feature no talking animals. Obviously this is a big departure from the original, since almost every animal talks in that one. Instead it seems from the trailers that this Dumbo storyline is set against a story about a family that travels with Dumbo’s circus, led by a one-armed Colin Farrell.

Also featured is my favorite actor of all time, Michael Keaton, so I’m holding out hope that this movie uses the themes from the original as a jumping-off point to create something original and surprising. In my opinion, the more they change the story from the original, the more reason there is to buy a ticket. 

See the original Dumbo here to see how they compare.

 

Disney Nature’s Penguins – April 19th

Nature documentaries are a huge part of the Disney Company’s history, as well as the legacy of Walt Disney himself. In 1948, the Disney Company began making “Disney’s True-Life Adventures,” a nature documentary series that went on to win 8 Academy Awards, including 3 for Best Documentary Feature.  

Any good biography about Walt Disney will mention his love of nature, and some people credit him with essentially creating the very genre of nature documentaries.

Disneynature was a Disney Company film division started in 2008 to carry on the Disney’s tradition of nature-focused filmmaking. Though I have not seen all of them, the ones I have seen are fantastic, especially Chimpanzee and Monkey Kingdom.  

As you can probably guess from the title, this one is about penguins, particularly one named Steve and his attempts to raise his newly-hatched family in the harsh environment of Antarctica.

Some criticize these newer documentaries as being “Disneyfied” in the way they inject human qualities into the animal subjects of the films, but I think they’re super enjoyable and a great way to introduce younger kids to the wonders of nature. Not all kids are going to be ok with the intensity inherent in the life and death scenarios in most nature documentaries.

I encourage everyone to check these out. Not only are they uniformly good, but regular support will hopefully encourage Disney to keep making these kinds of films.

See the trailer for Penguins here! 

Avengers: Endgame – April 26th

Avengers: Endgame has literally been 13 years in the making, beginning with the production of the first Iron Man film in 2006.  Endgame is the 22nd film to take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Supposedly it will be the ending point for a lot of the characters that have been featured since the beginning.  

After 20 films, the box office gross for this series has been somewhere around $17.5 BILLION dollars, so I would imagine we’re probably in for a new decade of superhero introductions after Endgame lands. Honestly, I really doubted the moviegoing public would be so into superheroes for this long. But here we are in 2018 where the last Avengers movie grossed $2 billion at the worldwide box office, so I guess it’s good that I’m not in charge of Marvel.  

I’m going to stop writing about Endgame because we’re all going to see it.  NEXT.

See the trailer for Avengers: Endgame here!

 

Aladdin – May 24th

And here we are with Aladdin, Disney’s second of three live action adaptations of their animated classics to be released in 2019.  

If you’re like me and appreciate seeing more diversity in film, this is a great opportunity for a lot of actors who are also people of color to anchor a giant tentpole Summer movie. With Will Smith playing the Genie (voiced in a classic performance by Robin Williams in the original), I’m extra curious just to see how they try to pull that off. It’s been a long time since Will Smith has had a chance to really cut loose comedically on film, and if they can nail the effects it could be great.

The original is a true classic of animation that features some of Disney’s best songs and animation.  I’ll repeat that I’m a believer that the more different these films are from the originals, the more interested I am in seeing them.  Not many details have come out yet storyline-wise, and the trailers pretty much rehash images from the original, but I’m holding out hope. 

See the teaser trailer here!

Up next: Disney 2019, Part 2!

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Disney Holiday Viewing Part 2: Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas

The Movie: Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas

Available on Blu Ray, DVD and all your regular streaming services

I need to start this post by coming clean.  

I have a confession to make.

I consider myself a Muppet super-fan. A ride-or-die man of Muppet history. I think Jim Henson was as much an artistic genius as Walt Disney, and though there are a few Muppet films I haven’t seen (mostly the direct-to-video stuff of the mid 2000’s), the Muppets are in my DNA for better or worse. I grew up with them in all of their various forms. Even though Mr. Henson has been gone for many years now, I’m excited any time a new Muppet project is announced.

I am so much a fan that when I have the occasional Muppet conversation with my friends (yes, this happens) and one of them invariably ends up mentioning Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, I would nod in recognition, possibly adding in an “Oh yeah! It’s so good!” to give the impression that I had seen it, probably multiple times. But dear reader, I was living with a terrible secret. The truth is, I had never seen Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas.  

Ok, only half of the above paragraph is true. I legitimately did lie on at least one occasion about having seen it, but it didn’t really cost me much until this past weekend when I finally paid the $4 to stream the 40th Anniversary Edition of it on my Apple TV.  And let me tell you something: this movie is wonderful!

Originally made as a tv special, it has aired over the decades in a variety of formats, only to be finally restored and digitally remastered for its recent 40th anniversary release. Simply put: no one makes things that look like this anymore.  

Before getting into the story, I just want to talk about how amazing the visuals are for those of us who love the feeling of hand-made media. The sets seem enormous and detailed, the backgrounds are beautifully rendered, the directing is full of long and unbroken shots. The camera moves feel really interesting within the context of a Muppet movie (and this thing was made in 1977!).  The music is great and occasionally hilarious. It’s pretty much everything I could want out of a Muppet movie.

There are no traditional Muppets featured in this special besides Kermit, who gives the film its introduction and comes back for a quick outro. Instead, we get a full cast of new woodland creatures with names like Doc Bullfrog, Melissa Rabbit, Charlie Muskrat and…you get the idea. The character design by Jim Henson’s team is predictably great, but the sets and design are really where this movie shines.  

I was genuinely surprised at how little actual Christmas stuff was in this movie. Since Christmas is right there in the title I expected some recognizable tunes and traditional Christmas themes and decorations – and there aren’t any!  This honestly just adds to my love of it . It’s a “Christmas movie” simply because it celebrates those themes we have come to associate with the Christmas season: selflessness, family, nostalgia, friendship, and giving. It never resorts to having the characters belt out “Jingle Bells” in front of a chimney and stockings. There’s no traditional Christmas imagery at all as far as I can remember. In other words, it’s a Christmas film in feeling only, kind of like It’s a Wonderful Life.

To be honest, I started this review with the mindset that this was a great movie that was worth seeing once. But while writing about all the things I enjoyed about it, I think I convinced myself that it’s truly great. Much like all my favorite Muppet media, it made me upset all over again that Jim Henson passed away at such an early age, and that I wish we had 3 more decades of his work to experience. It takes a truly special person to create something like Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, and though the world only had Mr. Henson for a short time, it is far better for it.

Verdict: New (to me) Christmas Classic

 

 

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Add More Mouse saw Mary Poppins Returns!

Our previous post was all about the questions we had about Mary Poppins Returns as we approached its official release. I’ll start my review by saying this: any doubts I may have expressed were for most part relieved. I found this new interpretation of the Mary Poppins character to be totally worth the ticket price, and I left the theater excited for the making-of featurettes that will be on the eventual dvd/blu-ray release. I’m not going to say it was a perfect film but I definitely hope it makes enough at the box office to justify more Mary Poppins films. It may be cheesy to say, but the world needs movies like this right now. Good-natured, well-intentioned, expertly made stories that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Most importantly, we need children’s entertainment that doesn’t talk down to them.

Sidebar. It was quite fun to see some other Disney enthusiasts at my local theater catching a weekday showing at 10:45am. Shout-out to the gentleman wearing the Peter Pan jean jacket and the woman with the Mickey Mouse skirt who seemed to both come solo. Your freak flags were flying high, and I salute them.

This is a film that is acutely aware of the original while also working hard to introduce the audience to a feeling and spirit that seem pretty strange in 2018. It honestly felt a lot like Mary Poppins via The Force Awakens.  

Just as The Force Awakens mirrored the original Star Wars to ease the audience into the story’s new universe, Mary Poppins Returns checks off and updates the main set pieces from the original in fairly direct fashion. In the first film, there’s a huge dance scene with chimney sweeps, and this time you get a huge dance scene with lamplighters. In the first film they enter an animated adventure through chalk drawings in the park, and this time they have one on the surface of a ceramic bowl (!?). It’s pretty obvious when they hit these story points so hard, but the whole thing is so pleasant and fun to experience that I don’t care much about the lack of originality in the storytelling. I’m tickled just to see this kind of filmmaking on the big screen in 2018.

Speaking of that animated scene that takes place on/in a ceramic bowl: wow.  It’s everything I had hoped for in my previous article. The 2-D animation looked great on the 2018 big screen. It was augmented with CGI in the way CGI should always be used in my opinion: as a garnish and not the main course (when possible).  It was terrific, and it made me wish the entire movie was that kind of Roger Rabbit-style visual experience that mixed live action and animation so well. I can’t say enough about the composition of that scene, and if it isn’t nominated for visual effects at the Academy Awards then I’ll shave my cat (I won’t).  

Emily Blunt was great. Based on what I’ve read about the director, Rob Marshall (who also does a great job), I’m guessing that Blunt’s take on the Poppins character may be closer to the way she is portrayed in the original books by P.L. Travers (unread by me).  Marshall has mentioned that he and his team read all the original books before writing the screenplay, and I liked this slightly exasperated and sarcastic version of the title character a lot.

Lin-Manual Miranda, playing Jack the lamplighter, is also predictably good. I never got to see him star in Hamilton but I do love his appearances on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (NOT suitable for children of all ages). He even gets to do some of his trademark drama-kid musical rapping, for those of you into that sort of thing.  He isn’t given a ton of character arc to work with but he gets some really great song and dance sequences, and isn’t that what we’re buying tickets for anyway?

Oh, and Dick Van Dyke’s appearance?  I won’t spoil it here, but I’m desperate to know if they used CGI in his scene. If not, that dude can still move at 93 years old. Seeing him getting a chance to call back to the original film was the moment I’ll confess to getting a little misty-eyed. How often does a 93-year-old Hollywood legend get to revisit material he started his career with?

I went out of my way not to read any reviews ahead of seeing this myself, though from skimming some of the headlines it seems that some professional critics have taken issue with the quality of the songs on the soundtrack. On the contrary, I thought that most of the songs were perfectly fine, with a few rising nearly to the level of the first film.. I’m planning on giving the soundtrack a few listens over the weekend to see if they stick with me a bit more, but asking any of them to hit you like “Supercalifragilistic…” or “Spoonful of Sugar” after one viewing is pretty unrealistic. The original film had 50 years to get those stuck in our heads!  I was honestly just thrilled that there was a musical aimed at kids that had these kinds of complex and well-done melodies and arrangements.

There has also apparently been some criticism aimed at the idea that the Mary Poppins character is simply a “nanny ex machina,” meaning she exists solely to solve problems without any real logic. This in turn implies lazy or weak screenwriting.

And well…that part is kind of true for both films. There is no logic behind Mary Poppins’ helping of the Banks family.  The entire set-up of both Poppins storylines is: 1) Banks family is in trouble, 2) Mary Poppins comes to help, 3) she is apparently magical for unknown reasons, and 4) they go on adventures and everything works out in the end (spoiler alert).  If you watch these films and can’t get over the fact that Mary’s magic powers are never explained, I get it – but I also think it’s completely ok to watch a movie and accept the story beats on the basis of their ability to entertain and show us things we wouldn’t see otherwise.  As my favorite film reviewer Roger Ebert once said in one of my favorite quotes (I’m paraphrasing): “What’s important is not what a movie is about, but how it is about it.”

Or, as Jack the lamplighter says at one point: “Don’t ask Mary to explain anything to you – she never does.”

I try not to snort the pixie dust too hard before watching a Disney thing for the first time. They’ve made plenty of stuff I don’t like. If there’s one thing I wasn’t thrilled by in this film it was the scene featuring Meryl Streep as Mary’s second cousin. I think I disliked it simply because I just didn’t dig the song during that set piece at all (Turning Turtle).  Obviously if Meryl Streep wants to be in your movie, you find a way to put her in your movie.  I just wish they would have given her a better tune.

So in summary: I think Mary Poppins Returns is well worth seeing in the theater, and I think being surrounded by fellow movie goers is an optimal environment to see it in. The kids in my audience seemed absolutely awestruck during a few scenes. Kudos to Rob Marshall, the director, for pulling off a difficult task, and I’m optimistic that they could pull it off again. And I hope they try.

-Dave

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Mary Poppins Returns: A Few Questions

Mary Poppins is a film and character that has become synonymous with both the Disney Company as well as Walt Disney himself. Per usual, if you’re coming to this blog, I’m going to go ahead and assume you know the gist of this Disney classic. Even people who aren’t Disney obsessives have seen this at some point in their childhoods.  In the off chance that you aren’t familiar, this movie was released in 1964 and stars Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. It contains some fantastic and groundbreaking sequences that combine live action and animation, and it gave us the Disney classic songs A Spoonful of Sugar, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Chim Chim Cher-ee and Feed the Birds. It’s an all-time classic in the Disney canon as well as film musical history in general.  

As we approach the film’s release, I’m super curious about a few of the aspects of the film. Not just regarding the ability to make a movie that feels tonally and stylistically similar to the original in 2018, but also what this film’s success could mean for both animation and the Disney Parks. Pardon me while I indulge in the age-old blogging tradition of writing extensively about a film even though I’ve only seen the trailer. Let’s go!

Style and Tone

Right off the bat, the first thing I’m curious about is how the style of a film like Mary Poppins can work in 2018.The original Mary Poppins, with its mix of live action and animation, seems an odd artifact in today’s entertainment climate: Don’t get me wrong – this can all totally work, and I hope that it does.  I’m just thinking that it will be interesting to see if the things that made the original Mary Poppins special in the 1960’s can cast the same spell on audiences in 2018.  

As for tone – I don’t know what to think about how this film seems to look based on the trailer, and how that will translate to audiences that are familiar with the original. The first Mary Poppins has the kind of bright lighting and vintage film grain that renders it cheery and appropriate for all ages pretty much automatically (as many Disney films from that era seem today).  Just by the era in which it’s being made, this new one can’t help but look smoother and more modern. However, the trailers really give the impression that this film has a vibe that is very indebted to the Harry Potter films – quiet, gloomy, a muted color pallet and a tone that is more than a little foreboding and melancholy. Obviously this can all come together and work great in context, and we all know that movie trailers often misrepresent what the actual film is that they’re advertising. Still, there’s a thin line between Mary Poppins’ shenanigans being charming and creepy, and I’m wondering how this is all going to play out not only for people familiar with the original, but with modern kids in general.

Animation  

As a fan of all things animated, I regularly spend time wondering if hand drawn animation will ever be something that is regularly produced by movie studios again.  Yes, I think about this often. Yes, I am an insane person.

I love hand-drawn (or 2-D animation).  I also love computer animation and I don’t see any reason why both can’t exist if the techniques are done well and fit the story they are trying to tell. It’s just that hand-drawn animation is such an integral part of Disney’s history that it’s hard to believe they don’t even make the stuff anymore.

After Pixar revolutionized animation through creating fully-realized computer animated films, every studio that was producing animation jumped on the bandwagon.  Unfortunately, I think most studios assumed that Pixar’s success was due to how amazing their films looked and not how great their storytelling was (and often still is). I’m sure some percentage of people who saw Toy Story in the theater bought a ticket because they were curious about how it looked, but it succeeded financially because it was a great movie with timeless characters and a fantastic story. Not simply because it was flashy-looking.

I make this judgement based on limited experience. All I know is that my son, who is four and has seen many Disney and Pixar movies, has never once commented on the animation.  To him, Monsters, Inc is to Sword in the Stone is to Cars is to Lady and the Tramp. He loves these movies because of how they move and how they keep his attention and how they make him feel by the end. Yes, this is an anecdotal study done with one child, but that’s my study and I’m sticking to it.

The last hand-drawn animated film Disney produced was The Princess and the Frog, which is a fantastic film, though by the time it came out hand drawn animation had been dormant for so long, it definitely looked dated and retro. Though it wasn’t a box office bomb by any means, it certain wasn’t close to the kind of earner that a Finding Dory is, and that seemed to be the end of hand drawn animation on the big screen.

Until Mary Poppins Returns, that is. Judging by the trailers and the promotional materials Disney has released in advance of the film, there appears to be at least one major sequence that utilizes some pretty complex hand-drawn animation.  If Mary Poppins Returns is wildly successful, could it possibly prove that audiences still like hand-drawn animation?  I have no idea, but I would love for that to happen. Something tells me that if Frozen 2 was hand-drawn, people would still flock to it in droves because they love the characters and songs, and the great animation is a bonus.  

Mary Poppins in the Disney Parks

Though the character of Mary Poppins has been depicted in various Disney Parks over the years through character meet-and-greets and subtle park designs that give a nod to the film, a Mary Poppins ride has only been a rumored coming attraction to various Disney Parks for decades. There have been all kinds of concepts tossed around and never built. One of the best examples is this ride concept created by legendary Imagineer Tony Baxter (click this link for a great video detailing what it would have been like).

Long story short – if Mary Poppins Returns is a massive success, does that mean we’ll finally get a Mary Poppins ride in the Disney Parks?  Anything’s possible…after all, we’re getting a Tron coaster for goodness sakes, which still doesn’t actually seem like it can be a real thing to me (not to mention the fact that it’s scheduled to be built in Tomorrowland and not Hollywood Studios…WHAT?!).  If Disney actually used Tony Baxter’s design for a new Poppins ride, I’m totally on board.

 

As should be obvious, I’m pretty excited to see Mary Poppins Returns next week. I am trying to go in with no expectations but I certainly hope to come away with great things to say about it. I guess we’ll see on December 19th !

See ya real soon!

Dave

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Disney Holiday Viewing: Beauty and the Beast: Enchanted Christmas

If your household is anything like ours the Christmas season means a ton of holiday movies get watched each and every year.

As Disney-obsessed as we Add More Mousers are, when it comes to the holiday season we’ve never set out to Disnify our holiday viewing. Our annual playlist is already pretty extensive with the Rankin-Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Elf, White Christmas, Love Actually, It’s a Wonderful Life and Die Hard (all the classics). But guess what? We have a Disney blog now, and much like the man-eating plant Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, this blog demands food…er, content.

We have lots of articles planned for December, but as the month progresses I’m going to watch as much Disney Christmas-themed stuff as I can and figure out what should be added to any family’s annual holiday programming and which you can skip. Our posts tend to skew positive because the world-at-large is negative enough, but if any of these movies aren’t worth your time, I’ll let you know. I’m paying for them, after all. At the end, I’ll give you one of the following verdicts: Avoid, Worth a Watch, or New Christmas Classic.

So! Let’s get Christmasy.

First up:  Beauty and The Beast: The Enchanted Christmas

Available on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD at all the usual streaming sites

Note: I can only imagine that making any kind of film, animated or otherwise is an incredible undertaking. I’ve never made a film, so I do not presume to know any better than the filmmakers, but I want to offer my honest opinions on these films, good and bad, and I do not mean to offend anyone connected with making something just because it didn’t connect with me or my family.

I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this blog, you are at the very least generally aware of Disney’s 1991 film Beauty and the Beast. If you aren’t, here’s a quick list of reasons why you should be:

  • It was the first animated feature film to be nominated in the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards. Later, when the category was expanded from 5 films to 10, Up and Toy Story 3 were also nominated. 
  • It’s a major part of Walt Disney World Theme Parks. Beauty and the Beast: Live On Stage is a long-running stage show based on the film. An entire restaurant recreates the Beast’s castle ( Named Be Our Guest). There is an interactive attraction called Enchanted Tales With Belle, and more
  • It’s got one of the greatest film scores and soundtracks ever composed, animated or otherwise
  • It’s really good

What I’m getting at is that this is one of the cornerstones of Walt Disney’s Animated Classics, a film that seemed revolutionary in 1991 and continues to be a great film for the whole family. It  features a strong female lead and incredible voice work by Paige O’Hara (Belle), Angela Lansbury (Mrs Potts), Jerry Orbach (Lumiere), and others. This is important context, because clearly if you’re charged with making a sequel to a film with such an enduring legacy, you need to bring the heat.

As proof of what the Beauty and The Beast brand meant in the 90’s, consider this: Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas was released direct to video, and according to Wikipedia it sold 7.6 MILLION VHS COPIES without any major reviews or word of mouth. That’s bonkers.

As the movie started, I was pleasantly surprised to find that all of the characters’ voice actors from the first film came back for this one. I honestly couldn’t believe that all of them would return for a direct-to-video sequel, but a quick check on Wikipedia confirmed it. Color me impressed!

There are a few interesting aspects regarding the set-up of this film. First, they decided to make the sequel to a popular film a holiday-themed special. Sort of weird. Imagine if Toy Story 2 was all about Woody trying to give Buzz a great first Christmas. It’s an odd choice to inject a holiday theme into a non-holiday brand…though I suppose Disney has done that fairly recently.

Secondly, if you’ve seen the original film (if you haven’t, SPOILER ALERT FOR A 28-year-old movie), the characters who live in the Beast’s castle all revert to their original human forms at the end of the film. The Enchanted Christmas finds an interesting way to play with the timeline. The movie starts a few months after the original film, as the characters are getting ready for Christmas. The characters  begin to reminisce about the previous year’s Christmas, which prompts a film-length flashback that takes place somewhere in the middle of the last movie.  

I imagine the reason for this was to prevent having to invent a new reason as to why the inhabitants of the house revert back to their inhuman forms for another adventure, but it also robs the film of any kind of actual stakes.  Regardless of what happens, we already know everything is going to work for them because we’ve already started the film months after whatever they’re about to show us.  

This may actually work to a viewing family’s advantage, because…ok, let’s just get it out:

The main villain is a pipe organ named Forte.

The main villain is a musical instrument.  

I know what you’re thinking: “Well that sounds weird.”  You’re right. But it also incredibly horrifying because it looks like this:

Goodness gracious.

Not only is the character design pretty disturbing, the filmmakers decided to animate him solely through computer/digital animation. The rest of the film is hand-drawn, and looks pretty good for a direct-to-video piece of animation. When juxtaposed with the rest of the film, Forte looks totally otherworldly, like he was cut and pasted from an episode of the 90’s film Reboot (look it up).

So this living pipe organ (voiced by Tim Curry, who does his best) hates Belle because she makes the Beast happy. Forte likes it when the Beast is sad because then the beast requests depressing music to soundtrack his sulking, and Forte…loves depressing music? 

So basically the movie is a series of vignettes in which Forte and his lackey Fife (a living piccolo voiced by Pee-Wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens) try to sabotage the burgeoning relationship between Belle and the Beast in order to prevent the curse from being lifted on the house. 

These events all unfold alongside the other storyline in the movie: Beast has apparently banned Christmas, so Belle and her group of animated household objects decorate the castle in secret to convince Beast to give in to the holiday spirit.  And they sing a lot of songs.

The songs aren’t terrible, but when compared to the previous film’s soundtrack that was composed by the legendary Disney songwriting team Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, they can’t help but pale in comparison.

Wrapping up: it’s not terrible, but it is…weird.  Seeing the showdown at the end when Beast literally fights an unmoving pipe organ is so odd it’s almost worth the $11 I paid for this DVD. I didn’t even mention the strange green notes that are somehow concocted by the pipe organ that seem to function as lasers. That part’s weird, too.

Quite honestly, I think my 4-year-old would be totally freaked out by the computer animated Forte. For that reason alone, I won’t be adding this to any kind of regular Christmas viewing schedule.

The verdict: Avoid.

 

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